Shadow Cornerbacks – The Big Four

| May 8, 2014

Joe HadenAt ProFootballFocus we watch every snap of every game and use that data to gain an edge at fantasy football. One of the ways we use that information is to follow pre-snap wide receiver vs. cornerback positional alignments. This allows us to identify cornerbacks who are asked to shadow top receivers, rather than just arbitrarily assigning them the moniker of being a shutdown corner because of the perceived status and ability.

Now we have compiled all the data for the 2013 season we can take a look at just how many cornerbacks are asked to track players around the field on a regular basis, how that effects their stat line in comparison to their peers, and start to identify the elite cornerbacks playing the game today. Let’s start by looking at a few stats raised by the data.

  • Only 16 cornerbacks (min. 600 snaps) spent over 40% of snaps covering a WR1.
  • Only 17 cornerbacks played four or more games as a shadow corner.

Despite prevailing beliefs that a team’s No. 1 cornerback is assigned the opposing team’s #1 receiver on a weekly basis, the data tells a different story. The number of players who are given such a role in the defense is in the minority, and in fact only six cornerbacks were used in a shadow role for more than half of their games in 2013 (more on them later).

Being asked to play such a role in no easy feat. Despite being some of the most talented players at their position on the planet, they are facing equally gifted individuals lining up at wide receiver. The evolution of the game in the modern era is also having an effect, as rules have been changed to favour high-powered, high-scoring, often aerial-led offenses.

  • Of the 13 cornerbacks to allow six or more touchdowns, five had played 40 percent or more of snaps covering WR1s.
  • Of the 15 cornerbacks who made four or more interceptions, six had played 40 percent or more of snaps covering WR1s.

For me cornerback is one of the most thankless jobs in the NFL. Recently I read that playing cornerback in the NFL was running around for 60 minutes and being granted the privilege to potentially cost your team the game. On the flip side, when you do your job well, no-one notices you. You don’t get targeted because your coverage is tight, so you don’t get a sniff of the ball for the entire game. Fans watching on TV might not have even heard your name mentioned during the game other than your talking head introduction in those first ten minutes. Congratulations, you had a great game!

To take a closer look at the collated data for the 2013 season, read 2013 Cornerback Coverage Responsibilities.

The shadow cornerbacks though will be tracking the opposing team’s top receiver around the field, which almost guarantees them action, both good and bad as evidenced by the touchdowns vs interceptions statistics. They have nowhere to hide and it’s these guys I wanted to focus on a little more in this article.

 

The Big Four

When analysing this data it became clear quite early in the season there are four cornerbacks currently in the league that are regularly given a shadowing responsibility, typically on the opposition’s primary receiving threat. All four spent over 55% of snaps on WR1s, combining to allow 22 touchdowns, but also notched up 14 interceptions. There are certainly some mixed opinions on these players ranging from elite, to awful and over-rated…

Joe Haden – Cleveland Browns

Name

TA

%Ct

Yds

Yds/Sn

TD

In

PDI/TA

Shdw

WR1

WR2

WR3

Other

SlotCB

Joe Haden

99

55.6

557

0.52

6

4

16.2%

10

65%

13%

10%

8%

5%

 

When looking at the data Joe Haden immediately jumps out at you. His 65 percent of snaps covering WR1s is much greater than his peers, and his ten games as a shadow corner also rank as the equal second most in the league. In fact, Haden was covering WR1s over 70 percent of the time before the final few games of the season. He did not play in Week 17, was not used as a shadow corner against the Jets in Week 16 (why would you need one?) where he played LCB and saw most of his snaps against WR2 David Nelson, and split his time between Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery in Week 15.

Haden faced arguably the league’s toughest slate of matchups on a per snap basis, and was asked to shadow A.J. Green (twice), Torrey Smith (twice), Mike Wallace, Jordy Nelson, Antonio Brown, Cecil Shorts, Dwayne Bowe and Julian Edelman over the course of the season. He didn’t give up a single 100yd game, and allowed less than 50yds in 11 games. He never game up multiple touchdowns in a game and had a six game streak without allowing a score. He only gave up two passes over 30yds (both were for 41yds) and only gave up 20-plus YAC on four occasions.  Considering the quality of receiver that Haden was regularly lined up opposite, these are eye-popping statistics.

Compared with his counterparts, Haden continues to stack up well. His 16.2 percent PDI (interceptions + passes defensed / targets) puts him in the top-ten in the league (min. 800 snaps), while his 0.52 yards per snap allowed ranks fifth best, and his 3.1 YAC/Rec is good enough to be second best.

When discussing the best cornerbacks in the league the conversation focuses on Richard Sherman and Darrelle Revis. Haden’s name needs to be in that conversation.

DeAngelo Hall – Washington Redskins

Name

TA

%Ct

Yds

Yds/Sn

TD

In

PDI/TA

Shdw

WR1

WR2

WR3

Other

SlotCB

DeAngelo Hall

94

63.8

726

0.72

4

4

13.8%

11

57%

17%

6%

10%

3%

 

Above I wrote that Haden only arguably faced the toughest slate of matchups on a per snap basis, and that was because of the list of receivers that Hall was asked to face last season. I’ve been a vocal detractor of Hall in the past, happy to call him over-hyped and only an average player, but I’ll give credit where credit is due, and Hall certainly earned my respect in 2013. Hall’s responsibilities last season included eleven games (led the league) shadowing an opposing player, and the list featured Dez Bryant (twice), Calvin Johnson, Demaryius Thomas, Brandon Marshall, DeSean Jackson, Hakeem Nicks, Rod Streater, Dwayne Bowe and Vincent Brown. As a result Hall’s stats are not overly impressive.

One of Hall’s biggest problems was missed tackles (18), the second worst figure in the league for cornerbacks (min. 800 snaps), and his 63.8 percent passes completed in to his coverage ranked 11th worst. His 0.72 yards allowed per snap placed him firmly in the middle of the pack of NFL cornerbacks. That Hall only allowed four touchdowns might be his best stat from last year considering who he faced off against on a weekly basis.

Despite these so so numbers, I’ve raised my assessment of Hall. Yes he may have one of the biggest mouths in the league, which he hasn’t (strictly speaking) backed up, but taking into consideration how the Redskins were willing to isolate him one-on-one with the very best players in the game I can’t but help have some grudging respect. As I stated in the introduction, playing cornerback is a thankless job. The least I can do is acknowledge the extreme difficulty of the job Hall was asked to do.

Patrick Peterson – Arizona Cardinals

Name

TA

%Ct

Yds

Yds/Sn

TD

In

PDI/TA

Shdw

WR1

WR2

WR3

Other

SlotCB

Patrick Peterson

90

54.4

688

0.62

7

3

10.0%

11

55%

17%

12%

11%

9%

 

When people are asked about the best cornerbacks in the game Peterson’s name pops up more often than not. He’s reputed to be a dynamic playmaker and as well as fielding kick returns he has even lined up for a handful of offensive snaps too. Peterson’s 11 games as a shadow corner last season tied with DeAngelo Hall for the most games spent tracking a receiver around the field, and he also spent 55 percent of his snaps covering WR1s. Of the Big Four, Peterson spent the highest percentage of his snaps from the slot (9 percent) showing his versatility even further.

However, Peterson still has some refinement required if he wants be considered truly elite. His seven touchdowns allowed on just 49 receptions placed him in the tied second-worst in the league for touchdowns per target (14.3 percent). Peterson had also allowed six touchdowns the previous season, so fantasy owners expecting their receivers to face off again him shouldn’t be unduly worried.

On the flip side, Peterson’s 54.4 percent pass completions allowed puts him between Darrelle Revis (54.0 percent) and Joe Haden (55.6 pecent), so it’s not all bad. Especially noting who he shadowed; Calvin Johnson, Andre Johnson, Vincent Jackson, Steve Smith, Anquan Boldin, Michael Crabtree, Cecil Shorts, DeSean Jackson, Kendall Wright and Golden Tate (twice).

One surprising statistic from Peterson’s 2013 performance considering his reputation as a playmaker, would be his somewhat low 10.0 percent PDI, having recorded just three interceptions and six passes defensed. Considering he had recorded a 14.7 percent PDI the previous season (seven interceptions, seven passes defensed on 95 targets), I’m willing to see the lower numbers as an anomaly.

Unless he can get his penchant for being beaten for touchdowns fixed, Peterson will remain a good, but not great, cornerback.

Johnathan Joseph – Houston Texans

Name

TA

%Ct

Yds

Yds/Sn

TD

In

PDI/TA

Shdw

WR1

WR2

WR3

Other

SlotCB

Johnathan Joseph

87

48.3

518

0.60

5

3

13.8%

10

57%

13%

10%

11%

7%

 

If you’re looking for under the radar players who deserve more exposure, look no further than Johnathan Joseph. Perhaps he is the very definition of doing his job well enough to go unnoticed? His ten games as a shadow corner and 55% covering WR1s is evidence enough that he has been asked to track some of the top receivers in football, yet he rarely gets the plaudits he deserves. In his eight year career, he’s been to the Pro Bowl twice, albeit in two of the last three years.

The two figures that jump off the page considering the way Joseph is used are his percentage of catches allowed – just 49.3 percent (3rd best), and the 0.60 yards per snap allowed (17th best). For comparison purposes Cowboys CB Brandon Carr played six games as a shadow corner and covered WR1s on 47 percent of his snaps. He recorded figures of 60.2 percent and 0.82 yards per snap.

Joseph’s shadow responsibilities on the season were Larry Fitzgerald, Demaryius Thomas, Malcolm Floyd, Torrey Smith, Kenny Britt, Chris Givens, Ty Hilton, Cecil Shorts (twice) and Donnie Avery. Other than allowing 105 yards and two touchdowns to Hilton in Week 9, Joseph had a Pro Bowl calibre season. He kept his coverage assignments below 25 yards on eight occasions, and had a run of six games without allowing a score against him.

If the Texans select a push rusher with the #1 overall pick in a few days to partner J.J. Watt, Joseph may find his name on another Pro Bowl roster come the end of the season.

Honorable Mentions

Aqib Talib could arguably be thrown in to make the Big Four and Big Five, as he had seven games as a shadow corner (in just 13 games) and spent 53 percent of his snaps covering WR1s, plus he had that memorable game when he was asked to shadow Saints TE Jimmy Graham. His 15.5 percent PDI ranked 9th, showing his game-changing abilities, but he also allowed 0.70 yards per snap.

Ike Taylor started the season as a shadow corner, and stayed pace with the Big Four with regards to games spent shadowing a WR1. However allowing three touchdowns and 328 yards over two games to Calvin Johnson and Josh Gordon caused the Steelers to rethink that strategy. Taylor still ended the year with eight games as a shadow corner, covering WR1s for 53 percent of his snaps. He did however allow 62.8 percent of passes completed and 1042 yards (0.98 per snap) highlighting the different level in performances versus Haden and suchlike.

 

Next we will start to use the data to look at the best (easiest) and worst (hardest) cornerbacks to throw on for fantasy purposes. Watch this space…

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