Corners Getting Paid
Ben Stockwell goes deep into the details, examining the Sherman-Haden-Peterson cornerback question.
Corners Getting Paid
On the eve of the draft the Seattle Seahawks made Richard Sherman the league’s highest paid cornerback with a four-year extension worth $57.4million which included a mind-blowing $40 million guaranteed.
Sherman held his crown as the league’s highest paid corner for less than a week with the Browns yesterday handing Joe Haden a 5-year, $68 million extension, keeping the former Gator in Cleveland through 2019. Patrick Peterson has thrust himself into the conversation by stating that he is worth more than Sherman, a sentiment the Cardinals apparently share with reports that just such a contract is in the works.
But who’s best? It is the fan’s prerogative to discuss and debate player rankings in the offseason, with the discussions around our own Top 101 proof positive of that. However, in this case is there really a debate to be had?
The contracts being handed out would suggest that these three corners are all on the same plateau, but does the performance and production back this up or does one man clearly stand alone?
Sherman Takes the Big Picture
Taking the opportunity to start with our unique and thorough grading system, Sherman has clearly separated himself to this point. Peterson and Haden were both more heralded prospects than Sherman but it is the Seahawks’ fifth-rounder from the 2011 draft who has had the highest coverage and overall grade in each of the three seasons that these corners have shared in the NFL.
Since 2011 Sherman boasts a +47.4 coverage grade, far ahead of both Haden (+22.0) and Peterson (+9.5) whose résumés are far from weak but pale in comparison to Sherman’s.
When it comes to passer rating allowed Haden and Peterson’s best seasons still come up short of Sherman’s worst season. In terms of the baseline performance Sherman sets out a clear early lead over his peers.
Covering the Blitz
Effective cornerback play is inextricably linked with how they fit into the overall scheme of the defense. Part of that is fitting in with how the defensive front needs to generate pressure, whether they can generate it from a four-man rush or need to be more aggressive and bring blitzes.
Just as easily as a blitz can generate the sort of pressure to force a mistake from a quarterback it can as easily leave a corner isolated on an island with little or no help if the blitz is picked up or beaten. Clearly a top-drawer corner needs to be able to shut his man down in both scenarios, taking advantage of what the blitz can bring while remaining steadfast in coverage of a base pass rush.
Pairing the Seahawks’ fearsome four-man rush with Sherman’s supreme coverage skills is clearly a winning combination with teams gaining little more than 6 yards per attempt. Neither Peterson nor Haden can come close to Sherman’s numbers with only one of the two even surrendering a passer rating below 100.
Against the blitz, conversely, we see Haden and Peterson top Sherman with their coverage skills clearly matching well with the more aggressive play calling that was required to generate pressure for Cleveland and Arizona, respectively.
An offense’s reaction to heavy blitzes is usually to get the ball out quickly and prevent any free rushers from getting to the passer. Offenses getting the ball out quick and on rhythm are tough to defend and that was borne out with Haden and Peterson both struggling against passes released in 2.5 seconds or less.
While Sherman surrendered completions on less than 50% of his 21 targets, Haden and Peterson each surrendered completion percentages in excess of 65% and passer ratings above 100 on these quick release passes.
Money in the Redzone
A big area for receivers to make their money is in the redzone. Rack up the touchdowns, rack up the score, rack up the dollars. It goes, then, that the top corners should be earning their dollars in the redzone by keeping touchdowns off the board and even turning the ball over to prevent even a field goal.
While Sherman excelled inside the 20, surrendering no touchdowns and sparking two turnovers, his competition combined to surrender eight touchdowns on 21 targets with only one target (to Peterson) resulting in a turnover for the Browns or the Cardinals.
Bringing us back full circle to the difficulty of assignment argument, those eight touchdowns were surrendered to the likes of Calvin Johnson, Jimmy Graham, Andre Johnson (twice) and Brandon Marshall. Tough assignments, but at the end of the day their job is to prevent those touchdown grabs, whoever is on the receiving end of them.
To Track or to Shutdown?
One of the key talking points at the heart of the issue seems to be what a “No. 1 corner” should be doing in terms of his assignment. There is a sentiment in some quarters that a truly elite corner should be tracking an opponent’s No. 1 receiver if he wants to be considered among the league’s elite. Others feel that locking down one side of the field on the quarterback’s open side is just as merit worthy.
Last week PFF Fantasy’s Ross Miles highlighted “The Big Four” in terms of corners tracking opposing team’s top target with Sherman conspicuous by his absence. While Haden led the league aligning opposite a team’s opposing No. 1 wideout on 65% of snaps and Peterson did so 55% of the time, Sherman was far lower at 27%.
In terms of assignment then, Sherman is not tested in the same way as Haden and Peterson. However, the key point must always be performance within a given role, not simply the role being executed. If the role was the key determinant of quality then DeAngelo Hall would be in this conversation and I don’t think many people beyond Hall himself would be interested in making that argument.
While Haden and Peterson may have the more varied assignments, teams were more willing to avoid one area (Sherman) than not throw to their top target (Haden and Peterson). On top of that teams were less effective targeting Sherman isolated on his island than they were in taking on Peterson and Haden shadowing top targets to either side.
Tougher assignment maybe, but which defender and approach yielded more success for both individual and team?
The Final Reckoning?
So after looking at all of these splits in the statistics is there any doubt that Sherman has separated himself from this triumvirate of newly-minted corners? In terms of production and performance Sherman clearly separates himself from the other two with the only counter argument available that Haden and Peterson operate in more varied and difficult assignments. However, is the performance level close enough for that difference in assignment level to bridge the gap?
In my opinion, no.
As onlookers we are always seeking discussion and debate to anoint someone as the best at a position but sometimes there simply isn’t much of a debate to be had, and this is one of those cases. That the Seahawks do not ask or need Sherman to shadow a No. 1 receiver does not denigrate what he does locking down his side of the field, it merely gives him an “incomplete” grade in terms of what some people like to see a top cornerback doing. Simply operating a more difficult assignment does not elevate a very good corner to that next level of performance.
The gold standard of cornerback play in recent seasons is “Revis Island” and while Haden and Peterson operate in a similar role, that alone does not put them in that bracket. There are two parts of what Darrelle Revis produced with the Jets: the assignment and the performance level.
Sherman is the only corner performing to that level but without the difficulty of assignment and, at the end of the day, that has to be the more important factor — at least when you have the sort of separation in performance and production that Sherman has established over Haden and Peterson.
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Ben Stockwell | Director of Analysis
Ben joined Pro Football Focus in 2007, and has since been in charge of the company’s analysis process. He also contributes to PFF’s weekly NFL podcast.