Analysis Notebook: Week 6
Earlier in the season we checked in on the four big-money corners in today’s NFL in Richard Sherman, Patrick Peterson, Joe Haden and Darrelle Revis to see how they were performing. Those four represent not only the big-money at the position, but also the generally accepted best players at the position in some order or another. So far none of the four is having a vintage season, though some are struggling more than others, and it is other players that are setting the pace this year.
This piece from Mike Tanier talked about the myth of the shutdown corner in today’s NFL and he certainly has a point. What is more interesting to me here is that if these four are not among the best corners so far in 2014, who are?
Would you believe that the best three corners of this season are a castoff, a former first round pick that flirted with bust status and a guy coming off an ACL tear in January? If you extend that list to five (though this is obviously subjective) I think you bring in another castoff and a rookie as 2014 seems set to confound at the position.
Now let’s take a look at our top three before I get too deep into honorable mentions.
Chris Harris Jr.
Everybody is talking up Rolando McClain as the clear Comeback Player of the Year, and while I can’t argue too hard against that opinion, what Harris is doing this closely removed from ACL surgery is bordering on silly. Let’s remember it was the playoffs when Harris went down last year and tore his ACL! Admittedly it wasn’t a complete tear of his ACL, so the rehab was apparently relatively smooth, but any time a cornerback in particular suffers a major knee injury you expect a decline in form once he returns.
Harris was already one of the league’s best corners and if anything seems to be playing even better than before the injury.
He has been thrown at 27 times this season and has allowed just ten receptions. That 37% completion rate leads the league. As does the passer rating of 31.9 he has surrendered on those targets. In fact, he has yet to give up 100 receiving yards. Not in a game…period. He has given up no touchdowns, has an interception and has broken up eight of the 27 passes thrown his way. The longest pass he has given up all season is just 22 yards long.
Harris has played outside and in the slot in the past, but this season he has been primarily a perimeter corner with Bradley Roby covering the inside. Despite being less than a year removed from major knee surgery Harris is outperforming all of the big-name cornerbacks, and might be playing as well as anybody at the position.
As we can see from this play against the Chiefs, he can still cover inside, and this is the most interesting thing to me because the slot is what will test your knee more than any other spot as a corner. You’re in more space and have to respect the two-way go the receiver has off the line. On this play Harris reads the slant quickly and breaks on it with speed to break up the pass intended for Dwayne Bowe.
Needless to say, that is some pretty high level stuff.
The other play I wanted to focus on was this one against the Cardinals. It was Drew Stanton at quarterback, and because of the way Harris plays this, it looks like a very bad decision and throw from the backup signal-caller, but I’m not so sure it was.
Stanton wanted to throw to the slot receiver on an out-pattern while the outside receiver (covered by Harris) runs off the coverage down the field. It’s a basic route combination in the NFL, and because the Broncos are in man coverage, it should be open. In man coverage, Harris covering the outside guy will turn to the outside – with his back to the quarterback – to run with his receiver down the field. With his back to the passer, Stanton knows he should be able to throw the ball close to where Harris is because he won’t be looking for it the way he would be if it was zone coverage.
From the first image here, the route he wanted was open. The out pattern from the slot has beaten man coverage and it should be a routine pass, but Harris screws all that up by getting his head around early and reading what was coming. He was able to break off his man and attack the ball, almost picking it off, and making it look like Stanton had a bad read on the play. This is a play most cornerbacks in the league don’t make.
Though he was drafted in the first round by the Ravens back in 2011, Jimmy Smith has never quite lived up to that billing, until this season. He always looked like a player long on talent, but that wasn’t translating to the field consistently. He had ups and downs, but coming into this season his career coverage grade at PFF was just -1.4, not a disastrous figure, but not enough to justify his draft position. With Patrick Peterson and Richard Sherman also coming in that 2011 Draft, Smith had always been in the shadows of that draft class.
This season though we are seeing the realization of all of that talent. Through six games his coverage grade is already +6.2, and he has graded positively in five of his six games, with a nondescript -0.3 being the only minor blemish. Smith has allowed a passer rating of just 50.5 when targeted and on the 18 passes he has allowed to be caught he has given up just 135 yards, an average of just 7.5.
With that kind of ability to limit receivers on the underneath stuff you would think Smith would be vulnerable to the occasional deep lapse, being caught too eager to jump on the first move or just not respecting the deep threat enough, but that hasn’t been the case.
He hasn’t been beaten for a catch longer than 24 yards and has yet to give up a touchdown score.
Check this play from back against Andy Dalton and the Cincinnati Bengals:
Smith had the deep sideline against the vertical threat of the outside receiver Brandon Tate. He was playing off coverage and reading the quarterback and all too often you will see a corner just lapse in his responsibility here and not get enough depth to stay over the top of the route. There is the slightest hint of this happening when Smith has to decide to come out of his pedal, turn and run with Tait. Once he does though he plays it perfectly, squeezing the route to the sideline, reducing the window for the throw and then breaking it up at its highest point.
This is textbook deep coverage and I highlight it specifically because his numbers are so impressive on the underneath stuff. Smith isn’t just playing aggressive coverage, but complete football at a very high level.
There might not be a better example of how schemes can affect a player than Brandon Flowers. It’s easy to forget how highly regarded he once was because of the way his tenure in Kansas City ended. With a new defensive scheme in place Flowers was clearly not playing to his strengths. The Chiefs made the decision that they were paying too much to try to hammer a square peg into a round hole and in June they released him. Flowers was on the open market for over ten days before finally being picked up by the Chargers on just a one-year contract.
We’re talking about a guy whose last season with the Chiefs was bad enough that it basically scared the entire league away from him. But what about before that?
Flowers had the prototypical career arc for a talented cornerback coming into the NFL. His rookie year he flashed, but was ultimately a little exposed as he adjusted to life in the big leagues, but from that rookie grade of -5.5 he progressed to +18.6 as a sophomore, +21.4 as a third year starter and at that point was in the discussion as ‘the best cornerback not named Revis’ in the league. He was certainly one of a handful of young starters making waves. His next two seasons were more modest before a 2013 that saw him post a -3.7 and the worst coverage numbers of his career.
He gave up five touchdowns last year and was beaten for a passer rating of 101.6 when targeted. He surrendered a completion percentage of 66.7%, and was generally not a player quarterbacks shied away from. This season we are watching a totally different player. The passer rating he is allowing has dropped to 62.6 and would be even lower but for the first touchdown score he allowed against the Raiders this week. He is allowing just 56.7% of passes thrown his way to be caught and is playing like the guy that we saw earlier in his career.
There are other corners with slightly better raw numbers, but his PFF grade – a play by play analysis of his play – is clear of the pack at +12.1, almost 150% that of the next best mark (Harris).
This interception against the Jaguars and Blake Bortles is one of the reasons why. This throw is definitely late, and not a good one from Bortles, but watch the way Flowers plays it.
While most corners would be happy enough just breaking the pass up, as soon as Flowers reads the pass he wants the football himself. Instead of working to a position to break it up, he breaks around the receiver to give himself a shot at the catch. As we all know, turnovers are game-changing plays. There are some corners that are only ever concerned with stopping somebody else from catching the ball. Now, if a corner can read the play quick enough to get a chance at catching it himself, then we are off to the races.
It isn’t just his ball skills that earns Flowers such a high grade. This play against Arizona highlights his skill set to perfection.
He has always been an aggressive player against the run and receivers with the ball in their hands, a little like Antoine Winfield, and less inclined to make the ‘business decisions’ that some corners will. The Cardinals fire the ball out to Michael Floyd with Flowers playing well off the line in coverage. At this point he has to come a long way to prevent any kind of gain, but he shoots up quickly, breaks down well and limits this play to just a gain of two yards in the tackle. That’s an impressive coverage play even if it won’t necessarily make any highlight reels, and it’s the type of play Flowers is all about.
Improving and Honorable Mentions
It isn’t just this trio that have taken big steps forward in 2014, in fact this year seems to be something of a reclamation one. Here is a few other corners having impressive seasons, some unexpected, some not:
Jason Verrett, San Diego: Our 3rd graded CB in the league so far, is allowing a passer rating of just 54.4
Perrish Cox, San Francisco: Would be even higher but for some dropped interceptions, has more combined interceptions and passes defensed than any other corner.
Corey Graham, Buffalo: Has allowed only 40% of the passes thrown his way to be caught.
Josh Robinson, Minnesota: Is allowing a passer rating of just 53.3, almost 75 points lower than a year ago.
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