Ranking the 2013 Free Agents: Cornerbacks
For more than a week now we’ve been breaking down the top free agents at each position. It’s more than just looking at our grades, but factoring in longevity, age, injuries and so much more in order to tell you who we think are the best gets out there.
We’re not going to insult your intelligence though when it comes to guys unlikely to hit the open market because of restricted free agency, so don’t expect to see names like Victor Cruz or Brian De La Puente in these pieces. Instead we’re focusing on guys with a real shot at dipping their feet into the free agent pool and making your team better.
You’ve been with us through the entire offense (quarterbacks, running backs, fullbacks, wide receivers, tight ends, offensive tackles) and a brief sojourn to the kickers and punters. Now we’ve moved on to defense and, after looking at the interior, edge defenders, and linebackers, it’s time to move onto cornerbacks.
1. Brent Grimes – to MIA: 1-year, $5.5m
2012 Grade: -1.3
2012 Snaps: 52
Summary: While the 2012 free agent cornerback class may not have any star names, it more than makes up for that with depth. This was an extremely tough list to pare down to just 10 names, with another half a dozen that could still help teams in need of an upgrade in the secondary. The group is led by Brent Grimes, a player that was on the cusp of becoming one of the league’s best cover corners before an Achilles injury put pay to his 2012 season just 52 snaps into it.
Grimes shows a fantastic instinct for zone coverage and reminds me a little of Asante Samuel without the lapses and questionable desire for contact. He has fantastic fundamentals, quick reactions and a pretty good set of ball skills when the ball is in the air. Along with everybody else on this list, however, he comes with some risk attached. He will be 30 years old by the time he next sees the field, and is coming off a season-ending injury.
In the 2011 season he got his hands to 13 passes while allowing just 25 to be completed all year, and QBs had a rating of only 62.9 when targeting him, but this offseason he might have to accept a short-term ‘prove it’ contract to see a more healthy return a year from now.
2. Chris Houston – stays in DET: 5-year, $25m
2012 Grade: +7.4
2012 Snaps: 931
Summary: Chris Houston has been the one shining light in a bad Lions secondary for a few years now, and always quietly impressed me when he was with the Falcons before that. His performance has been impressive enough that he progressed last season into the rare air of players who are asked to track top receivers (although he only did this rarely). The Lions are likely to try hard to keep him around, but in a free agent class devoid of stars, Houston might be the safest pick out there and could command the best contract if he is allowed to escape.
Last year he was targeted 94 times, allowing 53 catches but for only 11.9 yards per reception. He is a fundamentally sound corner who is rarely beaten badly and will make receivers work for every yard, which given the rest of this class is in and of itself an impressive trait. Houston’s biggest negative is that he has a fairly concrete ceiling, and will never be confused for Darrelle Revis. There aren’t many corners in the league that are clearly better than he is, and some teams will prefer the reliable nature of his play than the all-or-nothing nature of some others.
3. Adam Jones – stays in CIN: 3-year, $5.4m
2012 Grade: +10.5
2012 Snaps: 626
Summary: The best-kept secret in the NFL these days is that Adam (formerly Pac-Man) Jones has not just reformed his image but also reformed his play and quietly had an excellent season for the Bengals. The season was so quietly excellent that when it came time to argue about the end of season PFF Pro Bowl rosters, there was quite a pitched battle inside PFF offices between those that knew he had played excellently and those that simply refused to believe the numbers!
In the end he just missed out in a close battle for the last spot in the Pro Bowl roster, but the point remains that he is playing at that kind of level now. Being opposite Leon Hall can’t hurt, and there is obviously a substantial risk attached to a player with his history, but on merit alone there is a good case to be made that he should be the top name on this list.
If your team is looking for an under the radar signing who could be the best player from his position in free agency, Adam Jones could be it.
4. Aqib Talib – stays in NE: 1-year, $4.9m
2012 Grade: -0.1
2012 Snaps: 678
Summary: Consistently inconsistent, Talib is a player that will drive coaches mad. Even as most acknowledge the impact he had on the Patriots secondary and believe he was a big part in their run this season, he actually graded +4.6 in Tampa Bay this season and -4.9 in New England, including their playoff games. To be fair to Talib, most of that negative came in two of the first three games when he couldn’t have been expected to have fully grasped the Patriots defense. Over his final stretch of five games he graded +1.2 in coverage terms with no horrid games among them. However, the point remains that it is very difficult for a team to fully trust Talib to the point you will commit big dollars and years to him in a contract.
It is telling however that the Patriots ran into major problems as soon as he left the game against Baltimore. There has never been any doubting his raw talent, but he comes with as many question marks as anybody on this list. Despite playing only 592 snaps found a way to allow 775 yards last year in total.
5. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie – to DEN: 1-year, $5m
2012 Grade: -7.1
2012 Snaps: 1020
Summary: Another player that is nothing if not consistently all over the place in terms of performance, Rodgers-Cromartie has the ability to be one of the league’s better players, but refuses to prove it for more than a game or two at a time. Only four players notched more PDs than DRC last season, and he added another three interceptions, earning him a healthy coverage grade of +2.9 for his season’s work, but the problems are hidden elsewhere.
He had 11 penalties on the season, second among all corners and had one of the league’s poorest run support grades, a list propped up predictably enough by Asante Samuel, with whom DRC shares many of the same traits. The good news for teams is that DRC did grade well overall in coverage terms last season. The bad news is that most of that grade came from five strong games, compared to four that were graded firmly in the red. You’re gambling with talent and upside by signing DRC, but almost certainly buying into inconsistency and frustration at the same time.
6. Keenan Lewis – to NO: 5-year, $26m
2012 Grade: +3.2
2012 Snaps: 943
Summary: At one point last season Keenan Lewis was pretty upset when beat reporters presented him with his PFF ranking and asked his opinion on it. Whether coincidence or not, from that point on he began to climb the rankings with some impressive displays and ended the year playing some excellent football. Lewis, like his Pittsburgh teammate Ike Taylor, does not have great ball skills, but does seem to have impressive coverage ability and there are teams out there that will be happy with that.
Though he didn’t intercept a pass in 2012, Lewis actually led the NFL with 16 passes defensed and passers throwing at him had a rating of only 80.7 despite going after him to the tune of 112 targets on the season.
7. Sean Smith – to KC: 3-year, $18m
2012 Grade: -3.6
2012 Snaps: 1,068
Summary: Another player with some major consistency problems (are we sensing a trend?), Smith is capable of both great games and awful ones, and his season performance graph looks like a rollercoaster ride. His performances ranged from not allowing a single catch against the Jets in Week 3 despite eight targets to being beaten every time he was targeted in Week 12 against the Seahawks for 72 yards and a score.
Smith brings size (6-foot-4) and the ability to be physical and aggressive, which the Seahawks have just shown the league really can work as a coverage scheme. It’s a copycat league, and there really aren’t many corners of that size and speed around. Smith is one, and might just garner some real interest for that reason as much as his play.
8. Cary Williams – to PHI: 3-year, $17m
2012 Grade: -3.2
2012 Snaps: 1,431
Summary: If you’re looking for a player likely to be overpaid, Williams is the most obvious suspect. Coming off a Super Bowl winning campaign in which he had two of his better games in the last two outings, he will likely convince a team he has all the skills necessary to be a big-time corner. Yet, over the course of his career so far the tape suggests otherwise.
He will flash impressive play, but he allows a huge amount of yardage either side of those big plays. Though his 20 total games this season notched him 16 PDs and six interceptions, he was also beaten for seven scores and 1,118 yards in total.
9. Bradley Fletcher – to PHI: 2-year, $5.25m
2012 Grade: +3.7
2012 Snaps: 374
Summary: Fletcher is a player who has always played well when he has been healthy, but just can’t stay on the field for long enough to make people sit up and take notice. The door is likely closing for him in St Louis given how they have stacked their roster with young corners, and so he will likely wind up a bargain for any new team that can keep him playing.
10. Greg Toler – to IND: 3-year, $15m
2012 Grade: +6.8
2012 Snaps: 308
Summary: Our good friend Pete Prisco listed Toler as one of his underrated upcoming free agents and he nailed it, hitting on a player who will likely slip under the radar but has played well whenever he has seen the field for the Cardinals in the past.
Toler is physical and has coverage skills and could be a great signing for someone who misses out on some of the bigger names.
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