Secret Superstar: Captain Munnerlyn
Standing just 5-foot-8 weighing 190 pounds, Captain Munnerlyn has never been the ‘prototype’. Only a two-star recruit coming out of high school, Munnerlyn chose to attend the University of South Carolina. Despite the low expectations, he was starting as a true freshman and was first-team All-SEC by his sophomore year. Even after a productive college career, teams still weren’t sold. He was drafted 216th in 2009, by definition a long shot, but that was nothing new for him.
Just like his freshman year at South Carolina, Munnerlyn was again contributing from day one. He played 438 snaps his rookie season and even though he struggled with penalties, his coverage skills were obvious. He has seen his snaps increase every year since his rookie season and in 2012 he proved he can be a legitimate starter in this league. In his 12 starts, he allowed just one touchdown and compiled an overall grade of +0.5. His play was solid for an otherwise shaky secondary and the value he brings to one of the most important positions on the field makes him the Panthers’ Secret Superstar.
Not the Same Player
In 2011, Munnerlyn wasn’t ready to be a starting cornerback and it showed. He allowed a very high 1.47 yards per coverage snap and a QB rating against of 126.9. After the 2011 season that saw him get generally manhandled as a starting cornerback, he started 2012 backing up rookie fifth-round pick Josh Norman and covering the slot in sub-packages. A season-ending injury to Chris Gamble forced Munnerlyn back into a starting role. He played all but 16 snaps over the last 12 games and did not disappoint. His yards per coverage snap dropped to .99 and his NFL rating against to 76.6. Perhaps his biggest improvement was his play on the edge. In 2011, playing out on the boundary, he gave up a completion percentage of 67% and a yards per coverage snap of 1.54. In 2012, those figures dropped to a completion percentage of 53% and a yards per coverage snap of 1.00.
Last season, only 20 cornerbacks played at least 900 snaps while maintaining a positive grade for the season and Munnerlyn was one of them. It’s difficult to sustain quality play at the cornerback position over a 16-game season, and even more so against the passing games in the NFC South. Just ask guys like DeAngelo Hall, Nnamdi Asomugha, and Cortland Finnegan how hard playing cornerback in the NFL can be. All three ended up with grades worse than Munnerlyn and gave up far more yards. It’s safe to say that if you thought his ceiling was that of a backup after his dreadful 2011 campaign, it’s worth reconsidering your stance based on his performance in 2012.
What’s his Upside?
When looking at his career arc up to this point it compares well to the Bears’ Tim Jennings. That’s not to say that Munnerlyn will develop into a Pro Bowl corner, but the similarities are there. The Bears’ corner is also undersized at 5-foot-8 and wasn’t a home run right off the bat either. Jennings played predominantly on the edge, but early in their careers both allowed fairly high catch rates, hardly ever created turnovers, and amassed average totals in passes defended.
The biggest positive each showed early in their careers was the ability to minimize the number of big plays allowed. In 2012, Munnerlyn surrendered a mere three completions of over 20 yards on 87 total targets. He was routinely a stride or two behind receivers, but almost never beaten badly. The Panthers cornerback’s next step will come when he starts to improve in his route recognition, something we saw from Jennings last year. This is especially apparent in Munnerlyn’s zone coverage where he rarely seemed confident enough to drive on a route.
There are still some major question marks moving forward. Munnerlyn’s size will be a big factor. He improved against larger receivers in 2012, but that could still just be due to a small sample size. It’s tough to imagine him having continued success against divisional foes like Julio Jones (6-foot-3), Vincent Jackson (6-foot-5), and Marques Colston (6-foot-4). The other unknown with Munnerlyn is his history with penalties. He has averaged 5.75 penalties a season over the course of his career with a high of eight in 2011. It’s nice to see that his penalty total dropped to five in 2012 after a year of starting under his belt, but it will be something to keep an eye on.
Prove It Contract
If the Panthers have plans of keeping Munnerlyn as a long term starter at cornerback, they certainly didn’t show it this offseason. They signed him to a one-year deal worth a paltry $1.1m. Although Carolina didn’t draft a corner, they signed free agents D.J. Moore and Drayton Florence. Both were signed for less money than Munnerlyn, but both have reasons to think they could be replacing Munnerlyn. With Gamble retiring, Panthers fans should be happy that they were able to re-sign Munnerlyn for as cheap as they did. He brings proven ability to a defensive backfield that desperately needs it.
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