Position Progression: Cornerbacks
The Position Progression series arrives at the end of the defense as Ben Stockwell shows best case and worst case examples of recent first-round cornerbacks.
Position Progression: Cornerbacks
Moving into the secondary with our career progression feature, we find a position that is a popular one to take high in the draft. With the proliferation of the passing game on offense comes the need for the defense to come up with ways to stop it. That means pass rushers and cornerbacks as teams look to take down the passer and shut down the receiver. Teams love athletic cover defenders who can stick with the physical freaks playing wide receiver these days and that has seen 22 cornerbacks taken in the first round since 2007 as teams go in search of that fabled shutdown corner.
The perception of how easy it is to slide a rookie corner into place is divided somewhat. In some senses it is a tough position to pick up quickly as you encounter the nuances of a host of new coverages you may never have played before. Others, meanwhile, can make an apparently smooth transition to the pros allowing their playmaking ability to shine with big interception totals in their rookie season, though that can often come at a cost of big plays given up in the opposite direction.
Both in terms of playing time and performance, moving to cornerback in the NFL can be a slow learning curve with, on average, first-round corners playing less than 650 snaps in their rookie season. With the expansion of three-receiver sets on offense there are more and more opportunities to play nickel defense thus allowing rookies to get plenty of playing time without being exposed to playing every snap from Day 1.
This snap management along with a number of terrific corners coming out of the first round in the last seven years has seen a steady climb in performance on average. After a solid start with an average coverage grade of +0.8 in their rookie season, the average first-round corner picks up snaps and grade through each of their following four seasons with a season grade of +2.0 or above in coverage thereafter. You might hope for more — looking for that shutdown No. 1 corner — but the first round has generally produced solid cover corners in the last seven years.
Best Case Scenario
The 2007 Draft class produced the best corner in the league right now, some might question that right now as he re-establishes himself after a second knee surgery, but the first five years of Darrelle Revis’ career is what the likes of Patrick Peterson and Richard Sherman are striving for. In his debut season Revis played in excess of 1000 snaps and was inside the Top 20 for coverage grade among all corners with a +6.2 grade.
A solid season to start was the launch point for an excellent second season (+15.6 coverage) which he followed up with one of the great single season performances. Even with the great performances from the likes of Richard Sherman in recent seasons, the 2009 performance of Revis is still the gold standard in coverage and what every team hopes they are going to get from their first round corner. While tracking the opponent’s top receiver and being targeted heavily as a result, Revis earned a +31.9 coverage grade and compiled some truly eye-popping coverage stats. On 111 targets Revis surrendered only 41 receptions, a passer rating of 32.3 and notched a scarcely believable 23 pass defenses. Grades of +6.5 and +18.7 in his fourth and fifth seasons mark out a five-year progression for a corner that you would do extremely well to top.
Worst Case Scenario
We don’t live in an ideal world and some teams have to suffer as their high-profile picks don’t pan out. The nature and volume of players at the cornerback position means that players who aren’t up to scratch tend not to stick around too long to accumulate massively negative grades over a series of seasons. Recent first-round picks at corner also haven’t seen any rapid flameouts so you could say that teams are doing a better job of drafting corners in recent years.
That leaves the worst case scenario since 2007 as Aaron Ross who the Giants selected six picks after the Jets took Revis. With only Leon Hall in between, you have the difference between a sublime shutdown corner and a subpar corner who never really built any momentum into his career. Earning playing time from the word go (704 and 804 snaps in his first two seasons), Ross took a negative coverage grade in each of his first five seasons. His playing time dwindled in his fourth season as he was relegated to a slot role, but his performances didn’t pick up with the more specialized duty. After an unsuccessful stint in Jacksonville in 2012, Ross returned to New York last year only to follow a solid start to the season by hitting Injured Reserve in Week 4. He’ll now try to turn his career around by earning a spot on the Ravens’ roster this summer.
Path Most Trodden
Staying in New York we find Prince Amukamara as a corner who has stuck fairly close to the expected line of progression for a first-round corner. One of the players who helped push Ross aside at the end of his first tenure with the Giants, Amukamara found playing time hard to come by in his rookie season as he recovered from injury and didn’t get to show his form until his second year. Taking advantage of his health and representative playing time, Amukamara only intercepted one pass but surrendered completions on just 52.4% of his 63 targets in 2012 en route to a coverage grade of +2.7.
He followed that up with an inconsistent season with games as good a +4.2 coverage grade in Kansas City (no completions on four targets, one interception, one pass defense) but as bad as -2.5 against the Bears (8-of-10, 86 yards). He has shown occasional glimpses of something more, but for the most part Amukamara has been a solid cover corner who lacks the ball skills to make the big plays or truly shut down an opponent.
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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.