Rookie Impact: Cornerbacks

Nathan Jahnke inspects the rookie seasons cornerbacks have posted over the past seven years.

| 3 years ago

Rookie Impact: Cornerbacks

rookie-impact-CBToday we continue our position-by-position look at how rookies have performed over the years. Here we examine one of the most important positions on defense; cornerbacks.

In this past year’s draft there were more cornerbacks picked than teams in the league. Chances are your favorite team selected one and here you can find out what you can expect out of them if they get playing time.


CB Scatter Graph

(^click to enlarge)

Staking Your Claim

Thanks to the increase in three- and four-receiver sets for offenses, there are more roles available for cornerbacks. Even if a player is fourth on the depth chart, there are snaps available in the more plentiful dime situations in addition to when one of the top three players gets hurt.

When it gets late in the season and a team is out of playoff contention, there will often be a young cornerback receiving more playing time and a veteran receiving less. This is how plenty of cornerbacks get their rookie snaps and three out of every four cornerbacks drafted get at least one defensive snap as a rookie.

Most cornerbacks who receive a high number of snaps as a rookie do so by playing in a team’s nickel defense. Washington’s David Amerson and the Chiefs’ Marcus Cooper, for example, played the majority of last season as their team’s nickel corner.

Finally there are cornerbacks who gain one of the top two starting roles and play every snap. In some cases it is because the player is playing very well and earns that spot. In other cases a team is thin at the position so they give a rookie the job even though they might not be ready — Johnthan Banks, as an example from 2013, played over 900 snaps for the Buccaneers and didn’t play great in that time, but Tampa Bay didn’t have much of an alternative.

Making Your Mark

The majority of cornerbacks don’t get a chance to make their mark. Less than 20% of cornerbacks drafted receive 500-plus defensive snaps. For cornerbacks drafted in the later rounds this is to be expected.

For those drafted in earlier rounds, in some cases a player doesn’t get playing time because there are adequate starters in place. The Titans had three cornerbacks in place for their base and nickel defense, so Blidi Wreh-Wilson ended up with 93 snaps. He played well in that limited time and should see more this year.

In most cases, a rookie doesn’t get snaps simply because they aren’t ready. The Browns Leon McFadden didn’t receive much playing time until late in the season and ended with a -7.1 overall grade. From the graph you can see cornerbacks with fewer than 600 snaps rarely make a name for themselves. They almost never exceed a grade above +5.0, but a number have landed below -5.0.

Of the less than 20% who do receive significant playing time, there is a much wider range of play. For the most part the rookies who have the worst grades are not first-round picks. Outside of a few rare exceptions, if a late-round draft pick is forced to play a lot of snaps, it’s bad news.

Nearly two-thirds of first-round cornerbacks end up with at least 500 snaps. Of first-round picks it is Patrick Peterson and Kareem Jackson who performed the worst (and their careers have since rebounded) and it’s other first-rounders like Leon Hall or Stephen Gilmore who’ve logged more average rookie years.

There is basically a 50/50 chance of a first-round cornerback performing well with significant snaps as a rookie or falling into the other bucket of those who either don’t play well or don’t receive enough snaps to make a big impact.

The Dream Scenario

There have been a few cornerbacks who’ve shown great play in their rookie year and, somewhat surprisingly, we’ve seen plenty of non-first-rounders in that group.

The best case scenario for a first-round rookie is Joe Haden or in our opinion the 2013 Defensive Rookie of the Year, Desmond Trufant. While playing just under 75% of the team’s snaps, Haden had six interceptions and 11 passes defended which were both among the Top 10 for cornerbacks that year. While Trufant didn’t have as many interceptions, he tied the league lead with 15 passes defended. Both allowed a 53% catch rate.

For non-first round picks, Richard Sherman is the best case scenario for an outside cornerback. While he has improved since his rookie campaign, when quarterbacks threw his way as a rookie they had a passer rating of 57.3.

However, the dream scenario would be to gain a player like Casey Hayward. As the Packers’ slot cornerback in 2012, he had six interceptions, 12 passes defended, no touchdowns allowed and he posted a surprisingly low 43.4 catch rate allowed. Once teams realized how good Hayward was, in five of his last eight games he was only targeted once each game. Due to Tramon Williams and Sam Shields, Hayward only saw 61% of the Packers’ defensive snaps, but his play far outshined any other rookie in recent memory.


Follow Nathan on Twitter: @PFF_NateJahnke

| Director of Analytics

Nathan has been with Pro Football Focus since 2010. He is the Director of Analytics, an NFL analyst, and a fantasy writer.

  • Hsanchez957

    Was hoping to see Devin McCourty mentioned as a CB who changed positions and is thriving now as a Safety.

  • James

    No Devin McCourty? He was an All Pro CB as a rookie!