How do NFL teams allocate resources? Dave Archibald has looked at the real price of contract extensions and draft picks on quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, offensive linemen, and the trends on offense in general. In this installment, he looks at how teams evaluate cornerback investment.
The New York Jets finished a disappointing 4-12 in 2014, and while a sputtering offense got most of the blame, they also had problems on defense, allowing a league-worst ratio of 31 passing touchdowns to only six interceptions. They elected to solve the problem through free agent additions at cornerback, luring four-time All-Pro Darrelle Revis from the divisional rival New England Patriots at more than $14M per year along with Antonio Cromartie ($8M per year) and slot specialist Buster Skrine (more than $6M per year). The revamped secondary has tripled its interception total to 18 with a game to go and the Jets have jumped from 24th in scoring defense to seventh.
The Carolina Panthers, meanwhile, took a different approach with their corners, letting Antoine Cason and Melvin White leave and adding 34-year-old veteran Charles Tillman ($2M per year), a former All-Pro coming off a 2014 season where he missed all but two games with a ruptured tricep. They have leaned on former fifth-round picks Josh Norman and Bene Benwikere to great success, as Norman has established himself as one of the top players at the position. When Tillman and Benwikere missed time, they lured Cortland Finnegan out of retirement with a veteran minimum contract. All together, Panthers cornerbacks will earn just over $4M this season – the lowest figure in the NFL and less than the Jets pay Skrine, their third-highest-paid corner. The budget approach has been wildly successful, and the Panthers have allowed just 6.6 yards per attempt to wide receivers, best in the NFL.
The chart below shows the amount of money and draft value expended on cornerbacks. Money is measured by average cap hit. This is not a perfect measure, as it can be inflated by “funny money”, or non-guaranteed years tacked on to the end of the long-term deals, but it serves as a rough indicator. Draft value is measured by cumulative Draft Trade Value Chart figures through the last four years, plus 2011 first-rounders (more on that methodology):
These figures represent only players currently rostered as of the beginning of the season, not “dead” money or draft value spent on CBs no longer with the team. Thus, they do not incorporate traded picks or players.
The differences are fairly mild, but largely trend in the direction one would expect, with the group that spends both money and picks on cornerbacks ranking best in completion percentage and second-best in yards, yards per attempt (Y/A), QB rating, and adjusted yards per attempt (AY/A). The group that invests least ranks worst in completion percentage, Y/A, QB rating, and AY/A, though it has hauled in the most interceptions.
Money and Picks
Eight teams spend an above-average amount on CBs, both in terms of money and draft capital. The Jets not only added Revis, Cromartie, and Skrine, but also used a 2013 top-10 pick on Dee Milliner. NFL teams average dedicating about 11% of their cap to corners, but the Jets are more than twice that at 24%, by far the most. The Cleveland Browns are next at 20% of their cap, mostly to veterans Joe Haden and Tramon Williams. They also made Justin Gilbert the highest-drafted cornerback in the 2014 draft, nabbing him with the eighth overall pick.
No team has used more draft capital on corners than the Dallas Cowboys, who used first-round picks on Morris Claiborne (sixth overall in 2012) and Combine superstar Byron Jones (27th overall in 2015). They haven’t skimped on salary for their cornerbacks either, with Brandon Carr averaging more than $10M per season and Orlando Scandrick also making good money.
Notable Performances: The Jets and Cardinals rank as the two best teams in completion percentage against, and the Jets rank third in Y/A. The Bengals rank fourth in AY/A. The Browns have had less success, ranking bottom-five in Y/A, QB rating, AY/A, and total yards.
It’s Only Money
This group of eight teams spend more money on cornerbacks than average, but less draft capital. The Seahawks devote 16% of their cap to some key figures in their “Legion of Boom” secondary, especially Richard Sherman, who makes $14M per year. Their figure includes $6M to Cary Williams, who has since been cut. Seattle, led by head coach Pete Carroll, has a reputation for developing cornerbacks and finding scheme fits in late rounds, and their draft approach backs that up – over the past four years, they haven’t used a pick higher than the fifth round (Tharold Simon and Tye Smith) on the position.
Perhaps the league’s best one-two punch at cornerback is in Denver, where the Broncos trot out high-paid veterans Chris Harris Jr. and Aqib Talib every week. Their nickel corner is 2014 first-rounder Bradley Roby, but the Broncos still fall a little below average in draft value spent at the position. The Colts and Texans each feature three cornerbacks making $2.5M or more per season – Vontae Davis ($9M), Greg Toler ($4.75M), and Darius Butler ($2.5M) in Indianapolis and Kareem Jackson ($8.5M), Johnathan Joseph ($6.75M), and smooth-hipped first-rounder Kevin Johnson ($2.51M).
Of note here is that the top four – Revis, Peterson, Sherman, and Haden – make far more money than the rest of the list.
Notable Performances: The Broncos boast the NFL’s top defense in WR yards allowed, QB rating, and adjusted yards per attempt. The Texans and Seahawks also rank in the top five in preventing passing yards to wideouts. The Dolphins and Titans both rank among the five worst teams in yards per attempt.
Youth Is Served
These seven teams spend less money than average but have invested heavily via the draft. Only Dallas has spent more raw draft capital than the Minnesota Vikings, who made Trae Waynes the 11th pick in the 2015 draft just two years after taking Xavier Rhodes in the first round. Atlanta used their first two picks in 2013 on cornerbacks, grabbing Desmond Trufant in the first round and Robert Alford in the second, and adding second-rounder Jalen Collins in the 2015 draft.
Every team in this group has selected a cornerback with a first-round pick since 2011. The chart below shows the highest-drafted cornerbacks over that time period:This is a pretty mixed group, with Peterson a star but Claiborne, Gilbert, and Milliner mostly disappointing so far.
Notable Performances: The Falcons and Bears each rank in the top five in allowed fewest yards to wide receivers. The Giants and Chiefs rank first and second, respectively, in allowing the most yards.
Doing It On The Cheap
It is little surprise to see teams like the Saints and 49ers, two of the NFL’s worst pass defenses, investing little on their cornerbacks. More surprising are the presence of New England and Carolina, two of the NFL’s better pass defenses. The Patriots currently start former third-round pick Logan Ryan and Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler, an undrafted rookie in 2014. Their rotating cast of third cornerbacks (Tarell Brown, Bradley Fletcher, Justin Coleman, Rashaan Melvin, and Leonard Johnson) doesn’t feature a player making more than $2M per season.
Notable Performances: The Panthers and Rams both rank in the top five in yards per attempt, quarterback rating against, and AY/A on passes to wide receivers. The Panthers and Patriots rank top five in lowest completion percentage allowed, but this group also contains the five teams allowing the worst completion percentages to wideouts: Tampa Bay, Detroit, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and San Francisco. The Saints and Buccaneers rank in the bottom five in QB rating against and AY/A against.
Down on the Cornerback Investment
Different teams value the cornerback position differently, investing wildly different amounts of money and draft capital. Spending big dollars or high picks can work, but other teams have found success on the cheap, as the 14-1 Panthers and 12-3 Patriots show. It remains to be seen whether teams will attempt to follow those models, or mimic the Jets and throw large money at free agent corners.
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