A year ago, had you predicted that A.J. Bouye was about to be the most coveted cornerback on the free-agent market, reactions would have ranged from “you’re insane” to “what is an A.J. Bouye?”
Now everyone knows his name. The 25-year-old emerged this season as a lock-down for the Texans, and he could wind up the highest-paid free agent cornerback—and if not him, that honor likely would fall either to Trumaine Johnson, who could be franchise-tagged at any moment by the Rams, or Stephon Gilmore, who appears headed out of Buffalo.
There is decent talent at the CB position, though, and teams should find contributing performers in the likes of Logan Ryan (New England), Alterraun Verner (cut by Tennessee) and Dre Kirkpatrick (Cincinnati). Things are not quite as rosy at safety, because the Chiefs recently made Eric Berry the highest-paid safety in the NFL and Barry Church is also on track to wind up back with Dallas.
If that happens, the big winner will be Tony Jefferson, who would cash in no matter if he stays with Arizona or departs. Beyond him, there are depth pieces—Duron Harmon (New England), Rashad Johnson (Tennessee), Jonathan Cyprien (Jacksonville), T.J. McDonald (Los Angeles Rams)—but no stars.
A primer on the DB class:
Cream of the Crop: A.J. Bouye
By signing Eric Berry to a six-year deal worth a reported $78 million, the Chiefs kept the potential top free-agent safety from reaching free agency. The Comeback Player of the Year in 2015 and a first-team All-Pro in both ’15 and ’16, Berry deserved to be rewarded with a huge, long-term deal. (The Chiefs had him play out last season on the franchise tag.) Getting him locked up ahead of time could allow the Chiefs to use this year’s tag on Dontari Poe, if they somehow can find a way to swing it financially.
So, with Berry off the board, Bouye slides into the top spot among defensive backs, albeit at a different position. Either way, Bouye held the title among cornerbacks, especially with Houston looking like it would pass on re-signing him.
There is a risk element involved for any team wishing to pursue Bouye, because the rising CB star wasn’t a full-time starter until this year ... and he only won that spot because of injuries above him on the depth chart. He did not spoil that chance, though, and played a critical role in Houston’s run to the AFC South championship.
GMs that float a contract Bouye’s way will be crossing their fingers that 2016 was merely the tip of the iceberg for a player that just needed a chance. If Bouye is really the cornerback he appeared to be this season, he could be a standout defender for years to come.
Ideal team fit: Saints. For the first time in a bit, the Saints’ salary-cap situation is in pretty good shape heading into the off-season. And while they’ve been burned by free-agent DBs in the past (and currently have the “sleeper” below on their roster), this would be an opportunity to swing for the fences.
Bargain Bin: Sterling Moore
It feels like Moore has carried the "underrated" tag throughout his NFL career. He never has been, nor ever will be, an elite cornerback, but he was solid in Dallas, Tampa Bay and most recently New Orleans. Moore started a career-high 12 games for the Saints, picking off two passes and knocking down another 13.
Despite his respectable track record, Moore has become a bit of a journeyman—he didn’t even survive final cuts in Buffalo last summer, prior to landing with New Orleans. Another cheap one- or two-year deal could be on the way, and Moore will make it worthwhile for the team that lands him.
Ideal team fit: Jets. The high-profile Darrelle Revis marriage imploded, so how about the Jets taking a 180 and going for value? Moore can hold up in man coverage, which is important for Todd Bowles’s defense, and he has experience in the slot.
Overpay Alert: Prince Amukamara
The ex-Giant nudged his career back on track with a solid 2016 season in Jacksonville, while playing on a one-year contract. Given his talent level and what could be a lack of clear starters on the CB market, Amukamara should be able to parlay that ’16 performance into a rather substantial deal.
The rub: He’s played 16 games once in his six NFL seasons. The soon-to-be28-year-old could be hitting his prime, but he stands to get paid before he proves he can stay healthy.
Ideal team fit: Jaguars. Keeping Amukamara pinned opposite Jalen Ramsey on the depth chart makes too sense sense, both for the Jaguars and Amukamara himself. If Amukamara can land the money he seeks while sticking with the team that helped revive his career, why wouldn’t he? A team like the Eagles would be one to watch if Amukamara tests the waters. They need to make a splash in their secondary.
Teams most in need of secondary help: Ravens, Bills, Panthers, Bears, Browns, Cowboys, Lions, Packers, Colts, Rams, Dolphins, Vikings, Saints, Jets, Raiders, Eagles, 49ers, Bucs, Titans