Free Agent Slot Cornerback Possibilities for Bears

Defenses picked on the Bears in the middle of the field last year slot cornerback has become a problem position but it's one spot where some free agency help could be available at a lower cost.

Teams near or over the salary cap rarely can find much in free agency to help, beyond signing their own players with expiring contracts.

The lower salary cap due to the pandemic only exacerbates this problem for teams like the Bears.

A major trouble the Bears have had on defense the last two years has been defending the slot receivers or when slot cornerbacks defend tight ends in short zones.

Buster Skrine was a high-effort player who lacked the physical skills to produce much, and in two years he made no interceptions. Last year his passer rating against when targeted by quarterbacks ballooned to 125.7 from 91.8, and the completion percentage he allowed went from 59.3% to 78.1%. Along the way he had two concussions. So at age 32 next season, it would appear he'll be cut for cap purposes.

The solution isn't necessarily the draft, because it's difficult to find slot cornerbacks in the draft.

It's a sort of trial-by-fire position in the NFL. The best cornerbacks in college are outside, and when they reach the NFL those who can't play outside are studied for good inside traits -- tackling, being physical and defending well man to man are qualities to look for on the inside, where cornerbacks have to be quick enough to handle receivers who can use the entire field rather than just one side of it.

So if a team can find a low-cost cornerback who defends the slot well, they're striking gold.

The Bears have two potential candidates with Kindle Vildor and Duke Shelley, but neither displayed the type of instincts or speed needed to be effective last season in relief of Skrine. It was their first real shots at it so much could still change, but in the meantime the Bears need someone to either bridge the gap to their development or to take over the spot.

PFF Recommendation

Pro Football Focus' Anthony Treash did a study of the top available slot cornerbacks expected to be available March 17 and suggested the Bears sign 49ers free agent cornerback K'Waun Williams.

They base this on Williams' coverage the last two years, especially. He had steady passer ratings against of 76.1 and 81.9 the last two seasons according to Sportradar. And he made two interceptions in 2019.

The sturdy also took into account affordability and projected Williams would be worth an average annual cost of about $4 million, so he'd be cheaper than Skrine. His age might make him a short-term solution, since he's 30.

One Man's Choices

A better solution the Bears already know well is Cincinnati's Mackensie Alexander, who used to face the Bears twice a year with Minnesota. He'd be more of a long-term  solution with a longer contract as he turns 28 next season. He also has been more consistent than Williams, allowing passer ratings between 82.1 and 84.3 over the last three years with no completion percentages allowed over 69.6%. Alexander has a pick each of the last two years, which is a plus. Skrine hadn't made plays on the ball like Bryce Callahan did before him and the Bears miss that from their slot cornerback spot.

The catch with Alexander is cost. It's apparently not easy to project. PFF saw him at $3 million a year, which wouldn't sit well with him because he made just $2.25 million this past season. called his market value likely beyond the range of the Bears at $8.4 million a year. Which is it? Spotrac deals in salaries and PFF in statistics and grades, so the $8.4 million is probably closer.  

A very highly ranked option is Rams cornerback Troy Hill, who had an 89.8 rating playing slot cornerbin Brandon Staley's Vic Fangio-style defense. While Hill was beatable, allowing 70% completions, he also made big plays and that can scare off many quarterbacks. He made three interceptions and returned two for touchdowns.

Hill is projected by PFF at the pay level Skrine was last year, $5 million after he made just $2.85 million last year.

Best Regardless of Team or Cash

Pittsburgh's Mike Hilton is another top option and could actually be the best slot corner available. He has a Spotrac market value of $7.8 million although he's projected at $4 million by PFF. Hilton is coming off an excellent season and turns 27 this offseason.

A play maker, he had three interceptions and also blitzed for three sacks while also forcing a fumble. His passer rating against over the last three years never climbed above 84.8 and last year it dropped to 60.2.

Best of the Rest

A few others PFF put out as potential targets are Brian Poole, Nickell Robey-Coleman and Desmond King II. 

Poole is actually more of a safety type while Robey-Coleman struggled almost to the same extent Skrine did last year. However, Robey-Coleman had been among the league's top cornerbacks at yards allowed per play in coverage over the previous three seasons so discounting him entirely for one bad season would be presumptuous.  Probably more alarming than his passer rating against is the fact he missed last year on 18% of his tackles. That's a disaster for a slot cornerback.  

King's numbers improved greatly last year but only after three straight years of struggling. He is projected at $5.9 million based on the good season after making just $1.13 million in the last year of his rookie deal.

Outside the Box

If the Bears really wanted to be creative, they should consider drafting another cornerback in Round 2 or Round 3, then converting Jaylon Johnson to slot cornerback. It might not be a positive move in Johnson's eyes, but he showed the great one-on-one coverage skills necessary to be effective in the slot last year and is not quite as strong in zone coverage. The slot position so often involves matching up and Johnson has the quicks to do this.

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