The Seven Days of Free Agency, Day 6: Cornerback

The NFL is a passing league, which means the defenders that cover the pass-catchers are valuable. How does this year's free-agent crop of cornerbacks look as the NFL spends more and more on the position?
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Cornerback is one of the most important positions on an NFL defense. It is also a hard position to project into the future.

Considering that the ups and downs of the position can be stark, teams find themselves in need of cornerbacks every year. 

The Kansas City Chiefs could be one of the teams in the market for a veteran cornerback. While at least one of restricted free agent Charvarius Ward and unrestricted free agent Bashaud Breeland are expected to be back, the cornerback room will be thinned out by the other player likely leaving. Depth is always paramount at cornerback.

For the teams that need these cornerbacks, what does the free agency pool look like? Time to take a peek.

Miss any of The Seven Days of Free Agency? Click here for Day 1: Wide Receivers, here for Day 2: Tight Ends, here for Day 3: Offensive Linemenhere for Day 4: Defensive Linemen, and here for Day 5: Linebackers.

The Should-Be Starters

Patrick Peterson - (Cardinals, 16 games played, 61 tackles, 8 passes defended, 3 interceptions)
Malcolm Butler - (Titans, 16 games played, 100 tackles, 14 passes defended, 4 interceptions)
Richard Sherman - (49ers, 5 games played, 18 tackles, 1 passes defended, 1 interceptions)
Janoris Jenkins - (Saints, 13 games played, 55 tackles, 12 passes defended, 3 interceptions)
Michael Davis - (Chargers, 16 games played, 64 tackles, 14 passes defended, 3 interceptions)
Ronald Darby - (Washington, 16 games played, 55 tackles, 16 passes defended, 0 interceptions)
Mike Hilton - (Steelers, 12 games played, 51 tackles, 7 passes defended, 3 interceptions)
William Jackson III - (Bengals, 14 games played, 45 tackles, 11 passes defended, 1 interceptions)
Shaquill Griffin - (Seahawks, 12 games played, 63 tackles, 12 passes defended, 3 interceptions)
Troy Hill - (Rams, 16 games played, 77 tackles, 10 passes defended, 3 interceptions)

The first thing to know about this cornerback free-agent class is that there are no cornerbacks that stand tall above the rest. 

However, there are a large group of players who project to have a high likelihood of being a quality starter. Shaquill Griffin leads this group, as the longtime Seahawk seems like he might be on the way out of Seattle. Griffin has become a steady starter on the outside since entering the league four years ago. Griffin is one of a select few cornerbacks who has a chance to get the highest contract in free agency for the position due to his solid play and age at just 25 years old.

Two other corners that could challenge Griffin for the largest contract are William Jackson III and Malcolm Butler. Jackson has quietly been one of the best man-to-man corners on an unremarkable Bengals team for the first four years of his career. Butler was a surprise cut by a Titans team struggling to retain their players. Both players had quality 2020 seasons and that momentum should lead to nice paydays in free agency.

Patrick Peterson and Richard Sherman are two cornerbacks on the older side who had down years in 2020. With their track record, however, they should still be able to contribute as an outside corner for a team in 2021. Teams looking for immediate, experienced help at the position should take a gander at these two names.

The reason this group is named The Should-Be Starters is the fact that even these top-tier players have risk. While all free agents carry inherent risk, recent cornerback signings have been more unpredictable than other positions. For the right money, though, these players are good bets to be quality starters in 2021.

The Could-Be Starters

Nickell Robey-Coleman - (Eagles, 15 games played, 44 tackles, 1 pass defended, 0 interceptions)
A.J. Bouye - (Broncos, 7 games played, 23 tackles, 6 passes defended, 0 interceptions)
Terrance Mitchell - (Browns, 16 games played, 65 tackles, 13 passes defended, 0 interceptions)
Xavier Rhodes - (Colts, 16 games played, 42 tackles, 12 passes defended, 2 interceptions)
K'Waun Williams - (49ers, 8 games played, 22 tackles, 4 passes defended, 0 interceptions)
Bashaud Breeland - (Chiefs, 11 games played, 38 tackles, 9 passes defended, 2 interceptions)
Jason Verrett - (49ers, 13 games played, 60 tackles, 7 passes defended, 2 interceptions)
Darqueze Dennard - (Falcons, 8 games played, 36 tackles, 5 passes defended, 1 interception)
Ahkello Witherspoon - (49ers, 11 games played, 20 tackles, 4 passes defended, 1 interception)
Chidobe Awuzie - (Cowboys, 8 games played, 38 tackles, 5 passes defended, 1 interception)
Desmond King - (Titans, 15 games played, 55 tackles, 2 passes defended, 0 interceptions)
Corn Elder - (Panthers, 16 games played, 40 tackles, 3 passes defended, 0 interceptions)
Jason McCourty - (Patriots, 16 games played, 42 tackles, 3 passes defended, 0 interceptions)
T.J. Carrie - (Colts, 15 games played, 32 tackles, 8 passes defended, 2 interceptions)
Cameron Sutton - (Steelers, 16 games played, 30 tackles, 8 passes defended, 1 interception)
Emmanuel Moseley - (49ers, 12 games played, 47 tackles, 9 passes defended, 1 interception)
Mackensie Alexander - (Bengals, 13 games played, 47 tackles, 6 passes defended, 1 interception)
Brian Poole - (Jets, 9 games played, 44 tackles, 7 passes defended, 2 interceptions)
Rasul Douglas - (Panthers, 14 games played, 62 tackles, 9 passes defended, 0 interceptions)
Levi Wallace - (Bills, 12 games played, 48 tackles, 8 passes defended, 2 interceptions)

Buyer beware; there are reasons these cornerbacks should not be given big money.

These players have concerns attached to them whether it be inconsistent play, their role in the defense they are coming from, an injury history, or their age. This does not mean that these cornerbacks should not be signed, however, just that teams should not invest a lot of resources into the contract they hand out to these cornerbacks.

Xavier Rhodes personifies this group and the reason teams should not invest big money in these types of cornerbacks. Rhodes had a terrible 2019 season with the Vikings leading to him being cut after the season. The Colts picked up Rhodes in the 2020 offseason on a one-year/$3.25 million contract and the move paid dividends. Rhodes had a top-10 year and anchored one side of the field for the Colts defense. The question now becomes about how much are teams willing to pay Rhodes two years removed from a terrible year as he crosses over age 30. Which Rhodes was the real Rhodes? The concerns surrounding Rhodes are similar in substance for all of these players.

In the same vein, Jason Verrett signed a cheap one-year/$1.047 million contract with the 49ers last year. If Verrett did not play well, his future in the NFL was bleak due to his injury history. Verrett then proceeded to have a fantastic 2020 season. For the oft-injured Verrett, what exactly would a new contract in free agency look like?

There are other circumstances among this group of cornerbacks other than the player being a veteran who played great on a prove-it contract. Ahkello Witherspoon, Chidobe Awuzie, and Cameron Sutton were all mid-round draft picks in the 2017 draft and are now slated to hit free agency. All three of them, however, have been very inconsistent in the NFL over their four-year careers. Each good year is paired with a poor year. What player are teams getting if they add any of these three players to their roster? It is hard to say.

The story is similar for all the cornerbacks in this group. Injuries, terrible years, age, etc. all have impacted every player on this list in some capacity. The forecast is generally positive for these players in 2021, but it is a gamble and the contracts these players receive should reflect that.

The Cannot-Haves

J.C. Jackson - (Patriots, RFA, 16 games played, 40 tackles, 14 passes defended, 9 interceptions)
Darious Williams - (Rams, RFA, 16 games played, 44 tackles, 14 passes defended, 4 interceptions)
Charvarius Ward - (Chiefs, RFA, 14 games played, 51 tackles, 6 passes defended, 0 interceptions)

Three cornerbacks are restricted free agents that would have been quality additions to this group of free-agent cornerbacks if they were unrestricted.

Both J.C. Jackson and Darious Williams have been incredible finds for their respective teams. The two undrafted players have performed better and better as they have earned more and more playing time. If either of them hit free agency, the bidding for them would be fierce.

Charvarius Ward is a slight step down from the two cornerbacks mentioned above. However, Ward has proven he can hold up on the outside as a boundary corner and that is still a valuable resource for many teams in the NFL.

The Older Guys

Robert Alford - (Cardinals, 0 games played, 0 tackles, 0 passes defended, 0 interceptions)
D.J. Hayden - (Jaguars, 5 games played, 18 tackles, 1 pass defended, 0 interceptions)
Josh Norman - (Bills, 9 games played, 24 tackles, 4 passes defended, 1 interception)
Buster Skrine - (Bears, 12 games played, 66 tackles, 3 passes defended, 0 interceptions)
Darryl Roberts - (Lions, 11 games played, 39 tackles, 6 passes defended, 1 interception)
Dre Kirkpatrick - (Cardinals, 14 games played, 56 tackles, 7 passes defended, 3 interceptions)
Johnathan Joseph - (Titans, 11 games played, 32 tackles, 6 passes defended, 1 interception)
Nevin Lawson - (Raiders, 14 games played, 61 tackles, 4 passes defended, 0 interceptions)

Need a spot starter with experience? These are the players to look at.

All of these players will be over 30 years old by the time the 2021 season begins. While these players are not playing at their peak now, the experience they bring is a quality addition to the cornerback room at the right price.

The most interesting name in this group of players is Josh Norman. Norman had a resurgent year last year on the Bills after a terrible showing in the 2019 season. At age 33, Norman seems primed to earn one more contract with decent money before retiring.

The Younger Guys with Huge Question Marks

Quinton Dunbar - (Seahawks, 6 games played, 30 tackles, 5 passes defended, 1 interception)
Kevin Johnson - (Browns, 13 games played, 35 tackles, 3 passes defended, 0 interceptions)
Gareon Conley - (Texans, 0 games played, 0 tackles, 0 passes defended, 0 interceptions)
P.J. Williams - (Saints, 15 games played, 40 tackles, 2 passes defended, 1 interception)
LeShaun Sims - (Bengals, 13 games played, 52 tackles, 4 passes defended, 1 interception)
Kevin King - (Packers, 11 games played, 57 tackles, 5 passes defended, 0 interceptions)
Vernon Hargreaves - (Texans, 16 games played, 72 tackles, 7 passes defended, 1 interception)
Tre Herndon - (Jaguars, RFA, 16 games played, 76 tackles, 5 passes defended, 0 interceptions)
Daryl Worley - (Raiders, 10 games played, 22 tackles, 3 passes defended, 0 interceptions)
Jourdan Lewis - (Cowboys, 15 games played, 59 tackles, 2 passes defended, 0 interceptions)

These are the players to take a flyer on in the free-agent cornerback class.

Many of these players, like Vernon Hargreaves and Gareon Conley, were high draft picks many years ago. The career for the high draft picks in this group has not gone as planned. Teams banking on trying to coach up the talent these guys showed coming into the NFL could take a look at these players. The reality for these cornerbacks, however, is that they have been a liability more than they have been an asset.

Who should the Chiefs target?

At most, Cornerback is a tier-two need for the Chiefs this offseason. That tier-two is crowded, also.

What that means for any potential cornerback signing is that it will be more of a supplementary signing than a splashy one. In no world will the Chiefs go out and spend big to lure in Shaquill Griffin. This means that most cornerbacks from The Should-Be Starters and The Could-Be Starters are probably unlikely for the Chiefs in a cap-strapped year.

The sad reality of the Chiefs not spending on cornerback is that there were some players that were great fits for the Chiefs. William Jackson III is one such player. There were rumors in the draft four years ago that the Chiefs were interested in Jackson and his great man-coverage skills would have been an excellent addition to the Chiefs. In an offseason where the Chiefs have a lot of holes and not a lot of salary cap space, it seems unlikely this great pairing will exist in reality.

There is still a good chance the Chiefs look to the last two groups of cornerbacks to add a few bodies to the cornerback room. A player like DJ Hayden from The Older Guys or Kevin Johnson from The Younger Guys with Huge Question Marks makes a lot of sense for the Chiefs if there is a desire to add some lottery picks to the mix at cornerback.

Final Thoughts

The best thing about this free-agent class of cornerbacks if you are the Chiefs is that other teams will spend their salary cap space on cornerbacks.

While this class is interesting due to the sheer amount of cornerbacks that project to be quality boundary starters, the fact is that the Chiefs will probably not need that skillset with Charvarius Ward (likely to be tendered) and L'Jarius Sneed on the roster. If the Chiefs' roster had fewer holes, then a play for a big name who can play man-corner would have been an interesting proposition so the Chiefs could keep Sneed in the slot. With the future of the offensive line dominating the offseason and a draft deep with cornerback talent in the mid-rounds, it just does not seem feasible for the Chiefs to dip their toes deep in the cornerback market. Considering the volatility at the position, that reality could be a blessing in disguise.

Miss any of The Seven Days of Free Agency? Click here for Day 1: Wide Receivers, here for Day 2: Tight Ends, here for Day 3: Offensive Linemen, here for Day 4: Defensive Linemen, and here for Day 5: Linebackers.