The Role of the Contract Year in NFL Free Agnecy, Part 1: Analyzing the 2013 Free Agent Cornerbacks


The free agent cornerback class this year is much like the 2013 draft class – though it seems to lack in top-tier talent, it intriguingly makes up for it with depth.  Sean Smith, Brent Grimes, Aqib Talib, Chris Houston, Dominique  Rodgers-Cromartie, Cary Williams, Antoine Cason, Adam Jones, and Derek Cox are all potentially top-flight #1 or #2 cornerbacks in a given system, and teams that need cornerback depth (ie pretty much every team as the NFL has overwhelmingly become a passing league) have been after these guys for some time now.  This class of cornerbacks is particularly intriguing, however, because although they’ll get paid like it, these aren’t necessarily guys that have been super consistent throughout their careers – whether simply due to on-the-field play, injuries, or off-the-field concerns.  In looking at this class, Smith, Grimes, and Talib seem to be the consensus top free agents amongst sports writers, with the other players coming in as close second-tier guys.  Guys like Smith and Talib are particularly intriguing, because the narrative surrounding those guys seems to have changed quite a bit in the last year or two.  Both of these guys were eerily close to being labeled as “busts” for one reason or another, but now they may become the best paid cornerbacks this offseason.  To analyze how the “contract year” affected their payday this offseason, in part 1 on this segment, we’ll be analyzing their play over the past two years.

Brent Grimes didn’t look this disappointed too often in 2011. Source: Andrew Weber- USA TODAY Sports

First, now let’s look at how these guys are rated this season.  According to Pro Football Focus (PFF), Falcons CB Brent Grimes is their top free agent cornerback for the 2013.  Although Grimes was only limited to 52 snaps this season and had an average -1.2 rating during the season, Grimes’s rating is supported by his incredible +16.0 rating in 2011.  He also allowed the third worst completion percentage and tenth-worst QB rating for those that decided to throw his way.   Following Grimes is Lions CB Chris Houston, whose +7.4 grade and consistent play throughout the year solidified his place on PFF’s list.  Bengals CB Adam Jones rounds out the top three, as “top flight” players like Aqib Talib, Sean Smith, Cary Williams, and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie ranked 4, 7, 5, and 8 on PFF’s list.  This list only ranked PFF’s top 10 free agent cornerbacks, and Jaguars cornerback Derek Cox was not on this list (he posted a -2.5 grade on the season).  By comparison, NBC Sports’ (PFT) ranked Rodgers-Cromartie, Talib, and Smith as the top three free agent cornerbacks available, followed by Williams, Houston and Grimes (Cox was eighth on this list).

If you look at their grades for this season, PFF’s list pretty much follows suit, as their perception of cornerback value is graded on production, particularly recent production, in the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately league that the NFL has become.  Of the players on this list, Houston and Jones graded out as having the best seasons in 2012.  Interestingly enough, the next two best players – Greg Toler (+6.8) and Bradley Fletcher (+3.7) – were rated 10 and 9 respectively.  However, this is likely due to the fact that both Toler and Fletcher were part-time players in 2012, each logging under 400 snaps.  Sean Smith (-3.6), Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (-7.1), and Cary Williams (-3.2) actually had the lowest graded seasons on this list, all having incredibly inconsistent seasons according to PFF.  Intriguingly enough, they are the top three cornerbacks on PFT’s  ranks, which is either a reflection of the quality of analysis that comes from the site, a reflection of popular opinion, or both.

Towards the end of the season, PFF did an interesting “Signature Stats” article on cornerbacks, assessing “chain-moving plays” (first downs or touchdowns) given up by cornerbacks, both in terms of total numbers and on a per-snap basis.  Interestingly enough, two of the “top flight” guys from this year sit at the top of the total numbers list – Sean Smith and Cary Williams – and Antoine Cason sits at 6 – all of whom gave up over 40 combined touchdowns and first downs by that juncture in the season .

But how much of this was due to the sheer amount of snaps they played?  Each of these guys were on pace to play over 1000 snaps by that juncture in the season, while the highest graded free agent corner for 2012, Adam Jones, played over 40% less.   The per-snap numbers tell a different tale, with Aqib Talib at #2, and Cary Williams, Derek Cox, and Sean Smith each in the top 15.  Guess it wasn’t a snap-count thing after all.  How about on the other side of the coin?  Adam Jones actually ranked 7th amongst all cornerbacks in “chain-moving plays” allowed per snap, with Chris Houston coming in five spots later.  This shouldn’t be too surprising as these two players ended up as the free agent cornerbacks with the two highest graded 2012 seasons.

Sean Smith played more like a practice squad guy than a top flight free agent in 2011 and 2012. Source: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

But looking at 2012-2013 stats doesn’t tell us anything about the effects of the contract year on its own – we need to look at 2011-2012 stats for comparison.  Ideally of course, we’d like to have the trailing three year averages on all these players along with their yearly valuations, but unfortunately NFL player databases aren’t as thorough as my E*Trade Account… yet.  So let’s take a quick look at 2011.  We already got a look at Brent Grimes’s awesome 2011 season as the reason for his high ranking on PFF’s free agent cornerback list this offseason, so let’s look at the 2011 statistics for some of the other “top guys”.  Talib graded out to having a pretty good season with a +3.8 grade in pass coverage and +2.7 run defense rating, despite giving up an awful 109.8 QB rating when QBs went his way (7th worst in the league) ; as a result, he got sent to a better team for a chance at the playoffs and more.  Sean Smith, on the other hand, had an awful 2011 season, posting a -16.1 rating which was the third-worst among qualifying corners.  Based on production alone, it’s hard to see why his name carries so much weight.  Speaking of, Cary Williams also didn’t exactly have a stellar season.  He was the sixth most targeted corner in 2011 and gave up the eighth-most yardage.  But everyone seems to forget about that if you have two good playoff games and your team wins the Super Bowl.

The big winners in 2012 had slightly different 2011 seasons.  Chris Houston, under pressure to bounce back from a bad 2010 season had a very good 2011 season, posting a +3.7 grade on the year.  Adam Jones, however, was merely average, posting a +0.8 grade on the year.  Finally, the Jaguars’ main man Derek Cox, by comparison, had an incredible 2011 season, posting a +6.8 grade on the year.  While he didn’t post a top 5 CB grade overall, he did put up some elite numbers, posting a reception rate less than the top 5 graded PFF corners in 2011 and a yards/catch rate better than the best of those corners, Darelle Revis.  His season was incredibly impressive considering how bad his 2009 rookie campaign was (his -16.4 grade besting even Sean Smith’s impressively bad 2011 season).

Adam Jones: ex-convict turned advanced-stat darling. Source: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

ESPN ranked the top 50 corners after the 2011 season and incredibly, their list looked very similar to PFF’s and PFT’s rankings this year, with Talib (25) and Smith (34) following Grimes (10), and Rodgers-Cromartie (37), Cason (38), Houston (41), and Cox (50) not far behind.  The biggest winners from 2011 and 2012 were clearly Adam Jones and Chris Houston, who increased their grades on the year by 3.7 and 9.7 points respectively.  These will be the primary players whose contracts we’ll judge to analyze the effects of the contract year.  The big drop-offs in 2012 were sustained by Brent Grimes and Derek Cox, although both were plagued by injury.  Grimes’ injury was much earlier in the season and limited him to just 52 snaps, which will likely result in his average-graded play as being somewhat fluky, while Cox’s play may be seen as a regression back towards his play in 2009 and 2010.  Teams seem to be hot on his trail though as he’s a young corner about to enter the prime of his career, so it’ll be interesting to see what the market brings him and what effect a poor contract-year has on his pay.  The most intriguing player based on these stats is Dolphins corner Sean Smith.  Despite the clearly sub-par grades that Sean Smith got in 2011 and 2012, he has still ranked very highly in media rankings, and by all accounts, it seems like he’ll get highly overpaid simply looking at production alone.  Of course, GMs look at more than just production – they look at scheme fit, they look at the recent trend of big and physical corners, and they still see the potential oozing from the 25 year old 6’4 corner bound to disappoint the big-spending team that comes Smith’s way.  Aside from his measurables, which are truly the seductive sirens of the NFL, Smith did actually improve drastically from 2011 to 2012, going from epically bad to merely bad.  If you think that deserves the top free agent cornerback deal this offseason, proceed at your own risk.

At the end of the day though, remember that an analysis such as this has limitations.  Cornerback play is affected by scheme – by what a player is asked to do – and by other factors, including defensive line play, quality of opponents, and their defensive teammates.  Moreover, these nuances have effects during the offseason – what a player gets isn’t necessarily an accurate representation of the average market value the 32 NFL teams would place on him; it’s the highest value placed on him by a team that likely sees him as a fit philosophically with what they’re trying to do with their defense.  But that doesn’t mean this is equivalent to a player’s highest value.  For one, this only applies to teams that have available space at the position in question (in this case cornerback) and enough salary-cap space to make such an offer.  Furthermore, players may take slightly or significantly less money for other factors – scheme fit, a chance to be on a winning team, or even personal factors like family stability.

— Zain Gowani