Here we are, part two of our Pro Football Focus free agency spotlight series, and we’re looking at cornerbacks. Whether the Colts will be in the market for any of the top free agents at this position likely will hinge on their contract negotiations with incumbent number one corner Vontae Davis.
Davis had two tough games in the playoffs, but before that, he was Pro Football Focus’s third rated cornerback in the league (15.5, just below Darrelle Revis and Brent Grimes) despite giving up eight touchdowns. Before that, the only “red” game on Davis’s chart was week one versus the Raiders.
Davis’s coverage ability and physicality would be difficult to replace, but today, we’ll compare him to four of the top young soon-to-be free agent cornerbacks on the market (or on the market as of my writing this): Aqib Talib (Patriots, 6-1, 205, 28 yrs. old), Alterraun Verner (Titans, 5-10, 187, 25), Sam Shields (Packers, 5-11, 184, 26), and the somewhat lesser known Captain Munnerlyn (Panthers, 5-8, 195, 25). I'm leaving out aging stop-gap players for now in hopes that the Colts won't have to go that route.
As usual, we’re looking at PFF grades, specifically each player’s overall score, pass coverage, run support, and total penalties. The penalties on the chart are negative numbers; otherwise, it looked at first glance as though each player not named Sam Shields had a stunningly positive category. So, here we go with the players side-by-side:
As you can see, there are a few surprises on there, particularly Shields and the diminutive Munnerlyn, who is built like a durable Bob Sanders playing cornerback – and physical too, the most penalized player of the group.
Aqib Talib, 28, New England. Talib had four interceptions in 2013 – all in weeks two, three, and four. After a terrible start in week one, Talib recovered nicely, only to see his struggles eventually return for the second half of the season. The Patriots met with him during the combine but haven’t reached any agreement and chose not to use the franchise tag. Verdict: Talib is streaky, too streaky. He’ll ride the wave of his first few games of 2013 to a ridiculous contract, and it should be somewhere else.
Sam Shields, 26, Green Bay. Shields graded out near average in pass coverage last season and held his own overall despite his struggles in run support. Despite not grading spectacularly in pass coverage, opposing quarterbacks only managed a 72.7 rating against the young corner. Verdict: Although he played in 14 games last year, Shields has dealt with nagging injuries for much of his career and has never played a full season. He’s Jerraud Powers.
Alterraun Verner, Tennessee. Though he appeared to wear down late in the season, Verner is nearly every fan’s preferred backup plan for if Vontae Davis walks, and he certainly is one of the best in the game. The problem? The soon-to-be former Titan could make upwards of $10 million per year on his next contract, and there will be several teams interested. Verdict: He’s the real deal, but he could be difficult to attain. And a $10 cap hit could affect the eventual re-signing of the 2012 draft class.
Captain Munnerlyn. First of all, his name is Captain. We’ll call him “The Captain.” The Captain is a balanced player – good in coverage, surprising in run support, and he even had four sacks last season. Weirdly, despite looking solid overall, The Captain only batted down one pass all year, perhaps due in part to his small stature. Verdict: Munnerlyn’s numbers may have been helped by Carolina’s pass pressure, but he’s a reliable young corner who can play inside and out (Carolina moves him inside on nickel plays) and likely a far cheaper option than Verner or Talib.
There are a few different directions the Colts could go here:
Strategy 1: Break the bank for a big name. If Vontae Davis doesn’t return in a Colts uniform, one option will be to spend top dollar on a top cornerback. The top two prospects are Talib and Verner. If you’re deciding based on PFF grades, Talib is a lie. Whether that’s fair is a different story. He had some good games early on and fell off a cliff for the second half of the season. Verner struggled later in the year, but he’s a better corner.
The problem with the break the bank strategy is that Verner – or possibly Talib – would almost certainly cost more than it would have to retain Davis. Paying $10mil/year for Alterraun Verner could be a disappointment for a team could have had the younger Davis for $8mil/year (speculation alert), and the extra $2mil/year or so for Verner would eat up money for future re-signings.
Strategy 2: Sign a slightly under-the-radar cornerback. The problem here is neither Shields nor Munnerlyn are significant upgrades, but they still could cost nearly as much as Davis could. If it comes down to choosing between these two, although ‘The Captain’ is short, he absolutely blows Shields away in coverage and is better in run support than any of the Colts’ current corners. Shields, on the other hand, well, you’ve seen the chart.
Strategy 3: Sign or draft a couple of bargain basement players. No. Just no. The Colts should re-sign Davis or find someone who can contribute at a high level right away.
There are some promising players available in the draft too, but if the Colts draft a cornerback (and for the record, that would be great), he should be pushing Greg Toler and Darius Butler for playing time, not trying to replace Vontae Davis. Strategy 3 must never happen. It is awful. Let’s not speak of it again.
Signing a cornerback to replace Vontae Davis would be difficult. There will be stiff competition for the best players, and several others would be a downgrade.
If Davis and the Colts can come together on a contract in the next few days, free agency likely will be far less stressful for the team (and by extension, the fans).