The construction of the Free Agent Big Board is in progress. First, the needs at each position were assessed.
Then, it was time to evaluate players. The free agent quarterbacks were done first and the results can be seen here. Now, we turn our attention to cornerbacks. As with every position that is analyzed, we'll begin by taking a look at what happened last year. Here are the top 20 free agent quarterbacks last year, the amount they signed for, and how they performed in 2015 (grades courtesy of Walter Football, rating courtesy of PFF):
Landing a top corner in free agency is risky business. Six corners were given contracts with an average salary of at least $8 million/year, but only Darrelle Revis performed at a high level - and he cost the New York Jets a ridiculous amount of money. That left a lot of teams disappointed.
The Cowboys learned this lesson in 2012 when they tried to circumvent proper development of their secondary by signing Brandon Carr to a big deal. A cornerback that has a great season can be tempting to other teams, but they should be careful not to fall victim to the "teammate effect" where a player might look a little better than he is due to having a strong partner on the other side. In 2011, the Kansas City Chiefs had future Pro Bowler Brandon Flowers on one side, and Carr on the other. The same thing happened in 2014 with the Seattle Seahawks when they had Richard Sherman on one side, and Byron Maxwell on the other. The Philadelphia Eagles were sold a bill of goods when they gave Maxwell a big contract last year.
The real value came after the top corners were signed as players like Perrish Cox, Rashean Mathis, and Patrick Robinson delivered solid results for a much cheaper price. Could this next group be more of what the Cowboys should be looking for? Between the 6th and 13th ranked 2015 free agent corners, five of the eight had solid seasons. Of course, if they get too cheap, it's going to get harder to find results. Five of the bottom six on this list struggled last season.
So which path should the Cowboys take?
Here are the top 20 free agent cornerbacks for 2016 (grades courtesy of Walter Football, estimated salaries are strictly going off the contract similarly graded players received last season):
With the help of my colleague, Michael Sisemore, we take a look at some of the 2016 options.
The Big Paychecks
I absolutely love Norman and he wins my vote as top cornerback in the league. Watching him frustrate stud receivers was a thing of beauty, especially when it turned Odell Beckham Jr. into a rockem-sockem-robot. Norman plays on a stout Carolina defense so he's got a lot of other people helping him look good, but make no mistake about it - he's one of the biggest stars on this soon-to-be Super Bowl winning team. The Cowboys have the cash to make a big signing, but I don't see them reaching this deep into their pockets for a player in free agency.
Sisemore: Norman was a fifth-round pick for Carolina in 2012 and is coming off a career-year for the Panthers. This season, Norman started all 16 games and recorded 48 solo tackles, forced three fumbles and picked off four passes. He also broke up 18 passes and added two defensive touchdowns to his resume. Norman has only seven career interceptions with only four forced fumbles. Still, like all corners, expect Norman to get paid over market value. In fact, the chances of him hitting that market are pretty slim as Carolina is likely to re-sign him.
The Los Angeles Rams have two great cornerbacks hitting free agency. Or do they? Both Johnson and Janoris Jenkins had great seasons and should demand big contracts. They are a great tandem, but could this be one of those situations where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts? How will either one do if they don't have so much help on the other side?
In the 2012 draft, a lot of us fans had cornerback on the mind. It was mostly between Dre Fitzpatrick and Janoris Jenkins. Of course, the front office surprised us all by trading up to get Morris Claiborne. And for years, we've all watched Claiborne stink it up while Jenkins played well in St. Louis. The Cowboys will have another shot to go after the young corner, but his cost has gone up considerably.
Sisemore: A second-round pick in 2012, Jenkins has been pretty consistent for the Rams. He's had multiple picks in three of his four years as a starter. Jenkins started 15 games in 2015 and recorded three interceptions, 56 tackles, and 15 passes defended. The Rams will be faced with an interesting decision on which of their cornerbacks they want to keep as Trumaine Johnson is also set to hit the market. Smart money may be on Jenkins, who is the younger of the two.
My favorite Janoris Jenkins play is still this one from last year...
Jenkins allowed a little too much separation.
Cheaper, But Still Pricey
Johnson had a great season in 2015, but have we seen enough to warrant a big, long-term deal? He's missed nine games over the last two seasons, including missing six weeks in 2014 after being carted off the field with a knee injury. Could this be one of those trap scenarios?
It's hard to not like Johnson after he picked off seven passes this last season and had the lowest QB rating (49.7) out of every corner in the league.
Sisemore: He had seven picks this season and 70+ tackles. He's a solid player and the Rams will likely be choosing between him and Janoris Jenkins. If either hit the market, the Cowboys should give high consideration. They can save tons of money by cutting Carr, but they need to replace him too.
Hayward is an interesting option. He's just one of several good defensive backs they have in Green Bay. He's young and graded out as the second-best coverage corner on this list (Norman). But is he worth a big contract? He doesn't possess the talent to be a teams #1 corner, but the amount of money he's likely to demand should bring about those type of expectations.
Sisemore: He's another cornerback product of the 2012 draft and has spent his entire career with the Packers. Hayward made a lot of tackles in 2015 with 56 but didn't register any turnovers for his defense. Hayward has been a solid player for the Packers over the years but has only produced multiple interceptions in two of his four years. He's zeroed out the other two seasons both 2013 and 2015. To be fair, He was injured in 2013 after week three. Still, a solid contributor at cornerback will get him some looks on the open market.
The "Right Now" Guys
The Cowboys haven't traveled down the path of the over-30 club when it comes to their free agent signings in recent years. If a team pony's up for Hall, they are looking for some immediate impact results as his age won't make him a good long-term investment. For that reason, his price could drop, but it would be shocking to see the Cowboys go that route.
Sisemore: Hall is a first-round pick from the 2007 draft and is already 31 years old. Lately, cornerbacks are still playing well into their thirties, see Terence Newman and Adam Jones. This will be Hall's last chance to walk away with some extra money in his pocket and he had a decent year. The thing to remember is that teams value solid productions at cornerback, Hall may be one of those that doesn't command big dollars but gives you a reliable starter. In 2015, Hall recorded two interceptions for the Bengals, added 44 solo tackles and defended nine passes and one defensive touchdown. Hall has 26 interceptions in his career, all with the Bengals. Cincinnati is likely to let him test the market, but don't be surprised if he stays in Ohio with a contending team.
If the Cowboys decide to cut Brandon Carr loose, the team could throw some of his money at another former Chiefs free agent. Smith had a good year with Kansas City. He's got Carr's resiliency as he's been a dependable fixture on the field for most of his NFL career.
Sisemore: Smith was a second-round selection for the Miami Dolphins in 2009. He spent four seasons in Miami before heading to Kansas City via free agency in 2013. He's only missed three games in his career and has recorded interceptions in each year after his rookie season. Last season, Smith had two picks, 12 passes defended, and 40 solo tackles. At 29, Smith can be a viable option that may not cost too much dough but may choose to remain in Kansas City.
Good Value Guys
Sisemore: He was picked 19th overall by the Giants in 2011 and hasn't lived up to the first-round status, sound familiar? Well, Amukamara has been more consistent than Morris Claiborne having recorded an interception in each year in the league. He makes a lot of tackles in a secondary that has struggled mightily in the past few seasons. Amakumara had one pick and a forced fumble in 2015 along with 55 tackles. Amakumara should be allowed to test the market and may be a better, less expensive option, than what the Cowboys currently have. The jury is still out on this one.
Sisemore: Here's another less-expensive option for the Cowboys. Boykin was traded to the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2015 from the Eagles. He didn't light up the stat-line with only 20 tackles, one interception, and one forced fumble. However, he was more of a backup for the Steelers for most of the season and has been on some teams with pretty bad secondary. One of his counterparts, William Gay is also set to hit free agency this offseason.
Just as strong defenses with a good secondary cast can mask the performance of a bad corner, a horrible defense can bring a good one down. Patrick Robinson was the Saints first-round draft pick in 2010, but never became what they were hoping for. Last year, he signed a prove-it deal with San Diego and now it's going to be hard for the Chargers lot let him go. Be wary of the "Jason Verrett on the other side" factor.
Sisemore: Lane has spent his entire career with the Legion of Boom in Seattle. He's only started six games in his entire career since the Seahawks took him in the sixth round in 2012. Lane only started two games in 2015 and played in six. However, he picked off two passes in those games and recorded 11 total tackles. This is one of those buyer-beware type of cornerbacks. There is just not a lot of production and he may be best suited to stay in Seattle, where he may become a starter opposite an elite cornerback in Richard Sherman.
The Cowboys could use some help at cornerback and with the future of Carr and Claiborne uncertain, it could become important to find some replacements. Free agency could do that for them. It's just a matter of finding the right guys. The team doesn't have to break the bank to find a good corner, but they'll have to do a lot better job evaluating these free agent corners than they've done in the past.
What cornerback would you like to see the Cowboys target in free agency?