For years the NFL has been transitioning into a pass-happy league, and for years defensive coordinators have been trying to perfect the art of stopping these passing attacks. The new rules that the NFL has instituted in recent years to protect offensive players, have in turn made defensive coordinator’s jobs even more difficult.
How can defenses clamp down on explosive offenses when referees flag them for every minor infraction? And how can defenses play aggressive if they can’t hit receivers as hard as they used too? Since the NFL instituted many of its new offensive-related rules, defenses have struggled to adjust. That is, except one.
Last season, the Seattle Seahawks finally perfected the art of controlling explosive offenses. In fact, during this past Super Bowl, they held Denver’s number one ranked offense to only 306 total yards, 279 passing yards and 27 rushing yards. That was well below Denver’s normal average for each category. Per regular-season game last year, Denver had averaged 457.3 total yards, 340 passing yards and 117.1 rushing yards. So, how did Seattle stop them?
It started with their “Legion of Boom” secondary, which just didn’t ignore the facts. Recent history shows that to win, its best to first find a way to stop the pass.
According to a statistical report by Andrew Powell-Morse called the “Evolution of the NFL Offense: An analysis of the Last 80 Years,” offenses have become increasingly more reliant on passing the ball to win games. And they currently pass more because they are simply better. Since 1934, the NFL’s completion percentage has jumped a ridiculous 98.2 percent. In only two out of the past 22 years, rushing offenses proved to be the most effective strategy to win games.
However, fear not defenses! This year’s free agency is full of defenders who can save your defense from complete annihilation. The players listed here are among the leagues’ best at frustrating opposing quarterbacks.
I provided myself a little bit of leeway on ranking these defenders because I combined both safeties and cornerbacks into one list. It’s not the best way to rank them because pure cornerbacks and safeties tend to bring different skill sets to the table. However, I wanted to hit two birds with one stone because of the March 11 free agency start day soon upon us.
Whether you keep the list together or break it apart into cornerbacks and safeties, my ranking criteria is the same. The top defenders here will have all, if not most of the following qualities.
1. High quality of play. Whether the defender plays in Man or Cover defenses, he’ll be one of the best in the league in playing that system. Defenders who can play in more than one system are usually graded higher on the list.
2. Good health. In my opinion, the healthiest stars should get paid more than stars unable to contribute consistently on the field.
3. Youth. A young defensive back will usually be graded higher than someone on the back end of his career.
4. Is he a true number one cornerback or safety? If he can play in multiple areas of the field (left and right cornerback) or mask weakness (a safety who is not great against the run, but its overlooked for his strong overall game) than these players will usually be ranked higher that others who fail to mask their weaknesses.
So sound off below! Did I leave any defensive backs off this list who should have been represented? Would you have separated the players or kept safeties and cornerbacks together? Or, does it really even matter, since most people would want their teams to sign these players anyways?
10 Brandon Browner, CB, Seattle Seahawks
Browner has recently been reinstated by the league and must serve a four-game suspension with whatever team may sign him. He was initially suspended for substance abuse.
It's hard not to like Browner’s style of play. His physicality and large body frame helped create and define Seattle’s “Legion of Boom” secondary. Some statistics suggest Browner is actually a liability in the passing game, but trust me, there are teams who would overlook this weakness to sign a bruiser who could provide some edge and stop opposing offenses on the goal line.
It was only two years ago that Browner and fellow teammate Richard Sherman presented opponents with a formidable one-two punch in the secondary. When together in 2012, the Seahawks’ pass defense ranked in the top five in total QBR, interceptions, and completion percentage against passes 10-plus yards down the field.
Browner also played for Seattle under a manageable one year, $375 k contract in January 2011 and received only a small pay raise the following season. With the number of quality cornerbacks in this year’s free agency, Browner may come cheap and may prove to be a huge bargain.
9 Charles Tillman, CB, Chicago Bears
Tillman should find a respectable amount of teams interested in signing him this offseason after some of the bigger, younger names go off the board. Many expect Tillman to find a suitor in former coach Lovie Smith who now coaches the Buccaneers because the coach plans to institute a defensive scheme similar to the one he ran in Chicago. Some analysts believe this will draw Tillman south to play ball, but there are arguments as to otherwise.
For those who believe Tillman is only productive in Smith’s Tampa 2 or soft Cover schemes, he is actually very effective when he plays more aggressive. Pro Football Focus studied Tillman’s ability to lock up a receiver, and they found he was more effective when he shadowed the receiver and read his movements than when he released and allowed the receiver to make an easy reception. Pro Football Focus studied every ball thrown in Tillman’s direction in 2012 and found he only surrendered seven and a half yards per catch when he played in Cover-2 or Man coverage. In contrast, he gave up more yards per catch when he played in softer Cover-3 defenses. This proves Tillman’s more than a zone defensive back.
So video-film session aside, what does this all mean for Tillman this offseason? After all, Pro Football Focus did base that study off his production in 2012, and his production slightly dipped last season. Can we expect him to rebound in 2014?
Age catches up to every player, so while he may not be able to revert back to his 2012 form, he can still be an effective cornerback. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if a team like the Patriots were interested in Tillman. They have a knack to sign older players who might have a little left in the tank. Belichick could also covet Tillman’s versatility and cheaper price tag. With the right team, I’d expect him to bounce back. He could be a steal.
8 Tarell Brown, CB, San Francisco 49ers
While Brown played well in 2013, many believe he still had a particularly rough overall year with San Francisco. First, he found himself accidentally out $2 million after he failed to attend the 49ers’ offseason-\ workout program. (Out of good will, the team did slightly compensate him for the mistake.) Brown also lost out to fellow teammate and cornerback Tramaine Brock for a four-year contract extension and dealt with a rib injury that forced him to miss three regular season games.
So, would all of the above keep Brown from returning to the 49ers? They might have helped set the wheels in motion, but it’ll depend more on the type of contract the 49ers offer, if they do in fact offer one. While NFL.com only rated Brown number 59 on their free-agency ranking, but many around the league believe Brown is more than a serviceable veteran. Last year Brown was the 49ers’ number two cornerback.
7 Antoine Bethea, SS, Indianapolis Colts
Bethea has been a leader on the Colts’ defense and in their locker room since Indianapolis drafted him in the 6th round eight years ago. Since being drafted, Bethea has started all 123 games he’s played in, recorded more than 500 tackles and intercepted 14 passes. Last year, at the age of 29, he continued his strong play by recording 80 tackles and defending six passes.
While Pro Football Focus believes Bethea has played average the last two years, he is still a big-play safety who can also stabilize a shaky secondary. On the flip side, Pro Football Focus did award Bethea a positive grade for his run defense. Rotoworld gave the safety a more positive review, ranking him as their fourth best safety behind free agents Jairus Byrd and T.J. Ward, as well as Donte Whitner.
Because the soon-to-be 30-year old has never tested free agency, I expect the long-time Colt to hold out for the best contract and team. Of course, whether he is able to hold out for long will depend on how teams value his services. He shouldn’t command top dollar because of his age and slight decrease in production, but once some of the bigger names come off the board, Bethea will garner interest.
6 Alterraun Verner, CB, Tennessee Titans
For those fans who don’t watch Titans’ games, you may have never heard of Alterraun Verner and therefore, have no idea about what he can bring to a defense. If teams think the same way, they’ll miss out on a player who can greatly improve their defense. Over the last three years, Verner quietly built himself a resume that will result in a massive pay raise this offseason.
During his rookie campaign with the Titans, he beat out incumbent cornerback Ryan Mouton and slowly developed into a solid defender who had the quickness to turn and run with receivers, as well as the awareness to adjust to an offense pre and post snap. In 2011, Verner only allowed an average of 5.4 yards per reception, and in 2013, he made some buzz by intercepting four passes in four games and holding quarterbacks to a 55.8 passer rating when they tossed his way. In 2013, his play dropped off slightly, but Verner was still number 11 on Evan Silva’s “Free Agent Top 150.”
The reason Verner isn’t higher on this list is because of his lack of range and technique. He played mainly right cornerback for the Titans and used only one or two techniques (e.g. the bail technique) to cover receivers. Because Verner lacked the physicality to press receivers, this may hurt his candidacy with teams who tend to run man-coverage schemes. Finally, Verner struggles slightly in the run game. On average last season, his tackles occurred 6.8 yards down the field.
In any case, while Verner is still a solid number two corner, a desperate team may pay him number one cornerback money. Some reports believe he could receive upwards of $10 million annually.
5 Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, CB, Denver Broncos
What team would pay big money to a player who outplayed his one-year, $5 million “prove it to me” deal with the Broncos, but consistently shows a lack of commitment and interest in football? I suppose that team would have to believe they can keep Rodgers-Cromartie (DRC) focused and interested.
According to Pro Football Focus, DRC is a top-notch corner back who allowed a mere 44.1% catch rate, which was good enough for second at his position in the NFL. He was also Pro Football’s fifth best cornerback. In his last 13 games, DRC surrendered just one touchdown and was stout in defending the deep ball last post season.
Besides his commitment issues, many critics have also questioned if he can constantly play at a high level like he did for the Broncos last season. It's believably he can for one reason. His original team, the Cardinals, traded DRC to the Eagles as part of their Kevin Kolb deal, the cornerback was playing great football. The Eagles then took him away from his strength, which was playing the outside edge, and positioned him as a slot cornerback. The tall, 6-foot-2 inch defensive back struggled to cover smaller, quicker receivers.
4 T.J. Ward, SS, Cleveland Browns
T.J. Ward, considered to be the second best safety in free agency, will earn a big pay day this offseason. Many believe the Browns, who hold close to $60 million in cap space this offseason, should resign Ward. He is one of the franchises’ homegrown talents and a strong piece to the back end of their secondary. These are the Browns though...
While Ward may not have the coverage skills of fellow free agent safety Jairus Byrd, Pro Football Focus still grades Ward as their number four overall safety and number one run-stopping safety. Ward is a menace in the box. Last year, he started all 16 games and recorded 75 tackles and one and half sacks. He’s also started all 54 games he appeared in since the Browns drafted him in the second round of the 2010 draft. Ward is in the prime of his career; and thus, should command somewhere between $7 and $9 million per season.
3 Aqib Talib, CB, New England Patriots
The biggest knock on Talib is his inability to stay healthy. Teams should be concerned that the cornerback has been injured every season while he’s played with the Patriots. He also missed large stretches of playing time during their consecutive AFC Championship appearances. Due to his health issues, the question then becomes, would a team be willing to pay him top dollar for what could be a more injury prone season than other free-agent cornerbacks? Some analysts believe a few interested teams will hesitate.
However, Talib’s absence during both of the Patriots’ AFC Championship games may have been a blessing in disguise for the defender. When Talib went down, New England’s defense collapsed, which emphasized just how important he was to the unit’s success.
On another note, Talib's situation is different than other free-agent cornerbacks because of his past legal troubles. Although he’s been a good solider with New England, teams may still feel uncomfortable signing him to a long-term deal. Often, many bad-turned-good players fall back into bad habits after they hide behind a secure, long-term contract. However, in Talib’s case, there is the hope that his past is behind him for good…at least while he’s under Belichick’s supervision.
The Boston Herald reported the Patriots hope to sign Talib for around three years and $21 million, not including incentives that could extend that deal to four years or increase its value. The Herald also believes Talib may hold out for a Brent Grimes-type, four-year deal, worth $32 million.
Although Talib can struggle at times against quicker receivers and become frustrated when over-matched, (e.g., facing Steve Smith in the Panther’s game last year) he is a true number one corner. This means he is versatile enough to play in a lot of schemes and mask most of his major weaknesses. Last year, Talib held quarterbacks to a low 54.1 passer rating when they threw in his direction.
2 Vontae Davis, CB, Indianapolis Colts
Ranking the cornerbacks on this list is no easy feat. Having any of the top four cornerbacks listed on your team, beginning with Verner and ending with Vontae Davis, would certainly improve your defense. But why is Davis above the rest? He’s the only cornerback to have all of the following traits: First, his quality of play is top notch. Two, he’s stayed healthy. Three, he’s one of the youngest free-agent cornerbacks. At only 25-years old, Davis has more skill and potential than the rest. And four, he’s a true number one cornerback.
While many knock Davis because he tends to give up long passing plays, we have to remember the Colts also trusted him to cover receivers by himself. Defensive coordinators usually only trust number one corner backs to take on such a hefty responsibility. Pro Football Focus rated Davis as its third best cornerback—a plus 15.5 grade—behind only Darrelle Revis and recently resigned free agent Brent Grimes. Last year, Davis continued to be a very sound tackler, missing only two tackles all year while in coverage.
Out of all the free-agent cornerbacks, Davis may command the most money because of his age, health and strong play.
1 Jairus Byrd, FS, Buffalo Bills
The prize of the secondary class is Jairus Byrd who wants to be the highest paid safety in the game. According to Ian Rapoport, who tweeted this statement on March 2nd, the “Bills made Jairus Byrd an offer that would’ve made him the highest paid S [safety] for a portion of his deal. Was rejected…” For the past year or so, the Bills have tried, failed, tried again…and then failed again to work out a new contract with one of the league’s best safeties.
So, why did is Byrd ranked number one on this list? He is a ball hawk and a monster at defending the pass. Since the Bills drafted him in the second round of the 2009 draft, Byrd has accumulated 22 interceptions and 11 forced fumbles. In 2012, quarterbacks completed only 51.5% of the passes they threw at him, and last year, Pro Football Focus graded him a 9.5 in pass coverage. In comparison, the same source graded fellow free-agent safety T.J. Ward a 4.8 in pass coverage. They also graded Byrd as an extremely sound tackler.
Like every free agent listed here, Byrd does have one major weakness. Teams will be disappointed if they expect him to contribute a large amount of time to stopping the opposing team’s running attack. Last season, he rarely played close to the line of scrimmage. However, this is a pass-happy league, and Byrd is exactly the type of rare safety that teams covet to upgrade their secondary.
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