Cornerbacks

- BEARS CB TIM JENNINGS EARNS $1 MILLION PAY RAISE -    One of the biggest surprises emerging from the Chicago Bears’ 2012 season was the emergence of Tim Jennings as one of the best  in the league. He had nine interceptions, and to… give you some context: In his first six years in the league, he had seven picks. Also in 2012, Jennings added 21 passes defended and his first defensive touchdown.

Though he allowed five touchdowns, according to Pro Football Focus quarterbacks who targeted the receiver Jennings was covering had a rating of 53.3, the sixth-best mark among all cornerbacks in the league.

Since he left Indianapolis for Chicago three seasons ago, Jennings has been rated as one of the top-15 cornerbacks in the NFL, but he was so good in 2012 that he earned his first Pro Bowl berth. And in the process, according to a Chicago Tribune report, he’s also earned himself a nice little raise.

The newspaper reports that when Jennings signed a two-year deal last March, it included a $1 million escalator that would increase his base salary to $4.25 million. That escalator was based on playing time, and clearly, Jennings passed whatever bar had been set. For the record, if he didn’t hit that mark, the Bears could have reduced his salary by as much as $1.6 million.

But considering Jennings – who also collected $350,000 in bonuses – played 84.3 percent of his team’s defensive snaps. (Photo: Associated Press)

Former Denver Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey will sign 1-day contract and retire as a member of the Broncos. There will be a press conference Tuesday, Nov. 18, 2014, at 4 p.m. ET, making it official.

Bailey spent 10 of his 15 seasons with the Broncos and was one of the NFL’s premier shutdown corners. He was named to 12 Pro Bowls, seven All-Pro teams and the NFL 2000s All-Decade team during his storied career.

Photo: via www.thesportspost.com

Should the Eagles Pursue Nnamdi Asomugha?

Perhaps the biggest hole in the Eagles defense right now is at right cornerback, opposite Asante Samuel. Ellis Hobbs, Dimitri Patterson, and Joselio Hanson all got the chance to start in 2010 but none could even consistently play at an average level. So going into 2011, fans have been clamoring for the team to add perhaps the biggest star on the free agent market — Raiders cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha.

Asomugha is often touted as one of the best, if not the best cover corner in the league. The three-time consecutive Pro Bowler doesn’t come up with a lot of interceptions, but quarterbacks notoriously avoid his side of the field. Last year, according to Pro Football Focus, receivers Asomugha covered were targeted only 29 times for 3.7 percent of his snaps, by far the least in the NFL (Samuel was second with 41 targets and 6.1 percent).

Asomugha would fit perfectly at right cornerback with the Eagles, where his size (6’ 2" 210 lbs.) and athleticism could balance Samuel’s ball-hawking skills. And it doesn’t appear that Asomugha is losing any of his game. One of the best wide receivers in the NFL, Larry Fitzgerald praised him last year: “The thing you see on tape for a man of his size, he has incredible hips and amazingly quick feet, and that’s just God given ability to be that tall and be able to move and cut and drive on balls the way he’s able to.“

Certainly on talent alone, the Eagles have to be interested. They’re used to making big splashy free agency moves and have the cash to do so. Plus, considering the cornerback spot is a pressing current concern, the team likely won’t try to look to the draft for a remedy.

But the main question mark with Asomugha is his age. The All-Pro will turn 30 on July 6th, and giving a long-term contract to a cornerback (or any player) at that age is risky business. As you can see from the table at right, Asomugha would be the second-oldest big-time acquisition the team has ever made.

Additionally, consider recent Eagles history with cornerbacks. Troy Vincent stayed with the team through age 33, then switched to safety to prolong his career. Bobby Taylor had injury problems that preceded being let go at age 30, after which he only played one more year. Sheldon Brown lasted until just after his 31st birthday before he was traded last offseason to Cleveland. And while we might lament that decision now, keep in mind that quarterbacks throwing Brown’s way in 2010 had a 114 passer rating, third worst in the NFL among starting cornerbacks.

The broader trend among 30-plus year old cornerbacks isn’t particularly golden either. A free agent deal for Asomugha would have to include at least four years, if not more. But can he produce at a high rate for that long?

My analysis shows that among cornerbacks from the last 15 years who started at least one game after turning 30, less than 40 percent of them started the equivalent of two full seasons in their thirties. Only 21 percent managed to start three full seasons. Unfortunately, the vast majority of players are not Eric Allen, Ronde Barber, or Charles Woodson. They slow down, they get hurt, and they drop out of the starting lineup before you know it.

What does that mean for Asomugha’s chances of coming to Philly? It depends on how risk-averse the Eagles front office is right now. Giving Asomugha a rich contract with heavy guarantees — which is what it will take to get any deal done — is no safe move. Maybe he’ll buck the odds and perform at a high level for years to come, making any contract worthwhile. More likely, if the Eagles do pursue him, it would be for a contract that puts big money up front but few guarantees down the road.

At the end of the day, Asomugha is the type of player that could instantly lift the Eagles defense and conceal a number of other weaknesses. It’s worth getting excited about any potential addition of that caliber, even if some caution is also warranted.

Originally published at NBC Philadelphia. Photo from Getty.

Cornerbacks

1 - Waynes, Trae - Michigan St. - 1.25
2 - Williams, PJ - Florida St. - 3.00
3 - Peters, Marcus - Washington - 3.13
4 - Rollins, Quinten - Miami (OH) - 4.86
5 - Ekpre-Olomu, Ifo - Oregon - 5.63
6 - Collins, Jalen - LSU - 6.00
7 - Johnson, Kevin - Wake Forest - 7.75
8 - Carter, Alex - Stanford - 8.38
9 - Darby, Ronald - Florida St. - 10.57
10 - Smith, D'Joun - FAU - 11.75
11 - Golson, Senquez - Ole Miss - 12.63
12 - Shaw, Josh - USC - 14.50
13 - Nelson, Steve - Oregon St. - 14.63
14 - Glenn, Jacoby - UCF - 15.00
15 - Gaines, Charles - Louisville - 15.43
16 - Grant, Doran - Ohio St. - 16.00
     - White, Kevin - TCU - 16.00
18 - Gunter, Ladarius - Miami (FL) - 16.14
19 - Jones, Bryon - UCONN - 17.25
20 - Doss, Lorenzo - Tulane - 17.29
21 - Marshall, Nick - Auburn - 19.67
22 - Diggs, Quandre - Texas - 20.43
23 - Mager, Craig - Texas St. - 21.00
24 - Riggs, Cody - Notre Dame - 23.83
25 - Swann, Damian - Georgia - 24.43
26 - Thomas, Cam - Western Kentucky - 25.33
27 - Claiborne, Imoan - Northwestern St. - 27.60
     - Everett, DeShazor - Texas A&M - 27.60
29 - McCain, Bobby - Memphis - 27.67
30 - Shepherd, Jacorey - Kansas - 28.00
31 - Riley, Curtis - Fresno St. - 28.75
32 - Blake, Bernard - Colorado St. - 29.20
33 - Coleman, Justin - Tennessee - 29.25
34 - Wilson, Julian - Oklahoma - 30.00
35 - Smith, Tye - Towson - 31.75
36 - Peters, Garry - Clemson - 32.00
37 - Hill, Troy - Oregon - 33.00
38 - Callahan, Bryce - Rice - 34.25
39 - Mincy, Jonathan - Auburn - 35.50
40 - Celiscar, Donald - Western Michigan - 36.00
41 - Saunders, De'Ante - Tennessee St. - 38.00
42 - Noel, Merrill - Wake Forest - 38.33
43 - Brooks, Cariel - Adams St. - 40.50
44 - Johnson, Jeremiah - Maryland - 43.00
45 - Edwards, SaQwan - New Mexico - 44.00
46 - Daniel, Robertson - BYU - 48.00

Is Asante Samuel Overrated?

Asante Samuel had a rough preseason game last Thursday, giving up one of the worst touchdown receptions in recent memory. If you missed the game, just picture a Steelers receiver jogging into the end zone for an uncontested throw-and-catch from Ben Rothlisberger.

If everyone else hadn’t also looked so bad, and if the game had actually counted for anything, you can bet Eagles fans and commentators would be livid at Samuel for giving up such a weak touchdown. We’ve come to accept Asante’s gambles because he gets more interceptions than any other cornerback in the NFL. Plus, last year Samuel finally gained the respect he lacked when he was first signed as a free agent. Opposing quarterbacks rarely targeted him, and when the ball did come his way the average gain was minuscule.

Samuel is widely regarded as one of the top five corners in the NFL. Yet, a few weeks back, when the Eagles dipped into their pocket books to sign Nnamdi Asomugha, I suggested that having two of the best corners on the field at the same time might expose flaws in their games previously uncovered. That’s because a great cornerback, if he is substantially better than his partner on the other side of the field, will mostly push quarterbacks to avoid him.

Last year’s Eagles were a great example. Ellis Hobbs and Dimitri Patterson were awful at right cornerback. Some of Asante’s success in 2010 was the result of quarterbacks picking on the easier targets. When he knew the ball wouldn’t come to him except in certain situations or with the quarterback under pressure, Samuel could read and react to the pass, take gambles, and jump routes.

With Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie replacing Hobbs and Patterson, quarterbacks will probably look back to Samuel’s side more often and exploit weaknesses he never had to hide. That was my qualitative judgment, anyway. What about quantitative?

I went back through the pass coverage statistics helpfully compiled by Pro Football Focus for the last three seasons. As you might recall, Asante had a rather poor season in 2008, especially considering he had just received a $57 million contract. Samuel only had four interceptions and was largely outplayed by Sheldon Brown. In 2009 Samuel stepped up his game, grabbing a league-leading nine picks as Sheldon Brown showed signs of age. Last season, with a bunch of junior varsity players at right cornerback, Asante had his best season yet.

Seeing a trend? You will if you look at the graph at right. I’ve plotted Samuel’s targets per coverage snap on the left axis, designated in blue. In red and on the right axis is the yards given up per target by Samuel’s counterparts at cornerback.

As you can see, in 2008 Brown and Joselio Hanson allowed a meager five and a half yards per attempt. That corresponded to Samuel being targeted on 16 percent of his coverage snaps, and his worst season in Midnight Green. Over the following two years, receptions and yardage against the other Eagles corners spiked. At the same time, Asante saw the ball a lot less. During his great 2010 campaign, Samuel was targeted more than a full third less than he was in 2008.

Now these are only correlations and may not tell the full story. Perhaps 2008 was an off year because Samuel was still learning the Eagles defense. Maybe his improved play caused both the decline in targets and contributed to his compatriots having a worse time. It’s very possible that having better corner opposite Asante will actually allow him to gamble more and produce better results.

But this data at least raises questions. Once the season begins, we can closely watch Samuel’s play to see what, if anything, changes.

Photo from Getty.

ASTDraftExpress CB Rankings... #HaveYourOwnIsland

I’m back with another set of rankings! This time, I’m ranking the cornerback class of the 2015 NFL Draft. Overall, I really like this group because each guy has a certain amount of athleticism and skill to succeed on the next level. Not to mention, they can play in either man or zone coverage. Before we move on with these rankings, please be on the look-out for the Big Board/Mock Draft, that I’m releasing before April 18th. I might release a second Mock Draft too. Let’s move on with these rankings! 

(Tier #1: CB Marcus Peters from Washington, CB Trae Waynes from Michigan State, CB Jalen Collins from LSU and CB PJ Williams from Florida State) 

Teams that are looking for a corner who can turn into a premier defender will definitely look at this group. Filled with athleticism and length, Tier #1 has prospects who are likely to be first round picks. Trae Wayans is a speedy corner who excels in man coverage due to his fluid hips and quick first step. It wouldn’t surprise me one bit, if he also thrived in zone coverage. Marcus Peters isn’t as athletic as Waynes but his coverage skills are better. He really locks guys up and does a good job pressing them at the line. Jalen Collins and PJ Williams can be very solid #2 CB’s on the next level. Both players know how to defend the short-intermediate passing game, can play in different coverages and are fundamentally solid. Like I said in the beginning, if there’s teams looking for a premier corner, then this group has them. 


(Tiers #2: CB Ronald Darby from Florida State, CB Kevin Johnson from Wake Forest, CB Byron Jones from UConn and CB Quinten Rollins from Miami-Ohio University)

Even though I have love for Tier #1, I really like Tier #2 a lot. I’m willing to say this group will produce instant contributors in the NFL and Kevin Johnson will be one of them. A physical, hard hitting cornerback from Wake Forest, Kevin has a good, overall skill-set. He holds his own in man coverage and controls receivers at the line with ease. Ronald Darby is similar to Trae Waynes in terms of having great speed and a quick first step. For players who can be under the rader, please look out for Byron Jones and Quinten Rollins. Both guys will be awesome as #2 or #3 CB’s, who can hold up in man coverage and help stop the run. Their fundamentals are very solid. All of these guys will be good pick-ups on Day Two or early Day Three.


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What's Wrong With Nnamdi Asomugha?

While re-watching the Eagles win over the Dolphins, it was hard to miss another poor showing by Nnamdi Asomugha. The $60 million cornerback isn’t shutting down many wide receivers these days.

On Sunday, Brandon Marshall got by Asomugha for an early touchdown, and later Brian Hartline (!) beat him for a 24-yard gain. Those two plays were the only ones where Asomugha’s receiver was targeted, but they were both successful.

It’s tough to tell exactly what’s wrong with Asomugha. While adjusting to Juan Castillo’s questionable schemes, he deserved the benefit of the doubt. But at this point it’s clear that something else is going on. He’s 30 years old and may have lost a step or two. But I rarely see Asomugha getting simply outrun or otherwise beaten physically. In fact, he stuck with Larry Fitzgerald as well as anyone during the Cardinals game.

Instead, I have a new theory, one that I arrived at after replaying the Marshall touchdown nearly a dozen times.

On that play, Asomugha actually had solid coverage. Nate Allen provided help over the top, and Asomugha kept pace with Marshall, mirroring his movements underneath as he broke outside in the end zone. Then the ball arrived, and… nothing.

It was a great pass by Matt Moore, but Asomugha was in fair position to break it up. Instead, he seemed surprised that the ball arrived. He gave a half-hearted flail and the ball sailed right into Marshall’s arms.

Asomugha’s cross-field running mate, Asante Samuel, gets beat more often than Eagles fans would like. He stares into the backfield and tries to jump pass routes. But regardless of Samuel’s deficiencies, one gets the sense that he expects the ball to come his way. Not only that, but he welcomes it, he wants it. Sometimes Samuel will make a mistake and allow a needless big play, but he’s confident that if the quarterback looks his way enough, he’ll make him pay.

Watching the Marshall touchdown again, and reflecting on Asomugha’s performance this season, I think Nnamdi’s biggest problem might be that he has the opposite attitude. He doesn’t expect passes to come his way, and he doesn’t really want them.

The most effective tool Asomugha had was his aura of invincibility. Other than the 2006 season, he never had more than one interception in any of his first eight years in the league – not because he was bad, but because quarterbacks never threw at him. In the last three seasons combined Asomugha only allowed one touchdown, while never being targeted more than 30 times a year.

This year, he’s on pace for 43 targets, a 45 percent bump from 2010. This wasn’t unexpected, considering Samuel is better than any of the corners Asomugha played with in Oakland. But Asomguha’s corresponding decline was surprising.

In short, I don’t think Asomugha has suddenly become a bad cornerback. Although his advancing age and new responsibilities don’t help matters, perhaps his biggest obstacle is mental. In the last few years with Oakland, Nnamdi surely realized that as long as he gave reasonably good coverage, his reputation will keep quarterbacks from testing him.

That’s simply no longer the case. And until Asomugha adjusts to the new reality, both expecting and welcoming the challenge of passes thrown his way, he’ll continue to be a coverage liability.

Photo from Getty.