Saturday, February 12, 2011

NFL Free Agency 2011 Top Fives: The Best Available Cornerbacks

Nobody knows what the NFL offseason will be like in a month, as the roller coaster that is the media coverage of the CBA negotiations gives us little insight and security in a deal getting done.

That being said, the only way to proceed for us writers is to write as if there will be a free agency and that everything will proceed as normal, which is exactly what I'm doing here.

Over the next month leading up to the ever-important March 4 date that is supposed to be the beginning of the free agent signing period, I'll be taking a look at the best players slated for free agency this offseason.

In this entry, I'll examine the top cornerbacks expected to hit the open market next month, as well as some other notable names at the position.

1. Nnamdi Asomugha, Oakland Raiders

Can a four-time Pro Bowler be underrated? That's probably the case for Asomugha, who has just three interceptions in his last four seasons, including zero in 2010, after pulling in eight in 2007.

The reason for that is simple—opposing teams have just completely decided to stop throwing his direction. He's just that good at his craft, and other teams would rather eliminate his half of the field and lose the receiver he's covering than try and challenge him.

At 29, Asomugha has plenty of good years left and is well worth a mega-money deal as arguably the best pure cover corner in the NFL. (Sorry, Darrelle Revis.)

2. Champ Bailey, Denver Broncos

A shoo-in for the Hall of Fame once he finally calls it quits, Bailey has built up a stellar résumé over his 12-year career, racking up 48 interceptions, 120 pass deflections and four touchdowns.

Bailey is no longer the best cornerback in the league, but he's honestly not that far behind. Nobody in the league understands the position better and he still has the speed and athleticism to compete with any receiver.

While he's probably not going to cash in like he did with a $63 million contract in 2004 now that he's 32 years old, he could theoretically start for the next three or four years and has showed no signs of slowing yet.

3. Johnathan Joseph, Cincinnati Bengals

A first-round pick out of South Carolina in 2006, Joseph has gained plenty of starting experience with the Bengals and has teamed with Leon Hall to create one of the better cornerback tandems in the NFL.

Joseph has totaled 14 interceptions and 76 pass deflections in five seasons, including a career-high six picks in 2009.

While he's play dropped off a bit in 2010 and he missed four games due to an ankle injury, he's got plenty of starting experience and production and is still just 26 years old.

Joseph is a candidate for the Bengals' franchise tag (and would be a much more reasonable recipient of it than Cedric Benson), but he'll be a hot commodity on the open market if the Bengals let him walk.

4. Antonio Cromartie, New York Jets

The 19th overall pick by the San Diego Chargers in 2006, Cromartie has had his highs and lows. At times he has been a dominant corner and tremendous playmaker, but at others he has suffered from DeAngelo Hall syndrome, i.e. a guy who gets picks and a lot of hype, but really spends his days getting burned by receivers.

Cromartie has also had his share of attitude problems and has gotten into trouble off the field due to his well-documented aversion to contraceptives and his unwillingness to pay child support.

Despite all the drama, Cromartie had a great season with the Jets in 2010 and certainly has starting-caliber talent. If a team is willing to take on his baggage and coach him up a bit, he can be an excellent player for a while.

5. Carlos Rogers, Washington Redskins

Rogers' place on my top five over some of the players on the next slide may surprise some of you, but the ninth overall pick in 2005 is a talent and underrated player at his position in the NFL.

An Auburn alum, Rogers has started all six years in the NFL and has racked up eight interceptions and 73 pass deflections in 78 games.

Rogers' biggest issue has been durability, as he missed four games in 2005, one in 2006, nine in 2007, and four in 2010. He suffered a fractured thumb in 2006 and torn his ACL and MCL in his knee in 2007, causing him to miss more than half the season.

If he can stay healthy, Rogers should continue to start and play at a high level. He could command big money on the open market, but would be a steal for a team if they could get him cheaper due to his injury history.

Beyond the Top Five
  • Ronde Barber, Tampa Bay Buccaneers A mainstay at corner for the Bucs since 1997, the 35-year-old Barber no longer has the speed to keep up with NFL receivers. His best option is retirement.
  • Chris Carr, Baltimore Ravens Once just a return specialist with the Raiders and Titans, Carr has actually developed into a solid starter with two interceptions and three forced fumbles in 2010. He's good enough to compete for a starting job on a lot of teams.
  • Drew Coleman, New York Jets Coleman had a huge year as the Jets' nickel corner in 2010, forcing five fumbles and notching four sacks. He lacks starter ability, but is an excellent role player a lot of teams could use.
  • Drayton Florence, Buffalo Bills He has had his ups and downs, but Florence has been a solid starter at times in the NFL. At 30, he might not get many more opportunities to be a starting corner, though.
  • Corey Graham, Chicago Bears While Graham has never been a good starter and struggled in that role in 2008, he is without question one of the league's best special-teams players. Every team in the NFL could use his services in that department.
  • Ellis Hobbs, Philadelphia Eagles Once a good corner for the Patriots as well as a great returner, Hobbs' play on defense has dropped off and neck issues may force him to retire.
  • Chris Houston, Detroit Lions Despite blazing speed, Houston has never lived up to expectations as a former second-round pick of the Atlanta Falcons. He's still 26 and might be salvageable, but he's not a starter right now.
  • Kelly Jennings, Seattle Seahawks Jennings hasn't been nearly enough of a playmaker since being taken by Seattle 31st overall in 2006. He has talent and might have room to grow, but he shouldn't be handed a starting job.
  • Richard Marshall, Carolina Panthers A highly-regarded second-rounder in 2007, Marshall allows way too many balls to be caught and gets picked on far too often. He has a lot of ability and is still young at 26, but he needs some good coaching before he should start any more.
  • Dimitri Patterson, Philadelphia Eagles After toiling as a backup with four teams over five seasons, Patterson actually performed pretty well in 16 games (nine starts) for the Eagles in 2010 with four interceptions and 11 pass deflections. He lacks ideal speed or experience, but he's a good backup to have and maybe start in a pinch.
  • Stanford Routt, Oakland Raiders An underrated player who has held his own as a starter, Routt could be a could be a bargain for a team on the open market.
  • Ike Taylor, Pittsburgh Steelers A six-year starter for the Steelers during some of their great runs, Taylor is a good but not great NFL cornerback. He'll get starting chances wherever he goes, but he's not a shutdown guy and may end up being overpaid.
  • Nathan Vasher, Detroit Lions Once a promising starter for the Bears, Vasher's career has taken a nosedive with a brief stop in San Diego and unspectacular season in Detroit. He's one of those guys that has the physical tools but just doesn't have the other characteristics of a great cornerback.
  • Fabian Washington, Baltimore Ravens Washington has become a solid cornerback in the NFL, but he's never lived up to his draft status as the 23rd overall pick in 2005 and is probably best suited as a veteran backup.
  • Brian Williams, Atlanta Falcons A veteran with experience at both cornerback and safety, Williams isn't all that great in coverage and lacks ideal speed. He's purely a backup at 31, and teams would probably be better suited finding a younger player to develop with his roster spot.
  • Josh Wilson, Baltimore Ravens  — Despite being dealt by the Seahawks just before the season, Wilson is a talented corner with starting ability and youth at age 25. He shouldn't be handed a starting gig, but he's worth signing to let him compete and he may end up being a steal.
  • Eric Wright, Cleveland Browns — Wright's overall game leaves something to be desired, but he's young and has all the physical tools you look for. He's a worthwhile project to keep developing.

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