As the Browns gear up for free agency, a few positions of need on the team stand out as areas that would be ideally addressed by bringing in an experienced NFL player. Cleveland would benefit from immediate contributors at offensive guard, middle linebacker, cornerback, and safety.
Today we’ll take a look at some of the top cornerbacks available in this year’s free agency crop and consider some of the pros and cons the Browns must consider as they contemplate offering big money to bring them to Cleveland.
While Buster Skrine turned a corner last year in the eyes of most, almost everyone would agree that he is a greater asset to the Browns in the nickel corner spot than as their number two cornerback. Pro Football Focus (PFF) rated Skrine as the 106th best cornerback overall last year, out of 110 players. His coverage rating was low, and his rating against the run was also hurt by a league-high 20 missed tackles. I like Skrine and think that maybe PFF’s numbers are a little unfair to him, but this is definitely a spot that the Browns should be looking to use some of their copious cap space to upgrade.
5’10” – 189 lbs – 25 years old
Verner is a tantalizing prize. A 4th round pick of the Titans in 2010, Verner has been a consistently strong starter right from the beginning. At just 25 years old, there is reason to think that his best years could still be ahead of him. Even if he is just able to maintain his level of play for a few seasons, he would make for a tremendous coverage duo playing across from Joe Haden.
PFF has rated Verner as a top 25 cornerback in each of his 4 seasons in the league, and he was rated as the 12th-best cornerback in the NFL in 2013. Opponents’ quarterback ratings were lower when throwing at Verner than against all but 3 other cornerbacks last season. His conventional statistics are impressive as well. He intercepted 5 passes and was credited with 23 passes defensed. Verner is a lockdown corner with playmaking ability, and he would look very good as the Browns number 2 cornerback.
The biggest drawback with Verner is his likely asking price. The Browns are about to commit what will no doubt be a large sum of money to lock Joe Haden into a contract extension. Reports also indicate that they are likely to throw a lot of money at Buffalo Bills free agent safety Jairus Byrd.
So, the question that must be asked is how much money are the Browns willing to pour into their secondary? If the market is being set by the money the Miami Dolphins just gave to Brent Grimes, then Verner could be very expensive. Grimes made the Pro Bowl for the second time in his career last year, but he’s also 31 years old and just a couple of years removed from a torn achilles. And the Dolphins gave him a 4-year, $32 million deal that included $16 million guaranteed.
So what could a 25-year old stud cornerback who is coming off of a Pro Bowl season receive, then? It wouldn’t be hard to imagine a contract that pays $10 million a year with around $20 million (or more) in guaranteed money, especially if a couple of teams lock horns over him. Can the Browns justify breaking the bank for Verner when the free agency class and draft are both deep with talented cornerbacks? My guess is that they will not be heavy players for Verner’s services, but for the right price I’d love to see him in the orange and brown.
6’1″ – 202 lbs – 28 years old
Talib is an interesting case. There is no question that he has legitimate talent, but his question marks are enough that some teams probably wouldn’t give very serious consideration to committing big dollars to him in free agency.
On the positive side, Talib has 23 interceptions in his 7 NFL seasons. He is a strong, physical cornerback who is capable of harassing receivers and getting into their head. He plays with a mean streak, and he is capable of making game-changing plays.
However, Talib comes with baggage. One concern: his injury history. He has never played in all 16 games since coming into the league. In 2010 he suffered a season-ending injury when a tendon tore from the bone in his hip. In 2011 he hit injured reserve with a hamstring injury. Last year he missed 3 games and was slowed in others by a hip injury. He has also had legal problems and other disciplinary issues, and was suspended 4 games in 2012 for violating the league’s policy on performance enhancing substances.
And so, Talib carries Pro Bowl talent with a healthy dose of risk. It is highly unlikely, though, that he will sign a bargain deal. Grimes’ contract is likely a baseline for Talib, while he will probably be looking to score more. Will there be enough interest from different teams to drive the bidding up into the $9 million a year range? Perhaps, but somehow I doubt it.
Personally, I wouldn’t want to see the Browns take the risk of signing Talib, and I feel that most other teams will feel similarly. In the end, I’m going to hazard a guess that Talib will end up returning to the Patriots on a 2 or 3-year deal somewhere in the range of the figures in Grimes’ contract.
6’2″ – 182 lbs – 27 years old (turns 28 in April)
Rodgers-Cromartie really jumped onto the scene as a big-play cornerback in his first three years in the NFL. A first-round pick of the Arizona Cardinals in 2008, he grabbed 13 interceptions in his first 3 seasons, returning 4 of them for touchdowns, flashing the exciting playmaking ability that his 4.29 40-yard dash time at the NFL combine had suggested.
Arizona traded Rodgers-Cromartie to the Philadelphia Eagles in 2011 as part of the deal that brought Kevin Kolb to the Cardinals. Rodgers-Cromartie seemed to get out of his groove in Philly, recording no interceptions in 2011. He bounced back slightly with 3 interceptions in 2012, but was still rated just 98th in PFF’s overall cornerback ratings that season.
He was not a hot commodity last offseason and ended up signing a 1-year, $5-million deal with the Broncos. Rodgers-Cromartie then resurrected his value with a really good season in Denver. With veteran Champ Bailey hampered by injuries – along with many other members of the Denver defense – Rodgers-Cromartie stepped up and asserted himself as one of the top cornerbacks in the league. He picked off 3 passes, returning one of them 75 yards for a touchdown, while also registering 14 passes defensed. PFF rated him 5th among NFL cornerbacks last year. Quarterbacks threw at him 68 times, and only 30 of those passes ended up in receptions, making him the second-toughest cornerback to complete a pass on last season.
Rodgers-Cromartie’s excellent play on a successful team that made the Super Bowl last season has made him a much more desired free agency target this offseason. Denver will no doubt make a hard push to bring him back, especially now that they have released Champ Bailey. It is likely that Grimes’ contract in Miami will once again factor into negotiations here, as it is hard to imagine Rodgers-Cromartie settling for less than that deal.
While I think there has to be some caution excercised with a 28-year old player whose athleticism and speed is an important part of his game, this is a guy who has developed and does not rely exclusively on his raw talent to play the position anymore. He has also been very durable, playing in all 16 games in 4 of his 6 seasons, while missing only 4 games total. His height makes him an asset against taller receivers.
Rodgers-Cromartie would be a nice number two corner for the Browns if they are willing to pay the premium fee that he will no doubt be looking for, but I think it is likely that he ends up back in Denver.
5’11” – 184 lbs – 26 years old
Shields is not the marquee name on this list, but he has really developed from an undrafted free agent signing by the Packers into a fine cornerback. He had the raw tools coming out of Miami, running a 4.3 40 at his pro day and registering a 39-inch vertical leap. Since coming into the league, he has shown his ball-hawking skills, recording 11 interceptions and 38 passes defensed over the past 3 seasons. Shields has also come up big on the big stage, recording 2 interceptions and a forced fumble in the Packers NFC Championship Game win over the Bears when he was a rookie.
Last season Shields had his best year as a pro. He intercepted 4 passes and had 16 passes defensed. He was rated by PFF as the number 52 cornerback overall (37th in coverage, 107th – out of 110 – in run defense). He has shown steady improvement throughout his career, and after playing under a 1-year restricted free agent tender last year, Shields is ready to test the open market.
Shields has had some injury issues in his 4 years in the league, missing 11 regular season games. He also doesn’t have the reputation of being a true number one cornerback, like several others in this free agency class – although if he continues to develop he certainly could be considered in that class. As it is, though, he is a very good number two cornerback, and as such, perhaps a perfect fit to serve as a complement to Haden.
The question comes down to money. How much will Shields seek through his agent, Drew Rosenhaus? It is likely that they are looking at Grimes’ deal in Miami and hoping to land something better, but I don’t think that will happen. When I wrote my article on 5 free agents the Browns should target – which was before Miami gave Grimes his new deal – I speculated that 4 years, $25 million with $15 million guaranteed could be enough to land Shields. That was partly based on reports that the Packers were trying to sign him for somewhere in the $5 million-per-year range with around $10 million in guaranteed money. While I think the crowded market could keep Shields’ price down somewhat from where he will likely hope to be, it may take slightly more than I speculated before. If it takes $7 million a year and $17 or $18 million guaranteed to get him in Cleveland, would it be too much? Maybe not, especially if Shields continues to develop like he has. With his athleticism and talent, I think his ceiling has not yet been reached. I feel that Sam Shields is a player that the Browns should, and will, target in free agency. He would make a lot of sense here.
But I wouldn’t want them to drastically overpay. If the bidding pushes close to over the level set by the Brent Grimes contract, I would be more in favor of pushing that kind of money towards Verner, Rodgers-Cromartie, or the next player on this list.
5’11” – 203 lbs – 25 years old
Davis was drafted in the first round by the Dolphins back in 2009 after a successful college career at Illinois, as well as an impressive showing at the combine, where he posted a 4.49 40-yard dash time, 25 bench press reps, a 10’5″ broad jump and a 33 on the Wonderlic test.
While there seemed to be a perception that Davis got off to a somewhat slow start to his career in Miami, the fact is that he was very solid right from the start. He grabbed 9 interceptions in 3 seasons with the Dolphins and had 32 passes defensed, and PFF graded him out as above average in pass coverage in each of those seasons.
Despite that, Davis was shipped to the Colts prior to the 2012 season. There were some character concerns while he was in Miami that contributed to the decision to trade him. While he struggled a little bit against the run in his first year in Indianapolis, PFF rated him 24th in pass coverage in 2012 as Davis collected 3 interceptions and played his typical brand of physical football.
In 2013, Davis had his best season as a pro. Despite posting only 1 interception, he came into his own as a defender that could narrow the field for opposing quarterbacks by largely swallowing up his assignment. His impressive performance was reflected in the PFF ratings, which placed him 3rd in overall rating among all cornerbacks, and 2nd in pass coverage. Davis was the 10th-toughest cornerback for quarterbacks to complete a pass on when they threw in his direction. Another plus for Davis was that he had his best game of the year against the high-powered Denver Broncos offense. As far as the character concerns from his time in Miami: Davis has had no issues since being traded.
Initially I was not going to feature Davis in this article. I was going to place him in the brief notes below. The reason for that was because it seemed almost a lock that the Colts would use some of their ample cap room to lock him into a contract before free agency started. It would be crazy for them to let him get away, right? He’s their number one corner, coming off of his best season, and he’s only 25 years old. But it now appears that there is a possibility of him not re-signing:
I guess it is important at this time to note that the Colts are the same team that traded a 1st-round pick to the Browns for Trent Richardson. So maybe it’s not that surprising to think that they may have just decided to splurge in free agency and overpay for D’Qwell Jackson (I love DQ52, but $11 million guaranteed was a lot of money to pay him) only to turn around and pinch pennies when it came time to lock up one of the best cover cornerbacks in the league – when they had the inside track on him.
So, that brings us to our Cleveland Browns. Should they pursue Vontae Davis? If they want to run out what would arguably be the best cornerback tandem in the league, then the answer is yes. While I wouldn’t want to see the Browns go crazy and overpay Davis when there are so many other talented corners available right now, I think he’d be at the top of my wish list if he’d consider signing at the right price. What price is that?
Reports say that Davis wants more money than what Brent Grimes received. So, once again, that could mean a 4 or 5 year deal, paying around $9 million per year, with somewhere in the range of $20 million (maybe even $25 million?) guaranteed. If the Browns could lock Davis up for somewhere in that vicinity, it could really pay off. He’s a good tackler who also does a great job in pressing receivers and throwing the offense’s timing off, and possesses the speed to run with pretty much any receiver he goes up against.
On the other hand, Davis hitting the open market creates more supply to meet the demand, and could help drive the price down slightly on one of the other cornerbacks. If the Browns sniff around and don’t like the asking price, it may still help them in locking up one of the other players we’ve discussed here.
So those are 5 of the top prize cornerbacks available in free agency. Any of these players would represent a clear upgrade at the second cornerback spot for the Browns.
Here’s a brief rundown on some of the other cornerbacks that are available. While signing one of the “big 5” above would make a big splash, it’s very much a possibility that the Browns could pass on spending big money on one of those players and instead invest in one of these next several players on a more cap-friendly deal that will allow the team to keep more financial flexibility going forward.
Walter Thurmond III, Seahawks (5’11” – 183 lbs – 26 years old – PFF Rating: 31st) – Thurmond is a solid player for the Seahawks, but plays mostly in the slot. He could likely transition to the number two cornerback spot for the Browns, and may come a little behind the money. He was suspended 4 games for violating the league’s substance abuse policy in 2013, and has a little injury history.
Charles Tillman, Bears (6’1″ – 196 lbs – 33 years old – PFF Rating: 89th) – Tillman has been a really solid cornerback for several years, but last season gave evidence that his best years are probably well behind him. While he is still capable of being a contributor and a veteran leader (and I really like him as a player), I don’t see him as a great fit for the Browns.
Tarell Brown, 49ers (5’10” – 190 lbs – 29 years old – PFF Rating: 32nd) – Brown is an underrated player who is sort of lost among some of the bigger names in this group. The 49ers don’t want to lose him and are making a push to lock him up before free agency starts, but it would make sense for the Browns to at least gauge interest if he hits the market. He has been a starting cornerback and would be an upgrade, although not as big an upgrade as some of the other available names.
Captain Munnerlyn, Panthers (5’8″ – 186 lbs – 25 years old – PFF Rating: 11th) – Munnerlyn isn’t getting a lot of run, but he’s an effective cover corner who’s coming off of his best season. A former 7th-round pick, Munnerlyn has stated that the Panthers have not made much of a push to bring him back. While his size isn’t ideal, it’s hard to argue with his production. It’s probably not a signing that Browns fans would get excited about, but if they can get him on a good deal because of the crowded market it could end up being a shrewd signing. He has shown himself capable of being an above average cornerback against the pass and the run.
Brandon Browner, Seahawks (6’3″ – 221 lbs – 29 years old – PFF Rating: 41st) – Browner is an interesting case. He definitely is talented, and with his big frame he can match up with tall receivers. In his first year with Seattle he intercepted 6 passes and returned them for 220 yards and 2 touchdowns. However, he also is a risk. He was suspended for 4 games in 2012 and has already been suspended for the first 4 games of the 2014 season for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. He is likely looking at a much longer suspension if he gets in trouble again. He is a good cornerback who is known for his physical play and big hits. He is also solid in coverage. If the market is soft because of his problems he could end up being a steal for whichever team signs him.
So there you have it. That’s my rundown of 10 of the best cornerbacks available to the Browns in free agency. Some other interesting names that are out there include Corey Graham of the Ravens, Derek Cox of the Chargers, Terrell Thomas and Trumaine McBride of the Giants, the Saints’ Jabari Greer, Chris Cook of the Vikings, and Asante Samuel of the Falcons. You can view a complete list by clicking here.
There is a reasonable chance that at least one of the names appearing in this article will be a Cleveland Brown soon. I’d love to hear your feedback on who your number one choice would be, either in the comments or by email.
Rob Magee is a lifelong Browns fan who suffered his most devastating punch to the gut when a friend recorded The Langoliers over his VHS copy of the 1993 Browns vs. Steelers game that featured two Eric Metcalf punt returns for touchdowns. You can follow him on Twitter @robisindy, or you can send your thoughts to him at DPNRob@gmail.com.