Marcus Peters is having a rough 2018. The former All-Pro was supposed to use his fourth season in the league as a jumping-off point for either a massive contract extension before the 2019 season or a monster deal as a free agent in 2020. After making 19 interceptions in his first three years as a pro, he was set to cash in after moving west, potentially resetting the cornerback market in the process.
It was supposed to be a mutually beneficial relationship. Peters would get to star for one of the NFC’s rising teams. The Rams, who gave up a second- and fourth-round pick to snag him from the Chiefs, would get a shutdown defender who could keep quarterbacks in the pocket long enough for a destructive defensive line to tear through them like a hungry pit bull through a rotisserie chicken.
Instead, Los Angeles got a cornerback who has allowed six touchdown catches in nine games. Peters’ 2017 season in Kansas City featured its fair shares of ups and downs, and while the overall outcome was positive, some red flags began to appear on his horizon. Now there are enough of them to create a stunning tribute to the former USSR, and the young cornerback is staring down a future where an potential $80 million contract is no longer an option.
Peters has cost himself money with his 2018 performance
Peters came to Los Angeles with the pedigree of one of the league’s best defenders. He was supposed to transform a good defense into a great one. The 2015 first-round pick brought great expectations with him to a rising roster, giving the club a playmaking defender who could buoy a secondary that had lost starting cornerbacks Trumaine Johnson and Kayvon Webster in the offseason. He and Aqib Talib were going to provide a fearsome 1-2 punch on the outside, uniting 2016’s first-team All-Pro cornerback tandem to anchor a secondary Pro Football Focus rated third-best in the NFL.
Instead, Talib lasted just three games before hitting injured reserve (he’s pegged to return to the field before the end of the season), Peters has cratered, and the team is allowing quarterbacks to post a 96.8 rating against them — the 25th-best mark in the league. Peters, tasked with defending opponents’ top wideouts, has allowed a passer rating of 100+ in six games this fall.
Peters’ disappointing season reached its basement in the Rams’ first loss of the season in Week 9. He drew the assignment to cover the Saints’ No. 1 receiver — and, really, the team’s only real threat at wideout — Michael Thomas. It went poorly. Thomas sprang for 12 catches on 15 targets, 211 yards, and the touchdown that shut the door on Los Angeles’ comeback hopes.
It was his worst performance in a season littered with mistakes, and it cost the Rams the chance to control their own destiny in the race toward homefield advantage in the NFC.
So what’s he done for the rest of 2018? Turf Show Times broke it down on a weekly basis, and it’s not good. Here are the greatest hits:
3 targets, 2 receptions allowed, 66.7% catch rate, 69 yards allowed, 1 touchdown allowed
8 targets, 7 receptions allowed, 87.5% catch rate, 103 yards allowed, 1 touchdowns allowed
6 targets, 5 receptions allowed, 83.3% catch rate, 83 yards allowed, 3 touchdowns allowed, 1 penalty
2 targets, 2 receptions allowed, 100% catch rate, 16 yards allowed, 0 touchdowns allowed, 2 penalties
11 targets, 7 receptions allowed, 63.6% catch rate, 149 yards allowed, 0 touchdowns allowed
15 targets, 12 receptions, 80% catch rate, 211 yards allowed, 1 touchdown allowed
Holy crap. That. Is. Awful.
But it could get better, because Peters has the chops to be a top-five cornerback
There’s no way Rams head coach Sean McVay is happy with Peters’ performance, but taking Peters out of the lineup isn’t a viable option. Part of that is due to Talib’s absence and the fact that Nickell Robey-Coleman, the team’s most effective cornerback in 2018, is best suited in the slot. The bigger reason is that a return to form in any given game would be a significant boost to any lineup in the NFL.
And McVay understands that:
“I think the biggest thing is, each situation based on the coverage, what is his responsibility within the framework of that call? What are we asking of him? He’s a guy that we have a lot of confidence in,” McVay said Monday after his team’s loss to the Saints. “In a lot of instances, he’s isolated one-on-one with the other team’s best receiver and that’s come up throughout various times this season. There’s going to be an element of, those great players will make some of their plays. I think the standards that Marcus has for himself, that we have for him: we expect him to play and make some of those plays.”
According to PFF, Peters allowed a 65.2 passer rating in coverage from 2015 to 2017. When opposing quarterbacks tried to throw in his direction, he turned them into the equivalent of Ryan Mallett (or a player twice as efficient as Nathan Peterman, if you’d prefer). He hauled in 19 interceptions in 45 games, earning two Pro Bowl honors, one All-Pro nod, and 2015’s defensive rookie of the year award.
That’s the kind of performance for which McVay is hoping, especially given the receiving talent waiting on the back half of the Los Angeles schedule. Peters is set to draw assignments against Tyreek Hill, Golden Tate, Larry Fitzgerald, and whomever the club draws in the postseason — names like Adam Thielen, Julio Jones, and a rematch with Thomas come to mind — before the books close on LA’s 2018.
Peters admitted he messed up against the Saints, and the Rams see his accountability as a first step to improvement. As McVay said:
“The best part about him is the accountability that he took afterwards. The first thing he’s going to do is look inward and figure out what he can do to be better. We still have a lot of confidence in him. It’s a collaborative effort as coaches and as players for us all as a team to try to do things that are conducive for putting our players in good spots from a coaching standpoint. Then, the players to be able to go execute it. Whether it’s Marcus or anybody — offense, defense, special teams — those are the expectations. With a good player and a productive player that’s had as much success as he has had and the confidence we have in him, we trust that he’ll improve.”
But whether Peters’ ability to understand the problem will lead to him fixing it has yet to be seen.
What’s Peters going to cost, uh, someone? in 2020?
This is where things get a little weird. The rest of the “Rookie Contract Hero” series involves players whose cheap contracts are saving their teams money that can be spent elsewhere on veteran talent. Peters, on the other hand, hasn’t been worth the modest $1.7 million he’s making in 2018.
Despite his down year, Peters has too much talent to be cut before 2019, even with his fifth-year team option bumping his salary to a smidge over $9 million. The Rams could release him without absorbing any dead cap money, but that 2019 number isn’t especially expensive for even a good cornerback — it would only rank 20th among current players at the position.
After that, his future in Los Angeles gets dicey. A big part of Peters’ value to the Rams was that his low-cost rookie contract gave the team the cap space to lock players like Todd Gurley, Aaron Donald, Brandin Cooks, and Rob Havenstein into lucrative extensions in 2018. Those costly bills are going to crowd up the team’s financial sheet for years to come, and that’s not counting the megadeal Jared Goff is likely to sign before the 2021 offseason.
So it seems unlikely Peters will remain a Ram, especially if a team is willing to overpay for his potential despite his rocky track record (they will be). The key is going to be how his next 1.5 seasons pan out. At his best, he’s proven himself as an elite cornerback, the kind of player who can be the highest-paid athlete at his position. At his worst, he’s an overmatched, undisciplined corner who jumps routes at the wrong times and actively makes his team worse.
Let’s say year two in LA goes better than year one. His performance to start 2018 probably disqualifies him from the kind of record-setting deal for which he’d been on pace after 2017, but he could be in line for something similar to what Stephon Gilmore signed with the Patriots in 2017. Gilmore got five years and $65 million with $40 million guaranteed, but Peters would be in line for something along the lines of a $1 million/year bump thanks to inflation.
But if Peters remains mercurial — some decent performances, some bad ones, and the occasional Thomas-esque implosion — some team will be willing to hope they can buy low on the Marcus Peters rehabilitation project. The problem with projecting that contract is that there’s no way to know what that looks like. One year at $5 million? Three years and $24 million, with $10 million guaranteed?
That’s the crazy thing about Peters. He’s good enough to be a bargain at $14 million per year and bad enough to be overpaid at $5 million, occasionally in the same season and occasionally in the same game. But when he’s on, he’s a good enough player to wipe an opponent’s top wideout off the books — and since he’s just 25 years old, someone is going to be willing to pay him once he hits the free market, no matter how bad he gets with the Rams.
Other rookie contract studs who upped their value in Week 9:
Jared Goff, QB, Rams (391 yards, 3 TDs in loss to Saints)
Alvin Kamara, RB, Saints (116 total yards, 3 TDs in win over Rams)
Nick Mullens, QB, 49ers (16-of-22, 268 passing yards, 3 TDs, somehow, to embarrass Jon Gruden)
Maurice Harris, WR, Washington (10 catches, 124 yards in loss to Falcons)
Previously in rookie contract heroes:
Week 1: Michael Thomas
Week 2: Matt Breida
Week 3: Myles Garrett
Week 5: T.J. Watt
Week 6: Saquon Barkley
Week 7: Darius Leonard
Week 8: James Conner