Arguably the most valuable defensive player in football today is a bona fide No. 1 cornerback. But one is nearly as difficult to find as a legitimate franchise quarterback.
Darrelle Revis received the largest contract a cornerback has ever signed last offseason, when the New York Jets inked him to a five-year, $70 million contract with a whopping $39 million guaranteed. The only CB on the market this year who could approach that figure is Josh Norman, but the Carolina Panthers have made it clear they're willing to franchise him if that's what it takes to keep him under team control.
"Yes, we are going to have the conversation (about a long-term contract), and we're going to do the best we can ... Nothing's changed, we're going to try and get a deal done," Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman said at the NFL Combine this week. "If not, there are options, and maybe the tag gets used."
The franchise tag for cornerbacks this year is listed at $13.7 million, which is a lofty figure. But the Panthers may have no choice but to apply it to Norman if that's what it takes to keep him.
Given the pass-heavy direction of the NFL, the foundation of most strong defenses is a potent pass-rush paired with a stellar secondary. It's a formula the Seattle Seahawks have rode to four consecutive playoff appearances and two Super Bowl births.
In addition to Norman, Trumaine Johnson and Janoris Jenkins are going to be free agents as well. Since the Rams can only franchise one of them, there's a likely chance one of those two players receives the largest cornerback contract this offseason.
Though the list of available defensive backs behind Norman, Johnson and Jenkins isn't overly flashy, there are still plenty of intriguing names. Here are the 10 cornerbacks from our top 100 free agent list:
Josh Norman, CB, Carolina Panthers
The latest of the late-round, tall cornerbacks to become legitimate NFL superstars, Josh Norman can expect to command as much demand as any cover man to hit the market in recent years. Of course, that presumes that the Panthers allow that to occur, and given the availability of the franchise tag, such a scenario appears unlikely.
And why would Carolina let Norman get away? The 28-year-old corner has just reached the prime of his career and has enjoyed plenty of success matching up with some of the NFL's elite wideouts. Quarterbacks largely avoid throwing in his direction, and when they do he manages to make plays on the ball at a high rate. His four interceptions tied for second-most on the Panthers, behind only safety Kurt Coleman's seven. Just as importantly, Norman doesn't shy away from contact like many at his position. His 56 total tackles ranked sixth on the team.
Like many of the top free agents, Norman could receive the franchise tag rather than a multiyear deal. The tag carries a hefty price tag for corners, but Norman necessitates such drastic measures.
Trumaine Johnson, CB, Los Angeles Rams
In a market with plenty of options at the cornerback position, Johnson stands out. After three decent, but not great, years with the Rams, Johnson had his best year by a wide margin in 2015. Playing in 14 games, he put up 71 total tackles, a fumble recovery, a team-leading seven interceptions and 17 passes defensed. He also scored a defensive touchdown.
Johnson has been banged up the past two seasons after not missing a game in his first two years in the league. He has missed nine games over the past two years, but again, putting up career numbers in a contract year will likely serve him very well in free agency, though there may be concerns about him being able to sustain that high level consistently going forward.
Janoris Jenkins, CB, Los Angeles Rams
The Rams have had a huge mess in the secondary for a long time, but the cornerback position developed into a strength in recent seasons. That strength now has them in a very tricky situation, with both Johnson and Janoris Jenkins set to become free agents. Both players have played at a high level and if the Rams somehow manage to lose both of them, it would be disastrous.
Jenkins finished the 2015 season with 64 combined tackles, 15 passes defensed and three interception. He didn't blow anybody away with his interception number, but he was reliable and every bit a worthy starting cornerback. He did miss one game with an injury but ultimately, he's a surefire starter who the Rams may have trouble keeping. Somebody is going to give him a payday.
Sean Smith, CB, Kansas City Chiefs
After spending the last three years contributing in Kansas City on a very team-friendly deal, Sean Smith is poised to make a splash in free agency. The Chiefs also have safety Eric Berry hitting the market, and while they have a couple of other strong players in their secondary in Marcus Peters and Phillip Gaines, it wouldn't be ideal for the Chiefs if Smith were to end up elsewhere. He's one of the top corners available in free agency, though, so Kansas City will have some competition.
Smith had two interceptions and 12 pass deflections in 2016 on a defense that finished the season second in the league for interceptions. He has 10 career interceptions and 81 pass deflections since entering the league in 2009.
Casey Hayward, CB, Green Bay Packers
Hayward burst onto the scene as a second-round rookie in 2012, picking off six passes. He had only three interceptions in the next three seasons, but is otherwise a solid cornerback. The Packers have a crowded secondary with Sam Shields, Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins, so they seem willing to let Hayward hit the market.
Hayward has versatility in the secondary, capable of playing both outside and in the slot, so that will undoubtedly help his chances of securing a big contract. He should have little trouble earning a starting job with teams desperate to find starting-quality cornerbacks.
Adam Jones, CB, Cincinnati Bengals
Many members of the Bengals secondary are hitting free agency, and the team has some tough decisions to make. Adam Jones had a solid season for Cincinnati, and he has said that although he'd like to return to the Bengals, he'll test the open market.
At age 32, Jones has just finished one of the best seasons of his career. He had three interceptions, 12 pass deflections, one forced fumble and one sack for the Bengals in 2015. His early career was marred by incidents off the field, but Jones has demonstrably matured since signing with the Bengals prior to the 2010 season. He had a couple of major on-field incidents this season -- an unnecessary roughness penalty against Oakland's Amari Cooper that drew a $35,000 fine, and a penalty during the Bengals' divisional loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers for making contact with an official -- but his play overshadowed those issues.
Jones said he's grateful for the opportunity the Bengals gave him back in 2010, but added that he owes it to himself and his family to test the market.
Leon Hall, CB, Cincinnati Bengals
Since being drafted by the Bengals in the first round of the 2007 NFL Draft, Hall has spent his whole career in Cincinnati. He suffered an ACL tear during the 2013 season, and since that time, he hasn't been able to play at the same level he did prior to injury.
Hall still had a decent season for the Bengals, albeit with limited snaps. He finished the 2015 season with two interceptions, one of which he returned for a touchdown. Hall also contributed 44 solo tackles and 11 assists as well as nine pass breakups. The Bengals have several young cornerbacks in the ranks, and it's not difficult to imagine the team moving on from him at this point after he played only 677 defensive snaps last season.
Still, Hall's play in limited action last season suggests he still has plenty to offer teams in need of a veteran presence and leadership in their secondary.
Prince Amukamara, CB, New York Giants
The 2011 first-round pick has played at a Pro Bowl level at various points throughout his NFL career. The problem is, he’s had trouble staying healthy.
Amukamara, 26, has only played in 16 games once in his five-year career. He missed five games in 2015 and never appeared to fully recover from a partially torn pectoral muscle that he suffered in mid-October.
But at his best, Amukamara is a solid starter and No. 2 corner. He should have plenty of suitors this season and could sign a deal that resembles his teammate, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, received from the Giants in 2014 (five years, $35 million with $14 million guaranteed).
Patrick Robinson, CB, New Orleans Saints
The Saints’ 2010 first-round pick signed a one-year contract with the Chargers last offseason and was a regular presence in their secondary. He broke up eight passes in 16 games -- the least in his career since his rookie season -- and recorded 43 tackles as well.
Robinson, 28, has never developed into a star cornerback. But he could be a solid depth option at right corner for a number of teams.
Brandon Boykin, CB, Pittsburgh Steelers
Boykin is a slot corner who struggled to find consistent playing time in his first three years in the league with the Philadelphia Eagles. He was traded to the Steelers last offseason, but couldn't find regular playing time in Pittsburgh either. Boykin only started one game all season and was on the field for just 24.7 percent of the Steelers’ defensive snaps.
Now as an unrestricted free agent, the 25-year-old Boykin will probably hope to find a starting gig somewhere. Time will tell whether he’s just been overlooked in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, or if he’s simply not good enough to break into a starting lineup.