We're in the thick of the NFL's legal tampering period, free agency proper begins on Wednesday at 4 p.m. ET and there's about $1 billion worth of collective cap space that teams can fill over the next several days and weeks. Invariably, terrible contracts get handed out during the league's free agency free-for-all, and teams hell-bent on improving their rosters or making waves this time of year end up getting into bidding wars that bite them in the ass.
Last year, the cornerback position in particular saw some crazy contracts get inked, and we saw the fallout from that Monday when the Eagles offloaded Byron Maxwell -- and his six-year, $63 million contract -- in a trade with the Dolphins, only one season after the now-deposed regime so vigorously pursued him. Maxwell struggled as a true No. 1 cornerback in the Eagles' system. He may end up eventually living up to his contract, but it's a sobering reminder of why free agency waters can be so dangerous.
It wasn't just Maxwell, either. Antonio Cromartie flopped after signing a four-year, $32 million deal that guaranteed him $7 million. He was recently released by the Jets after just one year. Cary Williams didn't even make it the entire season before he got cut -- the Seahawks paid him $7 million to play in 10 games.
Will one of this year's big-money cornerbacks be next year's Maxwell or Williams? Or will the recency of those quick departures depress the cornerback market as GMs and front offices play it a little safer? It will be one of the most interesting storylines during the upcoming NFL free agency spending spree.
The evolution of the game is part of the reason teams are willing to take chances on outside cornerbacks in free agency -- offenses are compiling more pass attempts, passing yards and passing touchdowns than ever before. Receivers are getting bigger, faster and stronger. Teams are playing a more wide-open style of ball, and they're taking less time to get the ball out. The de facto base offense in the NFL these days features three receivers, which means that instead of only having to have two quality cornerbacks on a starting defense, teams need at least three. The rules of the game are slanted toward offenses, and it's harder than ever to play the cornerback position.
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The dangers of free agency are well documented. Much of free agency is guesswork or projection. There's a reason so many new head coaches or GMs pursue players from their former teams. Teams don't know the personalities of players from the outside as well, they don't know their practice habits as well, they don't know how they'll respond to getting paid, they don't how they'll fit in the city and they don't know how they'll take coaching. Most importantly, in many cases, they don't know how they'll fit in the scheme they've been brought in to help.
Maxwell and the Eagles' debacle there is a great example.
Philadelphia's former regime apparently had convinced itself that Maxwell was a true shutdown corner who could follow a receiver anywhere on the field. They were wrong.
Maxwell excelled in Seattle's Cover-3 system where he was often asked to play off-coverage in zone looks. He was legitimately very good in that scheme. However, in Philly, the Eagles inexplicably asked him to do something he'd never really shown he could do -- matchup with top receivers in one-on-one, man coverage. It was apparent from the start, and Maxwell got torched in Week 1's matchup with the Falcons. In that game, they exploited several man-coverage schemes Philly rolled out, running Roddy White and Julio Jones on long crossing routes across the field. On almost every one of those plays (three to Roddy and one to Julio), the Falcons got big gains as Maxwell struggled to match speed with the receivers as they crossed the field.
Maxwell got incrementally better as the year went on and as coaches adjusted the ways they utilized him, and may not have been as bad as you think, but the bottom line is that the Eagles did not feel he was worth the money after just one year.
Seattle thought it could teach Williams its step-kick technique in a matter of months. The team was wrong. In the end, the Seahawks decided to play their younger, more inexperienced players in DeShawn Shead and Jeremy Lane out there in Williams' spot because they'd been integrated and indoctrinated into that technique for years and ultimately had a leg up.
"We feel more comfortable with the guys that have been with us," Pete Carroll said shortly after the decision to cut Williams midseason. The return of a few players from injury helped in that decision as well.
"Cary's a good football player and did some good stuff for us and all that," he said. "But our guys kind of came back to us and it gave us the opportunity to go to them."
The big lesson here: don't go out into free agency and try to fit a square peg into a round hole.
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Once again, teams could end up being pretty desperate to find some talent at corner. And once again, it could mean another run on this year's free agent class, a group with some intriguing names with very specific skills, resulting in bidding wars and a handful of regrettable decisions.
Sean Smith is considered by some to be the top name among this year's free agent cornerbacks. He's a big, long, physical press cornerback and played in that role for the Chiefs the past three seasons. He'll get up to the line and use his physicality to win. He's not going to beat anyone with his long speed, and generally speaking, he's best when he can disrupt at the line of scrimmage and not when used in off coverage.
If the system demands a disciplined, never-get-beat-over-the-top type of boundary corner, maybe don't look at Janoris Jenkins as your primary. Jenkins is a ballhawk who broke up 10 passes and snagged three interceptions in 2015, but he makes a habit of reading the quarterback a little more than the receiver and can get beat on double moves downfield. Those are exactly the kind of numbers that can entice teams to pay more than they should for a player who might not be the right fit. That said, if you're willing to accept a little risk or have two rangy safeties who can play over the top of him, you'd be getting a guy who can play in both man or zone, press or off, and can succeed in a variety of roles.
Pacman Jones is somewhat similar to Jenkins in some ways, but much more polished. He was also very disciplined in coverage in 2015. A team looking for a fiery veteran with close to lockdown skills on the outside, he may be the guy, but he's also overly aggressive at times and can let his emotions get the best of him. He's also a top return man so that should factor into the plans for teams that pursue him, but he's still going to be overpaid if someone gives him the kind of deal to be their No.1 corner.
Overpaying for corners applies to where and what role they play on the field, too. Don't sign a nickel cornerback like Brandon Boykin and ask him to play outside. At this point in his career, Leon Hall is primarily a nickel corner, too. Two Achilles injuries have robbed him of top-tier outside speed, but he's a heady veteran with tons of experience and knowledge of the game. He's a great option for a team looking to add a tough defender who can play in five-DB sets.
Don't sign a primarily zone-coverage oriented corner like Casey Hayward and then immediately ask him to play a bunch of man stuff. Teams also probably want to avoid asking him to play in a press scheme.
Don't ask a guy to do something he's never done or simply can't do. This is just common sense. And yet, teams ignore that every year and sign guys who have had success in other systems, doing other things.
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Even with the lesson of Maxwell so fresh in the minds of front offices execs, it's inevitable that some team will do the same with one of these free agent corners.
Don't underestimate the value of experience in a system when projecting free agents over the next few days and weeks. It's hard to overstate just how important scheme fit is when talking about free agency. Just because Hall and Jones worked great in Cincinnati's system doesn't mean they'll thrive anywhere. Just because Lane has played well in Seattle's system doesn't mean he'll succeed somewhere else.
There are very, very few scheme-transcendent players.
Smart clubs will heed the lessons learned from previous free agency bonanzas, particularly from last season. Others will not, making the same mistakes all over again.
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