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Previewing 2020 free agents: Cornerback

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The Josh Norman problem has to be addressed

Kansas City Chiefs v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Let’s start with a look at the cornerbacks under contract with the Redskins in 2020:

  • Josh Norman - 33 yo - $15.5m
  • Quinton Dunbar - 28 yo - $2.5m
  • Fabian Moreau - 26 yo - $834K
  • Greg Stroman - 24 yo - $634K
  • Jimmy Moreland - 25 yo - $654K
  • Coty Sensabaugh - 32 yo - $937K
  • Kayvon Webster - 26 yo - $875K
  • Simeon Thomas - 27 yo - $540K
  • Danny Johnson - 25 yo - $573K
  • Breon Borders - 25 yo - $615K
  • Dee Delaney - 25 yo - $577K

Jay Gruden typically kept 6 cornerbacks on the roster, and it’s likely that the new coaching regime will do the same. With 11 players under contract at the position, the Redskins are not in need of warm bodies, however, the position is in need of an infusion of talent.

Barring some odd intervention by Ron Rivera or Jack Del Rio, it’s hard to imagine the Redskins holding onto Josh Norman and his $15.5m cap hit. The Redskins will almost certainly seek to part ways with him, saving $12.5m of cap space.

If they can, the front office should try to trade Norman, but after his dismal 2019 season, the last half of which he spent on the bench, it’s difficult to imagine which teams would still have enough interest in him to take on his $12.5m cap hit at the cost of a draft pick.

If there is no willing trade partner, then I’m assuming Norman will be cut outright, leaving the defense with one proven quality cornerback in Quinton Dunbar, one promising CB in Fabian Moreau, and a motley crew of mostly 20-something DBs of middling quality.

One would think that the Redskins will be aiming to add two high-quality players at the position — ideally, one in the draft and perhaps one in free agency.


Click here to read: An early look at the top 100 veteran free agents of 2020

Click here for more Redskins 2020 Free Agency coverage and profiles

Read: Washington Redskins 2020 Draft Profiles: Jeff Gladney, CB, TCU

Read: Washington Redskins 2020 Draft Profiles: Jeffrey Okudah, CB, Ohio State

Read: Washington Redskins 2020 Draft Profiles: Cameron Dantzler, CB, Mississippi State


Given Fabian Moreau’s relatively stronger performance as a boundary corner as compared to his performance in the slot, the most favorable move for Washington might well be to sign a talented slot corner, and then draft the best cornerback available with one of the three picks the team has in the 4th & 5th round (assuming no trades happen to change the draft position). Of course, Jimmy Moreland showed some promise as a slot defender in his rookie season, so the team will have options in any event.

There are some interesting veteran free agent cornerbacks expected to be available this off-season:

  • Kendall Fuller, Kansas City, 25
  • James Bradberry, Carolina, 27
  • Byron Jones, Dallas, 27
  • Chris Harris, Denver, 31
  • Trae Waynes, Minnesota, 28
  • Bradley Roby, Houston, 28
  • Logan Ryan, Tennessee, 29
  • Darqueze Dennard, Cincinnati, 28
  • Troy Hill, LA Rams, 29
  • Jimmy Smith, Baltimore, 32
  • Brian Poole, NY Jets, 27
  • Mackensie Alexander, Minnesota, 26
  • Ronald Darby, Philadelphia, 26
  • Eli Apple, New Orleans, 25
  • Kevin Johnson, Buffalo, 28

Fifteen players is too many to consider in detail in a single article.

Today I’ll shine the light on the first six players listed, giving priority to players who have excelled in the slot, but not looking at slot corners exclusively. Here’s a summary of some key information on the six players to be discussed today.

I will revisit the remaining 9 players on the free agent CB list in a future article.

For reference, here is the top of the list of NFL cornerbacks, in order of annual average salary, as per OverTheCap:

Free agency begins in earnest on 16 March when teams can begin negotiating with players’ agents, and players can sign new contracts from 4pm on 18 March.

Kendall Fuller, Kansas City, 25

NFL: Los Angeles Chargers at Kansas City Chiefs Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

In 2019, Fuller played and started the fewest games of his career. He also didn’t snag an interception for the first time since his rookie season, and his paltry two passes defended match his career-low from that year, as well.

The 24-year-old defensive back finished 2019 with his second-fewest tackles. Having been part of the trade that brought Alex Smith to D.C., Fuller is well-known to Redskins fans, who are more likely to remember him as a rising star in slot coverage than as PFF’s 100th rated CB of 2019.

Fuller missed five games in 2019 (weeks 7-11) as he had surgery to repair a broken thumb from the Week 6 Houston game. Returning for the final 5 games, Fuller averaged less than 4 tackles per game and did not have a single pass defense in nearly a third-of-a-season of play (though he was on limited snap counts in his first three games returning to action).

Still, Fuller is the Chiefs starting slot corner, so they may not be happy to just let him walk, especially since KC has 3 cornerbacks all scheduled to hit free agency in March (Bashaud Breeland, Morris Claiborne and Fuller).

The Chiefs have 19 upcoming unrestricted free agents — 13 of them under the age of 30 — and only $20m in estimated 2020 cap space available, and only 48 players under contract. Patrick Mahomes is in the 4th year of his rookie contract, and the Chiefs front office is going to need to make some calculated roster decisions this off-season, following their super bowl appearance, if they hope to repeat the feat in coming seasons.

With Kansas City still playing competitive football, fan blogs like Arrowhead Pride haven’t gone into off-season mode where they discuss 2020 rosters and potential off-season moves, so it’s a bit difficult to gauge how likely the Chiefs are to bring Fuller back. My personal sense, from looking at their roster, is that they probably need to bring him back. My guess is that they’re more likely to willingly let Bashaud Breeland walk in free agency, and I don’t think they can lose both in the same off-season.

Is there a chance that Fuller could return to the Washington Redskins team that originally drafted him?

While it would be a nice fairly tale ending for Redskins fans to see Fuller return to Washington in 2019, I doubt it happens. KC may let Fuller ‘test the market’ and hope he comes back at a reasonable rate that they can fit inside their cap space, but it could leave them very thin at the position, and vulnerable if he leaves if he leaves.

The Over The Cap valuation listed in the chart above calculates Fuller as the least valuable of the six cornerbacks highlighted in this article. His value in the 2020 off-season may not be as strong as Redskins fans would expect, and I imagine that Fuller may face the necessity of signing a one-year ‘prove it’ deal (in KC or elsewhere) in an effort to re-build his value. If that’s the case, then dealing with a friendly front office and people who believed in him enough to draft him in 2016 may be an advantage if Fuller wants to get a 3 or 4-year contract with decent terms as a free agent in March.

However, while Kyle Smith and Alex Santos may have fond attachments to Kendall Fuller from his two solid years in Washington, Rivera and Del Rio are unlikely to have any real personal feelings or attachments at play here. To them, Fuller will be just one more potential free agent corner coming off an injury-marred year in which he was no better than average, though he does have the distinction of playing for the AFC champion. For Fuller, Kansas City, as the defending AFC champs, with the Andy Reid - Mahomes - Kelce - Tyreek Hill combination, may prove to be too good a situation to walk away from unless it means a significantly better contract.

Still, based on what Rivera likes to ask of his nickel corners, and considering the ‘Skins lack of depth at the slot and that Fuller left the nation’s capital at the end of 2017 as one of the best in that position, it’s something to consider and watch for.

James Bradberry, Carolina, 27

NFL International Series-Carolina Panthers at Tampa Bay Buccaneers Steve Flynn-USA TODAY Sports

The James Bradberry-Washington Redskins fit may be so appealing as to be impossible to pass up.

  • ProFootballRumors has Bradberry ranked as the #2 free agent cornerback, and 27th ranked overall free agent of 2020. Walter Football has CB ranked the same way, but with Bradberry at 17th overall.
  • Bradberry played 47 of a possible 48 regular season games over the past 3 years, averaging over 12 PDef and 2 interceptions per season, to go along with an average of 73 tackles and a sack.
  • Bradberry’s connection to coach Ron Rivera runs deep, as he played his entire 4-year career in Carolina.

Bradberry is a boundary corner, capable of starting across from Quinton Dunbar. Statistically, they are rather similar, with slightly different strengths.

  • For his career, Dunbar has given up a 60.4% completion rate; Bradberry = 58.7%
  • Dunbar has given up 1,176 receiving yards per 1,000 coverage snaps; Bradberry = 1,178 yards
  • Dunbar allows 12.7 yards per reception; Bradberry = 13.1 ypc
  • Dunbar allows 7.17 TDs per 1,000 coverage snaps; Bradberry = 5.71
  • Dunbar has grabbed 7.17 INTs per 1,000 coverage snaps; Bradberry = 3.26
  • Dunbar has 19.9 pass breakups per 1,000 coverage snaps; Bradberry = 13.9

Based on what I’ve read across a number of websites, the expectation is that Byron Jones is gonna have the biggest cash-register hit among cornerbacks this off-season, with Chris Harris and Bradberry close together in 2nd and 3rd when it comes to free agent dollars in March.

Top-tier cornerback contracts are running in the $14-15m per year range, and that’s probably where Byron Jones will be. Harris and Bradberry won’t likely be very far behind, though Harris, at age 31, may have to settle for a much shorter contract length (possibly just 1 year). My guess is that they each sign for around $11-12m per year; Harris’ 2019 contract with the Broncos was a one-year contract that had an APY of $12m, and I don’t expect Harris to willingly take a pay cut.

Bradberry is almost certain to sign for less than $13m per year; I would guess the 27-year-old would be able to command something like a 4-year, $45m deal in free agency, but I have very little to base that on aside from a comparison between him and Chris Harris.

  • In 2019, Bradberry and Harris played a similar number of coverage snaps.
  • Bradberry’s completion % allowed was >9 percentage points better than Harris (59.8/69.1)
  • The two players had identical yards per reception (14.3)
  • Nearly identical YAC (215/216)
  • Bradberry allowed 2 TDs and made 3 INTs, Harris = 3 TDs allowed / 1 INT

Harris’ play fell off in 2019 after he signed a one-year deal for $12m. Bradberry’s 2019 season was, statistically, slightly better than Harris’ ‘19 season, but slightly weaker than Harris’ 2018 campaign, so I would expect the former Panther DB to have a value close to that of Harris.

The Redskins can save $12.5m by cutting Josh Norman. Paying that to Bradberry would make him the 11th highest paid CB iat the moment, but an $11m APY would be good for just the 16th highest, falling to 17th if Byron Jones gets paid. The Bradberry contract seems likely to fall somewhere in this range.

Consider this from the Athletic:

Washington needs a durable shutdown cornerback. Bradberry has played in 60 of 64 possible games, finished with the second-most interceptions (three) among cornerbacks hitting free agency, and has never finished a season with fewer than 10 passes defended. Throughout his career, he has been asked to lock down some of the league’s best receivers in the FalconsJulio Jones and Saints’ Michael Thomas. He would be a reliable and physical corner to pair opposite Dunbar. While Moreau came on strong later in the season, he has struggled with injuries and with giving up big plays. Bradberry would give the defensive backfield some needed depth. There’s also a legitimate concern for the Panthers that they’ll be in a fight with Washington for Bradberry come free agency, especially after he said of his former coach to ESPN, “that’s my man,” following the season finale.

Bradberry won’t be cheap, but he also shouldn’t command a top-10 CB salary. His relationship with Rivera is likely to make him a priority free agent target for the Redskins, and should make Washington an attractive destination for the former Panther.

Byron Jones, Dallas, 27

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Chicago Bears David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Jones seems to be the unanimous choice as the #1 upcoming 2020 veteran free agent cornerback, and he seems to be in most people’s top 10 overall.

I’ve already mentioned above that Jones will probably sign a contract with an APY of $14-15m; I would guess a 5-year, $60m deal for the 27-year-old. The real question is whether Dallas makes him an offer he can’t refuse, or if he heads for the open market.

Jones has spent his entire career in Dallas, missing only one game in 5 seasons. Among CBs with at least 400 snaps in 2019, PFF ranks Jones 13th overall and 18th in coverage, placing him very solidly among NFL cornerbacks.

Jones is almost exclusively a boundary corner, with less than 50 snaps as the slot defender in 2019.

  • Although Jones and Dunbar were rookies in 2015 and have played 5 NFL seasons, Jones has more than twice as many coverage snaps as Dunbar (3.043/1,255)
  • Both CBs have given up 60.4% of passes thrown their way
  • Jones gives up 11.3 yards per rec; Dunbar = 12.7
  • Jones has allowed 307 yards after catch per 1,000 cover snaps; Dunbar = 410 YAC
  • Jones has given up 6.57 TDs per 1,000 cover snaps; Dunbar = 7.17
  • Jones has just 2 INTs in 5 seasons; on just 41% as many coverage snaps, Dunbar has secured 9 INTs
  • Jones averages 11.5 pass break ups per 1,000 cover snaps; Dunbar = 19.9

After viewing Dunbar’s stats in comparison to both Jones and Bradberry, I get the sense that Dunbar is a bit more aggressive, with more PBUs and INTs, but giving up more yards and touchdowns — probably because when he doesn’t get the PBU or INT, he is more prone to give up a big play.

Still, looking at the comparison between Jones and Dunbar, I’m struck by the fact that Jones’ value may lie primarily in his consistency. He is not dramatically better or worse than Dunbar, both making and allowing fewer big plays, but he seems to be able to play week in and week out without missing games, and his performance appears to be very even when he is on the field — a bit less of a ‘gambler’ than Dunbar.

Is that reliability and consistency worth the $4m per year premium the Redskins would pay for Jones versus Bradberry?

And if Quinton Dunbar compares to favorably to both Bradberry and Jones, what does that mean for him when his current contract with the Redskins finishes at the end of 2020? Dunbar’s current contract paid him an average of $3.5m per year for 3 years. He’ll be 28 and at the top of his game when he hits free agency in 2021, with only a spotty injury history to suppress his value.

Would a heavy financial commitment to Byron Jones signal the likely end to Quinton Dunbar’s career as a Redskin when his contract expires at the end of the 2020 season?

Chris Harris, Denver, 31

NFL: Denver Broncos at Buffalo Bills Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Chris Harris seems to be almost universally rated as the #3 CB in this year’s upcoming free agent class.

The 31-year-old has spent his entire career in Denver.

Last year he played with the Broncos on a one-year $12m contract.

Also last year, Denver traded to acquire Duke Dawson, New England’s 2nd round pick in 2018, from the Patriots. Dawson played only 343 snaps last year, most of them in the slot, With Isaac Yiadom starting on one side, and Dawson available, the Broncos may be in a position to move on from Chris Harris this season, or at least try to squeeze down the value of his contract.

I actually reviewed most of Harris’ stats in the section on James Bradberry above. They are statistically quite similar, but Harris is 4 years older and has spent his entire career in Denver. Also, Harris’ stats took a dip last season, which, for a player past 30 years old is a troubling thing to hear.

Chris Harris is undoubtedly a good cornerback, but he may be at the tipping point where his best years are behind him. He is expensive, currently boasting the 13th highest CB contract in the league by APY, and, after 9 years playing for the team that drafted him in Denver, he is likely only to change teams for more money and a chance to stay in the starting line up. As much as Bradberry seems to be a nearly perfect fit for the 2020 Redskins, Chris Harris, who is a very similar player statistically, seems to be a bad fit when it comes to other considerations.

While there’s probably still room for Chris Harris in the NFL, and likely in Denver, an older, expensive vet on a probable one-year deal doesn’t seem like the answer to the Redskins needs at CB at the moment. Harris still has tread on the tires, I think, but I don’t see him coming to DC.

Trae Waynes, Minnesota, 28

NFL: Green Bay Packers at Minnesota Vikings Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Trae Waynes was a first-round pick in the 2015 draft, going 11th overall to the Vikings, who liked him enough to exercise the $9m 5th year option on him.

PFF has him as the 71st ranked CB (overall) in 2019, with his strongest grades coming in run defense, which isn’t typically what you want to see from your cornerbacks. His coverage grades and overall defensive grades from PFF have been pretty consistent over his 5-year career, which is to say that they have been okay... neither bad nor stellar.

He is primarily a boundary corner, but given the strength of his run support, lines up more than 10% of the time like a box safety.

The Vikings have some of the most limited cap space in the NFL, meaning that Waynes might easily find his way to free agency, except for the fact that Xavier Rhodes had such a miserable 2019 campaign. The Vikings can save $8.1m in 2020 cap space (and a further $25.5m remaining on his contract) by pulling the plug on Rhodes now. I could see Rick Spielman making the re-signing of Trae Waynes a priority.

The 28-year-old Waynes is ranked #38 on the Pro Football Rumors list of the top 100 veteran free agents of 2020. He would provide strong competition for Fabian Moreau, but at a cost.

Spotrac estimates Waynes’ free agent value at $8.4m APY, projecting a 3-year, $25.2m contract for him. Adding Waynes would probably provide an upgrade compared to every Redskins cornerback aside from Dunbar, and could be a good medium-cost investment for the team.

Bradley Roby, Houston, 28

NFL: Houston Texans at Tampa Bay Buccaneers Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

Bradley Roby rings the bell at #45 overall on the NFLTR list of the top 100 veteran free agents of 2020, just a year after jumping from the Broncos to the Texans on a one-year, $10m contract.

Typically, players sign a deal like that in an effort to earn a bigger deal in their second crack at free agency.

Given that NFLTR rated Roby below Trae Waynes, and that PFF grades him about on-par with Waynes in 2019 (albeit with a better coverage grade and weaker run defense grade), I’m not sure how successful he was in upping his asking price.

He’s certainly important to the Texans, but the AFC 2019 playoff team has a relatively deep cornerback group. In addition to Roby, the Texans have Jonathan Joseph, Gereon Conley, and this year’s second-round draft pick, Lonnie Johnson Jr.

Roby may well find himself headed to the open market — especially if newly appointed GM (and established head coach) Bill O’Brien isn’t inclined to give Roby the payday he was hoping for when he signed with the Texans a year ago. But with Joseph hitting his use-by date at age 35, the Texans could decide that Roby, despite being just an average NFL CB, needs to be a priority re-signing.

Fansided published an article this week about Roby, and talked about what Houston wanted when they grabbed him in free agency a year ago.

The Texans were looking for a versatile defensive back that could match up with big physical possession receivers or fast vertical receivers that could get upfield in a hurry. At 27 years of age, Roby embodied those traits as he trailed the best receiver and showed the speed to stay step for step with the faster receivers in the league towards the end of the regular season.

A versatile defensive back able to match up with possession receivers or fast vertical receivers? Sounds like the kind of guy the Redskins could use. Roby is truly versatile, taking about 30% of his defensive snaps lined up as the slot defender in 2019. That versatility could make him particularly valuable for the Redskins, who have a very good boundary corner in Quinton Dunbar, and a second player in Fabian Moreau who seems much better suited playing wide than in the slot. Jimmy Moreland showed some promise as a nickel corner as a rookie, so an all-rounder like Roby could be just what the roster-doctor ordered for Jack Del Rio’s re-tooled defense.

The Athletic echoed this sentiment:

Roby might be just the right fit. Roby played a season for Del Rio in Denver, was tied for third in interceptions with two among corners hitting the market. He’s never had a season without an interception, and 2019 is one of only two seasons in his career where he’s had fewer than 10 passes defended. Under Del Rio, he enjoyed tremendous success with two picks, 13 passes defended, two forced fumbles, two recoveries and a sack. Roby’s 65 tackles and five for a loss were the most of his career.

Roby’s market position isn’t terribly ambiguous. He signed a $10m contract a season ago, probably expecting to get a significant raise on a multi-year deal this off-season. His play, while good enough to land him among the better available free agents, was not really close to the elite level that would earn him a raise. In fact, I wouldn’t be shocked to see teams offering him less than the $10m he made in ‘19.

That would likely see Roby stay in Houston where he knows he has an established position, and a good chance at a second consecutive playoff season... unless his relationship with JDR tips the balance.

Poll

What should the Redskins do at this CB this off-season?

This poll is closed

  • 4%
    Basically stand pat with the 2019 roster; maybe add a mid-round draft pick or a budget free agent for depth.
    (26 votes)
  • 5%
    Look to improve the position group by adding a quality player in the first 3 rounds of the draft.
    (33 votes)
  • 32%
    Look to improve the position group by adding a quality veteran free agent, even if it costs $12 - $15m per year. They can get the cap space by cutting Norman anyway.
    (188 votes)
  • 21%
    Look to free agency to upgrade the group, but limit the cost of the free agent to no more than $10m APY.
    (122 votes)
  • 34%
    One guy isn’t enough. The team needs to draft one player and sign a free agent who can contribute right away.
    (195 votes)
  • 1%
    I have a different idea.
    (9 votes)
573 votes total Vote Now

Poll

Of the players highlighted in this article, when you take into consideration history, talent, age, likely contract, and so on, which one would you most want the Redskins front office to prioritize if they signed a veteran free agent CB this off season?

This poll is closed

  • 22%
    Kendall Fuller, 25
    (133 votes)
  • 55%
    James Bradberry, 27
    (323 votes)
  • 8%
    Byron Jones, 27
    (50 votes)
  • 1%
    Chris Harris, 31
    (8 votes)
  • 3%
    Trae Waynes, 28
    (20 votes)
  • 8%
    Bradley Roby, 28
    (49 votes)
583 votes total Vote Now