APOLOGY TO READERS: I did not realize until today that Pro Football Reference, the data source for this article, updates some advanced statistics on Wednesdays. This is an updated article that includes corrected data for the first four games in the first table. My conclusions are not drastically different, although Forbes’ data in that table are less favorable here.
The Washington Commanders drafted Emmanuel Forbes with the 16th overall pick in this year’s draft. He was regarded highly by NFL scouts for his blazing speed (4.35 in the 40 yard dash) and record-setting skills as a ball hawk, but not all thought he deserved to be a first rounder. Washington surprised many observers by taking Forbes over Oregon CB Christian Gonzalez, and New England snapped Gonzalez up with the next pick. It will take years to know who the better choice was, but we will take an early peek at their relative progress here.
NOTE: Gonzalez had a serious shoulder injury during last Sunday’s game that probably will take him out for the year. However, he played in four games, he has had 18% more snap counts than Forbes so far, so it is possible to compare the progress of the two players.
Forbes had a rough day last Sunday against the Eagles and he got schooled by A.J. Brown, who would be a tough matchup for any rookie CB. Brown goes 6’1”, 226 lbs and he is the total package as a WR. In fact, he was a second-team All-Pro last year. There were some loud posts on Hogs Haven calling Forbes a bust after four games (!!!) and several posts criticized the front office and Ron Rivera for taking Forbes over Gonzalez.
Clearly, Forbes must get better. He has given up too many long passes this year. I have noted that he seems to fall for every double move thrown his way. Some have criticized him for making “business decisions” to avoid tough tackles. (Note: This was more a criticism of Gonzalez than Forbes from college scouts). Others think he is too eager to try for the interception or criticize him for dropping interception opportunities.
Sample for Comparison
I am going to compare Forbes’ performance to that of a set of the top corners in the game, namely the first- and second-team All-Pros from 2021 and 22. Those are Sauce Gardner, Patrick Surtain, Jaire Alexander, James Bradberry, Jalen Ramsey, Trevon Diggs, A.J. Terrell, and J.C. Jackson. I also compare Forbes to the three other CBs taken in Round 1: Devon Witherspoon, Christian Gonzalez, and Deonte Banks.
The Making of an All-Pro Cornerback
Here are a few conclusions based on my look over the career statistics for the All-Pro players.
- Elite CBs play well even as rookies. These players started games early and nearly all had respectable statistics as rookies. So, if we expect Forbes to be an elite corner, we need to see evidence of it this year.
- Almost all of these CBs continued to develop beyond their rookie year. Only Sauce Gardner was the unicorn who was All-Pro as a rookie, and he might get even better. Many CBs required years in the league to reach their full potential. Jalen Ramsey was much better as a second-year player than as a rookie, but even he required 7 years to have his best season statistically. The breakthrough year for Surtain was year 2; for Alexander it was year 3 (AV went from 6 to 11), but his best year was his fifth. Bradberry did not break through until his 5th year. He had good AVs (5-6) for four years, then jumped to 10 and the Pro Bowl in his 5th year. His best year was his 7th. Conclusion: don’t expect Forbes to have his best season as a rookie. Experience matters at that position. You want good this year, great in the future.
- Several of these players were not able to duplicate their best year later in their careers, often because of injuries. Jackson signed a big free agent contract before the 2022 season and has hardly played since. AJ Terrell’s 2022 season was derailed by hamstring problems. It’s a tough position and even the best don’t necessarily remain on top for many years. That’s another reason to hoard high draft picks, which is where most star CBs are found.
Elite CBs as Rookies vs 2023 First Round CBs
Let’s look at some early season numbers to see how Forbes and others taken in the first round this year compare to All-Pro CBs in their rookie years on three key metrics of CB performance (all data in this article are from Pro-Football-Reference.com).
The total picture on Forbes is perhaps surprisingly positive so far. The Completion Percentage Against him is 50%, which was better than the rookie performance of six of eight All-Pros. On that measure, two of this year’s cohort are doing outstandingly well. In fact, Witherspoon and Banks are doing better than any of the All-Pros as rookies. Forbes is the leader of this year’s class in Passer Rating Against, and only two of the All-Pros as rookies did better. However, Forbes’ Yards per Target is off the chart after surrendering four long passes against Philadelphia. That must be corrected, and quickly.
It’s early in the season and the numbers for 2023 rookies can change drastically, but the first round rookie class of 2023 looks solid. The worst performer so far is . . . wait for it . . . Christian Gonzalez. He has the worst Completion Percentage against of anyone on the chart, a worse than average Passer Rating Against, and only an average Yards per Target. Both Witherspoon and Banks look like keepers based on these data.
All-Pros in their Rookie vs Best Year: Splash Plays
The next chart looks at the first- and second-team All-Pros in both their rookie years and in their best year (usually their All-Pro year). We look at rookie year Average Value (AV) and best year AV, and the rookie year and best year numbers for Interceptions (INT), Passes Defended (PD), and Combined (solo plus assisted) Tackles (T).
The last three metrics are for flashy plays that get CBs the most media attention. Interceptions are highlight reel events that can change a game’s outcome, but they are rare in the modern era and few players collect very many in any year. Even if they do, they may not collect more than one or two the next year. Passes Defended is probably a better indicator of pass coverage performance because the numbers are larger and the variance is greater. Combined Tackles is important because it reveals how willing the CB is to play physically and support run defense.
The first two columns of data look at the player’s Rookie Average Value (AV) against their best year’s AV. These data reinforce the point that most elite CBs take time to become great. Gardner was exceptional as a rookie, but he could be even better this year and beyond. The others showed a large gap in AV between their rookie year and their year of highest AV. Pro Football Reference doesn’t calculate mid-season AV, so we don’t yet know what the AVs are for the rookie class.
Elite CBs and 2023 First Round CBs: Splash Plays
We compare this year’s first round rookie class against the rookie years of their seniors, extrapolating the rookies’ performance in their first four games by multiplying times four (close enough for our purposes, especially since CBs often miss a game or two due to injuries).
The table shows the performance of the All Pros in both their rookie years and their best years for these statistics. The “Year in Career” column indicates the year for the best performance on these metrics. The best year is usually but not always the year of highest AV (most notably, Surtain had a better sophomore year overall but was best on these metrics as a rookie). Since Gardner has only played one full year, both columns have the same numbers for him.
For comparison, we look at the performance of the All-Pros as rookies and in their best year versus the performance of the 2023 first round CBs on these metrics.
Because we are extrapolating, and interceptions are rare events, it is best not to put too much stock in the projections for Interceptions. Three of the four 2023 rookies have one pick at this point, but Banks has none. So far, so good; if that translates to actual performance, three of the rookies will have unusually high numbers at the end of the year.
Passes defended are a vital statistic. The best rookie performer? Our own Emmanuel Forbes. He is on a rate to collect 20 PDs this year. If so, he would match Sauce Gardner for the best rookie performance by anyone on the chart and would have a better number than five of the eight All-Pros in their best year. Witherspoon is not far behind Forbes. Gonzalez and Banks have shown below average performance so far.
Tackles is a very interesting statistic for those who see Forbes as a frail back who makes business decisions not to tackle, especially against the run. That critique did not fit what I have seen, and the numbers back me up. Forbes is on pace to collect 72 tackles, which is better than the rookie performance of any All-Pro and better than six of the eight All-Pros in their best year. Only Ramsey and Terrell, two ferocious tacklers who take pride in stopping the run, had more in their best years.
Witherspoon missed one game but nevertheless is on a record pace for Combined Tackles. He looks to be a monster of a physical cornerback. Banks’ performance is poor, despite having slightly more snaps than Forbes. Gonzalez’s performance is good. Note that he has played 18% more snaps than Forbes (even though Gonzalez missed part of Game 4 due to injury), but he still trails Forbes in tackles.
It looks to me like Emmanuel Forbes has a good chance to be an elite cornerback. Whether you compare him to his cohort of first rounders or to the rookie and even veteran performance of first- and second-team All-Pros, he looks like a star in the making. On Completion Percentage Against, Passer Rating Against, Interceptions, Passes Defended, and Combined Tackles, his numbers so far are elite. He has one serious problem, which is the tendency to give up big plays. But he is a smart player and I expect him to bring down the Yards / Target number dramatically over the course of the season.
It appears to me that NFL teams got the order of CBs right this year. Witherspoon looks as good as he was expected to be as the first CB chosen. Forbes is behind him but also excellent so far. Gonzalez is good but not close to Forbes right now, even though some people claim that Washington made a mistake in choosing Forbes. Banks brings up the rear because of poor Interception and Combined Tackles performance, but he looks excellent on Completion Percentage and Yards per Target.
A closing thought about Gonzalez versus Forbes. It’s still early in season one and there is no way to know for certain which of the two will end up having a better career (if Gonzalez returns next year, as expected). Both could be great in the end, or both could bust. But if your response to these data is to say that Rivera and the front office made a mistake by taking Forbes over Gonzalez, and you know this regardless of the numbers because of what you see on the field, take my advice: get your eyes checked.