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How Good Are Washington’s Cornerbacks?

Measuring what did and didn’t happen

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Dallas Cowboys v Washington Commanders Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

The idea for this article arose as I was preparing my 2022 Commanders Stats and Snaps recap, and also helping the DraftBot with its analysis of the team’s needs heading into the draft season. I realized I am not satisfied with the available cornerback performance metrics.

I have commented previously that, as a fanbase, we tend to overrate our players. In some cases, however, I think we underrate them. One player whom I have always suspected that we underrate is CB Kendall Fuller. I have to confess to having been a big fan of Fuller since the day he was drafted. I was disappointed when the news broke that Washington had traded for QB Alex Smith, but what tipped me over the edge into full blown outrage was learning that the player we had traded for him was Fuller.

Fuller seems to do a great job of keeping his receivers quiet, but he doesn’t put up large numbers of interceptions and passes defended. He doesn’t post very high Approximate Value scores.

Evaluating the performance of cornerbacks is challenging. Unlike quarterbacks, for example, there are no available metrics that do a good job of capturing the full spectrum of their contribution on the field. In my 2022 Stats and Snaps series, I often cited opposing passer rating when targeted, to quantify how well the Commanders’ CBs performed, or failed to perform. However, I have since realized it only tells part of the story.

The very best cornerbacks prevent the receivers they are covering from getting open. A true shutdown corner causes quarterbacks to target other receivers. The result is that the receiver and the CB covering them disappear from the stat sheet.

I suspect the absence of good statistical metrics to measure CB performance might be why Fuller doesn’t get the appreciation he deserves. My first hint that this might be the case was the 49ers game in which SF QB Brock Purdy completely avoided targeting receivers in his coverage. Looking back through the 2022 game logs, I noticed that Fuller had seven games with three or fewer targets in coverage. That seems like a pretty small number of target’s for a team’s CB1.

The challenge in quantifying the “lock-down” aspect of CB play is that there is no really good way to measure things that didn’t happen. I suppose I could cite PFF coverage ratings. However, their subjective grading methods have been known to produce some curious results, such as Daron Payne not ranking among the Commanders’ top 10 defensive players in 2022, and Quinton Dunbar grading as the second-best NFL CB in 2019.

By way of expectation management, I will tell you now that I did not solve the problem. Actually, I think I know the answer, but it requires statistics that are not readily available. I do believe I found a way to compare the CBs within the same team. The metrics I settled on might shed some light about where the Commanders’ CBs sit, league wide, do provide an indication of what needs the team might want to address this offseason.

The following analysis will therefore evaluate the Commanders’ CBs performance in 2022 using opposing Passer Rating, which is based on coverage production statistics, as well as metrics aimed at revealing how well they do at preventing their receivers from attracting passing targets.

Minnesota Vikings v Washington Commanders Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

Measuring What Did Happen - Opposing Passer Rating

Opposing Passer Rating provides a useful metric for evaluating CBs’ performance at defending the ball, when targeted in coverage. It measures the performance of opposing quarterbacks when throwing into coverage by an individual CB, and is calculated using the formula for the official NFL stat Passer Rating, based on variables pass attempts, completions, yards, touchdowns and interceptions.

Opposing Passer Ratings (PR), rankings within the league, and associated statistics for the Commanders’ CBs in 2022 are shown below. PR data are only shown for CBs with a minimum of 30 targets in coverage. This threshold was set deliberately to exclude CBs whose sample size in coverage was too small for reliable measurement. Unfortunately, that excludes three of the Commanders’ CBs who saw limited action. I have gone ahead and indicated where they would rank if they had met the minimum threshold and their PR numbers held up. 96 CBs met the targets threshold in 2022. All data in this section were sourced from Pro Football Reference.

Danny Johnson – PR 54.1, NFL Rank 4

293 Defensive Snaps, 39 Targets, 21 Completions (53.8%), 167 Yards, 0 TD, 1 INT

Johnson played only 293 defensive snaps in 11 games, with four games started to relieve injured starter Benjamin St-Juste. He did an excellent job of defending the ball when targeted in coverage. To put the numbers into perspective, opposing QBs throwing into his coverage had passing performance somewhere between John Wolford (PR 64.6, rank 47 among QBs with 3 or more starts) and Malik Willis (PR 42.8, rank 48). The only CBs who recorded lower Opposing Passer Ratings were Tariq Woolen (SEA, PR 48.7), James Bradberry (PHI, PR 51.6), and Chidobe Awuzie (CIN, PR 53.4).

Kendall Fuller – PR 87.1, NFL Rank 55

1,031 Defensive Snaps, 74 Targets, 41 Completions (55.4%), 590 Yards, 5 TD, 3 INT

Fuller played close to 100% of offensive snaps, lined up at CB1. Despite playing more than three times more snaps than Johnson, and frequently covering opposing teams’ leading receivers, he had fewer than twice as many targets in coverage. When he was targeted, he allowed an opposing PR of 87.1, which ranks just behind Kyler Murray (PR 87.2, rank 25) and ahead of Desmond Ridder (PR 86.4, rank 26).

Benjamin St-Juste – PR 87.1, NFL Rank 55

655 Defensive Snaps, 65 Targets, 31 Completions (47.7%), 466 Yards, 3 TD, 0 INT

St-Juste was tied with Fuller in opposing PR. However, he had close to 90% of Fuller’s targets in coverage, despite playing around 64% of the number of defensive snaps.

The other CBs who played more than 20 defensive snaps for the Commanders in 2022 fall into two categories.

Bobby McCain (Slot CB/FS) – PR 111.9, Interpolated NFL Rank 87.5*

970 Defensive Snaps (416 at CB), 52 Targets, 41 Completions (78.8%), 404 Yards, 2 TD, 0 INT

*Bobby McCain is a special case. He started 16 games for the Commanders in 2022 and was listed as a CB for the first few games and a FS after that. He actually split time at different positions within games throughout the season, lining up as a slot or wide CB on 416 snaps, at free safety on 353 snaps and in other alignments on 201 snaps. I was unable to include him in the ranking data because, if I had, I really should also include all of the other players listed as safeties who play similar roles, and there is no way to identify them in the PFR database.

Nevertheless, it is fair to compare McCain to the other CBs in terms of opposing PR, because the difference in coverage responsibilities should have little effect on what occurs once the ball is in the air. McCain was a liability when targeted in coverage this season. In six games, he allowed 100% receptions in coverage, and in 10 games, he allowed 75% or more. His opposing PR in coverage would rank 88th out of 97 CBs, if he was included, and is better than Brock Purdy, who was the highest rated passer in the NFL (PR 107.3). Opposing QBs should target McCain’s receiver whenever they get the chance.

CBs With Limited Playing Time

Three other Commanders’ CBs did not get the playing time to accumulate enough targets in coverage for their PR values to be reliable. I will list their values anyway, but please take them with a grain of salt.

Rachad Wildgoose – PR 71.6, Interpolated NFL Rank 17.5

195 Defensive Snaps, 19 Targets, 11 Completions (57.9%), 97 Yards, 0 TD, 0 INT

Wildgoose started three games at CB for the Commanders out of necessity when starters were injured. In limited playing time he was a targeted 19 times and did not give up a great deal of receptions or big plays. If he was able to keep up an opposing PR of 71.6 throughout a whole season, he would be among the top 20 pass defenders in the league. A PR of 71.6 is slightly worse than Zach Wilson (PR 72.8) who ranked 46th in the NFL.

William Jackson III – PR 121.9, Interpolated NFL Rank 94.5

204 Defensive Snaps, 24 Targets, 17 Completions (70.8%), 190 Yards, 2 TD, 0 INT

Jackson will be remembered as the last great free agent bust of the Snyder Era. Not only did he allow a 70.8% completion rate in coverage, but he also seems to screwed up communication throughout the entire secondary. Following his benching in Week 5, the Commanders 4-week defensive turnover drought broke, and the defense became one of the best stop units in the league.

The opposing PR recorded through three games and 15 snaps of a fourth would rank 95th out of 97 CBs, if he had enough targets for inclusion.

Christian Holmes – PR 158.3, Interpolated NFL Rank 97 (out of 96)

103 Defensive Snaps, 8 Targets, 7 Completions (87.5%), 106 Yards, 1 TD, 0 INT

Let’s not be too hard on a 7th round rookie in his first 103 defensives snaps. 158.3 is a perfect PR score. If he played that badly in coverage through 30 targets, it would have made him the worst pass defender among the qualifying CBs.

Washington Commanders v Indianapolis Colts Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Measuring What Didn’t Happen - Preventing Targets

Judging only by opposing PR, it would appear that Danny Johnson is the best CB on the roster. Rachad Wildgoose should probably get more playing time, and both starting boundary CBs, Kendall Fuller and Benjamin St-Juste, are about the same and rank around league average. Last of all, the team needs to move on from Bobby McCain in the slot. Very little of that seems to make much sense to anyone who watched the Commanders’ defense this season. It seems like something is missing.

As I indicated above, defending passes that are thrown is really the lesser part of a CB’s responsibility. His primary job is to keep his receiver covered so that he doesn’t get targeted. In that sense, defending passes is really just damage control after failing his first responsibility.

Is there a way to measure how effective CBs are at preventing their receivers from getting open? I can think of two approaches. The ideal method would be to measure the rate at which individual opposing receivers are targeted in a CB’s coverage and compare it to their rate of targets against all of the other CBs they face in a season. Unfortunately, that would require play-by-play data on individual CB-WR matchups which is not freely available. The second, somewhat cruder method is to simply measure targets per snap in coverage (referred to as “coverage snap” or CS from here on). Since that data is more readily available, that’s what I went with.

The rationale for Targets/Coverage Snap as a valid measure of CB lockdown ability depends on one seemingly reasonable assumption: open receivers will tend to draw targets. While Commanders fans know better than anyone else that that is not always the case, my reasoning is that over the course of a 17-game season, facing around 14 different opposing quarterbacks, any differences between opposing QBs and opponents’ run/pass balance should average out. As a result, the tendency for QBs to throw to open receivers should generate a strong enough signal to sort out the lockdown CBs from those who let their receivers get open.

Targets/Coverage Snap

To see how Washington’s CBs rated in preventing targets, I ranked all NFL CBs by Targets/Coverage Snap (Tgt/CS) using data from Pro Football Focus. Bobby McCain had to be treated slightly differently, because he splits coverage snaps between alignment as slot CB and FS. To make a fair comparison with the CBs, I used his Tgt/CS figure for coverage snaps in which he was aligned in the slot only. I didn’t think it was appropriate to include him in the CB ranking, because I didn’t include any other safeties who cover the slot part time. However, I have indicated where his figure would rank among the CBs.

I limited the ranking to CBs who played 100 or more coverage snaps to avoid including spurious figures from players who didn’t play enough to get reliable figures. 152 CBs met the snap count criterion. I deliberately set the threshold this low to include all but one of the Commanders’ CBs. Players with fewer Targets/Coverage Snap were ranked higher.

The Commanders’ CBs ranked as follows:

As suspected, Kendall Fuller is the best of the group at preventing the receivers in his coverage from drawing targets. Fuller is tied with 5x Pro Bowler and 1x All Pro Darius Slay. Furthermore, among the 18 players ranked above Fuller and Slay, only nine were primary starters in 2022.

It might come as a surprise that Bobby McCain is not that far behind Fuller when covering the slot.

All of the other CBs ranked in the bottom third of the NFL in preventing targets. The next best CB after McCain, William Jackson III, had a 32% higher rate of targets in coverage. Backup Rachad Wildgoose and starter Benjamin St-Juste were just a little bit worse than Jackson.

Rookie Christian Holmes saw limited playing time and therefore had too few coverage snaps to rank reliably with the rest of the league. The worst rated Commanders’ CB by this metric, Danny Johnson, was the 4th most picked on CB in coverage of the 152 players who met the snap count criterion.

These results demonstrate a clear hierarchy in lockdown ability among the Commanders’ CBs. Fuller is the best and ranks among the best CBs in the league. McCain’s slot coverage is good enough to put him in the same tier as Fuller.

The next three CBs make up a second tier near the top of the bottom third of the league. Danny Johnson and Christian Holmes pick up the rear and were among the most picked on CBs in the NFL.

Receptions Allowed per Passing Down

To summarize the results so far, Danny Johnson appeared to be the best of the Commanders’ CBs at defending passes once they are thrown in 2022, but was the worst at preventing his receivers from drawing targets. Kendall Fuller, meanwhile, was the Commanders’ best CB at locking down receivers, but was only middle of the pack league-wide at defending passes once targeted. Bobby McCain was not behind Fuller in limiting targets but was very poor at defending passes.

This raises a question. Which is more important, preventing receivers from drawing targets or defending passes when they are thrown?

Ultimately, we want to know who is better at preventing receptions, which represents a combination of those two skills. To answer that question, I compared the Commanders’ CBs by Receptions/Coverage Snap:

And there you have it. There is a good reason that Kendall Fuller is CB1 and Danny Johnson is the backup. Despite doing a better job of defending passes once they are thrown, Johnson’s receivers were targeted much more often, resulting in more than twice as many receptions per coverage snap. He would have to be a lot better than he already is at defending passes to make up for his deficiency in preventing targets.

Bobby McCain is pretty much the converse of Johnson. He was very good at preventing targets, but allowed a 78.8% reception rate when targeted. As a result, his Receptions/Coverage Snap figure for slot coverage would place him in the bottom third of CBs.

Commanders’ CB2, Benjamin St-Juste and backup Rachad Wildgoose performed better than McCain, but still allowed a 32% higher reception rate than Fuller.

Altogether, the results would seem to indicate that preventing targets and defending passes are both important, but of the two, preventing targets has the bigger effect on limiting receptions. Fuller has the lowest reception rate, because he is excellent at preventing targets and average at defending passes. Bobby McCain is also very good at preventing targets, but allows a high reception rate because he is terrible at defending passes. And Danny Johnson allows the highest reception rate, despite being great at defending passes, because he is terrible at preventing targets.

How Big is the Commanders’ Need at CB?

The data presented in the previous section can be interpreted in two ways. The highest ranked CBs, such as Kendall Fuller, might be the among best in the NFL at locking down receivers to prevent QBs throwing to them. Alternatively, the Targets/Coverage snap ratio might just be a reflection of the relative share of targets within an individual defense. According to this view, Fuller does not need to be among the best in the NFL for opposing QBs to avoid him. He just needs to be significantly better than the other CBs on the team for targets to be directed elsewhere.

From a standpoint of evaluating the Commanders’ needs at CB, however, both interpretations lead to about the same conclusions. The one point that is debatable is how good Kendall Fuller is as a CB1 compared to the rest of the league. I would argue that he is underrated because of the greater emphasis on production statistics in coverage, such as interceptions and passes deflected, than on preventing receivers from getting open. However, you could argue that Fuller only looks great in terms of targets and receptions per coverage snap because of the sharp drop in coverage ability between him and the next CB on the depth chart.

Regardless of the answer, both interpretations to the same place with respect to the other CBs on the depth chart. There is a sharp drop in coverage ability between Washington’s CB1 and CB2. Furthermore, with the possible exception of Rachad Wildgoose, who got limited playing time in 2022, the depth behind the two starters represents a drop off a cliff. While Bobby McCain appears to be very good at blanketing his receivers, his coverage is let down by poor pass defense.

These results highlight a need for improved CB depth and indicate that there is potential to significantly improve the Commanders’ secondary by upgrading the CB2 and slot corner positions.

Acknowledgement: Edited by James Dorsett. PFF data kindly provided by James and Bill in Bangkok. It was so useful that I decided to get a subscription.


What should the Commanders do at CB this offseason?

This poll is closed

  • 5%
    Sign a top end free agent – Jamel Dean, James Bradberry – to compete with Fuller for CB1
    (33 votes)
  • 9%
    Sign a mid-range free agent for $5m to $9m pa – Cameron Sutton, Jonathan Jones, Rock Ya-Sin, Byron Murphy – to compete with BSJ or McCain
    (54 votes)
  • 26%
    Draft best CB available or nickel back/S Brian Branch at pick #16
    (150 votes)
  • 38%
    Draft one or more DB after Round 1
    (214 votes)
  • 12%
    Some combination of the above – explain in the comments
    (68 votes)
  • 3%
    Roll with our guys. We have bigger needs elsewhere.
    (20 votes)
  • 3%
    Ask Rivera to call up some of his former CBs from Carolina
    (21 votes)
560 votes total Vote Now