Free agency and the NFL draft are tied at the hip. How a team handles the first month of free agency, when most of the marquee available players will be signed, dictates what that team can accomplish in the draft. Conversely, if a team has an early enough pick to lock in a particular position (such as Washington at No. 2 with Ohio State EDGE Chase Young) or is dead set on trading up at any cost, they are more free to spend money elsewhere in free agency.
In the simplest terms, balancing free agency and the draft is about maximizing value while still filling the needs of the roster. That is much easier said than done, but quantifying the production of free agents compared to general hit rates of draft picks can give some insight as to how a team can get maximum value on their resources.
This year’s cornerback crop is a good illustration of how to sort out whether a team needs to sign a free agent or draft a player. With plenty of starting cornerbacks hitting the free agency market and this year’s draft class at the position being lauded as one of the best and deepest in years, there will be plenty of opportunity for teams to make a conscious decision between paying a veteran versus drafting a rookie.
Let’s start with a look at 2020’s crop of free agent cornerbacks. According to Spotrac, 54 cornerbacks will be unrestricted free agents this offseason. A handful of others are listed as restricted free agents or have special clauses in their contracts for player/team options (such as Levi Wallace), but for the sake of ease and clarity, we will stick with these unrestricted free agents.
We can narrow down the pool of players even further by using Sports Info Solutions charting data. Of the 54 UFA cornerbacks, only 28 qualified for for our ranking tables with enough playing time in at least one of the past two seasons; only 15 qualified in both of the past two seasons. Generally speaking, any player who plays over half a team’s snaps tends to qualify, but it is slightly more complicated than that. To qualify, a player must meet at least one of:
- 3.5 targets per team game
- 50 targets for the season
- 8 games started for the season
As a simple measure of performance, we can use yards per attempt allowed and success rate stats to gauge both the quality and consistency of each player over the past two seasons. In 2018, the average qualifying cornerback surrendered 7.6 yards per attempt and held a 52% success rate. In 2019, the average qualifying cornerback surrendered 7.6 yards and held a 53% success rate.
For the sake of this exercise, we will use a half-yard range in either direction to assume relative above- or below-average performance; in this case, 7.1 to 8.1 yards allowed would be considered average for both seasons. For success rate, we will use a 2% range in either direction to assume relative above- or below-average performance (the average range would be 50%-to-54% for 2018, 51%-to-55% for 2019). This is a loose measure for finding the middle 25% or 30% among qualifying players.
Here’s how our 15 qualified players fared in the last two years. Numbers shaded in green are better than average; those shaded in red are worse.
There are only five instances in which any of these players earned above-average production in both yards per attempt and success rate during a single season — and Byron Jones accounts for two of them. Ronald Darby and Johnathan Joseph each completed the feat in 2018, while cheap free agent Brian Poole did so in 2019. However, Jones is the only player of the four to be that productive over both seasons. Poole was awful with the Falcons in 2018 before a resurgence with the Jets in 2019. Darby, on the other hand, was a fantastic lockdown cornerback in 2018 before battling a slew of injuries through the 2019 season. Joseph just got old.
A handful of players, such as James Bradberry, scored above-average in one season and managed to be within the average range in their other season, but that’s it. Nobody else among this year’s free-agent cornerbacks showed top-notch play year-over-year — at least by the numbers. Granted, this is only a two-year sample in order to represent their most recent play rather than their entire careers, but it still serves to highlight the inconsistency in coverage production from one year to the next.
Conversely, six players (Darby, Joseph, and Poole included) earned an above-average score in an area during one season, but came in below average in the other season. Six players did not earn above-average production in either area during either season. Two players (Rashaan Melvin and Jalen Mills) earned below-average production across the board for both seasons. The evidence for either inconsistent or uninspiring play is overwhelming compared to evidence that suggests any of these cornerbacks are consistently capable.
With questionable play from many of Jones’ peers in this free-agency class, the former Cowboys corner is in a clear tier of his own. Not only is Jones the only free agent cornerback to post above-average success rates over each of the past two seasons, he is the only one to come in above-average in more than two of the four columns. Jones’ blend of consistency and high-end production almost completely excludes him from the conversation about paying vs. drafting cornerbacks considering how sound a bet he is compared to the rest of the free-agent class. While Jones is likely to reset the cornerback market, it is rare to find a legit No. 1 cornerback with his production profile in free agency. Any team not strapped for cap space should feel good taking on the cost in exchange for the comfort to be able to allocate a first-round pick elsewhere. The real conversation about free agency vs. the draft begins once Jones is out of the picture.
By the numbers, Bradberry has the next-best case to succeed in 2020. Bradberry has been Carolina’s top cornerback for the past two years and has still managed to be largely capable, even very good, in a division with three quality quarterbacks in Drew Brees, Matt Ryan, and Jameis Winston. Per Spotrac, the top 15 highest-paid cornerbacks in the league make between $11.1 million and $15.5 million per year. Bradberry will certainly fall within that price range, probably closer towards the high end, and it should be assumed he will be the most expensive cornerback on the market aside from Jones.
Darby, Poole, Chris Harris, Trae Waynes, and Daryl Worley fall into the category of being coin-flips with impressive upside. Technically, Joseph could be included here too given his profile, but at 35 years old, it feels more likely that he could just fall off physically. Perhaps a team could sign Joseph to a small contract and hope he still has something left in the tank. Darby, Harris, and Waynes will likely demand the most money and each earn around $8 million to $12 million per year on their contracts — which is about two or three times as expensive as a first-round pick depending on the draft slot. Poole may be had at a bargain (again) in part because he is only a slot player, while Worley will be paid as a No. 2 cornerback.
Prince Amukamara, Eli Apple, Logan Ryan, and P.J. Williams should not at all be considered as No. 1’s. All four should be considered as No. 2 options. In particular, Amukamara, Apple, and Ryan have all been relatively stable over the past two seasons with non-detrimental dips in just one area and should be expected to provide similar play moving forward. Realistically, that kind of profile can make for a solid No. 2, as all three have proven to be over the past couple of seasons. Williams is a less certain bet considering how far below-average some of his numbers have been at times.
As for the other two lesser names — Melvin and Mills — they are just not good. The reality is that there are not 96 starting-caliber cornerbacks (nickels included), therefore players like Melvin and Mills end up starting on some of the weaker defenses around the league. Neither will demand very much money, but the potential upside on both is limited and unpredictable.
Xavier Rhodes may be in the most peculiar spot of all the cornerbacks in the free agency group. After posting a productive 2018 season, Rhodes collapsed in 2019. Rhodes’ 32% success rate was by far the worst among the 70-plus cornerbacks to qualify for Football Outsiders charting in 2019. While many players may have a reasonable capacity to bounce back, the future is sketchy for Rhodes. He battled a slew of lower body injuries toward the back half of 2018 and it seemed those injuries lingered in 2019. Rhodes’ did not look nearly as athletic in 2019 as he had in years past, particularly with respect to speed and explosiveness. The likely outcome for Rhodes is a one-year “prove it” deal to assess his health, but it is tough to gauge the value of that potential contract given how horrific his play was in 2019.
Free agency is not the only means with which to acquire cornerback talent this year. In fact, this year’s cornerback draft class is one of the most talented in years. With elite players at the top and several quality prospects likely to go in the second and third rounds, there are plenty of favorable “lottery tickets” at the position this offseason. This may be the year for teams to swing in the draft instead of in free agency.
That being said, getting a good cornerback out of the draft is not as simple as just selecting one in the top 100, and even the deepest cornerback classes show clear decline in talent and starting ability as the picks roll on. That isn’t any sort of revelation, but it does make it worth exploring exactly what we can expect from a cornerback drafted in each of the first three rounds of the draft.
Let’s start by weeding out how many top-100 picks even play as rookies. Since 2015, 67 cornerbacks have been drafted in the first three rounds. Below is a breakdown of how many of them were drafted in each respective round as well as how many of them met SIS’s charting qualifiers during their rookie year:
- First round: 18 drafted, 14 qualified (78%)
- Second round: 27 drafted, 10 qualified (37%)
- Third round: 22 drafted, six qualified (27%)
- Total: 67 drafted, 30 qualified (45%)
The least surprising information here is that a majority of first-round picks played enough to qualify for charting. What’s more, the four who did not meet the qualifications each had reasonable explanations as to why they did not play.
- Waynes (2015) was playing under Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer, who is notorious for not playing cornerbacks during their rookie seasons, a practice he became known for in Cincinnati.
- William Jackson III (2016) battled a pectoral injury from the start of the year and was with the Bengals, who still sort of carry on Zimmer’s way of handling young cornerbacks.
- Gareon Conley (2017) missed a majority of his rookie year with the Raiders due to a shin injury.
- And finally, Mike Hughes (2018) was on track to be the rare Zimmer cornerback to play a lot as a rookie, but an ACL injury ended his year in Week 6.
Waynes is really the only player on the list to have not qualified due to non-injury reasons, but even the Zimmer “tradition” serves as a valid excuse for him. In short: first-round picks are locks to be starters, barring injury or Zimmer.
The qualifying rate significantly falls off in the second round. Like the first round, some of those who did not qualify were because of injury rather than quality of play, but it is still telling that the qualification rate falls by half from the first round to the second. Unsurprisingly, the qualifying rate falls by another 10% from the second round to the third.
As far as finding a passable starter, only the first round serves as a viable means of filling the void immediately. Second- and third-round players can become starters, but given their sub-50% qualifying rates, it would not be advisable to forego signing any cornerbacks in free agency with the intent to draft a Day 2 cornerback to solve that problem right away. In that case, a team would likely need to at least sign one of the “coin-flip” or middling free agents as contingency plan.
It is not enough to just get a player who ends up starting, though. Sometimes players are forced into starting roles despite being sub-starter quality, whether due to the massive draft capital invested in them, injuries to others on the roster, or just a generally poor cornerback depth chart that forces them into the lineup. Let’s dive into which players qualified in each round and how they fared as rookies, both as individuals and as groups by round. Here are the 14 qualifying first-round cornerbacks over the past five classes.
|Qualifying First-Round Cornerbacks, Rookie Seasons, 2015-2019|
|Year||Team||Name||Still on Drafted
Only two of the 14 players stand out as being clearly below starting quality as rookies: Eli Apple and Vernon Hargreaves. All 12 of the other first-round rookies hit at least the 52% mark in success rate, which is around average for any given year, and three players (Marlon Humphrey, Tre White, Denzel Ward) topped the 60% mark. By and large, first-round cornerbacks produce league-average or better, assuming they are healthy enough to see the field. Even including cornerbacks who did not qualify for charting, it is fair to say 12 of the 18 (67%) first-round cornerbacks over the past five years have been average or better as rookies.
Due to the rookie wage scale, first-round picks are very cheap relative to veteran cornerbacks, too. Per Spotrac, the first overall pick n 2020 will count for $6.66 million on the cap, and the 32nd overall pick will count for $1.91 million, with the average first-round pick counting for $3.24 million. For perspective, Pierre Desir counted for $6.85 million, Troy Hill counted for $3.44 million, and Justin Bethel counted for $2.00 million against the cap in 2019. If even the most expensive first-round cornerback only costs as much as Desir and has a two-thirds hit rate, that should be a bet teams are willing to take more often than not.
Unless a team is in a comfortable cap position and can contend right now (i.e., the Buffalo Bills), drafting a cornerback in the first round is better than signing a cornerback in free agency, at least for this year’s class. First-round cornerbacks are far more cost-effective and are not really any riskier than almost any cornerback on the market, aside from Jones and Bradberry.
|Qualifying Second-Round Cornerbacks, Rookie Seasons, 2015-2019|
|Year||Team||Name||Still on Drafted
The second round is a significantly larger gamble than the first. Even aside from the difference in qualifying rate, the variance in outcomes of qualifying players presents a much higher risk. Whereas only two of the 14 qualifying first-round cornerbacks scored a sub-50% success rate, six of the 10 qualifying second-round cornerbacks did.
If we include non-qualifying second-round picks, only four of the 27 second-round cornerbacks over the past five draft classes have proven to be average or better as rookies. Again, a handful of those who did not qualify battled injuries, but even so, the second round effectively has a 15% hit rate as far as rookie production is concerned. Teams in need of a quick fix should not be betting on their second-round cornerback to be the answer right away. Even though they are also very cost-effective relative to “coin-flip” or mid-tier veterans, the risk on immediate production is terribly high.
|Qualifying Third-Round Cornerbacks, Rookie Seasons, 2015-2019|
|Year||Team||Name||Still on Drafted
Third-round picks appear to fall into a boom-or-bust pattern as well. What’s interesting is that while third-rounders tend to qualify about 10% less often than second-round cornerbacks, they still produce about as many decent-or-better starters. In fact, considering the third-round pool is slightly smaller to begin with, the fact that the third round produces as many players above 50% success rate as the second is impressive.
A plausible reason third-round picks still have a handful of high-end rookies despite the lowest qualifying rate is that if a third-round pick happens to be good enough to start, they had to climb up from the bottom of the roster throughout camp and preseason and have proven to be very clearly capable. Second-rounders may be subject to some degree of preferential treatment, be it extra chances to prove themselves or a higher starting spot on the depth chart, because of the higher value of their pick. Of course, it may also just be random variance considering the second- and third-round samples are fairly similar on the whole in terms of hit rate, but that would be my best guess at an explanation.
Don’t get too optimistic, though. Third-round picks are still bad first-year investments. Only four of the 22 third-rounders earned average or better success rates as rookie, effectively giving them an 18% hit rate.
In total, eight of 49 second- and third-round cornerbacks earned average or better success rates as rookies. A 16% combined hit rate on Day 2 picks is abysmal compared to the 67% hit rate of first-round picks. Of course, it should be expected that first-round picks fare better early on, but that they are four times more likely to be an immediate hit over Day 2 picks is significant. Second- and third-round picks do come on negligible contracts that come in at about $1 million or less on the cap, but that bargain comes at the exchange of certainty in the quality of player out of the gate.
Ultimately, first-round cornerbacks being more valuable than almost any free agent is not terribly surprising. First-round picks are supposed to be ready-made players with Pro Bowl potential, while many free agents are unsigned at least in part because their play over the past few seasons has not been consistent.
The idea that the second and third rounds can provide starting-quality play in place of signing free agents, however, is likely misguided. Day 2 draft picks may become decent starters down the line, but fewer than half of them even play enough as rookies to be considered “starters,” let alone play well enough to be assets. Day 2 picks and mid-tier free-agent signings almost certainly have to go hand-in-hand with the hopes that at least one of them “hits.”
Teams who miss out on Jones and, to a lesser extent, Bradberry in free agency need not worry. The first round of the NFL draft features four or five worthwhile cornerback prospects, including Ohio State’s Jeff Okudah, Florida’s CJ Henderson, and LSU’s Kristian Fulton. For teams who both miss out on the big fish in free agency and opt to draft a different position in the first round (or don’t have a first-round pick), they ought to prepare for the likelihood of not being able to field three, or even two, starting-quality cornerbacks.