Cornerbacks and the NFL Draft

Sometimes I have ideas for posts that simply don’t pan out when I do my research. Generally, I’ll come up with a theory that turns out to be wildly wrong, so I scrap the whole thing.

That’s what happened on this post. I had a theory that cornerbacks drafted in the first round tend to be busts a high percentage of the time and the best cornerbacks are drafted later in the draft. This turned out to be incorrect (sorta), but for reasons that were entirely unexpected by me. The research turned out to be pretty interesting though, so I decided to post it anyway.

I had the idea for this post right about the time that Packers cornerback Tramon Williams made the second half of Saturday night’s Packers/Falcons a mere formality with a devastating TAINT on the last play of the first half. For those not well-versed in Packers defensive backs, Williams was an undrafted rookie out of Louisiana Tech in 2007. He has become the best cornerback that the Packers have developed since they drafted Mike McKenzie in 1999. It’s not that they haven’t tried either – since 1999, they have drafted 15 cornerbacks. Two are still with the team – Brandon Underwood (drafted last year, primarily a special teams player) and Pat Lee (drafted in 2008, the dime back and part-time punt returner). Their top three cornerbacks are Charles Woodson (first rounder in 1998, came to Packers in 2004 via trade), Williams, and Sam Shields (an undrafted rookie).

My theory was that, judging from the Packers’ experience, it just isn’t worth it to draft a cornerback in the first couple of rounds. The short answer? I was wrong. The long answer? I might be right for a completely different reason.

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Here are the cornerbacks that were drafted in the first round between 1998 and 2008:

1998 (1 Pro Bowler, 2 average players, 1 bust) -
Charles Woodson (4) – Future Hall of Famer made the Pro Bowl in his first four seasons, was adequate for six seasons, then made four more Pro Bowls between 2008 and 2011.
Duane Starks (10) – Intercepted 25 passes and was a solid player for four teams in ten-year NFL career.
Terry Fair (20) – Lasted only four seasons before crashing out of the league.
R.W. McQuarters (28) – Intercepted 14 passes and was a decent player for four teams in eleven-year NFL career.

1999 (2 Pro Bowlers, 2 semi-busts) -
Champ Bailey (7) – 9-time Pro Bowler has 48 interceptions and is still one of the premier corners in the league.
Chris McAllister (10) – 3-time Pro Bowler was a shutdown corner for Ravens in eleven-year career.
Antuan Edwards (25) – Played for five teams in lackluster seven-year career.
Fernando Bryant (26) – Played for four teams in slightly less lackluster nine-year career.

2000 (1 Pro Bowler, 2 busts) -
Deltha O’Neal (15) – 2-time Pro Bowler. Had 34 interceptions in nine years, but was out of the league after the 2008 season.
Rashard Anderson (23) – Lasted only two seasons in the league due to a combination of substance abuse and lack of talent.
Ahmed Plummer (24) – Decent player for four years before injuries forced him to retire in 2005 after playing in only nine games in the previous two seasons.

2001 (1 Pro Bowler, 1 above average player, 2 busts) -
Nate Clements (21) – 1 Pro Bowl. Very good player, but 49ers questionably made him highest paid defensive player in history in 2007.
Will Allen (22) – No Pro Bowls, but has reputation as one of the best corner covers in league. Currently playing with Dolphins.
Willie Middlebrooks (24) – started one game in five years. Currently plays in Canada.
Jamar Fletcher (26) – played for five teams in eight years. Out of the league by age 29.

2002 (1 Pro Bowler, 2 average players, 1 bust) -
Quentin Jammer (5) – No Pro Bowls, only 14 interceptions in nine years with the Chargers.
Phillip Buchanon (17) – No Pro Bowls, 20 interceptions. Has played for five teams; was released outright twice.
Lito Sheppard (26) – 2 Pro Bowls, 1 All-Pro. Carved out a solid career playing for Eagles, Jets, and Vikings.
Mike Rumph (27) – Was called the worst corner in the league before the 49ers mercifully moved him to safety. Still lasted only three healthy seasons in league.

2003 (3 Pro Bowlers, 2 busts) -
Terence Newman (5) – 2 Pro Bowls, 26 interceptions. Has spent entire career as starter for Cowboys.
Marcus Trufant (11) – 1 Pro Bowl, 20 interceptions. Has spent entire career with Seahawks.
Andre Woolfolk (28) – Rarely played in four seasons with Titans. Out of league by 2006.
Sammy Davis (30) – Rarely played in five seasons with three teams. Out of league by 2007.
Nnamdi Asomugha (31) – 4 Pro Bowls. Premier shutdown corner in NFL. Amazingly, the ball was thrown his way only 27 times in 14 games in 2010. Signed to largest contract for cornerback in NFL history.

2004 (1 Pro Bowler, 2 above average players, 1 bust) -
DeAngelo Hall (8) – 3 Pro Bowls, 32 interceptions in seven seasons.
Dunta Robinson (10) – Was a starter for six seasons for Texans. In 2010, Falcons signed him to second largest contract ever for a cornerback.
Ahmad Carroll (25) – Weaknesses included not being able to cover receivers. Played parts of four seasons with three teams. Last seen as practice squad member of UFL’s Hartford Colonials.
Chris Gamble (28) – Has started at cornerback for last seven seasons for Panthers and grabbed 24 interceptions. One of the highest paid defensive players in NFL.

2005 (1 average player, 3 busts plus 1 bust at cornerback position) -
Pacman Jones (6) – Weaknesses included sobriety and not getting arrested. Actually had two decent seasons for Titans in 2005 and 2006. Last seen as member of Bengals, displaying little of the athleticism that made him the sixth overall pick.
Antrel Rolle (8) – Injuries and lack of coverage ability cost Rolle to lose his starting job after three seasons. Converted to safety in 2008, and has made two Pro Bowls since then.
Carlos Rogers (9) – Solid six-year starter for Redskins.
Fabian Washington (23) – Really fast, but not all that good. Has been mainly a backup for career.
Marlin Jackson (29) – A poor man’s Antrel Rolle. Mainly a backup cornerback, he has also filled in at safety at times, where he has done well. Eagles signed him in 2010 to be a safety, but a ruptured Achilles ended his season in June.

2006 (1 Pro Bowler, 1 average player, 2 busts) -
Tye Hill (15) – Part-time player has played for four teams in five years. Was waived by Titans before 2010 season.
Antonio Cromartie (19) – 1 All-Pro, 1 Pro Bowl, 18 interceptions in five seasons.
Johnathan Joseph (24) – Solid, if unspectacular five year starter with Bengals.
Kelly Jennings (31) – Still hanging around with Seahawks, despite being only a nickel or dime back.

2007 (1 Pro Bowler, 1 above average player, 1 TBD) -
Darrelle Revis (14) – 3-time Pro Bowler. Along with Asomugha, has reputation as premier shutdown corner in the league.
Leon Hall (18) – No Pro Bowls, but has been a standout corner with Bengals. Has 18 interceptions in just four seasons.
Aaron Ross (20) – Decent, injury-prone cornerback with Giants. Has started 24 games in four seasons.

2008 (2 Pro Bowlers, 1 above average, 2 TBD) -
Leodis McKelvin (11) – A good return man, but has been largely ineffective at corner in three seasons.
Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (16) – A standout with 13 interceptions. Selected to 2010 and 2011 Pro Bowls.
Aqib Talib (20) – Another standout, has grabbed 15 interceptions in three seasons.
Mike Jenkins (25) – Shutdown corner for Cowboys was selected to 2010 Pro Bowl, although he seemingly took a step backwards in 2010 season.
Antoine Cason (27) – Intercepted four passes in 2010 season, his first as a starter.

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For those counting at home, that’s 14 Pro Bowl cornerbacks, 16 busts, and only eleven that fell in between (I excluded Ross, McKelvin, and Cason because each has spent only one full season as a starter so far).

Generally, if a team has an almost 40% chance of essentially wasting a draft pick if they draft a player from a certain position, you’d think they’d stay away. But clearly teams are swayed by the 35% chance of hitting a Pro Bowl pick. And there’s very little in-between – they either waste a first round pick for a bust or get a Pro Bowl cornerback.

Six cornerbacks were selected to the Pro Bowl this season; five were drafted in the first round (fourth round pick Asante Samuel was the lone non-first rounder). That was a higher percentage than any position other than inside linebacker (all four are first-rounders).* It is hard to fault teams for looking for another one of these Pro Bowl cornerbacks, but I can’t help but think that using a first round draft pick on a 50/50 shot is something that the Detroit Lions would do.

* I quickly looked up all linebackers (the NFL doesn’t differentiate between OLB and ILB in  the draft, and I was too lazy to break them down myself) from 1998 to 2008. The result: 16 Pro Bowlers, 13 average/TBD, and just 6 busts. And this is at a position significantly more likely to face career-ending injuries than cornerbacks. Needless to say, this is a way better success rate than cornerbacks.

So what explains the results of first round cornerbacks? I have a few theories. I suspect it’s a combination of one or more of these:

1. It’s extremely difficult to identify first-round talent for the cornerback position. College receivers are just that much easier to defend. This year’s top CB prospect, LSU’s Patrick Peterson, faced the #2 WR prospect Julio Jones of Alabama…and that’s it for receivers projected to go in the draft. The second best CB prospect, Nebraska’s Prince Amukamara, faced exactly zero receivers projected to go in the draft.

More than any other defensive position, a cornerback faces a series of one-on-one matchups. Good college linebackers and safeties have to make reads each play. Good defensive lineman face double teams if they are dominant players. Good college cornerbacks, on the other hand, simply aren’t targeted. The offensive team will gladly leave the cornerback to cover a receiver and make the game 10-on-10. There’s a reason that Darrelle Revis’s nickname is “Revis Island” after all. It’s hard to figure out just how well a cornerback’s skills will translate to the pros if they don’t get the reps against the best receivers.

2. NFL teams look at the wrong numbers. The most important attribute for a pro cornerback is instinct. And yet NFL teams still fall for cornerbacks who perform well at the draft combine. Nebraska’s Fabian Washington was drafted in the first round by the Raiders in 2005. Washington was a solid cornerback for the Huskers, but no Husker fan realistically viewed him as a standout. Then he ran a 4.25 40 at the combine, the fastest time for any player that year, and jumped 41 1/2 inches in the vertical jump. Somewhat predictably, he didn’t crack the starting lineup for the Raiders and was traded to the Ravens in 2008. He started for parts of 2008 and 2009 before the Ravens benched him for good early in 2010.

Nnamdi Asomugha is probably the best shutdown cornerback in the league. He ran a comparatively slow 4.45 and jumped only 37 1/2 inches. Closing speed helps, but it doesn’t help that much. Yet since that’s all teams can measure in the combine, they fall for guys like Washington’s pure speed and neglect guys like Asomugha’s “quickness.”

3. Teams don’t know how to develop cornerbacks. For reasons that aren’t really clear to me, teams tend to thrust rookie cornerbacks right into the starting lineup. Because of the 1-on-1 nature of the position, a rookie cornerback is extremely easy to exploit. They also standout far worse when they have bad games; it’s easier to point to the one cornerback covering the 200-yard receiver than it is to point out just one of the seven lineman and linebackers charged with stopping the 200-yard rusher.

Fans jump on the rookie cornerback, and his confidence is shot. The most famous example of this is Broncos’ rookie Roc Alexander, who was charged with covering the Colts’ Reggie Wayne in the 2005 NFL Playoffs. Colts quarterback Peyton Manning mercilessly picked on Alexander. Wayne finished with 10 catches for 221 yards; Alexander played one more season with the Broncos and was out of the league for good by 2007.

Other than quarterback, cornerback is probably the hardest position for a rookie to play for all the reasons that I described above. And yet teams mostly refuse to keep a roster spot for a rookie backup cornerback. On top of that, only 18 of 32 NFL teams even bothered to keep a cornerback on their practice squad this season. Wouldn’t it be a good idea to line up opposite an NFL receiver every week in practice, instead of being thrown to the wolves each week in a game?

Look no further than Asomugha for support. He sat on the bench for the better part of his first two seasons in the NFL. Now he’s one of the best cornerbacks in the league. Sure, Revis started right off the bat and developed into a premier shutdown corner. But for every Revis, there’s an Ahmad Carroll – the Packers first round pick in 2004 that was such a train wreck that he was abruptly cut four weeks into the 2006 season.

4. Reputation. I think this plays a small part in how long a cornerback stays in the league. Cornerbacks are a lot like offensive lineman in that we tend to notice them only when they do something bad. Occasionally a cornerback will come up with a good interception, but more likely, you’ll only notice them if they get burned on a long pass or get an illegal contact or pass interference penalty called on them. Revis and Asomugha combined for zero interceptions this year, yet we know them as the best shutdown corners in the league. Every week, we see that the receiver that they cover is out of the picture. Like an offensive lineman who doesn’t allow sacks, we just know that they are good.

But this can also turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Quarterbacks see that other teams don’t throw towards those good corners, so they don’t throw their way either. But the cornerbacks that get burned once or twice a game…well, those corners will be getting picked on. Just like that, the gulf between good cornerbacks and bad cornerbacks grows wider, simply because that’s who quarterbacks choose to target.

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The schism between Pro Bowl and bust cornerbacks is probably a combination of those four theories. Nebraska’s Prince Amukamara is projected to go in the top five of the draft. I watched every Husker game this year and I couldn’t tell you if he’ll be a Pro Bowler or a bust. He was great for Nebraska, but it wasn’t so much for what he did – he had zero interceptions – but for what other teams didn’t do against him. Who knows if that will cut it against far more talented quarterbacks and receivers.

So what does this mean for NFL teams that draft a cornerback in the first round? Simply, beware: you have a 50/50 shot at getting a franchise cornerback and a 50/50 shot of wasting your first round draft pick.

If your team has a lot of needs, it’s probably not worth it to draft a cornerback. Your fans will remember. Trust me, Packers fans remember the name Ahmad Carroll. And not for good reasons.

4 Responses to Cornerbacks and the NFL Draft

  1. I think NFL scouts look a lot more carefully at players than that but I agree that often the combine seems to throw certain corners to the fore on pure athletic ability alone. There are certain coaches who seem to think it’s possible train athletic players to become skilled corners while it’s hard to make a kid with the awareness and instincts run faster or jump higher.

    It’s flawed logic, but as a coach, you can see how it might seem easier to teach someone how to play on the shoulder in man coverage or where to be in zone coverage for certain plays, than it is to teach a kid how to run quicker while going backwards. Getting a corner’s legs to move quicker is harder than getting his brain to move quicker – at least that’s how it seems that many coaches think.

    A corner than can run a 4.25 in the combine is likely to be able to cover more ground and make up for slack coverage with sheer speed. A guy who runs a 4.53 might have great instincts but if his instincts are fooled by a pro quarterback just once a game, he won’t be making up any ground on elite receivers. It’s obviously more complicated than that but you get my meaning. It’s finding the balance between athleticism, positional skill and instincts that makes finding great corners a very fine balancing act.

    Teams will continue to take a chance though, because for every Tye Hill, there’s a Champ Bailey.

  2. sethbeccard says:

    Thanks for the comment and subscribing. I like your idea on the combine speed – coaches probably fall for these fast players sort of to hedge their bets with their cornerbacks. I just think it’s so easy to be tricked by those numbers because instinct and positional skill are so hard to quantify.

  3. You’re welcome. You make some good points and the cornerback question has always intrigued me.

    I don’t think it’s coaches being fooled by athletic ability necessarily, just that they sometimes put too much stock in their ability to turn athletes into elite corners. You see the same phenomenon in other positions too, just not to as great an extent. Their are plenty of receivers who are similarly athletic but couldn’t catch a cold, can’t run routes or execute cuts for example.

    I think all scouts and coaches want to be responsible for finding that rough diamond that they can turn into a sparkling NFL gem. In that way, athletic ability is as good a guide as any as to whether a player can cut it in the NFL or not. If you can find a way to accurately quantify positional skill and instincts you would be the most sought-after scout the NFL has ever had :)

  4. […] Other contributors: Hawk, G Daryn Colledge (47th overall), G Jason Spitz (75th overall), DT Johnny Jolly (183th overall), CB Tramon Williams (undrafted). Hawk is not the star linebacker that the Packers hoped for, but he has been a starter for five seasons. Colledge was a bit of a mess for a few years but have since become better than average guards. Spitz has served as backup for pretty much every offensive line position. Jolly looked like a potential steal after he was a dominant force for the team for a few years. Then the NFL suspended him indefinitely after he was caught trafficking codeine. And Williams, who first signed with the Packers in November 2006, has been so good that he inspired me to write this post. […]

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