If they talked about Cornerbacks like they talk about Running Backs
Seaside Joe 1233: If you shouldn't draft a RB in the second round, you should really hate picking a CB in the top-10
Everything is perception. People not only make judgments based on the information that they have, but also oftentimes on the information that they don’t have; if you don’t know, can’t you just “fill in the blanks” based on drawing a logical conclusion from everything that you know?
It’s never been a secret to even the most average of football fans that it is easy to perceive the running back position as being replaceable, injury prone, and dependent upon the quality of the surroundings.
This is not “analytics.” This is Average Seaside Joe watching football and noting that a) running backs are most consistently involved in violent tackling situations, b) often gaining or losing chunks of yardage based on the blocking and quality of defense around them, and c) getting low-balled on their contracts and forgotten in the draft.
These are obvious takeaways from focusing on the running back position and so alongside the rise of social media in the last five years, there’s been an amplification of the argument that this position does not matter and that teams should only invest resources into running back as a last resort. It was only four years ago that Le’Veon Bell was NFL.com’s top-ranked free agent, only three years ago that Saquon Barkley was the number two pick in the draft (and Offensive Rookie of the Year), and only two years ago that Derrick Henry rushed for 2,027 yards as the catalyst for a Titans offense that doesn’t have much else to brag about, it turns out.
The perception in the league for decades was that running backs were nearly as important as quarterbacks, even as recently as the 2006 NFL Draft that had everyone on this internet calling it “The Reggie Bush Sweepstakes”, and then every Seahawks fan pledging devotion to Marshawn Lynch in the early 2010s. But with slight variations in NFL offenses and a propensity to use running backs by committee, the perception as shifted to the modern era being a poor fit for the position.
That is only because people are laser-focused on this one position and completely ignoring whether or not any of these concerns and reasons for skepticism could be compared to other positions, while also leaving out the part that if running backs are falling down draft boards and getting replaced for pennies on the dollar, that should make their NET VALUE go up. Not down.
For every piece of evidence that seems to support the theory that running backs are replaceable (Elijah Mitchell exists), there are at least three contrary points that prove that the truly great running backs do matter. And like with Kenneth Walker III and the Seahawks, you do have to draft them before another team gets the chance.
The top five players in rushing yards last season were all top-50 picks, including Jonathan Taylor (1,811 yards, 18 TD). Henry was a top-50 pick. If they had entered the draft in another era, either of them would have been first round picks, if not top-10 picks. The fact that they were drafted later because teams perceived that running backs were getting a lower priority does not change the fact that the higher you are valued as a draft prospect, the greater your odds of becoming one of the NFL’s best running backs.
However, if you only focus on these players, you can start to pick apart everything that goes wrong and you can build a cherry picked argument that “running backs do not matter” and that they are too risky to make an investment in. Then what happens is that people who do not have the time to do the research will read your argument and it will sound pretty good to them; “Well, I watch football and I’m not stupid. I can see that running backs do run behind an offensive line. I know that my favorite running back got hurt. This actually makes sense and I believe this now.”
But what if we didn’t solely focus on one position? What if we didn’t cherry pick?
What if we even spent one day talking about the investment that teams are making into cornerbacks over the last ~10 years without only spewing our criticisms at this one position?
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It’s important to note that as always I have no biases here. I am not rooting for a result that supports my argument any more than I’m looking to find results that would make Seaside Joe look a-fool.
The only mission that I am on is to find out what the actual truth is and to share those results with Seaside Joe readers. Not only do I sympathize with people who believe that running backs flat out do not matter, I was at the forefront of that argument about ten years ago. I evolved, the way I look at football adapted, and I think it is interesting to see so many people crystalized for years with this one belief.
The research you will read was not cherry picked: I started with the 2009 draft because I felt like that was a good year to pick. Drew Brees and Peyton Manning in the Super Bowl had really solidified the importance of a strong and voluminous passing attack with an elite quarterback. Cornerback value in the draft seems to go up every year since then.
Then I went back as far as I found reasonable and easy to analyze with free agent contracts, which happened to be 2014. If you see any names missing that you think deserved mention, let me know in the comments.
There’s never ever any “tricking people” at Seaside Joe. That’s not what we do, that’s what they do.
The results are what they are though: If you feel that drafting a running back 41st overall or paying a running back $5 million is risky, then you’re going to sweat out your blood cells when you find out what can happen when you invest into a cornerback these days.
The top-16 picks: Jeff Okudah (3), Denzel Ward (4), Jalen Ramsey (5), Patrick Peterson (5), Morris Claiborne (6), Joe Haden (7), Justin Gilbert, (8), Jaycee Horn (8), Patrick Surtain (9), Dee Milliner, (9), C.J. Henderson (9), Eli Apple (10), Stephon Gilmore (10), Vernon Hargreaves (11), Marshon Lattimore (11), Trae Waynes (11), D.J. Hayden (12), Marlon Humphrey (16), Kevin Johnson (16), A.J. Terrell (16)
There have been 20 cornerbacks drafted in the top-16 since 2009, with the most recent draft excluded, and taking any stab at this position has proven risky.
Setting aside the great picks (Ramsey, Peterson, Gilmore, Lattimore, Humphrey), the good picks (Ward, Haden), and the early returns picks (Horn, Surtain, Terrell), we’re left with 10 bad picks. If that holds, it means that 50-percent of cornerbacks drafted in the first half of the first round may yield a team barely any positive results at all.
Okudah has a chance to resurrect his career after two nightmare campaigns in the league, but he was also drafted over Justin Herbert and a lot of really good players. The rest proved little more than dead weight, including top-10 picks Claiborne, Gilbert, Milliner, Henderson, and Apple.
While Trent Richardson is more of a bust on the “Justin Gilbert” level, consider the other top-10 running backs in this same period of time: Saquon Barkley, Ezekiel Elliott, Leonard Fournette, Christian McCaffrey, C.J. Spiller, Todd Gurley.
You can criticize their second contracts, you can worry about injuries, but you can hardly call most of those players as being a waste like Henderson or Vernon Hargreaves. Running backs also sell jerseys, are promoted as must-watch players on primetime broadcasts, and promoted in ways that not even Ramsey can match; Rams fans will probably hold Gurley in higher esteem than Jalen Ramsey over the long haul.
Biggest Free Agent Deals
*Released before the end of the contract
2021 - Shaquill Griffin ($44.5/3), William Jackson ($40.5/3), Ronald Darby ($30/3), Adoree’ Jackson ($44.5/3) Extended: Marshon Lattimore ($97/5)
Jaguar Report gave the Griffin signing a “C+” grade after his first season, noting positive leadership qualities for the young cornerbacks on the roster but an underwhelming number of impact plays given his contract. Jackson missed five games and even said himself that he didn’t play well during his first season in Washington.
Darby, who left Washington for Denver, missed six games and had a career-low in passes defensed (6) and had zero interceptions. Adoree’ Jackson has now missed 22 games over the last three seasons, including four during his first campaign with the Giants. Reviews from the Giants writers are not glowing.
Lattimore seemed back on his game in 2021, but he was credited with allowing seven touchdowns on 106 targets. Why is a number one being targeted 106 times?
2020 - Trae Waynes* ($42/3), Kendall Fuller ($40/4), Byron Jones ($82.5/5), James Bradberry* ($45/3), Chris Harris ($17/2), Desmond Trufant* ($21/2), Bradley Roby^ ($36/3) Extended: Ramsey ($100/5), Darius Slay ($50/3), Tre’Davious White ($69/4), Logan Ryan* ($30/3), Marlon Humphrey ($97.5/5)
Seems like the Bengals could not stand the notion that Waynes was a bust, so they paid him $30.8 million to play in five games before getting his release this year. After a good debut year with the Giants, Bradberry was also released before the third season of his free agent contract, earning $30.15 million. Trufant played in 6 games with the Lions in 2020 and then was released. Roby played in 10 games with the Texans in the first year of a three-year deal, then was traded to the saints.
Byron Jones had the highest cap hit for any corner in 2021, and it was the third time in the last four years that he failed to record a single interception. Jones is viewed as a pretty average number two cornerback and it is possible that the Dolphins just eat his $14.8 million dead money cap hit in 2023 to save some money, if they can’t find a trade partner. I could be off-base on that, but it’s not a huge stretch.
Logan Ryan, a sometimes-safety with the Giants, was released two seasons into his three-year deal, having recorded one interception in 31 games. He had posted four picks, 18 PDs, and 4.5 sacks during his contract year. Even White is coming off of a disappointing campaign, with 2021 being the worst and most injury-riddled season of his career. Humphrey also missed five games.
2019 - Bryce Callahan ($21/3), Pierre Desir* ($25/3), Justin Coleman* ($36/4), Steven Nelson* ($25.5/3), Extended: Marcus Peters ($42/3), Xavien Howard ($75.25/5), Joe Haden ($22/2) Re-signed: Chris Harris ($12/1)
Howard is still considered a number one cornerback, but the Dolphins have to pay him a $25.9 million cap hit in 2024 and it’s almost all guaranteed. That’s when Howard will be 31. There are few over-30 cornerbacks in the NFL, let alone as number ones. Darius Slay led over-30 CBs with nine passes defensed in 2021 (that ranked 50th overall) and he will turn 31 this year.
Peters missed the entire 2021 season. Haden was replaceable over his last two years with the Steelers and is now a free agent. The Broncos gave Harris $12 million that I really don’t think they had to give him at that stage in his career.
Callahan missed 28 games over the life of his three-year contract with the Broncos. Desir only made it one year into his three-year contract with the Colts and has played for four teams in the last three seasons. Coleman was released two years into his contract and is back with the Seahawks, trying to make a roster. Nelson was also released two years into his contract.
2018 - Trumaine Johnson* ($72.5/5), Richard Sherman ($27/3), Malcolm Butler* ($61.25/5) Extended: Casey Hayward* ($34/3) Re-signed: Kyle Fuller* ($56/4)
Not only did Johnson barely make it through two years with the Jets (and 15 games missed), he also got the franchise tag from the Rams in each of the two seasons before that. Sherman’s free agent deal was relatively cheap because he was 30 and coming off of a serious injury and although he was great in 2019, he wasn’t good in the other two seasons of the contract.
Butler made it through three years of his contract, missing seven games in 2019 and allowing 15 touchdowns in 41 games. He was released and out of the NFL in 2021, then he re-joined the Patriots this offseason. Hayward made $28.75 million of his $34 million extension with the Chargers, getting released in 2021 after suffering his first notable injury since 2013; Hayward made noise with seven interceptions in his initial season with the Chargers, but had only three interceptions over the last three years in L.A.
Fuller was a Pro Bowler in his first two seasons of the contract he signed with the Bears, then was a cap casualty after the third.
2017 - Stephon Gilmore ($65/5), A.J. Bouye* ($67.5/5) Xavier Rhodes* ($70/5) Logan Ryan ($30/3) Dre Kirkpatrick* ($52.5/5) Extended: Desmond Trufant ($68.75/5)
Rhodes had five interceptions with the Vikings in 2016 and parlayed it into the second-biggest contract for a cornerback at the time; though he was a first team All-Pro in 2017, he only lasted through three years of his deal and has had a total of six interceptions over the past five seasons. Wouldn’t it be tough to explain to a novice why Nick Chubb is replaceable, but Rhodes was worth every penny of his contract?
Similarly, Bouye was great in the first year of his contract, helping the Jaguars reach the AFC Championship, but he was traded after two more seasons and has missed 21 games in the last four years. Like a lot of corners on this list, Bouye bunched up a lot of his career picks in only one of his career seasons. Kirkpatrick played in three of those five seasons on his contract, missing 10 games in the final year. Trufant made it three years, missing seven games in the final year.
Bill Belichick so rarely handed it big free agent deals prior to 2021, so obviously he saw Gilmore as a special player going into a special situation with the Patriots. Gilmore won Defensive Player of the Year in 2019, but then missed five games in 2020 and was traded to the Panthers (and missed nine games) in 2021. It seems that any cornerback getting near or past his age-30 season is in trouble.
2016 - Josh Norman* ($75/5), Janoris Jenkins* ($62.5/5) Extended: Darius Slay ($48/4), Robert Alford* ($38/4)
Remember when Norman was the talk of the NFL, then the Panthers tagged him, then they just let him go from the tag entirely? An All-Pro in 2015, Norman signed the richest contract for a CB in history at the time and went to Washington: He played in four seasons, made zero Pro Bowls, and was riding the bench by the end.
Explain to someone how Christian McCaffrey’s career is “troublesome” but Josh Norman’s was “outstanding.”
Jenkins has done alright for himself over the past six seasons and even then has missed a lot of time with injury and switched teams two more times. Slay did well enough for the Lions to demand a trade in 2020. Alford made it two years into his extension, earning $22 million of that contract.
2015 - Kareem Jackson ($34/4) Extended: Jimmy Smith ($41.1/4)
Jackson was a solid cornerback, eventually converted to safety. He never made a Pro Bowl. What I find interesting is that James Conner’s current contract as a Pro Bowl running back is three years and $21 million. Signed seven years after Jackson’s contract to be a serviceable cornerback. Remember a year ago when the Raiders were criticized for giving Kenyan Drake $11 million for two years?
Jimmy Smith missed five, four, four, and seven games over those years of his contract with the Ravens. He hasn’t played in more than 12 games since 2015. Yet there’s no “injury risk!!!” tag given to every cornerback who signs a new contract.
2014 - Aqib Talib ($57/6) Extended: Patrick Peterson ($70/5), Chris Harris ($42.5/5)
What’s ironic is that Talib’s contract with the Broncos in 2014 is one of the best deals on this entire list and that’s for a cornerback who may have drawn the most headlines for being a “problem” on the team and causing issues with his off-field behavior. Yet, Talib was good even after he was traded to the Rams in 2018. Peterson and Harris, no complaints there either.
The top-10 CB cap hits in 2022:
Ramsey ($23.2), Humphrey ($17.4), Griffin ($16.4), White ($16.4), Peters ($15.5), Jackson ($13.8), Darby ($12.8), Fuller ($11.1), Howard ($9.9), Slay ($9.7)
The top-10 RB cap hits in 2022:
Elliott ($18.2), Henry ($15), Cook ($11.8), Mixon ($11.4), McCaffrey ($8.7), Barkley ($7.2), Ekeler ($7), Hunt ($6.2), Kamara ($6.1), Carson ($6.1)
There will be a lot of talk in 2023 about the Seahawks drafting, signing, or trading for a cornerback. As there probably should be. Just because cornerback carries risk, it doesn’t mean that you avoid cornerbacks. It doesn’t mean that you dismiss their existence. It doesn’t mean that you assume they’re just replaceable.
What kind of an idiot would do that?
New 2-hour Seahawks Training Camp/Season Preview Podcast with Thad:
As Joe knows I am a huge supporter of the runninback. Somehow I wish they could get paid better for their work in the first four years. I wouldn't say I was sorry for them as it would be great to have a 4 year span where you made 3rd round money, which is far better than what the average Joe makes. I never thought Griffin was worth near the contract he signed with the Jags. The main reason was he very rarely got any ints. Reed was worth more than what Seattle offered but not worth what he got. I did admire both players courage in tackling. I guess I grew up in the era where the runningback was the star, and there is every reason to believe our backs will be stars this years
Despite their short careers, there are more running backs in the HOF than any other position. Period. End of story.