As Nnamdi Asomugha's huge deal with Philadelphia demonstrated two years ago, when a top-caliber cornerback becomes available, teams will fight for the right to make him a highly-paid individual. And even though things haven't worked out nearly as well for Asomugha and the Eagles as either side expected, the next corner who hits the market is sure to get the same treatment. The Jets' Darrelle Revis isn't even a free agent this year, but the rumors that New York might be considering trading him has already made "Revis Island" one of the biggest newsmakers of the 2013 offseason.
There may not be an Asomugha type to cause a feeding frenzy this spring (aside from the possibility of a Revis trade, which would likely be expensive for a new team in terms of both draft picks and dollars), but there is a potentially deep pool of good cornerbacks who will surely be highly coveted if they hit the market. Despite Asomugha's surprising struggles, several teams have had very good luck importing free agency cornerbacks in recent years.
Last season, for instance, the Dallas Cowboys invested heavily in former Chief Brandon Carr and the St. Louis Rams opened their wallets to reunite former Titan Cortland Finnegan with former Head Coach Jeff Fisher. Both players fared quite well in their first season with a new team, making those investments well worth it. A year before, Johnathan Joseph switched teams more quietly than Asomugha, going from the Browns to the Texans, and proved to be an outstanding addition for Houston's defense.
Just as many star cornerbacks were locked up by their teams in the last few years before they could hit free agency. The Falcons gave the franchise tag to Brent Grimes last year, though he would unfortunately miss the season due to an Achilles injury. The 49ers re-signed Carlos Rogers to a four-year deal last spring, while the Bears kept Tim Jennings in Chicago and were glad they did when he went on to snare nine interceptions and a Pro Bowl berth in 2012.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were one of the teams that lured a cornerback away from his former home in last year's free agency period, as they signed former Lion Eric Wright during a momentous spending spree in March. Wright's first season with the Bucs had its ups and downs, as described below, and indeed the entire Tampa Bay cornerback group was in a state of flux all last fall. Could the Bucs be motivated to dip into free agency to find a cover man for the second year in a row, and if so is there value to be had this offseason? As we do at each position in our free agency primers, we will consider five questions as we work our way through the depth chart:
- How might the Buccaneers' own list of pending free agents affect the position?
- What level of talent will potentially be available at that position on the open market?
- How effectively could a need at that position be addressed in the early rounds of the draft instead?
- What is the Buccaneers history in free agency at that position?
- How did that position perform for the Buccaneers in 2012?
As always, player evaluations and other points of conjecture are not meant to reflect the opinion of the Buccaneers' coaches or player personnel staff. We now look at the cornerback position after previously addressing the defensive line, wide receivers, safeties and tight ends.
Positional Free Agency Primer: Cornerbacks
- Tampa Bay's own pending free agents
E.J. Biggers has played a lot for the Buccaneers the past three years, especially considering he was a 2009 seventh-round pick who missed his entire rookie season on injured reserve. Biggers has started 24 games over the last three seasons and at the very least is an experienced nickel back, but he's ticketed for his first crack at unrestricted free agency in March.
Brandon McDonald, who signed with the Buccaneers last August after previously playing for Cleveland, Arizona and Detroit, is also a pending UFA. He was actually released by Tampa Bay in November and briefly signed on in Miami, but he returned to Tampa to play in the last three games.
Biggers and McDonald thus represent one-fifth of the team's entire list of unsigned, unrestricted free agents, as of February 27.
- The potential free agent market
And the best part is, there is less worry here about franchise tags thinning out the market, at least as compared to the equally impressive group of safeties that are currently eyeing free agency. That's simply a matter of finances – the tender offer that goes along with a tag for the cornerback position is much higher than what it is at safety. Last year, Grimes was the only cornerback who got the franchise tag, and that cost the Falcons more than $10 million in 2012 salary.
Few expect the Falcons to tag Grimes for a second straight year, for a variety of reasons, including his injury from 2012. In addition, the tender offer goes up significantly for a player tagged twice in a row, and the Falcons had a good number of young players emerge in their secondary last year. Miami's Sean Smith seems to be the cornerback most likely to get a franchise tag but, again, that's a difficult decision for the Dolphins given the size of the tender offer.
Aqib Talib, whom the Buccaneers traded to the Patriots at midseason this past fall, is headed towards free agency (that's obviously one of the reasons the Bucs pulled the trigger on the deal) and should have his suitors despite some troubling incidents in his past. Like Asomugha, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie didn't have the two seasons in Philly he expected in 2011-12, but he's a former Pro Bowler with the Cardinals who won't turn 27 until the end of next season.
There's more: Chris Houston of the Lions, Cary Williams of the Ravens, Derek Cox of the Jaguars, Antoine Cason of the Chargers. All are around 26-28 years old and have shown enough with their respective teams to deserve at least a reasonably good payday this offseason. After Talib, Smith and Grimes, Cox might draw the most attention despite some injury issues in the past after a very good season for the Jaguars in 2012. Cason might be a bit more under the radar but he's both young and very experienced (45 starts the last three years for the Chargers) and he may get a team or two betting on him taking another step up in his career.
There are even some more very recognizable cornerback names likely to be on the market in March, even if they may no longer be at the peaks of their careers or have had struggles in recent years. The Cowboys' Mike Jenkins was actually drafted in the same year as Talib and is only 27, but he has had injury problems the last two years and was squeezed out of the secondary picture in Dallas. Sheldon Brown, 33, has been a starter the last nine years in Philly and Cleveland, and he's headed to free agency. So are San Diego's Quentin Jammer, Buffalo's Leodis McKelvin, New England's Kyle Arrington, Cincinnati's Terence Newman and Pittsburgh's Keenan Lewis. Unlike most of that group, Lewis is coming off just his fourth season in the NFL, and he started all 16 games for the Steelers last year.
Rashean Mathis, Captain Munnerlyn, Bradley Fletcher…the list goes on and on. This year, free agency offers a handful of potentially star-caliber options at cornerback plus a long list of players who could help a team's depth at that position for the right price.
- Is the top of the draft a better option?
Well, it is always is if you want to add cornerback talent to your squad without immediately breaking the bank. In this particular case, the options are limited for those teams hoping to find the next Revis or Patrick Peterson, but there is a decent amount of depth for those looking outside of the top 10 or even in the next few rounds. The Buccaneers own the 13th overall pick, but also the 43rd and 73rd picks in the next two rounds, and they have a strong history of finding cornerback talent in the second and third stanzas.
That front-runner who is likely to crack the top 10 is Alabama's Dee Milliner. His stock was already on the rise before this past weekend in Indianapolis, when he ran a lightning-fast 40-yard dash time and generally looked like the best all-around cornerback prospect. Recent mock drafts have him going as high as the second overall pick, and while that's higher than any cornerback has ever been drafted, the current lack of consensus on the top picks this year makes it seem possible.
Florida State's Xavier Rhodes and Mississippi State's Johnthan Banks are widely considered the next tier of cornerback prospects this year, but Rhodes may have separated himself a little bit from Banks at the Combine. If a cornerback is going to go in the 10-15 range, Rhodes seems like the best bet at the moment. Last year was a good reminder, however, that the top-rated cornerbacks tend to see their stock rise as the actual draft approaches. South Carolina's Stephon Gilmore was being discussed as a borderline first-rounder early in last year's process but eventually went 10th overall to Buffalo.
Washington's Desmond Trufant might have had the most meaningful offseason among the cornerbacks so far, performing well at the Senior Bowl and the Combine and now looking like a possible first-round pick himself. Oregon State's Jordan Poyer, San Diego State's Leon McFadden, Utah State's Will Davis and North Carolina State's David Amerson might be looking at second-day selections, as well, and Buccaneers Head Coach Greg Schiano is certainly familiar with Rutgers prospect Logan Ryan, who had a strong sophomore season in Schiano's last year at the Scarlet Knights' helm.
- Tampa Bay's free agent history
The Bucs made a large investment in the cornerback position a year ago in Eric Wright (though that was actually the team's third-biggest signing after the imports of Vincent Jackson and Carl Nicks) and got mixed results. That has pretty much been the case for the team's free agency efforts at that position since a good start in the earliest days of the open market.
In 1993, the first year of free agency as the NFL now knows it, the Buccaneers executed one of their best signings ever with Pittsburgh linebacker Hardy Nickerson. However, that first free agency foray also brought in Martin Mayhew, the former Washington Redskins cornerback, and that also worked out very well. Mayhew, who is now the Detroit Lions' general manager, spent four seasons with the Buccaneers and was a starter throughout that tenure, opening 59 of the 60 games in which he played. He had eight interceptions in that span and was also a solid tackler despite being a somewhat undersized corner.
Tampa Bay signed a lot of cornerbacks in the first few years of free agency, before eventually reworking the position through the draft with the likes of Abraham, Barber and Kelly. They had a decent success rate with those early signings, which included Charles Dimry, Mike McGruder and Tony Stargell in 1994 and Tyrone Legette and Jay Taylor in 1996. Dimry was the only one of the group to become a starter for any length of time (most of three seasons) but McGruder, Stargell and Legette all stuck around for two seasons each and provided good depth.
By hitting repeatedly in the draft during the last half of the 1990s and the early 2000s, the Bucs didn't have to spend much free agency resources on the cornerback position for a while. They tried again in 2004 with Tommy Knight and Mario Edwards but didn't get much out of that. In 2008, the team signed Patriots safety Eugene Wilson with the thought of moving him back to cornerback, but that move didn't pan out, either.
Phillip Buchanon, a former first-round pick by Oakland, was signed midway through 2006 after being released by Houston. He doesn't technically count as an unrestricted free agent, but he would be a moderately successful pick-up if included here. Buchanon started 31 games for Tampa Bay in two-and-a-half seasons and was solid if not spectacular.
- 2012 Performance
It's obvious that the Buccaneers' secondary had problems in 2012, ranking last in the NFL in passing yards allowed per game, at the same time the run defense was leading the entire pack. It's not all that simple, however, to place the blame for those problems on one or two people.
The Bucs opened the season with Talib and Wright as their starting cornerbacks, but neither were in those spots when the campaign ended. Talib drew a suspension from the league and was later traded to the New England Patriots at midseason. Wright then drew a suspension of his own and also was bothered by a nagging Achilles injury; he didn't play in any of the team's last six games. Biggers had his own injury to overcome before his season got started, and he missed the first three outings before taking over for Talib as the starting left cornerback.
The rest of the cornerback reps were filled by players who weren't necessarily in the team's plans – at least not to the extent that they played – when training camp began. Undrafted cornerback Leonard Johnson had some very impressive moments at midseason but wasn't originally expected to start the second half of the season at right cornerback. Veteran Brandon McDonald, an August waiver-wire pickup, came and went several times during the season. Young LeQuan Lewis had bounced around the league a bit before the Bucs signed him in October, and he ended up playing a lot. Anthony Gaitor didn't get a chance to build on his impressive rookie season until the last month of 2012 because of a significant hamstring injury. Danny Gorrer was a midseason pickup.
The Bucs' cornerback corps was marked by seemingly nonstop upheaval in 2012, and was defined by a host of young and inexperienced players providing the best contributions they could. With Talib gone and long-time stalwart Ronde Barber now at safety (and still deciding whether or not to return in 2013), it's clear that the Bucs have some work to do at the position after a difficult 2012.
Summary: The Buccaneers' cornerback group is sure to look different than it did in 2012, and much different than it did just 14 months ago. Ronde Barber is now a safety and he may choose to retire; Aqib Talib is gone; Eric Wright's future is still to be determined; E.J. Biggers is a pending free agent; and the turnover at the position actually started in earnest last season. Mock draft sculptors are already busy matching the Buccaneers up with whatever cornerback they believe will be available at #13, but opportunities clearly exist both in the later rounds of the draft and in the free agency period that begins in less than two weeks. What the Buccaneers choose to do at the cornerback position over the next six months will be one of the major stories of the team in 2013.