In this weeks free agency feature we will take a look at the cornerbacks who may be available in 2016. As usual there will be no shortage of talent, though only one player looks to be a surefire bet to hit a monster contract in free agency…
Josh Norman, Panthers
Norman will likely win the award for best timing for free agency. He is combining the great season on an undefeated team giving him the kind of press and hype that will always maximize value. Norman currently leads the upcoming group of free agents in passes defensed and is second in interceptions. He doesn’t give up much in the way of completions and is generally regarded as the best corner in the NFL in 2015. All of this obviously adds up to massive money for cornerbacks, a position in ultra high demand last offseason. For Norman this year has basically doubled his value, similar to Byron Maxwell the year before.
The one caution sign that you throw up with Norman is age. Norman is going to be 29 by the end of next season. Generally cornerbacks don’t play at the kind of level Norman is playing at in their 30s. They can be very effective but this is very different than Richard Sherman or Patrick Peterson signing extensions at the ages of 26 and 24. That doesn’t mean teams won’t pay top dollar as a 30 year old Darrelle Revis essentially received a $16 million per year deal with the Jets while Brandon Flowers signed for $9 million in San Diego, but it should be a consideration.
The only limiting factor I really see with the age is length of contract. I think more teams would like him on a four rather than five year contract to make things easier for an eventual renegotiation. Another option is a Revis style deal where the backend of the contract declines significantly almost as a pre-negotiated pay cut. I would guess the Panthers will franchise him in the event no extension is reached before free agency, though that would put them right up on the salary cap if they do not make other roster changes. If he does make free agency expect teams like the Raiders, Jaguars, and Browns who have massive amounts of cap space to make a big push for him. He’ll earn more if he gets to free agency than if he is franchised and then extended.
Predicted Value: 4 years, $56.8 to $60 million
Sean Smith, Chiefs
Smith has very quietly had a very good season for the Chiefs after serving his 3 game suspension to start the year. He has played a role in the success of the resurgent Chiefs defense which has become one of the better units in the NFL and is considered at this stage to be an above average player for the position. Smith found himself in a similar position in regards to free agency when he left the Miami Dolphins. At the time Smith was considered one of the better players at the position, but the market collapsed around him which has left him on a below average contract during his Chiefs tenure. That should change this time around due to the demand for cornerbacks.
Last year a number of 1A types of veteran corners signed for big money. Brandon Flowers took a $9.1 million a year deal while Antonio Cromartie nabbed am $8 million a year contract, not to mention we are just a year removed from Brent Grimes signing for $8 million. Smith’s objective should be to exceed the Flowers money in any negotiation. Getting to the $10M annual value mark may prove difficult but I don’t think it is impossible given some of the circumstances around the NFL. If he gets hot over the next 4 weeks and/or in the playoffs he can have close to a Byron Maxwell hype fueled run in free agency. The only thing that could possibly derail him would be a AFC championship meeting with the Steelers or maybe a hot game for AJ Green where he could be on the wrong side of a highlight reel.
I would not anticipate Smith coming back to the Chiefs as there should be more money elsewhere next season and he should not be a franchise candidate. The Raiders made a big play for Chiefs center Rodney Hudson last year and I’d expect them to do the same with Smith, who is already familiar with the division. Smith would also be a great pairing with any team that has a younger, relatively unproven corner on a rookie contract following in a similar model to the Broncos use of Aqib Talib with Chris Harris.
Predicted Value: 4 years, $36-$40 million
Janoris Jenkins, Rams
By all accounts it seems the Rams tried to lock Jenkins up, but it seems clear he is headed for free agency. Given the massive contract signed by Byron Maxwell last season there is no reason for him to accept any kind of bargain offer when the possibility of an elite contract is out there. While Jenkins has not created the hype Maxwell did last season, he continued to improve and over the last two years has solidified himself as a quality starting corner in the NFL.
I think it would be very difficult for Jenkins to jump into the $9M plus range if that was his goal, but there should be enough interest to get close to that. Chris Culliver signed for a stunning $8 million a year this past offseason and slotting Jenkins between he and Kareem Jackson ($8.5M) would seem fair. The downside value should be $7M a year which is what Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie received as a free agent to slot in as a 1 for the Giants.
Predicted Value: 4 years, $30-$34 million
Prince Amukamara, Giants
There are probably some who see Amukamara as a bit of a disappointment as a first round draft pick since he never took that next step into an elite category though the talent is clearly there. We have seen Amukamara battle with some top line receivers and hold his own, but he has also struggled at other times. Overall I would think he would grade as a solid starter with potential, but not an elite level player.
Amukamara might get more than a few dings in free agency. His last two years have been injury plagued and that is clearly an issue. He recently cancelled a radio show he did in NY presumably because of difficultly dealing with probing questions about his play and the playcalling of the head coach. In his rookie year he also had some problems assimilating into the culture of the locker room. On the field he has given up some big plays late in games this season which mar otherwise decent games.
Amukamara has a tough decision ahead of him. A first round pick can benefit from a one year contract if he goes out and has a great season but another injury would really be devastating to his earning potential as would a bad season outside of New York. Given the Giants signed Rodgers-Cromartie for $7 million a season I would think that is what Amukamara would want to remain in New York and miss out on free agency. As long as people see him as a complementary player he should be a good acquisition. If people don’t worry about the injuries he should reach $8 million in free agency.
Predicted Value: 4 years, $28-$32 million
Casey Hayward, Packers
Hayward kind of exploded onto the scene as a rookie in which he was arguably the best slot corner in the entire league. He was all over the field that season with a ridiculous 21 passes defended and 6 interceptions. If he had three more seasons like that on the outside we would be talking about him making $14 million a year, but he has never recaptured that magic and has also been banged up at times over the last few seasons.
Hayward got his opportunity to play outside this year and he has done well, but most teams around the NFL will likely value him as a 3rd corner and not a top level player on the outside. That probably limits his market somewhat but probably won’t limit his earning potential too badly. Buster Skrine earned over $6 million a year as a slot with the ability to play outside and Heyward is clearly superior.
The Packers will probably move on from Hayward just as they moved on from Davon House last season, unless they decide that Heyward can replace Sam Shields. If they go there, expect Hayward to get close to high end money as the Packers went above market to retain Shields a few years ago and there would be little reason for Hayward to take a bargain contract. If Heyward hits free agency, his best chance for a big contract is If some of the higher upside players re-sign early with their teams which leads him to becoming one of the top available names and he gets paid to play outside. Even if they don’t I do not believe he will be lost in the shuffle, but he probably will end up as more of a fallback plan than the first free agent target and looked at as a jack of all trades type of player
Predicted Value: 4 years, $27-$31 million
Trumaine Johnson, Rams
The 25 year old Johnson is one of the more intriguing prospects this year. He is clearly talented and has a knack for making plays on the football. He has good size at 6-2 and 205 lbs, so he can match up with bigger and more physical receivers. But Johnson is still an incomplete prospect that has as many questions as there are answers about his ability. Can he become Vontae Davis finding a career once he left Miami or will he become one of the countless others physical wonders who never really get the nuances of the position down?
The big knocks on Johnson will be consistency and injuries. He failed to stake a claim to being a starter in his first two seasons and his play is often up and down, at least until this year. The last two seasons he has missed more than a handful of games because of injuries and the injury prone label is something that can be hard to shake.
Normally I’d say that Johnson would wind up taking a short term “prove it” style of contract but with players like Davon House signing for just under $7 million last year with a desperate team, I tend to think he may find a desperate team that is willing to overpay him because of an extreme need. I’d certainly expect some team in the market to value him higher than the Rams, who have seen those ups and downs first hand, will. As long as he is willing to concede on some per game bonuses I think he can surprise in free agency primarily because of his age and upside that comes with it.
Predicted Value: 4 years, $22-24.5 million
Adam Jones, Bengals
Jones has been such a good player for the Bengals since signing with them back in 2010 and it really is time for him to cash in. There was never questions about Jones’ talent as it was always off the field concerns that limited his value. For him to still be this effective at 32 years of age just is very impressive and shows just how talented Jones really is.
While nobody is going to back up the truck for a 33 year old corner, Tramon Williams at 32 signed a $7 million a year contract with the Browns. It should be reasonable for Jones to be somewhere in that region. At the least he should earn more than DeAngelo Halls $4.25 million.
His best fit is the Bengals but I don’t know how much they will come up in price since he has always been such an underpaid player since they were the ones that gave him a chance to reclaim his career. If he stays it will likely be for $3-4 million on a one or two year deal which is well under his real worth.
Predicted Value: 2 years, $10-$12 million
Leon Hall, Bengals
While injuries and age have dropped Hall out of the conversation for a big contract, he remains very effective and is having a very good season in his contract year. Hall is willing to play anywhere he is asked on the field and will likely be effective in whatever role he is given.
Hall is a very nice veteran depth pickup for any team if he happens to leave the Bengals. He can be a mentor to a young group of players or a steady veteran option that won’t make any mental mistakes and can use his smarts to cover for the physical deficiencies that now exist with his game.
Predicted Value: 2 years, $9-$12 million
Jerraud Powers, Cardinals
Powers has become a very steady player for Arizona and doing well in Arizona usually seems to open the doors up to opportunities outside the team. Powers is going to be looked at as one of those players who can play a few roles on defense and likely be a good fit on a team with an established top corner in the secondary. Powers is a capable starter and while he flirts at times with some injuries is not going to be considered an injury prone player.
Powers may have more opportunity to earn money outside of Arizona because of all the money that other teams, such as the Raiders, may have to spend at a position of need. When you see players like a Keenan Lewis or Brandon Browner playing in the $5 million a year range that is likely his upside value with Corey Graham at $4 million being the downside.
Predicted Value: 3 years, $12.5-$15.5 million
Patrick Robinson, Chargers
Robinson signed a one year contract last season with San Diego and while he never lived up to his first round status he may have found a home with the Chargers. Robinson is a do it all player for the Chargers. He can play well in the slot and will cover outside when injuries dictate he line up there. He will be 29 next season so the upside factor is more limiting but he has cemented himself as a solid veteran talent.
At this stage of his career Robinson should wind up with a 2 or 3 year contract at a slightly higher price than where he is at now. The market for his type of player should be between $2.5 and $3.5 million. San Diego should be happy enough with him to extend him before free agency begins. Since he would not be a top free agent target for anyone there would be little reason to not accept an extension with the team.
Predicted Value: 2 years, $5-$7 million
Greg Toler, Colts
Toler was likely hoping to make enough of an impact this season to secure a high second tier contract, but it has not been a good season for him. Toler has missed numerous games and his play has slipped this year when he suited up. Toler generally has been very up and down for the Colts. He is much better suited to playing across from a top level player and has his moments when he is very good, but he also has his moments where he is trailing a receiver’s highlight reel for the week.
He’ll be 31 next season and given his production this year tend to think he will wind up playing on a one year contract hoping to have an Antonio Cromartie Cardinals style rebirth to come back the following year in hopes of a $6 to $8 million per year contract.
Predicted Value: 1 Year, $2.5-$3.5 million
Morris Claiborne, Cowboys
Claiborne has been a bust for the Cowboys, but a number 6 overall draft pick is going to get a look somewhere next season. While he has not been good this year either he has gotten more opportunities to play and has not embarrassed himself. The Cowboys defense has generally not been the problem for this season and going into the year some may have thought it would have been. I think he has done enough to convince teams around the league that he might be able to play, which is step forward from where he was last year before he got hurt.
Claiborne may stay in Dallas, but whatever he does I have a hard time seeing him earning more than a 1 year contract. Patrick Robinson, who was a late first rounder that never stood out, signed a one year deal for $2 million last year. Claiborne is a little younger and probably considered to have a higher upside so he would likely be in that range unless his agent can really do a great sell job as to how much talent he has.
Predicted Value: 1 year, $2-$3 million
Best of the Rest
There is never any shortage of veteran players in free agency at this position and 2016 will be no different. Terence Newman continues to log high levels of playing time and will likely be back with Minnesota next year…Charles Tillman, Nolan Carroll, William Gay, and Tracy Porter continue to log time as contributors….A few younger players like Sterling Moore have probably earned raises while others like Coty Sensabaugh will need to convince teams that there is a higher upside than what has been seen on the field if they want to be more than players battling for a deeper backup role.
The Free Agent Market
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Jason is the founder of OTC and has been studying NFL contracts and the salary cap for over 15 years. Jason has co-authored two books about the NFL, Crunching Numbers and the Drafting Stage, which are widely circulated in the industry and hosts the OTC Podcast. Jason’s work has been featured in various publications including the Sporting News, Sports Illustrated, NFL Network and more. OTC is widely considered the leading authority on contract matters in the NFL.