A Look at the NFL Cornerback Market

The market for several positional groups on defense have experienced robust growth due to salary cap growth and free agency spending.  In just the last year, the average salary for the 5 highest paid linebackers grew a bullish 36.86%. Players like C.J. Mosley and Kwon Alexander reaped the benefits of hitting free agency at the right time while non-expendable players like Bobby Wagner, Deion Jones, and Myles Jack were locked up via extensions. Elite edge rushers have also cashed in. After Khalil Mack reset the market in every major contract metric last year, Demarcus Lawrence, Frank Clark, and Trey Flowers all signed new deals this summer to contribute to the 9.07% YOY growth in the top 5 of the edge rushers market. Looking at safeties, the top of the market has already been reset twice this year. During free agency, the Washington Redskins awarded Landon Collins the title of highest paid safety with an APY value of $14M until Kevin Byard eclipsed that figure at $14.1M a few months later.  Free Agent deals of Earl Thomas and Tyrann Mathieu were also factors in uplifting the top 5 of the safety market by 15.91% over the last year. The top 5 of the cornerback market, however, hasn’t experienced nearly the same growth.

Below is a chart to compare how the average APY of the top 5 players from each defensive positional group fares with salary cap growth. For the purpose of this article, middle linebackers and 4-3 outside linebackers are considered one group. 3-4 outside linebackers and 4-3 defensive ends fall in the edge rusher group, and 3-4 defensive ends, 4-3 defensive tackles, and nose tackles are in the interior DL group.

As illustrated on the graph above, since 2015, the top of the market for safeties, linebackers, and edge rushers have experienced a faster growth rate than the salary cap. However, interior DL and cornerbacks have failed to keep up with salary cap inflation, posting growth figures of 17.57% and 9.91% respectively. Despite the interior DL Market falling behind salary cap growth, it has still shown positive signs. New benchmarks were set last year when Aaron Donald signed an extension worth an annual value of $22.5M and $86.892M in total guarantees, an 18% and 37% increase over the previous benchmarks. Additionally players Chris Jones, DeForest Buckner, and Kenny Clark will likely continue to strengthen the market. Benchmarks in the cornerback market, however, have experienced little movement.

The Cornerback Market

            Until earlier this year, Josh Norman’s $15M APY was the benchmark in the cornerback market, virtually since 2016. The exception was in 2017 when Trumaine Johnson played under a franchise tag valued at $16.742M. The next season, Johnson signed a lucrative free agent deal with the New York Jets, but Norman regained the highest paid cornerback title. This past May, the Miami Dolphins signed Pro-Bowl cornerback Xavien Howard to a 5 Year, $75.25M extension with $46M in total guarantees. While Howard’s APY of $15.05M holds as the new benchmark in the cornerback market, the growth is minimal when factoring salary cap inflation. Below is a table
comparing Howard’s and the four other currently highest paid cornerbacks by APY.

As you can see by the APY as a % of cap at signing, Howard’s APY would rank last when factoring in cap inflation. Furthermore, Norman’s contract still holds the benchmark for total guarantees at $50M. So the question is why hasn’t the cornerback market, arguably the most important position on defense, seen a stronger uplift in recent years? First, there haven’t been many upper echelon cornerbacks hit free agency.  The second point relates to Patrick Peterson’s deal. Peterson’s extension at signing was a whopping 10.53% of the cap and has essentially been set as the ceiling in the market. With Peterson arguably considered the best cornerback over the last few years, it will likely take an All-Pro or Pro Bowl caliber cornerback to broach a contract structure in the range of Peterson’s. Below are a few young cornerbacks who should spike the market.

Jalen Ramsey

The former 5th overall pick has established himself arguably as the best young cornerback in the NFL. In his 3 year career with the Jacksonville Jaguars, Ramsey has been selected to two Pro Bowls and was voted 1st Team All-Pro in 2017. It’s clear he’s the nucleus to the Jaguars defense and should be rewarded as such. Earlier this year, the Jaguars exercised the 5th year option giving team control at least through the 2020 season. However, it would be smart for the team to work towards an extension sooner rather than later. The longer a team waits to extend a good player, the more expensive it becomes. If both parties are willing to get a deal hammered out this season, I would expect Ramsey’s deal to have annual value in the ballpark of $19M, which would put the deal around 10% of salary cap and uplift the top of the market by 26%. Prolonging extension talks to next year, could put Ramsey in the $20M+ territory, assuming another year of salary cap growth and a new CBA on the horizon.

Byron Jones

            The Dallas Cowboys selected Byron Jones 27th overall in the 2015 NFL draft. In his first 3 seasons, Jones played a combination of safety and cornerback before settling as a full time cornerback last year. The new permanent position fared well in the first year. Per Pro Football Focus, in 2018, Jones was targeted by opposing quarterbacks once every 8.8 coverage snaps, ranking him as the eighth-most avoided cornerback. With Jones playing this season under the 5th Year option, Dallas will have a difficult decision to make next year. Both Dak Prescott’s and Amari Cooper’s deals expire next season as well and Jones could be the left as the odd man out.

Marcus Peters

            In his first three seasons with the Kansas Chiefs, Marcus Peters was viewed as the next best young cornerback in the NFL. He earned the 2015 AP Defense Rookie of the Year, 2 Pro Bowl nods, was voted First Team All Pro in 2016, and was a turnover machine with 19 interceptions over a 3 year span. While Peters still leads the league in interceptions, with 22, since entering the league, his play declined in his first year with the Los Angeles Rams. Per Pro Football Focus, Peters gave up over 100 receiving yards on four separate occasions. Peters’ performance did improve towards the end of the season and if he can carry that momentum as he enters the final year of his deal, he could be in for a nice payday.

Other Candidates

Other candidates who have the potential to change the landscape of the Top 5 of the cornerback market include Marshon Lattimore, Marlon Humphrey, and Tre’Davious White. All three players were selected in the first round of the 2017 NFL draft and will be eligible for a contract extension after the end of the 2019 NFL season. Furthermore, Pro Football Focus named all three players on their Top 25 NFL Players under 25 for 2019. The list is filled with impressive talent that includes Quarterback Patrick Mahomes.