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Why NFL Cornerbacks Are More Valuable Than Ever

  • Carmen Vitali
  • May 12, 2022
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This offseason marked a complete shift for the wide receiver market across the NFL and the domino effects can be seen as far as the other side of the ball, making cornerbacks tasked with defending these pass-catching investments that much more valuable. 

It was the Jacksonville Jaguars who proved to be the catalyst with their signing of wide receiver Christian Kirk, giving him a four-year deal worth up to $84 million. Then came the trades, with Tyreek Hill commanding $120 million on a four-year extension upon his departure from Kansas City and new Las Vegas Raider Davante Adams one-upping that with a five-year, $141.25 million deal of his own.

And just like Newton’s law states: for every action, there must be an equal and opposite reaction.

Cue cornerback value going through the roof. 

There have been examples of extensions and free-agent signings across this league this offseason that support this hypothesis. The Chargers gave J.C. Jackson a five-year, $82.5 million deal in free agency. The Buccaneers re-signed Carlton Davis to a three-year $45 million contract. But for the biggest indication that cornerback stock is on the rise, look no further than this year’s NFL Draft. 

Two corners went back-to-back in the top five with the Houston Texans selecting Derek Stingley Jr. at No. 3 overall and the New York Jets quickly scooping up Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner immediately after. 

In contrast, Jaycee Horn was the first corner taken in the 2021 NFL Draft at No. 8 overall, and do you remember how over-drafted Horn was thought to be at the time? Patrick Surtain II went one pick after Horn, leaving most surprised there were two corners going in the top 10. The year before was the same when both Jeff Okudah and C.J. Henderson went in the top 10 before you go back to the 2019 NFL Draft when, in a dramatic drop-off, only one corner went in the first round total.  

The last time we saw two corners go in the top five? That was in 1997 when Sean Springs and Bryant Westbrook were taken third and fifth overall, respectively. That draft overall isn’t one for the books, but I digress.

What’s even more interesting upon looking at the corners commanding top dollar is the clear direction the NFL is moving in and what they are prioritizing from the position. They all fit similar characteristics: well-rounded, lengthy and scheme-diverse. Every single one of the corners mentioned by name above is at least 6-foot-1. Heck, Gardner is 6-foot-3. 

They also all have the flexibility to press on the line, while having the range to execute zone schemes, too. With how creative NFL offenses are getting and the different ways they’re utilizing skill players, that kind of versatility has become imperative for corners. 

Oh, look at that. There’s that whole Newton’s law thing again.

Widen the lens even further and look at NFL offenses as a whole: They’re pass-happy. There’s been a significant uptick in the usage of three-wide-receiver sets. Teams like the Los Angeles Rams are trotting out 11 personnel at a league-high rate of 84.5%. The Cincinnati Bengals are behind them and in 11 personnel 76.7% of the time. Six teams total run it on over 70% of their offensive snaps. 

Not only that, but if you take into account the fact that more tight ends are being split out wide and becoming legitimate receiving threats while running backs are being tossed the rock more than ever before, the need for someone, anyone, to take away the pass is huge.

Some of that falls on other players in the secondary and even linebackers in the case of some teams. If you’re the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, you’ve even seen the likes of outside linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul and nose tackle Vita Vea in coverage. No, seriously. But the biggest onus rests on the shoulders of cornerbacks and they are more valuable than ever before.

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Carmen Vitali