Old Mother Hubbard: The Cornerbacks

>> 3.28.2011

Now, we get to the heart of the matter. As usual, a disclaimer: this review is working off of Pro Football Focus player grades and statistics;  CB play is the hardest to assess from TV broadcast footage. Figuring out a player’s true assignment, and assessing how well he carries it out, takes a lot more education and intuition when it comes to DB play than line play. That having been said, I think this chart matches up well with our armchair understanding of the Lions’ CB situation:

The purple line with the ridiculous overall grade is Antoine Winfield, who—unlike most other top PFF graders—has an exceptional mark in every single area of play. He’s ranked in the top ten of 100 qualifying cornerbacks in every graded dimension. At the bottom is Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, who despite half his last name isn’t the player is cousin is. A strongly negative coverage grade, combined with 8 called penalties (one declined/offset) make him the low man on the cornerback totem pole.

Then again, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie played the second-highest number of snaps in the NFL, over 1,130. The only corner who played more snaps than Cromartie was Cortland Finnegan, with just over 1,200 . . . and he had the lowest coverage grade in the NFL, -13. This suggests that the more snaps a corner gets, the worse his coverage grade is bound to be—even though the PFF folks normalize the final grades by snap count. Just to be sure, I ran a regression:

Nope, no correlation. I think the effect in play is the old line, “You have to be a pretty good pitcher to lose 20 games.” Maybe Cortland Finnegan and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie aren’t great cover guys—but they’re far and away the best corners on their team, and they kept getting run out against their opponents’ best wideouts. Even normalized for snap counts, though, they simply didn’t grade out like KC’s Brandon Carr (+5.4) or New England’s Devin McCourty (+9.4), players with similar snap counts but much better coverage grades.

Lions’ best corner, far and away is Chris Houston—but the PFF grades don’t reflect it. Houston played over 900 snaps; the only Lion above the league average of 750. Though near NFL average in pass rush and run support, Houston’s coverage grade was decidedly below (-4.5), and his five called penalties weren’t great either. From the grades alone, the 5’-11”, 178-pound Houston turned in a subpar performance in 2010. However, I dug a little deeper.

Houston was thrown at 85 times, once every 10.7 snaps; that exactly matches the NFL average. Sixty percent of those passes were caught, which matches up to the average of 60.2. However, he allowed only 10.6 yards per catch—yards less than the average. His TD allowed/INT ratio was near average (3/1 vs. 3/2), his passes defensed were above average (9 vs. 6), and his NFL passer rating allowed was slightly better than average (85.5 vs. 88.0).

The overall picture this paints is, well, average. Compared to every other starting, or heavily-rotated, cornerback, Chris Houston was just about average. That’s better than any Lions cornerback has been in a while, especially wire to wire. He also had some great individual games, turning in a +1.8 (+1.2 coverage) in the first Green Bay game, and +3.2 (+2.3 coverage) against Washington. Unfortunately, he did poorly against the Cowboys and Bucs, and was absolutely abused by the Patriots (-4.5 coverage).

Bottom Line: With a full #1 starter’s workload, Chris Houston performed at an average, maybe just-below-average, level for an NFL starter. Considering the pittance the Lions paid to get him, performance like that is impressive. As the Lions’ #1 corner, they should draft someone with flashier coverage skills to pair with him. As the Lions’ #2 corner, he’d be excellent. Further, he’s only 26—if the Lions can hold onto this likely RFA, he may continue to improve.

With just over 350 snaps and a -0.9 overall grade, Nathan Vasher is the best-graded Lion cornerback with a significant number of snaps. Snaps had been hard to come by for the 2005 Pro Bowler, and the Bears finally released Vasher a year ago. Despite his productive history, and that ESPN article suggesting he’d wind up as a starter somewhere soon, the 5’-11”, 185-pound Vasher was available for the Lions to sign when the regular season started.

He didn’t see much action until the last four weeks. 250 of his snaps came in those last four games, where he barely came off the field. When he did, he turned in two very good performances, and two not-so-good ones. He turned in coverage grades of +1.2 and +2.8 against Green Bay and Miami, alternated with -0.9 and -2.2 coverage marks against Tampa Bay and Miami. What it all averages out to is “average.”

When we look at the statistical metrics that PFF charts, Vasher was thrown at 31 times, and only 16 were completed; an excellent 51.6%. Though he gave up yards at a 13.1 YpC clip, had just one INT, and defensed only one pass, Vasher’s Allowed Passer Rating was a miniscule 70.6; 14th-best in the NFL!

Bottom Line: Nathan Vasher is only 29, and proved he can still play corner in the NFL. The Lions re-signed him to a one-year deal, and he’ll be in the mix in the summer. If Houston sticks around, I like him as a #2 for a rookie to challenge. If Houston leaves, Vasher replaces Houston as the cross-your-fingers-and-hope-this-guy-returns-to-form #1 corner.

One of the more outrageous moves Josh McDaniels did in his short time with the keys to the Denver franchise, was trading 2009 second-round pick Alphonso Smith, who he’d dealt a 2010 first-rounder to acquire, to the Lions for Dan Gronkowski. Smith, a 5’-9”, 190-pound fireplug who some thought would be a great fit for the Lions at the slot that ended up being Louis Delmas, was disappointing in his rookie year—but to dish a player you burned a first and second-rounder to acquire after one season? In a position that traditionally requires a year or two of development?

Sure enough, Smith flashed some of the potential that caused the Broncos to go crazy for him; leading the Lions’ corners in INTs with 5 (in fact, he was the only to get more than one). However, Smith also flashed the mental mistakes that drove the Broncos crazy. Smith looked like a fool in key moments against the Patriots and Jets, and it cost the Lions two ENORMOUS possible (probable, in the Jets’ case) wins. However, Smith has a very bright future on this team . . . as a slot corner.

In the first three games, Smith's overall grades were +1.6, +1.8, and +0.2, influnced by very strong performances against the run, and in pass rush, and neutral pass coverage grades. Unfortunately, when the Lions moved him to the starting right cornerback spot, he turned in a poor game. They put him back in the slot against St. Louis, and he had one of his best coverage games all year. Then he went back outside, and was either neutral (WAS, NYJ, @DAL) or a disaster (@BUF, NEP, CHI). The only exception to this was the Giants game, when Smith started at right corner and received, by far, his best coverage grade of the year (+3.0), while also turning in, by far, his worst effort against the run (-1.3).

Bottom Line: Alphonso Smith is a gifted natural slot cornerback, with the tenacity to play well against the run, and even be dangerous as a pass rusher. His instincts and hands are enough to make him a ballhawk, but his repeated brain farts make him a liability as an outside cornerback. Perhaps time and development will iron this out, but for now pencil him in as a multi-year “starting” nickel back.

As for the rest, Aaron Berry and Jack Williams are talented youngsters who lost the entire season, or nearly so, to injury. Prince Miller barely played, but has been tendered a contract for next year—as has Paul Pratt, a practice-squadder from last season.

SHOPPING LIST: As it stands, Chris Houston, Nathan Vasher, and Alphonso Smith performed like a just below-average-but-not-awful starting trio (even though they didn’t play as a triumvirate much this year). However, Vasher has already worn out his welcome at a team he was a Pro Bowler for; he’s not likely to be a long-term fix. If Houston stays, the Lions need to draft a cover corner, a guy who can challenge Vasher by the end of his first season, and challenge Houston by the beginning of his third. If Houston leaves, the Lions need to acquire a starter of Houston’s caliber, and draft that developmental cornerback.

Technorati Tags: nfl,detroit lions,cornerbacks,chris houston,nathan vasher,alphonso smith,nfl draft,team needs


NorthLeft12,  March 28, 2011 at 11:54 AM  

Spot on analysis Ty. Unfortunately, the two [realistic]likely candidates to replace Houston are Brandon Harris and Jimmy Smith who will be reaches at # 13 and unavailable by # 44. If Mayhew sees the value in one of these guys, he will have to get creative in the draft, or just say to hell with it and take one early.

There is not much that can be had in Free Agency to replace Houston in the long term.

There are a number of guys who could be developed over a year or two to step in like; Curtis Marsh of Utah State or Davon House NMSU or Shareece Wright of USC.

Alex,  March 28, 2011 at 12:19 PM  

Great article. It'd be nice if Prince Amukamara fell to the Lions like a lot of mocks seem to be going to...

telemakhos,  March 28, 2011 at 12:30 PM  

only mel kiper cares if you "reach" a few spots to take a guy.

Ryan,  March 28, 2011 at 1:47 PM  

Seems like PFF's analysis is pretty close to what we thought we saw from the couch. Interesting was that Houston was targeted at an average rate, I thought he was not tested too often. I think consistency was certainly an issue. Where some played very good games and in others did not. We certainly saw that in Alphonso. I'm not comfortable with Vasher as #2, I'm really not. Hopefully it won't come down to that, but if it does, I can only hope he's at his better form...

Ty,  March 28, 2011 at 2:55 PM  


Thanks! Yeah, the talent pool does not match well with the Lions' needs. I think the explicitly developmental, third- and fourth-round types are what the Lions are going to have to look at, unless they move around--and maybe that's not a bad thing.


Ty,  March 28, 2011 at 3:10 PM  

Alex, Telemakhos--

Well, two things on that: one, if Prince falls he has to be the pick. Period. I think that all depends on the QBs; if guys like Blaine Gabbert and Cam Newton are going in the top ten, it could push Prince down. If not, however, there are basically ten guys who all grade out as "top ten but not top five," and I have a hard time seeing a corner with his size, speed, experience, and productivity sliding.

The thing about reaches is, it's not that the you're not getting a good player, it's that you might passing on five or six years' worth of a BETTER player in the interests of THIS year. If Prince falls to 13, he'll be the best player on the board, and fit the biggest need. But, if he doesn't, drafting Smith or Harris would mean passing on several offensive tackles and defensive ends who are better prospects.

It's the Jordon Dizon example: they reached on Dizon to fill a hole, found out he didn't fill the hole because he wasn't good enough, then they needed to fill the hole again. If the Lions draft for need and get Smith or Harris, they almost certainly won't play as well as Chris Houston did last season, this season--thereby NOT MEETING THE NEED.


Dal,  March 28, 2011 at 3:35 PM  

Fun fact: According to FO Asante Samuel had the ball thrown his way 36 times this season. He picked off 7 of those, and only allowed 3.2 YpC on the others. O_O

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