Last we looked, the Lions had whittled their roster-shopping list down to the following:
- A credible backup middle linebacker.
- An athletic, pass-rushing OLB ready to start right away.
- An athletic cover corner, ready to take over one side in 2012.
- If Chris Houston leaves, a complete two-way corner, ready to start right away.
- A left tackle who can be groomed to replace Jeff Backus
- A center who will be ready to rotate at guard soon, and compete at center for 2012
Let’s assume that I’m right, and the Lions don’t make a big move for Nnamdi Asomugha. Using the same right-player, right-price mantra, will they let Chris Houston get away, too? I’ve often noted that they picked him up for just a sixth-rounder, and his play wasn’t so amazing that they couldn’t possibly replace it. Martin Mayhew clued us in when met with the press and discussed the Lions’ plans for free-agents to be, including Chris Houston:
Lions general manager Martin Mayhew said after the season that re-signing Houston was one of his top priorities.
"He's a guy we definitely want back," Mayhew said. "Chris was a good pickup. We are prepared to tender him or deal with him and make him an offer."
The good news for the Lions is that the cornerback position is probably the strongest of this year's free-agent class, giving the team a great chance at signing a good player to pair with Houston, or replace him.
That glut of good corners works well for the Lions in two ways: one, it provides lots of options, and two, it will keep Houston from commanding a premium. There are too many other good, young corners available for him to be the subject of a bidding war. The language Mayhew uses here is as emphatic as you’ll hear escape his lips: the Lions got a good young starter for next to nothing, and they’re prepared to invest a little more cash to keep him around.
Still, this leaves some questions. Are the Lions looking at Houston as the #1 going forward, and looking for an upgrade over Nate Vasher at the #2 spot? Or, will they sign Houston and a player at least his equal? I’ve done a little digging, created a semi-complete list of plausible UFA-to-be cornerbacks, and given them the Old Mother Hubbard treatment, again with the help of Pro Football Focus.
This one got a little complicated. With the glut of free agent cornerbacks available, I had to whittle down the list. I didn’t include anyone who had a significantly worse PFF overall grade than Chris Houston, as the Lions will be targeting either a Houston replacement or a Vasher upgrade. I didn’t include anyone shorter than 5’-10,” except Josh Wilson (5’-9”, 192). Alphonso Smith has the nickel spot locked down, and the Lions like bigger outside corners. I left Carlos Rogers off due to “right player, right price” concerns; Rogers thinks he’s the second-best available corner (he isn’t) and wants to be paid like it. Ike Taylor’s 31, and already being linked to the Cards and Eagles. Nnamdi is on the chart for reference.
SUMMARY: The situation here is dire . . . I hope Bodden is kept, and we draft a corner with legit speed and excellent return skills--hell, maybe two of them. A veteran starter would be nice, and Titans fourth-year CB/KR Chris Carr is reportedly interested in getting out from under the shadow of Cortland Finnegan & Co. in Tennessee. Sounds good to me. Bring friends Chris; bring friends.
Instead of signing Carr, though, the Lions brought in fellow ex-Titan Eric King, a move I was skeptical about at the time:
I kind of find it difficult to believe that the Titans had two young corners that were good enough to start for other teams on their bench, so I kind of find it difficult to believe that the Lions are going to be okay if they're starting this King guy and Philip Buchanon at corner when toe meets leather in New Orleans.
Carr is 5'-10", 182 pounds, and just turned 28 years old. 2010 was his first year starting out of seven, and he turned in an excellent season. Playing well over one thousand snaps, he turned in a 26th-best (of 100 qualifying CBs) 4.2 overall grade, highlighted by a 13th-best coverage grade of 6.4. His pass rush and run defense were a notch or two below NFL averages, but he kept his nose exceptionally clean: called for only two penalties in those 1,000+ snaps.
Statistically, he was targeted 90 times and allowed 54 catches, for a miniscule 8.7 yards per catch (3rd-best in the NFL). He allowed an average of 2.6 YAC per reception, 5th-best in the NFL. He had just two picks, and four passes defensed, but his passer-rating-allowed was 68.3, 11th-best in the league. Even being tested with sixteen starts, a thousand snaps, and 90 targets, his grades and stats look great. Add that proven performance to the familiarity Jim Schwartz has with him, and he seems like a clear #1 target. Except, of course, for his teammate.
Josh Wilson is another Baltimore Raven free-agent-to-be, one of four who played at least 500 snaps last year. Other than Carr, though, none played more than 600 snaps. Fabian Washington and Ladarius Webb were in contention to start once Domonique Foxworth went down—but Carr and Wilson took the jobs from them, and finished as one of the best-graded corner tandems in the league. But, with both Carr and Wilson likely to be unrestricted, and with the addition of notoriously talented first-round pick Jimmy Smith, divining which corners the Ravens will keep around is nearly impossible.
Wilson's 2010 was as incredible as it was unusual. A part-time depth guy until Week 10, he turned in a ridiculous back half of the season, with positive grades almost across the board (save a -1.4 vs. PIT, and -0.9 vs. CIN). He graded out as the fifth-best cornerback in the NFL, +13 overall. By turning in a nearly-as-good-as-Nnamdi +9.6 in coverage, plus a much-better-than-Nnamdi +1.8 in run support, Wilson’s grades looked fantastic.
Wilson was thrown at 64 times in his 550+ snaps on the field; he was the 17th-most-picked-on cornerback in the NFL. He allowed just 46.9% of those balls to be caught—plus he picked off 3, and defended 9. His passer-rating-allowed was 67.8, nearly identical to Carr’s and just one rank better.
The caveat to all this is that Wilson, a former second-round pick of the Seahawks, hasn’t ever seen full-time starter duty until now. Further, he’s practically the twin of Alphonso Smith: both are 5’-9”, 190 pounds, 25 years old, and former second-rounders who’ve been traded once in their careers. If Baltimore lets either of these guys go, the Lions should target them. But if both are let go, I believe Carr would be the better fit.
Johnathan Joseph is an interesting case study. The 5’-11”, 190-pound Bengal started every game he was available for over the last two seasons; he missed the last four of 2010 with an injury. Joseph’s 2010 was unremarkable, as he graded out as the 33rd-best of 100 NFL corners. His coverage mark was a flat 0.0, and only his +2.o run-defense grade pulled him up out of the strictly average. However, his 2009 was incredible: he turned in a stonking +14.5 overall, strongly positive against the pass and run and only drew two flags. What happened?
Much as Louis Delmas’s groin did to him, Joseph was dogged by an ankle injury all season long. He’s still widely considered one of the best young corners in the league, and Marvin Lewis has said re-signing Joseph is their top priority. The Bengals placed the first-and-third level tender on him, and appear to be set on bringing him back. Even if they don’t, rumor has it the Texans have their heart set on Joseph—so don’t expect the Lions to make a play.
Kelly Jennings, a former first-round draft pick of . . . wait for it . . . the Seahawks. the 5’-11”, 180-pound 28-year-old has been an on-again, off-again starter for the ‘Hawks throughout his first five seasons. This was his first full year as a first-choice starter, though, and he played 886 snaps across 14 regular-season games and two playoff contests, missing two games (and most of a third) with a hamstring pull. Per ESPN NFC West blogger Mike Sando, Jennings “faces an uncertain future with the team.”
To an extent, this is understandable: Jennings was unremarkable in 2010, grading at +1.3 overall in a season where the NFL average was +0.23. Most of that was fueled by his spotless penalty record, though; his –3.6 in coverage (-0.8 NFL avg.) and +1 against the run (+0.9 NFL avg.) equate to a guy who’s just not pulling his first-round-pick weight.
However, being graded the 41st-best NFL cornerback out of 100 means you should be able to crack the starting corner pair in 2/3rds of the NFL. Jennings may be well below expectations as a first-round draft pick playing the top corner spot, but he merits a look from any team looking to upgrade the #2 spot. WORK ETHIC BONUS: Jennings is participating in Seahawk player workouts, even without a contract.
Antonio Cromartie is one interesting cat—and one intriguing talent. At 6’-2”, 210, Cro can physically keep up with any NFL receiver. At 27 years old, he has lots of tread left on the tires. With 54 starts under his belt, he’s got tons of experience. Yet, his wildly inconsistent play, and his legendary lack of focus, make him a big gamble. His PFF grades don’t quite tell the story: –0.5 overall, +0.2 coverage, +2.7 run support, and a painful 7 penalties called in about 950 snaps.
For the real story, I look at the week-to-week. Strongly negative the first three games (-0.3, –2.5, –4.2). Then an amazing three-game stretch (+1.4, +4.7, +2.2). Then, five games where he didn’t move the needle either way; all of his grades until Week 12 were between +1.0 and –1.0. Over the last four regular season games he played, (missed one) and three playoff games, he turned in four negative games, one positive, and two neutral. If you look at his 2009, it’s the same wild story. His 2008 . . . well, that’s a red-soaked negative bloodbath.
Cromartie and Ndamukong Suh stirred the Twitter pot a bit when Suh noted NFL Live suggest Cromartie should go to the Lions, and Cro said he’d “heard that also.” I can’t say Cro fits my idea of the Schwartz ideal, but his run support grades are much better than I expected, and he has the pure size/speed/cover-skill combination the Lions just don’t have right now. First choice? Maybe not, but he’s got to be kept in mind.
Eric Wright’s inclusion on this list may surprise some, as the Browns’ 2007 2nd-round pick actually received death threats over his perceived poor play last season. PFF graded him poorly indeed, with a –4.3 overall. His coverage mark was a rotten –11.9, second-worst in the NFL. However, Wright intrigues me for several reasons: first, he’s 5’-10”, 190, so a decently-sized fellow. Second, was graded +3.3 in pass rush, third-best in the NFL, and +4.7 in run support, 12th-best in the NFL.
It’s true, Wright was burned for 6 TDs, and he allowed opposing quarterbacks a fifth-worst 121.5 passer rating. But he’s clearly physically gifted, and at 25 still quite young. I also identified a trend with the PFF data . . .
In 2008, Wright had the eighth-best overall cornerback PFF grade. Over 1052 snaps, he turned in an +11.1 rating, despite a –1.1 coverage mark. His run support and pass rush made such an impact, he was the only corner in the top 25 with an even slightly negative coverage mark. He played every snap at left CB. In 2009, he flip-flopped between right and left corner all season long, and his performances were uneven. At work for a whopping 1106 snaps, thrown at 89 times, Wright turned in an overall grade 0f –0.5.
In 2010, Wright played left corner exclusively, until he suffered a bone bruise and got moved in to nickel. He struggled all year long, turning in mostly neutral grades, plus four negatives and a single positive. Oddly, his best performance of the year was in Week 2 (+2.9), and his worst was Week 3 (-4.4) . . . what I’m driving at here is that Wright is a young, talented player with a lot of experience, and he’s proven to be exceptional—truly exceptional—at a couple different dimensions of his position. It’s true that the one exception, coverage, is the one we’re really looking for, but if he’s available for peanuts, he’s exactly the kind of reclamation project the Lions do brilliantly with.