Ah, the Detroit Lions cornerbacks. Few units in the NFL took as much heat in the wake of the 2011 season. The Lions surrendered 928 passing yards and 90 points in their last two games; since their last two games were their crucial Week 17 attempt to break the longest road losing streak in the history of professional sport, and their first playoff game in over a decade, respectively . . . that looks bad.
So bad, in fact, that every initial mock draft had the Lions taking a corner in the first round, which as I said at Bleacher Report is completely silly. But is it?
Here's what 2010's Old Mother Hubbard had to say about the cornerbacks we'll analyze today:
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.
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.
Then, from the Shopping for Cornerbacks free-agent Old Mother Hubbard:
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.
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.
So how did that all translate to 2011? Let’s look at the data:
Let’s talk disclaimers. Pro Football Focus grades are based on TV footage, and while I believe completely in what they do over there, downfield pass coverage grades are the area where they have the hardest time figuring out what’s going on. Without knowing each player’s assignment, and most of the secondary being offscreen at the snap, PFF cornerback grades have limitations.
Advanced NFL Stats' +EPA measures the expected points added by a player’s positive plays, but cannot measure failures. Cornerbacks are the position where “lack of failure” is arguably more important than positive playmaking, so again—there are real limitations here. Same applies to +WPA: a timely interception can swing the likelihood of winning around very quickly, but a surrendered touchdown can too—and that won’t show up in +WPA.
To sum up: PFF grades and ANS metrics are never going to be more variant and contradictory than when assessing cornerbacks. However, his increases the value of including both sets of data. Though we’re going to have to fill in the gaps ourselves, it’s better to know reality lies in the gap than unwittingly treating one number as gospel.
The top Pro Football Focus dog is Darrelle Revis, whose +23.1 overall grade was best in the business by a significant margin. Revis’s +16.8 coverage grade is more than four points higher than the next closest contenders (Baltimore’s Ladarius Webb and Atlanta’s Brent Grimes). Bringing up the PFF rear is St. Louis’s Justin King, who graded out as negatively as Revis did positively.
For the Lions, the highest-PFF-graded cornerback is Aaron Berry. Berry, the scapegoat of the Lions’ wild-card loss, took a world of abuse for dropping potential interceptions. However, he was the Lions’ steadiest cover corner. With 411 snaps played, Berry graded out at +4.1 overall; 24th-best in the NFL. Berry can boast a +2.1 in coverage and +1.3 in run-stopping. In pass rush he was flat at +0.0, and only assessed penalty. All of these grades are above NFL average for corners with at least 25% of their teams’ snaps.
The 5’-11”, 180-pound Berry’s worst game was his first one: his –1.1 showing at Tampa Bay. He was thrown at ten times—a shocking level of picking-on—and allowed 8 catches for 77 yards and a score. It was his only negative grade all season. His performances got better and better, climaxing in Weeks 6, 7, and 8 with performances of +0.9, +1.6, and +2.0.
After the bye, Berry got a heavy workload in Chris Houston’s absence and graded at zero throughout that stretch. Then, Berry got injured himself in Week 14, and didn’t return until the fateful Wild Card game—where PFF graded him out at a solid +1.6 overall, including a heavy ding for two penalties.
Berry was used primarily in the nickel package throughout the season, though he played on the outside, not the inside, when he did. The 23-year-old was steady beyond his years, though not spectacular; he had no interceptions and four passes defensed. Berry’s +EPA was a meager 0.14, and his +WPA was lacking at 0.44. You see the complete picture: solid, steady, reliable, not a game-breaker—and that’s just fine in this defense.
Bottom Line: Aaron Berry is a 23-year-old cornerback coming off a UDFA rookie year completely wiped out by injury. Incredibly, he was a steady, better-than-average right outside corner (when used . When pressed into full-time duty he performed like an average NFL starting cornerback in coverage and against the run. Even if he never improves (doubtful), Berry has earned a spot in the top four—and a crack at the top two.
The next-highest PFF-graded corner was top starter Chris Houston. Houston had a very up-and-down season, all of which averaged out to +3.7 overall, +1.7 in coverage, and +0.3 against the run. His slight –0.5 ding in rushing the passer is more than made up for by his +2.2 penalty grade; Houston was flagged just twice in 815 snaps.
Houston led the Lions in interceptions with 5, and finished second in passes defensed with another 5. He held opposing quarterbacks to 45 completions on 86 targets, a 52.3% completion percentage (NFL average: 59.1%). However, he allowed 13.0 yards per catch and 4 touchdowns—both slightly worse than the NFL averages of 12.9 and 3. Opposing quarterbacks had a passer rating of 65.4 when challenging Houston; that slots him 21st in the NFL out of 110 qualifying corners.
Houston seemed to be strongly negative or positive all season long; only four of his fifteen games played weren’t greater than 1.0 in either direction. The most fascinating part of this is that Houston’s coverage and run-stuffing grades moved in lockstep. There isn’t a single game where his coverage and run grades aren’t either both negative or both positive . . . this is extremely unusual.
You can see Houston’s positive impact in his +WPA. No corner helped the Lions win with impact plays more than Houston and his 0.69 +WPA. His +EPA is absolutely stonking: 48.1, seventh-best in the NFL. That figure is higher than Revis (40.9) and Finnegan (45.0), but that 0.69 +WPA is well below those two corners’ (1.84 and 0.88 respectively). This shows that Houston was making plays as well as any corner in the NFL, but those plays weren’t contributing to Lions victories like the elite corners.
Bottom Line: Chris Houston is a solid starting all-around NFL cornerback, and the best corner the Lions have. He’s a two-dimensional player given to both great games and shaky games. He struggles against height (Laurent Robinson, Darrius Heyward-Bey), but ultimately comes up big in the biggest moments—and feasts on subpar competition. Houston will enter 2012 as the Lions’ #1 cornerback, barring an unlikely blockbuster trade or megabuck free agent-signing. 2012 will also be the last year of his two-year deal signed this summer.
Alphonso Smith is a curious case. After showing a propensity to make huge plays both good and bad last season, he couldn’t get ahead of Aaron Berry or Eric Wright to save his life in 2011. Until Week 13 at New Orleans, Smith essentially didn’t play.
Then, Smith alternated good games with bad ones the rest of the season. Against Minnesota, he was graded at +1.3. At Oakland, –3.7. Against San Diego, +1.4. At Green Bay, –3.3. Oh, then –1.0 in the playoffs. All told, Smith graded out at –4.7 overall, –1.4 in run defense, and –4.5 in coverage. To his credit, he wasn’t penalized at all in 259 snaps.
To his further credit, Smith allowed just 55.8% of balls thrown his way to be caught, at a 12.0 YpR clip. With his 2 TDs allowed, 3 INTs, and 3 passes defensed, Smith had the Lions’ best passer rating allowed, at 62.8.
It shouldn’t surprise, then, that Smith’s knack for game-breaking positive plays endear him to Advanced NFL Stats’ metrics. His 26.6 +EPA would be unremarkable, except he put up that production in just 9 games played (and only saw significant action in 5). On a per-game basis, Smith was 11th in the NFL in +EPA. His 0.48 +WPA is in the middle of the NFL pack—but again, for just a handful of games played, Smith had a massive positive impact.
But again, Smith also had a massive negative impact that more than offset the plays he made. The bottom line is unchanged from last season, except Smith will be looking up at at least Houston and Berry on the depth chart.
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.
Finally, Eric Wright. Wright took less money to sign a one-year “prove it” deal with Detroit. What did he prove? Well, he proved he’s still got elite talent—and that he’s maddeningly far away from realizing it. With the Lions’ heaviest workload at 1,043 snaps, Wright earned the NFL’s fifth-worst PFF overall grade of –14.1. It wasn’t just Wright’s –8.3 coverage grade. His pass rush (-1.1), run-stopping (-2.0), and penalty grade (-2.7) were all below NFL average.
But there is a bright side. Though Wright was burned for five touchdowns, he also intercepted four passes (second-best on the Lions) and defended ten (best by a factor of two). In fact, Wright was 11th-best in the NFL with 40.8 +EPA. No Lion cornerback boosted the Lions’ chances to win than Wright; his 0.88 +WPA was 25th-best in the NFL.
When the Lions signed Wright, I suggested they were “on to something.” Clearly, Wright still has playmaking ability, but he’ll fetch a much higher price for that ability on the open market than his week-to-week production is worth. Wright serves as an excellent reminders that gambling on reclamation projects does in fact have a downside.
Bottom Line: Eric Wright still has the talent to become a difference-making NFL cornerback, but he was far too big of a liability far too often in 2011 for the Lions to come in as the highest bidder for his free-agent services. In fact, they weren’t the highest bidder last time around.
SHOPPING LIST: Depends entirely on the Lions’ intentions for the position, and their room underneath the cap. Houston is solid as the #1 corner, and the Lions could do much worse than Berry and Smith as the #2 and slot cornerback. However, the Lions need depth. They would be well-served to draft a corner with long-term starter potential, or go big-time and sign an immediate veteran starter to pair with Houston.