We’ll be breaking down all the major and minor moves for NFL Free Agency with grades and analysis. You can find the comprehensive list of moves and grades here.
Ronald Darby to Denver
Reported deal: Three years/$30 million with $19.5 million guaranteed
The Denver Broncos have been searching for cornerbacks and with the release of A.J. Bouye, there was an even bigger void on the outside. Ronald Darby had a rebound season during his one-year deal with Washington but there were still some concerns from some poor and inconsistent play from previous seasons.
Darby had 16 passes defensed, which ranked fifth in 2020, and his 52.3% completion percentage allowed ranked 30th among 148 corners with at least 100 coverage snaps. But his adjusted yards allowed per coverage snap was just 88th a year after charting as one of the worst corners in the league. Darby has the ability to get his hand on the ball — his 48 passes defensed ranks 10th since 2017, but he hasn’t reached the high of his 21 passes defensed in 2015 — but he can find himself out of position more often than not.
The two-year guarantee is a big leap of faith for a player that hasn’t consistently been an above average corner in his career.
Shaquill Griffin To Jacksonville
Reported deal: Three years/$40 million with $29 million guaranteed
Opposite to Darby, Griffin had a down year in 2020 despite flashes of better play earlier in his career. With a secondary that was occasionally depleted in Seattle last season, Griffin only ranked 75th in adjusted yards allowed per coverage snap. He was above average there in 2019 during his best season.
He has at least 10 passes defensed in three of his four seasons and he’s tied with Darby for 10th most since his rookie season in 2017. He’s only turned those into six interceptions, the same total as Darby, but he’s been able to hang in coverage better from snap-to-snap. He also will only turn 26 years old in July.
Griffin has the length and athleticism teams are still looking for in modern cornerbacks and he’ll make life easier on 2020 first-round pick C.J. Henderson, who struggled mightily in his rookie season.
This is the type of swing the Jaguars could be making, throwing a bit of a premium at a potential high-level talent at an important position as they reshape the roster.
Michael Davis Re-Signs With Chargers
Reported deal: Three years/$25.2 million with $15 million guaranteed
With Brandon Staley at the helm, it’s going to be good news for any cornerback on the Chargers’ roster. The interesting thing to watch will be who the corners on the roster are. A once-deep group has been whittled out and will be reshaped this offseason. The previous regime soured on Desmond King and traded him away last season. They also just released Casey Hayward.
That puts a lot of faith in Davis, who is coming off a down year in 2020, despite 14 passes defensed. Last season he ranked 80th in adjusted yards allowed per coverage snap after a 38th-place finish in 2019.
How Staley wants to use Derwin James and Chris Harris could mean more for Davis’s production than anything else, but it’s a good sign that a defensive coach who oversaw the development of players such as Darious Williams and Troy Hill has bought in on the 26-year-old.
Jason Verrett Back To The 49ers
Reported deal: One year/$5.5 million
Early in his career. Jason Verrett always had the ability to be among the league’s best corners but injuries always took that away. As a low-risk veteran signing with the 49ers last year, Verrett tied a career-high with 13 games played. With health on his side, Verrett again flashed his talent.
Verrett did have a high completion rate allowed (66.7%) but he was rarely beaten deep on his targets. He ranked 30th in adjusted yards allowed per coverage snap. Verrett will be 30 years old and health is always, unfortunately, going to be a question, but with a number of defenders from the 2020 49ers set to be free agents, bringing back Verrett is a clear win with another low-cost contract.
Bengals Double Down With Chidobe Awuzie & Mike Hilton
Last year, the Bengals went hard into the cornerback market, came away with Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander but came away needing more help for 2021. Waynes missed the 2020 season with a torn pec, Alexander played ok but was on just a one-year deal, and William Jackson is now a free agent.
With Jackson gone, the Bengals used some of the money he’s expected to get on the open market for Awuzie and Mike Hilton. Awuzie is an athletic outside corner who can be taken advantage of with deep double moves — he’s a player whose yards allowed is going to look worse than his success rate in coverage.
That might not be as big of a deal with Jessie Bates covering as a deep safety. That increases the margin for error for corners who can play aggressively and gamble on the first movement in the route.
The ~$7 million average will place him no higher than the 25th-highest-paid cornerback and half the price of what the Bengals shelled out to sign Waynes last offseason. Awuzie still has potential and could benefit from his surrounding, especially the safety help, more than he did in Dallas.
Hilton was one of the league’s best slot corners in the league when he got on the field with the Pittsburgh Steelers last season. He ranked fourth in adjusted yards allowed per coverage snap but played on just 45% of the defensive snaps after playing no fewer than 56% in his previous three seasons.
No cornerback had more pass rushes than Hilton last season at 55, per Sports Info Solutions and he had a 17% blitz rate. The Bengals had the 11th-highest blitz rate in the league last season and slot blitzes were a big part of that as Alexander had 27 pass rushes for a 6.9% blitz rate. Hilton’s ability as a pass rusher could put that into overdrive with good coverage behind it.
Grade: B- for Awuzie, B+ for Hilton
Justin Coleman Heads To Miami
Reported deal: One year/up to $2.75 million
With the Seattle Seahawks, Justin Coleman was one of the best slot corners in the league. That didn’t translate to Detroit, where he was left to hang in coverage with a pass rush the rarely got home. In his two years with the Lions, Coleman ranked 120th and 107th in adjusted yards allowed per coverage snap. 2020 was especially rough with just 11 games played, five starts, and one pass defensed.
Still, Coleman is only 28 years old and has a history as a plus slot corner. The deal is only up to $2.75 million, so it’s not as if the Dolphins are expecting him to come and be a star again. Coleman’s addition throws him into a secondary that already has Xavien Howard and Byron Jones on the outside. Last year’s first-round pick Noah Igbinhogene mostly manned the slot but struggled as other rookie corners did throughout 2020.
The Dolphins were an interesting defensive personnel team last season in that they played the fifth-lowest rate of nickel defense in the league at 47%. They bookended that with the 10th-highest rate of base (four defensive backs, 27%) and the ninth-highest rate of dime (six defensive backs, 24%). Miami could cut down the rate of base and get their top-four corners on the field at the same time while they still maximize the versatility of the front-seven.
The Vikings Sign Patrick Peterson
Reported deal: One year/$10 million
It’s been a while since Patrick Peterson was Patrick Peterson, as the soon-to-be 31-year-old is no longer a top shutdown corner. After a rough 2019, Peterson bounced back a little bit in 2020. He was above-average among corners in adjusted yards allowed per coverage snap and was targeted as a below-average rate of his coverage snaps.
He didn’t shadow many receivers during 2020 and it didn’t always go well when he did. There were five games when Peterson covered a receiver for at least 60% of his routes and in three of those, the receiver gained at least 50 yards. His best games came against D.K. Metcalf, with two receptions for 25 yards and three receptions for 46 yards and a touchdown.
Peterson likely won’t have to play in man coverage so often in a Mike Zimmer defense that plays more zone. Though the Vikings did have better results in man coverage (-0.06 EPA per play allowed in man to 0.23 in zone). Peterson brings a solid veteran presence in the Minnesota secondary, but that might not be enough to make the Vikings’ pass defense much better in 2021.
Browns Add More Secondary Talent With Troy Hill
Reported deal: Four years./$24 million
The Browns keep doing some exciting things in the defensive backfield. After bringing in John Johnson to play safety, Cleveland has gone back to the Rams secondary to sign Troy Hill. Hill was another important piece of the Los Angeles defense that was one of the best in the league last season.
After never playing more than 50% of the defensive snaps in a season, Hill played on 95% of the Rams’ defensive snaps in 2020. He played mostly in the slot but has the versatility to play outside and should be an immediate upgrade over Kevin Johnson, who is a free agent. Hill also had the 16th-most pass rush snaps for a cornerback in 2020, just one behind Johnson, so the slot blitz is still a factor.
Hill ranked 18th among cornerbacks in adjusted yards allowed per coverage snap in 2020 and finished equal to teammate and breakout star Darious Williams in that metric. He’s not just a one-year wonder or a Brandon Staley creation, either. Hill ranked 29th among corners in 2019.
Cleveland has gone hard in improving the secondary and raiding the best defense in the league isn’t a terrible route to take. The signing of John Johnson hinted at the possibility of more dime looks on defense but with few answers at linebacker, it might not be surprising to see the Browns go with seven defensive backs behind a four-man line. They now have the talent to do it.