With just under five minutes remaining in a Week 10 game in which the Philadelphia Eagles trailed the New York Giants by a touchdown, they faced a fourth-and-10 from the Giants’ 36-yard line. The need-to-have play was a back-shoulder throw to Jalen Reagor. The problem was that Reagor was covered by James Bradberry.
Bradberry closely covered Fulgham and the back-shoulder placement forced the receiver to jump and adjust back to the ball over the cornerback. Bradberry barely had to move to break up the pass. Turnover on downs. Per Next Gen Stats, the Eagles targeted Bradberry six times in Week 10, the most of any Giants defender. Those targets resulted in two completions for 10 yards with two passes defensed.
The Giants signed Bradberry to a three-year deal worth $43.5 million with $20.8 million guaranteed. The $14.5 million average annual value places Bradberry as the seventh-highest paid cornerback in the league. So far through 2020, he’s been worth it.
He’s already tied his career-high with three interceptions and his league-leading 14 passes defended is already just one behind his career-high of 15, set in 2018. The production has been there and so has the availability. No cornerback has played more coverage snaps than Bradberry through 10 weeks of the 2020 season.
What’s been so impressive about Bradberry’s success this season is how little help he’s gotten from the rest of the secondary. Per Football Outsiders, the Giants rank third in defensive DVOA against opposing No. 1 receivers. That is typically Bradberry’s assignment. Outside of Bradberry, the Giants rank 23rd against No. 2 receivers, 32nd against “other” receivers, 25th against tight ends, and 17th against running backs. They’re 27th overall in pass defense DVOA.
Yet despite that success, teams aren’t actively avoiding Bradberry. Bradberry has been targeted on 12% of his coverage snaps, just below the group average of 13% among 120 cornerbacks with at least 100 coverage snaps on the season, according to Sports Info Solutions. His actual rate ranks 49th.
Avoiding a top corner such as Bradberry would typically mean avoiding throwing to the No. 1 receiver, which is something offenses don’t want to do too often. It’s not as easy as sacrificing a receiver to a cornerback who only plays on one side of the field, something that brings issues itself by virtue of voluntarily cutting the field in half for the offense.
But this can bring us to a question of whether offenses are any good at actively avoiding cornerbacks who excel in coverage.
Let’s take those cornerbacks with at least 100 coverage snaps and chart them by targets and yards allowed per coverage snap in 2020.
There’s a decent relationship between yards allowed per coverage snap and targets per coverage snap in this group. But there’s a chicken and the egg relationship here. Are corners targeted often because they’re allowing a lot of yards or are they allowing a lot of yards because they’re targeted often?
But yards alone don’t tell the whole story. If we try to adjust for the quality of those yards, the relationship with targets per coverage snap decreases. For this, we can look at Adjusted Yards, which is a Pro-Football-Reference formula that weights yards with touchdowns and interceptions.
If we then give cornerbacks an added bonus for passes defensed — a sign they’re around the ball — the relationship with targets per coverage snap weakens even more.
While some offenses might take the quality of a cornerback into consideration for a game plan, it doesn’t appear to be a significant concern in practice. This checks out with a study done by Nate Weller of Sports Info Solutions that passing offenses don’t take enough advantage of in-game injury replacements at corner.
But it’s not just the quality of the cornerback in question. Let’s now focus on the quality drop between cornerbacks on the same team. Every target comes with an opportunity cost. Every ball thrown at one defender is the choice to not throw at another. For this, we can use Adjusted Yards allowed per coverage snap and find the biggest difference between a team’s top-two cornerbacks in the metric. Here are the top-10 with the biggest differential over the next best corner on the team, along with how often they’ve been targeted on a per coverage snap basis.
Top-10 Cornerbacks AYa/CS Differential vs No. 2 CB, 2020
|Player||Team||AYa/CS Differential||Target/Coverage Snap|
It’s a list of some fairly good cornerbacks…and Blidi Wreh-Wilson. Wreh- Wilson sneaks in just over our coverage snap threshold and has only seen 10 targets on the season but has come down with two interceptions. Also, the rest of the Falcons’ secondary has been poor.
Bradberry sits with the fifth-highest differential between him and the next best corner, though he isn’t the biggest standout here. That might be J.C. Jackson of the New England Patriots. Jackson has easily been New England’s best coverage corner this season on a team that includes Stephon Gilmore. Jackson has allowed some yards and was picked on a bit against the New York Jets of all teams, but he leads the league with six interceptions. Against the Baltimore Ravens this past week, Jackson was the most targeted corner and that ended up with one reception, 14 yards, and an interception on four targets per Next Gen Stats.
Interceptions aren’t always a sticky stat, but Jackson appears to be able to consistently get himself in position to create turnovers. He had three picks in his rookie season and followed it up with five interceptions last year. But despite the danger of throwing at Jackson, the way New England deploys its corners and the impact of Gilmore being on the field (when he has been this season), opposing offenses are still targeting Jackson more often than they should at 16%, the same rate offenses are targeting corners such as Desmond Trufant and Pierre Desir, who was just released by the Jets.
Even with the numbers in place, it’s easy to see why some of these corners are targeted as often as they are. Jackson has had Gilmore at times this season and also Jason McCourty. Carlton Davis has Jamel Dean. Xavien Howard has Byron Jones. But Bradberry doesn’t have that. The opposite outside corner hasn’t even been a constant with a rotation of the since-released Corey Ballentine, Ryan Lewis, and Isaac Yiadom.
Given the value-added for opposing offenses throwing at those other corners, there’s more than enough tradeoff for targeting non-top receivers and avoiding Bradberry.
That give and take is something opposing offenses have to account for each week when facing a top corner and it might be something they’re not taking into account enough. That’s especially true against Bradberry and the Giants, where throwing at one of the league’s most productive cornerbacks in 2020 has been one of the worst decisions an opposing offense could make.