Last week, I finished my series looking at the state of the offenses in the NFC North. This week, it’s finally time to look at the defenses, and we might as well rip the bandage off all at once and consider the state of cornerbacks in the Black and Blue Division.
Admittedly, a lot more goes into what sort of passer rating a team allows than the play of its corners, but it is a place to start the conversation. TeamRankings.com tells us that Minnesota was 5th in the NFL in allowing an average passer rating of 83, while no other NFC North team finished in the top half. Chicago was 23rd (93.5), Green Bay was 27th (97.2), and Detroit was last (107.2). Not all of that is on the cornerbacks, obviously. Not all of it is even on the teams. However, Minnesota played against Matt Stafford and Aaron Rodgers just as often as Chicago did, and there was a bit of a difference. More importantly, though, these overall numbers suggest that besides the Vikings, the rest of the division could use some help in covering receivers.
It’s possible to break that down a bit. Per SportingCharts, the Vikings were 7th in the NFL in terms of completion percentage allowed (60.6%), while the Lions were the worst (at 72.7%). The Bears and Green Bay were functionally the same (64.5% and 64.8%, respectively). However, the Lions were good at keeping yards from adding up (3rd in the NFL in terms of receiving yards per attempt), while the Vikings (12th) and the Bears (16th) were in the middle and Green Bay was 29th. On the other hand, Green Bay intercepted 3% of all passes thrown against it (6th in the league), followed by Minnesota (13th), Detroit (24th) and the Bears (29th). For those keeping track at home, that means every team in the division but the Bears led at least one category.
Okay, with those numbers out of the way, how do the individual rosters stack up?
In Minnesota’s favor.
#1) Minnesota Vikings
In terms of “plays on passes”, including both interceptions and deflections, Minnesota’s Xavier Rhodes is the highest-ranked corner in the division at 22nd with 16 such plays (Trae Waynes is close behind with 14). That is about the worst ranking you could find for Rhodes anywhere. Bleacher Report claims that Rhodes allowed a passer rating of only 46.9 against, and even that exceeds the 39.2 reported by NFL.com when ranking him the eighth-best corner in the NFL last year. That was the best recorded rating in the league, but NFL.com knocked him for penalties. I disagree, because the unfortunate truth of the matter is that some of those were “smart” penalties, drawing the flag to deny the play and taking his chances that things would break for his team at a later time. Most advanced metrics agree (Rhodes regularly makes at least one list in terms of adjusted success rate, defeats, or what-have-you). Rhodes is simply the best corner in the division, and he is (at worst) one of the six best in the league.
As previously mentioned, Trae Waynes was able to make a lot of plays on the ball even though he only saw 60% of his team’s defensive snaps, and he was also frequently able to make the tackle when called on. On a team with a lesser defensive roster, Waynes would already be the established starter. However, veteran cornerback Terrence Newman made NFL.com’s honorable mentions list for top corners in the NFL, and he made 9 plays on the ball while only seeing about three-quarters of his team’s defensive snaps. From what I can see, it seems likely that Newman will move to the slot while Waynes gets the nod to play opposite Rhodes. This is the best cornerback trio in the division, and it’s not even close.
#2) Detroit Lions
Coming in at a distant second is Detroit. I admit that the stats don’t back me up on this one, but that’s because the stats only tell part of the story. First, Darius Slay does not get enough credit, in my opinion, because up until now his stat line has suffered from the low quality of his supporting cast. He’s a solid corner, and in a fair world he would have made the Pro Bowl at least once in his career, at least as an alternate. He has the potential to do it all, and he is still getting better (for example, he did better at shutting guys down in 2016 than he did in 2015). He has some of the same advanced metrics on his side as Rhodes, if not to the same extent. He was in the Top 20 in the NFL last year in making 15 plays on the ball, and that’s probably a fair estimate of his overall ability.
If this is the case, then why did the Lions struggle so much against the pass? Because Slay was not able to play all three cornerback positions. To put it bluntly, Slay has been handicapped in his career by the relatively low quality of the men playing opposite him. Nevin Lawson and Quandre Diggs are not names to inspire fear in quarterbacks, and so even when Slay has been playing good football, it has been too easy for opposing offenses to simply throw to other weapons.
However, the Lions took some aggressive steps to change things. They went out and picked up DJ Hayden in free agency. Hayden is not a ballhawk who is going to shut down another team’s #1 receiving threat, nor is he consistent. However, he once earned the distinction of being one of the Top 15 cornerbacks in a supporting role, per Football Outsiders (in 2014). For all of his limitations, he is a much better counterpart than Slay has had for most of his career, however. Additionally, he is not the only investment the team made. Detroit also picked up Teez Tabor. I liked Tabor enough that when I did my all-SEC draft, I took him for the Bears at #67 overall. Here is what I wrote then:
What I saw of him when I watched clips was a player with speed and agility who was able to find the ball and get a hand on it. However, in a couple of profiles I saw indications that he’s more of a finesse player and that he avoids contact. I’m not sure which one I believe.
I think he was a slight overdraft in the second round, but I do think he’s a good pickup, and I think he was the best corner drafted by a team in the NFC North this year. These three make up what seems to me to be the second-best cornerback setup in the NFC North, and you’ll note that comes from having one very good corner, one serviceable corner, and one promising prospect. Basically, yes. These moves are enough to move them ahead of two teams that made less progress or actually regressed.
#3 Chicago Bears
In third place in the NFC North are the Chicago Bears. This is not an endorsement of the unit. Pro Football Focus actually considered Prince Amukamara to be the 25th-best cornerback in the NFL last year, but having watched him play, that seems to me to be more of an indictment of how PFF evaluates cornerbacks than it is a confirmation of the former Cornhusker’s ability. Amukamara is not a bad cornerback, but he is at best average, and he’s best as a #2.
Presumably, this is where Marcus Cooper comes into the picture: after a couple of years disappearing into the background, Cooper put together a solid 2016. If he can repeat that performance (3 interceptions and 11 passes defensed, with 63 tackles), then he will be a welcome addition to the team. That seems like a big if. Bryce Callahan is not bad as a backup who can play when called on to do so, but he is honestly more impressive because he’s not as bad as Bears fans feared, not because he is actually going to tilt a field. Kyle Fuller used to be promising, but I think anyone outside of Halas Hall who claims they know what 2016 is going to look like for him is probably exaggerating.
As a side note—almost every other team distinguishes between corners and safeties on their rosters, but the Bears do not. I am thus using Pro Football Reference’s distinctions. Overall, the Bears probably did improve a little compared to 2016, but it does not seem like the improved enough, and there is no one player in this group who is going to make offenses play differently, whereas the Vikings have a whole unit like that and the Lions at least have Slay.
Green Bay is lacking at cornerback. Sam Shields is a free agent (and is not the Sam Shields Bears fans remember, anyway). Damarious Randall has gotten better than during his 2015 campaign, when he was one of the 20 worst cornerbacks in the NFL in terms of adjusted success rate, adjusted yards per target, and target rate. However, that’s not saying much. Additionally, after Randall the team is relying on Ladarius Gunter (12 passes defensed in his career) and some journeymen to round out their experienced corners. Quinten Rollins followed a mediocre rookie campaign with a pedestrian sophomore outing, and so these are three players who are collectively placeholders or slightly worse. Nor does Davon House inspire terror, but he is probably at least as good as Callahan or Fuller—take your pick.
At this point, I have to acknowledge that the Packers picked up Kevin King with the 33rd pick in the draft. This was one of those picks that might work out, but I actually thought of King as maybe worth a third-rounder, and even when I did my mock draft limiting myself to the PAC-12, he didn’t seem to me to be worth taking. I think he either needs more speed or better instincts to be more than a developmental prospect. Admittedly, Green Bay usually does some things with the safety position that help to ease the load on corners, but that doesn’t change the fact that the cornerback part of their roster is lacking.
Simply put, the Packers are in the basement because they were close last year and they did not make the level of investment seen by the Lions. If King turns out to be a star, that might change.