NFL: Signing a Big-Name Free Agent Cornerback Is Almost Always a Bad Idea

ESPN recently published a list of the best and worst recent NFL free-agent signings. On the worst side, a consistent theme emerges. Cornerbacks? Not looking so good in terms of blowing big money on huge free-agent contracts.

This is no slight to the athletes who step up to this notoriously demanding position. It’s simply unstable, and quite often doesn’t pay off in terms of dollars spent per material gain on the actual gridiron. Let’s take a look at some of the most egregious examples, then break down exactly why cornerback is such a risky position to fill.

Three of the worst recent contracts

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Sean Smith entered the league in 2009 with the Miami Dolphins. He seemed like a sure thing even after he transitioned to the Kansas City Chiefs’ program in 2013. So the Raiders got on board.

His first game in Oakland was a total disaster. As he righted himself under the new program, he didn’t get much opportunity to develop. An arrest pushed him out of the NFL after the 2017 season.

Cary Williams held his own with the Baltimore Ravens for four seasons and the Philadelphia Eagles for two seasons. The Seattle Seahawks wanted in on the action. His 10 starts in 2015 were mediocre enough that only a strong training camp appearance could save him. However, he got cut two weeks into the 2016 season without playing a single game.

Brandon Browner was hyped up enough off his three-season run with the Seahawks that his downward trend in one year with the New England Patriots didn’t seem to register. The New Orleans Saints signed him for a three year deal worth $18 million at the top end. He couldn’t come to grips with what the Saints wanted out of him. He broke NFL penalty records before washing out permanently by the end of the season.

Breaking down why cornerback is such a high difficulty position

Being an NFL cornerback requires an insane skillset. You have to be fast, smart, and reactive. One mistake can cost your team the game. Because this is such a demanding position, corners often don’t have the longest careers.

Take the Saints’ Ken Crawley. In 2017 he was lights out, allowing a passer rating of 76.74. The very next year he doubled that: 152.1, according to Pro-Football-Reference. There was no real explanation for this sudden and swift decline. Except to say, Crawley lost the plot. It could’ve been the physicality of the game catching up to him, given a shoulder injury is what ultimately pushed him out of the Dolphins in 2019.

Why cornerbacks have trouble transitioning to new teams

Crawley will get another chance with the Las Vegas Raiders. And it might be worth the risk, especially if the undisclosed price is right. Because changing teams is always a crapshoot for cornerbacks in particular.

Generally, moving from one defensive program to another is a problem. Head coaches often push for particular cornerbacks that understand similar defenses, to avoid transitional issues. But coaches themselves are very much expendable in the NFL. A successful cornerback core can get terribly disrupted by a new coach transitioning in.

This explains why almost any NFL team’s cornerbacks core will be a group of relatively young players. This is a position where naturally talented athletes, as well as hard workers, can nonetheless wash out quickly. And some of the issues are purely physical. Cornerbacks tend to be shorter, due to the speed requirements. When they take a hit, it’s a bit different than the average hulking defensive lineman absorbing the same.