NFL free agent breakdown: Cornerbacks

NFL free agency begins league-wide March 9 and the Redskins need reinforcements at several spots including cornerback.

As the start of free agency rapidly approaches, Breaking Burgundy takes a look at the top players plus value options at positions of need for the Washington Redskins. First up, cornerbacks.

Considering the onslaught of injuries it was forced to endure, Washington’s secondary held up surprisingly well last season. That success is due, in large part, to the team’s depth at cornerback—something that the unit was thought to lack at the beginning of the season. 

Second-year corner Bashaud Breeland, coming off an intriguing rookie season, needed to step up with so many injuries elsewhere including DeAngelo Hall and Chris Culliver.  By all measures, Breeland did just that. Quinton Dunbar’s contributions down the stretch were more unlikely. Though the unit deserves commendations for its resilience, it would be foolish to think they could pull it off again if besieged by another wave of injuries this season.

 

Culliver's status, meaning can he return to form should he remain with the team, lingers. Meanwhile Hall shifted to safety and Will Blackmon hits free agency. With all of these factors in mind, the Redskins may want to add depth to re-fortify their ranks at the position. If they choose to do so via free-agency, below are top candidates for the job:

 

1.) Josh Norman (2015 Team: Carolina Panthers)

 

Norman is hands down the best cornerback available in free agency. He is also among the least likely unrestricted free agents to actually make it to free agency. If the Panthers and Norman can’t work out a long-term deal, the Panthers are expected to franchise tag the 28-year-old to keep him on their roster.

 

Still, if Norman does make it to free agency, the Panthers will lose a gem. Norman recorded 56 tackles, 18 pass deflections, four interceptions (two returned for touchdowns) and three forced fumbles last season. It seems unlikely that Redskins general manager Scot McCloughan would look to spend the kind of money it would take to land Norman, but talent is talent.

 

2.) Trumaine Johnson (2015 Team – St. Louis Rams)

 

Johnson recorded the second-most interceptions (7) in the league last season. The 26-year-old may not be the biggest free-agent name coming out of the Rams’ secondary—top cornerback Janoris Jenkins is also an unrestricted free agent—but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. When he wasn’t snatching interceptions, Johnson was often forcing opposing wide outs to join him under the radar with stifling blanket coverage. He’s also capable of laying on the hurt, and he proved it against Alfred Morris.

 

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3.) Sean Smith (2015 Team: Kansas City Chiefs)

 

Smith didn’t have staggering numbers last season, and that’s not an aberration for him. Smith has never snagged more than two interceptions in a single season during his seven-year career. The 28-year-old recorded 45 tackles, 12 pass deflections and two interceptions in 13 regular season games last season. Though he doesn’t have the type of numbers that jump out at you, he does have a different measurable that could suit the Redskins well.

 

Smith is listed at 6-foot-3 and weighs 218 pounds. He has not only the size but also the athleticism to be a major disruptor at the line of scrimmage against the league’s more physically imposing wide receivers. The Redskins have struggled in recent years against bigger targets, and a press-coverage specialist like Smith could make for a prudent addition to Washington’s secondary.

 

4.) Janoris Jenkins (2015 Team: St. Louis Rams)

 

Jenkins’ propensity to create big plays is the primary reason he overshadowed Johnson in St. Louis. The problem is that he’s a magnet for big plays of both varieties: positive and negative. He might be higher on this list if Washington wasn’t still in recovery from the blown coverage plague that haunted the secondary in the 2013-14 seasons. With that being said, Jenkins is electric when the big plays are going in his favor. And at 27 years old, the University of Florida product has plenty of time to improve.

 

Also of note: the Rams selected both Jenkins and Johnson in the 2012 draft—that draft where, you know, Washington sent all those picks and whatnot to St. Louis so that they could draft its franchise quarterback ... in the fourth round. Jenkins was selected with the Redskins’ second-round pick. Johnson was selected in the third round with a non-Redskins pick.

 

5.) Casey Hayward (2015 Team: Green Bay Packers)

 

Not a high-profile cornerback, but Hayward is a formidable force when it comes to man coverage, particularly in the slot. In his 2012 rookie season, Hayward showed what he was capable of with six interceptions and 21 passes deflected. He hasn’t come close to those numbers in the time since, but the 26-year-old is just entering his athletic prime. 

And if McCloughan looks for value...Leon Hall (2016 Team: Cincinnati Bengals)

McCloughan made a point of adding veterans for depth and locker room leadership last season. The 31-year-old Hall, a former first round pick, qualifies. Injuries, namely two Achilles tears, have slowed him down, but he remained helpful for the AFC North champions. Pro Football Focus gave Hall above average grades in each of his nine seasons and notes he can defend the slot, which could be helpful if Kyshoen Jarrett ends up playing more snaps at safety. Cincinnati has several members of its secondary entering free agency and can't bring them all back. Hall's cost won't be near his $9.6 million cap hit last season.

Note: Free agency begins on March 9 at 4:00 p.m. For other key offseason dates and their relevance to the Redskins, here’s a list for your convenience.

Dan Roth is a freelance sportswriter and Breaking Burgundy contributor. Follow Dan on Twitter @danrothdc.

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