When the secondary of the New York Giants gets brought up, the first player talked about is typically Landon Collins. That’s fine, he’s been quite good this year. Then the conversation moves to Janoris Jenkins, who has exceeded all expectations after signing his massive free agent deal in the offseason. You can make an argument that given performance and responsibility, Jenkins has been the best cornerback in football this season. There should also be an argument that Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie belongs in that conversation, too.
Now overlooking Rodgers-Cromartie would be fine and understandable if it were just fans or media innocently overlooking the corner. But the biggest culprit here is the Giants’ own coaching staff. Since the start of the season, Rodgers-Cromartie has covered the slot in nickel packages, but he’s not getting bumped inside after playing the outside in base personnel -- however rare running a true 4-3 base is these days. He’s clearly the No. 3 corner on the depth chart behind Jenkins and rookie Eli Apple.
Over the past few weeks, there’s been a trend in Rodgers-Cromartie getting less defensive snaps and Apple getting more. In the past three games, Rodgers-Cromartie has been on the field for 24.1 percent, 54 percent, and 65.3 percent of the team’s defensive snaps, while Apple has seen 100 percent, 96.8 percent, and 77.3 percent.
Some of this, the Giants say, is helping to keep Rodgers-Cromartie healthy, which makes some sense in theory. Rodgers-Cromartie missed the Week 4 game against the Minnesota Vikings with a hamstring injury and was listed as questionable the following week against the Green Bay Packers, but played 76.3 percent of the defensive snaps. He has not been on the injury report since and his second biggest workload of the season came in Week 7 against the Los Angeles Rams when he played 93.7 percent of the defensive snaps in London, three weeks after his groin injury.
Despite the playing time constraints, Rodgers-Cromartie has performed as well as anyone on the field. Per Sports Info Solutions charting data from Football Outsiders, Rodgers-Cromartie has allowed just 4.5 yards per pass attempt in coverage, which is the second-best in the league among 92 corners targeted 25 or more times through Week 12. His Success Rate of 72 percent is the best among those cornerbacks and he’s the only player with a Success Rate above 70 percent. Jenkins ranks second at 69 percent. For coverage, Football Outsiders describes Success Rate as the following: Percentage of plays where this cornerback was in coverage that did not meet our baseline for offensive success (45 percent of yardage on first down, 60 percent on second down, or 100 percent on third down).
Meanwhile, Apple’s ranks are towards the bottom of the list. He’s 88th in yards allowed per pass (11.6) and 91st in Success Rate at just 33 percent. This isn’t meant to kill Apple. He’s a rookie cornerback and corner is one of the toughest positions to play in the first year with a steep learning curve. But this should continue to highlight the question of why Rodgers-Cromartie hasn’t seen more playing time.
When asked about the rotation this week, Steve Spagnuolo gave little actual detail. This was his response:
"Well, they are both in there," Spagnuolo said. "DRC right now has been playing inside for us a little bit and we rotate him through. But Eli does some things that fit what we do. DRC does the same. I am glad that we got all three of them (Apple, DRC, Jenkins). This week you will see different combinations of all three of them and I think it has worked out pretty well for them."
That doesn’t really explain much. The popular belief is that Spagnuolo prefers the way Apple presses off the line and plays physical with receivers. It’s probably what the “Eli does some things that fit what we do” line really meant. But even if Rodgers-Cromartie doesn’t press off the line, it hasn’t impeded him from playing stellar coverage this season, and it’s a pretty silly reason to play a rookie over him while the team is pushing for a playoff spot.
How Rodgers-Cromartie has been thrown at this season also doesn’t lend to attacking receivers at the line. Among that group of cornerbacks, Rodgers-Cromartie has been targeted at fourth-deepest average depth on throws at 15.9 yards downfield, per Football Outsiders. The other cornerbacks targeted in similar range are allowing 8.5-10 yards per pass and have Success Rates around the 50’s -- nothing compared to Rodgers-Cromartie.
Playing off receivers allows Rodgers-Cromartie to follow some of these receivers deep down the field, and it’s worked well. Here against the Rams, Rodgers-Cromartie (bottom of screen) plays off Tavon Austin, who really has one skill in his speed. Austin ran a deep post, and Rodgers-Cromartie was able to stay with him and ran the route even better, which allowed him to be in the position to get an interception.
Rodgers-Cromartie can also play off receivers because he’s one of the best breakers on the ball in the league. If a throws happens in front of Rodgers-Cromartie and it’s a catch, the play doesn’t go far. Rodgers-Cromartie is allowing an average of 1.5 yards after the catch this season, per Football Outsiders, which is 25th-best among the qualified corners. It’s also not a guarantee the catch is made. Take this play that opened the Week 6 game against the Baltimore Ravens. Rodgers-Cromartie is lined up against Mike Wallace (top of screen), another receiver known almost exclusively for his speed. Rodgers-Cromartie has to bail at the snap, but watches the quarterback, reads Wallace’s route and is able to break back on the ball for a deflection.
This isn’t a new skill for the corner, either. Rodgers-Cromartie did this plenty last season when he was the No. 1 cornerback on the roster and one of the lone bright spots on the defense that ranked 30th by DVOA. Last season Rodgers-Cromartie was 25th among 75 qualified corners in yards allowed per pass (7.1) and 35th in Success Rate (53 percent). Those aren’t near the numbers of this season, but they’re still impressive when there was little else stopping anything offensively on the defensive side of the ball last season. Last year also saw Rodgers-Cromartie on the outside covering opponents’ No. 1 receivers. Again, a lack of press didn't hurt.
Below is Rodgers-Cromartie covering Ted Ginn (top) in a game against the Carolina Panthers last season. He plays about 10 yards off of Ginn, but the receiver never has an advantage in the route. Ginn has an open route to the post, but when the ball is delivered, Rodgers-Cromartie is right there to knock the ball away for an incompletion.
Against Washington, Rodgers-Cromartie faced off against DeSean Jackson (top). Again, Rodgers-Cromartie lines up off the receiver to protect from the deep ball, but as the route develops, the corner reads the receiver and quarterback, and breaks on the ball for what could have been a pick-six had he held onto the ball.
Sure, it’s true that Rodgers-Cromartie doesn’t play physically off the line, but if that’s what’s holding him back in the coaches’ minds, that’s a frustrating reason. Nothing about Rodgers-Cromartie's play last season, this season, or in his career suggests a lack of physicality at the line will stop him from excelling in coverage. Rodgers-Cromartie has played like one of the best cornerbacks in football this season. It’s probably time the Giants started treating him like it.