Cornerback may be the most important position on defense in today’s NFL. It is certainly important in Giants’ defensive coordinator Wink Martindale’s schemes, which extensively utilize man coverage and often leave cornerbacks on an island to cover the superb wide receivers that the game is blessed with today. It’s difficult to imagine winning a Super Bowl without cornerbacks who can provide tight coverage of great receivers and force turnovers.
The New York Giants have not faced many of the NFL’s elite wide receivers this season. In fact, they have only had to defend against four of PFF’s top 20, and none of the top eight. Amon-Ra St. Brown had seven catches in eight targets for 76 yards this past Sunday. Randall Cobb had seven receptions in 11 targets for 99 yards. CeeDee Lamb had eight receptions in 12 targets for 87 yards and a TD. D.K. Metcalf, who almost didn’t play due to injury, still had 6 of 10 for 55 yards and a TD. The Giants will see Lamb again this week, Terry McLaurin (twice), A.J. Brown (twice) and Justin Jefferson over the final few weeks of the season.
Overall the Giants are ranked 31st in pass coverage by Pro Football Focus. That is a bit misleading because the PFF grade includes coverage snaps by all players on defense, not just cornerbacks. Pro Football Reference has the Giants 11th-best in passing yards allowed, tied for fifth in passing TDs given up, 18th in passing first downs surrendered, and tied for 13th in net yards per attempt allowed, but they are tied for last in the NFL with only two interceptions.
Acceptable but not good enough
The statistics above paint an overall picture of a mediocre but not terrible pass defense. It is not a championship defense, though. Individually, the Giants’ cornerbacks have mostly played average to slightly above average in 2022:
Mind you, it could be a lot worse. In fact it WAS a lot worse at MetLife in 2019, Pat Shurmur’s final year, when James Bettcher was the defensive coordinator:
That secondary never mastered Bettcher’s coverage schemes and was awful throughout the season. Things got better in 2020 when James Bradberry joined the Giants, but he was released this spring for salary cap reasons.
What makes a good cornerback?
The answer to that question is more complicated than it is for most other positions. The PFF grades above are an overall assessment, and based on that alone we might say that the Giants currently have two slightly above-average starting CBs in Adoree’ Jackson (71.5) and Aaron Robinson (73.2), plus a couple of useful average-level players in Fabian Moreau (63.5) and rookie Cor’Dale Flott (69.9) and two below-average players in Darnay Holmes (54.4) and Rodarius Williams (52.3). That may or may not be enough to get the Giants to the playoffs this year, especially considering the attrition in the secondary over this season; time will tell once we see the performance of whoever is left against the better opposing offenses remaining on their schedule. Let’s look a bit more in depth, though, to get a better impression. Here are some factors that have to enter into the calculation:
- Availability. Jackson came to the Giants with a reputation as being injury-prone, and that narrative was strengthened in 2021, when he missed four games. He has played every game this year, though ... until being injured returning a punt Sunday. Robinson, the putative other starting boundary cornerback, is a different story. If the injury that put him on injured reserve is season-ending, as has been hinted at, that will mean that in two years as a Giant, he will have played in only 11 of 34 games. He hasn’t played enough to definitively answer the question of whether he is actually a quality NFL cornerback. Third-round pick Cor’Dale Flott had only appeared in two games on defense before Sunday and is still an unknown quantity. Rodarius Williams had not played at all this season before Sunday and has appeared in only six of 27 games in his two seasons. Fabian Moreau, a pleasant surprise this season, was the latest to leave a Giants game with an injury.
- Completion percentage against (REC%). The best “shutdown” cornerbacks in the NFL allow completions 50 percent or less of the time. There are eight such CBs among those who get substantial playing time that meet that criterion, including Bradberry, fellow Eagle Darius Slay, and Jets rookie Sauce Gardner. Among the Giants’ cornerbacks, Jackson (53.7 percent) and Moreau (53.3 percent) have been pretty good. Robinson has been great (40.0 percent) but had only been targeted five times before his injury so the jury is still out (last year he was at 57.1 percent in 28 targets).
- Passer rating against (NFL). NFL passer rating is an aggregate quality + volume metric based on pass attempts, completions, yards, TDs, and interceptions. It ranges from 0 to 158.3. Robinson’s 58.8 in a small sample would rank him 11th in the NFL; the others are middle of the pack or in the lower tier of CBs.
- Penalties (PEN). Penalties against CBs are more harmful than at other positions, because they usually are for pass interference, which can cost a large number of yards, for defensive holding or illegal contact, which are automatic first downs, or for late or illegal hits, which cost 15 yards and an automatic first down. The worst NFL CBs this year in penalties have been called 6-8 times. None of the Giants’ CBs are near the top of that list. The worst is Darnay Holmes with four.
- Forced incompletions (FI). This includes pass breakups, interceptions, and other tight coverage plays. Bradberry (13) and Gardner (11) lead the NFL. Jackson and Moreau, each with seven, are in the top 20. Holmes, who has been in coverage only a little less than Moreau, only has two.
- Interceptions (INT). In 10 games, no Giants cornerback has had an interception. As Joe Schoen might say, reflect on that. Rookie Tariq Woolen leads the NFL with five, and seven players are tied with 3. It’s not as if 2022 is an anomaly - in 2021 Giants’ cornerbacks not named Bradberry only had a total of two INTs. Interceptions aren’t everything - some cornerbacks gamble too much and get interceptions at the expense of giving up too many yards. But they can be game-changing plays (as Daniel Jones and the Giants found out vs. Detroit), and the Giants’ CBs don’t make them.
- Stops (STOP). These are plays in which a completion is allowed but the play is considered a failure, e.g., a catch short of the first-down marker. The league leaders have 10-14 stops so far this season. Jackson leads the Giants with seven; Moreau is next with five.
- Missed tackles (MIS). Holmes is one of only nine CBs with significant snaps who have not missed a tackle this year. Jackson (three) and Moreau (two) are middle of the pack.
- Yards after catch (YAC). YAC is to some extent a volume statistic - the more you play, the higher the number will be. But some players excel at quickly getting the receiver to the ground when they do allow catches. Among players with at least 200 coverage snaps, Chidobie Awuzie of the Bengals has given up only 20 YAC and Jaycee Horn of the Panthers only 39 to lead the NFL. Fabian Moreau is 22nd with 84 Jackson is tied for 37th at 108. Darnay Holmes in 61st with 141. Boom-or-bust CB Trevon Diggs of Dallas is fifth-worst at 252 YAC.
We can sum things up by saying that the Giants do not currently have a shutdown cornerback on their roster. They do have two very capable CBs in Jackson and Moreau. Robinson could be the best of them all, but he has played so little that it’s difficult to get a reliable read on him. Holmes has improved since his rookie year and is now at least adequate. Williams and Flott haven’t distinguished themselves but it’s too soon to tell what they can become.
The glaring deficiencies of the Giants’ cornerback group are that (a) none of them are ball hawks and (b) as a group they are injured so much that it significantly compromises the defense. Clearly the Giants will need to augment this position to contend for a title.
Which teams should the Giants try to emulate?
Based on PFF coverage scores, here are three teams within the top 10 in overall pass coverage with cornerback groups of interest for different reasons, using data from Pro Football Focus and Over The Cap:
(The players above are listed in order of coverage snaps this season.) In Philadelphia, General Manager Howie Roseman has gone all in on a Super Bowl title this season. He has three CBs playing very well, and his top four together are costing him only 7.4 percent of the salary cap. But the chart shows that he is doing it with cap magic. His three top players all have void years in their contracts (i.e., years in which costs are charged to the salary cap even though they are no longer playing for the Eagles). And next year Darius Slay will take a $26.1M bite out of the Eagles’ salary cap. Philadelphia only has $7.5M of effective cap space (i.e., after signing their draft class) in 2023 with 48 players under contract. That does not include Bradberry, who is on a one-year deal with a void 2023 year. So next year Roseman will only be able to tinker with the roster unless he performs more cap magic to push even more costs into the future. A Faustian bargain for a 2022 championship run.
New England takes a different approach. They manage to have one of the best pass defenses in the NFL (just ask Zach Wilson) while only having two good starting cornerbacks, Jonathan Jones (who began to excel this year after being moved from the slot to outside) and rookie Jack Jones, a Round 4 pick. The Jones boys have both been elite this year, so the shortcomings of the rest of the Patriots’ cornerback room aren’t as noticeable because their top CBs effectively blanket opponents’ WR1 and WR2. (As long as the Joneses stay healthy, that is.) The Patriots are paying their cornerbacks about as much this season as the Eagles are, but without having mortgaged the future. They will have a decision to make on re-signing Jonathan Jones next year, but with $48.8M in effective cap space, they can afford to sign him to a bigger contract if desired.
The New York Jets have perhaps the most enviable cornerback situation of any team in the NFL at the moment. They signed one notable free agent in 2022 (D.J. Reed), but otherwise they have drafted their way to an elite secondary. The Jets are spending very little on their CBs this year, though Reed’s contract is structured with costs backloaded to 2023 and 2024, and they have only $3.5M in effective cap space next season.
The Giants also have an inexpensive cornerback room this year, but three of their four top CBs may not play on Thanksgiving due to the injuries that have wracked this group. Schoen added a small ($3M) 2024 void year to mitigate Jackson’s 2023 cap hit, but otherwise the Giants are in decent financial shape.
Other than finances, another consideration is what type of cornerback a given team is looking for. Wink Martindale uses more man coverage than any other team in the NFL, but still only about half the time. It depends on the down, distance, and game situation:
So he needs CBs who can be effective in both. The Eagles play mostly zone, so they don’t have that problem. That’s why signing Bradberry, a better zone (76.6) than man (64.9) CB, made sense for them. Right now the Giants have one cornerback, Jackson, who has been very good in man coverage, though less so in zone, in Martindale’s defense. They have two others (Moreau and Robinson) who have been just short of above-average in man coverage, and another (Holmes) who has been abysmal in man but very good in zone. How should they build their cornerback room into a Super Bowl-quality group?
The Eagles’ approach is a high-wire act, probably unsustainable in the long run, and seems antithetical to Joe Schoen’s philosophy of team building. The Patriots are in an ideal position ... unless one of their elite CBs gets injured and has to be replaced with a subpar depth player. They are also susceptible to teams like the Bengals who have three excellent wide receivers. The Jets really are the model that Schoen should try to follow.
It will never be known what the Giants would have done if Sauce Gardner had not been taken with the fourth pick in the draft. And the Giants won’t be drafting that high in 2023. But that’s OK. Good cornerbacks can be found outside the top 10 picks. This year there are six rookies grading above average so far:
Gardner was a very high pick, but Jack Jones was Round 4, Trent McDuffie was late (No. 21) Round 1, Kader Kohou was an undrafted free agent, Martin Emerson was Round 3, and Tariq Woolen was Round 5.
Ideally, the Giants might use their first-round pick in 2023 on a cornerback if they find one available who is good in man coverage, preferably one who is tall enough to handle other teams’ starting X receivers and/or one who has a talent for interceptions that the Giants’ current group seems to lack. With 11 picks in the draft, they can afford to draft a second cornerback early on Day 3. Given the injury history of their CB group, the more quality depth they can find on rookie contracts, the better. The Patriots, trying to corner the NFL market in Joneses, drafted CB Marcus Jones in Round 3 in 2022 before taking Jack Jones in Round 4. He doesn’t appear on the chart above since he’s only had 75 coverage snaps so far, but his grade in those snaps is 71.9, including 80.1 in 32 man coverage snaps. (You may have seen Marcus Jones return that last-minute punt for a TD to defeat the Jets last Sunday. The Patriots use their backup CBs as punt returners, not their starters.) None of the Patriots’ three Joneses is even 6 feet tall, so skill trumps size when evaluating CBs.
Another possibility, in addition to the draft, is to go the unrestricted free agent route, as the Jets did successfully with D.J. Reed. Here are the top 10 free agent CBs, from Spotrac:
A couple of things stand out:
- Most of the free agents are near or above 30, an age at which CB performance begins to decline, so buyer beware.
- Jonathan Jones, who has forced four turnovers already this year and plays man on the outside very well, would be a great addition, but it’s unclear what his plans are for next season. It’s also unclear whether Joe Schoen would be willing to add another double-digit annual average value CB contract to the roster given impending decisions about Daniel Jones, Saquon Barkley, Leonard Williams, and Dexter Lawrence.
- None of the other free agents shown above is good in man coverage, and some are terrible: Marcus Peters (33.1 PFF grade), Anthony Brown (35.9), Troy Hill (48.0), Bradley Roby (48.3), Anthony Averett (51.2), Cameron Sutton (56.8).
So if the Giants are to elevate their cornerback group with players who fit what Martindale needs for his schemes to work, most likely it is going to come via the draft, and hopefully as well via the maturation of their existing young CBs. Flott’s ceiling is anyone’s guess, and there are questions about whether his small frame will limit his effectiveness against big receivers. Holmes has improved since his rookie year but is a liability in man coverage from the slot (36.8 PFF grade). He may be more suited to a backup role seeing the field primarily in dime packages than as a starting nickel CB. Robinson would seem to be the most likely starting slot CB instead, but can he get and stay healthy? Can Rodarius Williams ever be more than an emergency backup? Will the Giants try to retain Jackson by extending him in the offseason and reducing his 2023 cap hit? How Joe Schoen answers these questions will have a lot to say about whether the Giants can become serious contenders in 2023.