The San Diego Chargers had a pedestrian defense in 2012, but instead of adding key pieces over the offseason, they mostly promoted young players into bigger roles.
One such player is cornerback Shareece Wright, who has gone from playing sparingly in 2012 to starting in 2013.
With very little depth at the cornerback position, there is a lot of pressure on Wright to be productive. If Wright doesn’t play well, the Chargers don’t have a legitimate back-up plan.
Unlike other positions where the Chargers could hide a struggling young player, that’s very hard to do at cornerback. Wright simply must be productive or the entire defense could struggle, making him a very important player on the team.
According to Armando Salguerz of the Miami Herald, the Chargers are working out cornerback Richard Marshall, who was recently released by the Miami Dolphins. The interest in Marshall highlights the Chargers' need for depth at cornerback, especially after losing rookie slot cornerback Steve Williams for the year with a torn pectoral muscle.
Even if the Chargers add a player like Marshall, they will still be putting a lot of faith in Wright, a player with zero career starts and who has spent most of his time in the slot. If there is good news, it’s that Wright only has to be as good as or better than last year’s starters on the outside—Quentin Jammer and Antoine Cason.
If Wright is as good (or bad) as Jammer or Cason, making him the starter will still be a success. If a team is going to deal with bad player at cornerback, that player should be at very least cheap and young like Wright.
It should be easy for Wright to be better than both Jammer and Cason because it will be hard for him to be much worse. According to ProFootballFocus.com (subscription required), only three qualifying cornerbacks were worse than Jammer and Cason last season.
Wright has talent or he wouldn’t have been drafted with the 89th pick in 2011 and he’s played pretty well when given the opportunity.
At worst, Wright should be a slight upgrade over last year’s starters. At best, Wright could also be a huge upgrade over what the Chargers had at cornerback and significantly improve the entire defense.
A good test for the quality of a cornerback is how often they are targeted and how many receptions they allow. Opposing offenses will stay away from cornerbacks who consistently perform and attack those that don’t perform—it’s that simple.
ProFootballFocus.com's less subjective signature statistics are a good way to gauge the performance of defensive backs. Jammer and Cason did not fare well in these statistics, which supports the grades the site gave them.
Jammer was targeted every 5.7 snaps in coverage and allowed a reception every 10 coverage snaps. Cason was targeted every 6.4 snaps and allowed a reception every 9.6 coverage snaps.
Combined, that’s a target every six snaps and a reception every 9.8 in coverage. These are the baseline numbers that Wright needs to beat just to be better than what the Chargers had last year.
That’s not to mention the 13 combined touchdowns that Jammer and Cason allowed, by far the most of any cornerback tandem in the league. Marcus Gilchrist’s stats were even worse in coverage, but he was good at supporting the run, which is likely why the Chargers moved him from slot cornerback to strong safety.
There is enough of a sample that the Chargers aren’t wrong to think that Wright can be better than Jammer and Cason. Wright was targeted every 5.3 snaps (more than Jammer or Cason), but only allowed a reception every 10.5 snaps and didn’t allow a touchdown.
Wright’s sample size was just 84 snaps, or roughly 14 percent of the coverage snaps that Jammer and Cason played, but the Chargers obviously felt that Wright was ready for an expanded role. It’s hard to imagine Wright being much worse than Jammer or Cason.
Wright also didn’t allow many yards when he did give up a reception, which suggests he wasn’t getting beaten badly. It’s a small sample, but Wright’s 0.83 yards per coverage snap compares favorably to some of the top cornerbacks in the NFL.
Obviously, the Chargers want to improve on defense and not just maintain what they were last year. Wright is going to be a big part of that improvement, as well as free-agent acquisition Derek Cox.
Unlike Wright, however, Cox has a questionable track record. Maybe Cox was the victim of being on a bad team or the Chargers made a bad deal, but his track record isn’t great. It wouldn’t be hard to make a case that Cox didn’t deserve the large contract he received earlier this year.
Past performance isn’t always a great prediction of future performance at cornerback, but if their 2012 rates don’t change significantly, the duo of Cox and Wright might actually be worse than Jammer and Cason.
Cox and Wright were targeted in more per coverage snaps, allowed more receptions per coverage snap and allowed more yards per coverage snap than Jammer and Cason last year.
The only advantage the Chargers' projected 2013 tandem has is touchdowns allowed, and that could easily change with more playing time this season.
Since Cox has a longer and more-suspect track record, the pressure is on Wright to perform. Maybe a change of scenery or the scheme will help Cox, but that’s far from certain. Cox probably isn’t going to be a drastically different player than he was in Jacksonville, but Wright is still relatively unknown.
Great players like Eric Weddle, Corey Liuget and Kendall Reyes were all a part of an average Chargers' defense last year. If San Diego's defense improves in 2013, it will likely be due to the play of Wright making a difference.