San Diego has surprised more than a few with an interesting offseason. Not only have they signed two significant free agents (roughly the same number as signed between 2006 and 2009), but they signed two free agents at the same position.
Nathan Vasher and Donald Strickland combine to give the team depth if nothing else, at a cornerback position that fielded only three active players in 2009, one of which has since been traded away to the New York Jets.
So what does this do for the secondary? That is a difficult question to peg down.
The team has Quentin Jammer locked up at the lead cornerback position, but now three players to compete for time as either a the second starter or nickel back. Aside from Vasher and Strickland, they also will look to see what young former first round pick Antoine Cason can do.
Strickland is the safest player of the group, being a good blend of both consistency and seasoning. He also presents the least upside to the team overall. He gets by on toughness and awareness over physical ability.
Because of this, Strickland is the best bet to be locked into the nickel role. His limited size will be less of a liability against slot receivers, and his solid run-support abilities will be better utilized by lining up closer to the trenches.
That leaves Cason and Vasher to fight for the starting role.
Vasher is more seasoned, with six years and 73 games total experience to Cason’s two years and 32 games.
He showed great potential early, putting up sixteen picks in his first three years in the league while playing for San Diego's current defensive coordinator Ron Rivera in Chicago.
The last three years have been something of a disappointment however, putting up three interceptions behind only 27 of a possible 48 games played. It is worth noting however, that aside from injury, his decline also coincides with the departure of Ron Rivera and the overall decline of the once dominant Chicago Bears defense.
Vasher is still only 28 years old, and knows Ron Rivera’s system (albeit modified to fit within the constraints of a 3-4). He is seasoned and proven, while also potentially hungry to prove himself after a disappointing stretch.
Antoine Cason needs to prove himself more in order to earn added playing time. With two years in San Diego, he knows the 3-4 variation of Ron Rivera’s defense whilst playing behind Quentin Jammer and Antonio Cromartie.
He also failed to unseat Cromartie last season even though team brass had obviously soured on the athletic corner. His limited speed and quickness hurt him in the nickel role, where smaller faster slot receivers could take advantage of his weaknesses.
Taking the outside in a zone scheme Cason should fare much better. He turned in two early interceptions in 2009 seeing some time outside, while providing a more physical presence than the tackle-shy Cromartie.
The team may also have added motivation to see Cason succeed in that he is a former first-round draft pick with three more years on his contract and no history of injury. If he were to succeed in the starting role, the team could have that second cornerback position locked up for quite a long time.
Vasher and Strickland are 28 years old and 29 years old respectively, and have collectively played in 131 of a possible 224 regular season games across their careers. They are each under two-year deals and neither is projected to be a long-term answer.
Ultimately the team will likely start camp with Vasher as the starter and Cason seeking to unseat him. As historically inactive as they have been in free agency, if the team had complete faith in Cason’s 2010 readiness they would not have signed an additional corner.
A good preseason could see those roles quickly reversed, however; if Cason can wrench the starting role away it would greatly improve the team’s long-term projections. It also ups the competition at the nickel and dime roles, where Strickland and Vasher present a significant upgrade over Steve Gregory and Paul Oliver.
The team may also elect to platoon the starting corner role. In games against smaller, speedster type receivers Vasher could get the nod whereas Cason is put into the starting lineup when facing larger more physical receivers.
No matter who earns which role, having the depth to make a decision rather than be forced into one is a great scenario that should ultimately benefit the team and improve the secondary. Paired with Jammer and Ellison, the team’s new trio should give the secondary an overall physicality that is greatly improved over somewhat soft units of the past few years.