NFL Free Agency: Antonio Cromartie and the 11 Most In-Demand DBs

Josh BenjaminCorrespondent IFebruary 8, 2011

NFL Free Agency: Antonio Cromartie and the 11 Most In-Demand DBs

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    The 2010 NFL season is over, and football fans nationwide are in anxiety mode over the progress of a new collective bargaining agreement. Despite this, I am an optimist and still plan on following the weeks leading up to the NFL Draft by keeping track of another fan-favorite event: NFL Free Agency!

    This year's free agency class is certainly one for the books. Quarterback Peyton Manning is a free agent, as is wide receiver Randy Moss. Still, there is one group of players that deserves attention.

    Believe it or not, this year's NFL free agency class features a number of elite defensive backs. In some cases, contract negotiations might be smooth sailing. In others, it may be a second occurrence of the Darrelle Revis (pictured at left) negotiation saga.

    That being said, here's a look at 11 of who are sure to be the most sought-after defensive backs!

Honorable Mention: Danieal Manning, Chicago Bears

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    Chances are that the Chicago Bears will re-sign him, but don't count out this young safety just yet.

    Over the past three seasons, Manning has established a presence not only as a good coverage man, but as an excellent kick returner. In those three seasons, he has accumulated 2,630 of his 2,711 career return yards. It was a great utilization for the Bears to use him and take some of the pressure off of Devin Hester.

    Besides his effectiveness on special teams, Manning has proven himself to be an above-average defender at the safety position. He isn't one to play man-to-man defense and go after the ball consistently, but he fits well into Lovie Smith's hard-hitting style of play.

    Teams in the market for a good kick returner who also hits hard would be wise to look at Manning, but at this point it doesn't look like he's going anywhere. The fans love him and so does Lovie Smith, so Manning gets an honorable mention.

    Potential Destination: Chicago Bears

No. 11: Eric Smith, New York Jets

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    In 2010, Eric Smith was not a starter on Rex Ryan's defense. He was mainly a special teams player who sometimes saw action on third-down plays.

    Then, when starting safety Jim Leonhard broke his leg in practice, Smith was thrust into the starting role.  He performed effectively for the remainder of the regular season, and became a key force during the Jets' playoff run. In the team's three playoff games, Smith recorded 26 tackles as he delivered devastating hit after devastating hit on top receivers.

    Still, the fact remains that Jim Leonhard will be back in his starting role in 2011. Unless the Jets decide to let free safety Brodney Pool walk, Smith becomes expendable.

    The former Michigan State Spartan would be a good fit on a team in the hunt for a tough, hard-hitting safety. Perhaps a return to the Midwest would suit him, as the newest member of Jim Schwartz's young and tough Detroit defense. Either way, don't be shocked to see multiple teams interested in Smith.

    Potential Destinations: Detroit Lions, Jacksonville Jaguars

No. 10: Charlie Peprah, Green Bay Packers

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    After the Green Bay Packers won the Super Bowl this past weekend, experts and analysts credited the team's strong defense in shutting down Pittsburgh Steelers'quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. During his post-game press conference, Packers QB and Super Bowl MVP Rodgers had a simple message: "Let's go get another one."

    If Rodgers wants that wish to come true, he'd be wise to convince team management to re-sign Charlie Peprah. Playing alongside Nick Collins at safety, Peprah was a clutch player in Green Bay's passing defense. In the Super Bowl, he was part of a lockdown secondary, registering 10 tackles on Pittsburgh's elite receivers.

    This young man hits hard, covers receivers well, and just comes to work ready to play. On top of that, he's still very under the rader compared to the other defensive backs available. Packers GM Ted Thompson would be a fool to let this young hotshot slip through the cracks if his team is looking to win another championship.

    Potential Destinations: Green Bay Packers

No. 9: Johnathan Joseph, Cincinnati Bengals

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    Johnathan Joseph is a talented young cornerback who has been plagued by one problem his entire career. His team has either tremendously overachieved or horribly underachieved.

    In 2010, Joseph's tackles and interceptions were down from the previous season (69 and six in 2009 to 42 and 3 in 2010). He missed four games with injuries, but the man just did not look the same as he did last season.

    His head coach is Marvin Lewis, so teams with defense-focused systems should have a moderate level of interest in Joseph. If he his placed in a system that consistently plays well and is in need of a corner who plays effective man-to-man defense, he could potentially have a Pro Bowl season.

    Potential Destinations: New York Jets, Detroit Lions

No. 8: Ronde Barber, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    In 2011, Ronde Barber will turn 36. Despite that, there's no denying that the Bucs' elder statesman is like a fine wine. He just gets better with age!

    Last season, Barber was an effective presence on a young Tampa Bay defense in need of a leader. He registered an impressive 81 tackles and picked off three passes. That's pretty impressive for a 35-year-old.

    The Buccaneers united behind Barber's effective play and leadership on defense as they contended for a playoff spot up until the very end. Now, with Barber's impending free agency about to become a reality, it's only right that the team give its veteran corner a new contract. Head coach Raheem Morris sang his praises all season; now it's time to bring Barber back.

    Potential Destination: Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

No. 7: Ike Taylor, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    For the past four seasons, Ike Taylor has been the most consistent producer on the Steelers defense that isn't named Troy Polamalu. A coverage cornerback, Taylor maintains the athletic ability to hit receivers hard and keep the football from moving up the field.

    Still, compared to the other members of Steel Curtain 2.0, Taylor is a small fish in a big pond.  He doesn't have the hard-hitting nature and long-flowing hair of Polamalu, nor the bad-boy image of James Harrison, nor a scary Viking beard like Brad Keisel. That being said, it may be time for him to move on.

    At 6-foot-2 and 195 pounds, Taylor has good size for a corner. Teams looking for a swiftly moving finesse defender would be wise to give him a shot. With Nate Clements and his heavy contract expected to be cut, don't be surprised if Taylor takes his talents westward to Jim Harbaugh.

    Potential destinations: San Francisco 49ers, Miami Dolphins

No. 6: Quintin Mikell, Philadelphia Eagles

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    At the safety position, Quintin Mikell is everything a coach could ask for. He hits hard, covers receivers well, and knows how to get to the ball. Thus, he is an attractive target for teams in need of help in the secondary.

    He is one of the smaller men at his position, only 5-foot-10 and 203 pounds, but Mikell doesn't let that deter him. The man enters each game with one objective on his mind: win the game. More often than not, he has answered the bell every time the Eagles have needed a defensive stop.

    With potential on special teams as well, Mikell is an even more valuable asset on a young and talented Philadelphia squad. Coach Andy Reid has nothing but good things to say about the man, and the fans love him. Look for him to stay put as the Eagles lock him up with a long-term deal.

    Potential Destination: Philadelphia Eagles

No. 5: Nnamdi Asomugha

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    Nnamdi Asomugha is more than just a man whose name is hard to pronounce. He is also, quite easily, one of the top cornerbacks in the NFL. Now an unrestricted free agent due to the Raiders voiding his contract, Asomugha is sure to be one of the most sought-after free agents.

    Now, some are probably looking at his stats from the past few seasons and thinking me nuts for including him on this countdown. Compared to other corners over the past three seasons, Asomugha's numbers are less than average. He does not register many tackles (only 19 in 2010), nor does he intercept passes (only three interceptions the past four seasons).

    The answer to why those numbers are so low is simple. Asomugha is such a shutdown corner that opposing quarterbacks simply choose not to test him! Since 2007, he has only been targeted about 30 times a season.

    This man is big for a defensive back at 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds, so look for him to sign with a team in need of a fast body in the secondary and a leader on defense.

    Potential Destinations: New York Jets, Washington Redskins

No. 4: Brent Grimes, Atlanta Falcons

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    The 2010 season was a good year for the Falcons' young cornerback. He improved upon his breakout 2009 season as he established himself as a hard-hitting and elite defending member of a young Atlanta secondary. His 87 tackles and five interceptions in 2010 earned him his first trip to the Pro Bowl.

    Grimes is a good young corner with the ability to be a pest in multiple ways. He is fast, tracks the ball well and hits hard.

    Teams looking for speed in the secondary will be sure to take a look at Grimes, but chances are he'll stay put. He is loved in Atlanta by both the fans and his teammates. That being said, look for him to be taken care of and be a force in the Georgia Dome for years to come.

    Potential Destination: Atlanta Falcons

No. 3: Champ Bailey, Denver Broncos

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    There's no other way to put this. Champ Bailey is possibly the best defensive back in NFL history.  Despite an off 2010 (42 tackles and two interceptions down from 74 and three in 2009), Bailey managed to make his 10th Pro Bowl. That's a record for cornerbacks.

    Still, as the Broncos look to get younger under new coach John Fox, Bailey becomes expendable. He's only 32 and still a force on defense, but there just isn't any spot for him in the new system.

    His numbers may slowly be on the decline, but Bailey could still be a good fit for a team in need of a tough corner and a leader on defense. In fact, don't be surprised to see him go back to Washington, where his career began. He could be just the cure for a young defense marred by the Curse of Albert Haynesworth.

    Regardless of where he ends up, Champ Bailey will continue to be a top cornerback and put up numbers to further his eventual enshrinement in Canton.

    Potential Destinations: Washington Redskins, Oakland Raiders

No. 2: Antonio Cromartie, New York Jets

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    When the New York Jets traded for Antonio Cromartie, he had a reputation for being a head case. He had a number of issues off of the field, and wore out his welcome in San Diego by exhibiting seemingly lackadaisical behavior. In a Jets uniform, he proved to be a key member of Rex Ryan's defense.

    Paired with Darrelle Revis, Cromartie managed the No. 2 corner slot with gusto. His numbers were modest at 42 tackles and three interceptions, but he took instruction well and was the ultimate team player. 

    When Brad Smith missed the AFC Wild Card game against the Indianapolis Colts and the Divisional game against the New England Patriots, Cromartie took over on special teams and was instrumental in the Jets winning those games.

    While the fans loved him and he was a perfect fit on Ryan's squad, it must be remembered that the Jets have many free agents to deal with this offseason.  As beloved as Cromartie is, he will come at a high price. A price that the Jets just won't be able to fit into their budget.

    At 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds, Cromartie is an attractive option for teams in need of a big man in the secondary who has arms long enough to create problems for opposing receivers. Don't be surprised to see him head out west, or south to his home state of Florida.

    Potential Destinations: San Francisco 49ers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

No. 1: Roman Harper, New Orleans Saints

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    Honestly, is there one bad thing that can be said about Roman Harper? The man is one of the best defenders in the NFL as well as one of the most-liked players. That being said, what team wouldn't want him starting at safety for it?

    Harper's style of play can simply be described as this: looks like a safety, plays like a linebacker. He covers receivers well, delivers bone-crushing tackles and forces fumbles. His 98 tackles and six forced fumbles in 2010 earned him his second consecutive trip to the Pro Bowl.

    Given how he was an integral part of their Super Bowl run and the contracts coming off of the books in New Orleans, I don't see Harper leaving the Superdome at any point in the near future.  e fits well into the system designed by defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, and his teammates love him. 

    With Darren Sharper on the decline and almost definitely on his way out of Louisiana, look for Harper to stay put and step into a leadership role on defense.

    Potential Destination: New Orleans Saints