Byron Maxwell is the top cornerback available in free agency right now. He's listed at 6'1", 207 pounds, he's got speed and athleticism and plays aggressive man coverage with strength and physicality. He's racked up six interceptions and 27 passes defensed in two seasons as a major contributor to the Seattle Seahawks' "Legion of Boom" secondary.
Unless and until Darrelle Revis hits the market, NFL teams in need of a starting cornerback will be lining up to bid for Maxwell's services.
But will the winner of the auction end up with buyer's remorse?
Unlike the prospects coming up in the draft, it's easy to project how Maxwell will do as a No. 1 cornerback in the NFL. When you play on the other side of the field from the least-targeted cornerback in football, you're going to get picked on—and when that cornerback rarely flips sides, you're going to line up against top receivers an awful lot.
Maxwell had to hold down the side of the field Richard Sherman didn't throughout most of 2014, and Pro Football Focus charted him as the 20th-most targeted of 73 qualifying cornerbacks. It's no surprise Maxwell allowed receptions the 21st-most frequently.
In the Seahawks' Cover 1/Cover 3 system, Maxwell plays a lot of tight man and some off-man or zone. Generally, Seahawks corners cover tightly and close quickly. After dividing Pro Football Focus' yards-after-catch allowed by charted targets, Seahawks corners finished 13th (Tharold Simon), 14th (Sherman) and 18th (Maxwell) in average per-target YAC.
Maxwell finished in the middle of the pack in overall PFF grades, neither above plus-0.9 or below minus-0.9 in any of PFF's grades. Tellingly, his best single-game grade of 2014 was a plus-3.3 in Week 14 against the Philadelphia Eagles.
What was special about that game? Maxwell played almost exclusively in the slot, lining up against big, talented rookie Jordan Matthews. Per Pro Football Focus, Maxwell draped himself all over Matthews, allowing just two receptions for 23 yards on five targets.
Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn seemed to be more afraid of Matthews in the slot than Riley Cooper outside. He gambled by putting his better cover corner inside and trusting Simon to cover Cooper, and it paid off.
But whichever team pays Maxwell big free-agent dollars won't want him in the slot. They'll be paying him big bucks to shut down top receivers. Can he do it?
Let's take a look at how Maxwell did against the Denver Broncos' Emmanuel Sanders.
Sanders is going to run a deep out against Maxwell's single coverage. He's lined up inside of the numbers, which often means he's going to break to the outside. Maxwell is lined up relatively tight:
Here's one big problem with Maxwell's deep-coverage game: He's a side-straddler, rather than a backpedaler. This limits his ability to react to a double move, or even a crisply run route by a speedy receiver:
Here, he's lined himself up to the outside of Sanders, ready to deny the expected outside move. Sanders feints inside, drawing Maxwell in to try to come over his back to make the play. Then boom:
Sanders cuts back to the outside, and Maxwell isn't just caught flat-footed—he ends up getting completely turned around! It's a credit to his athleticism that he got back around and recovered in time to make the tackle:
All that being said, the end result of the play is a 17-yard gain. Sanders did this to Maxwell over and over again, beating Maxwell for six catches and 95 yards on eight targets. Again, to Maxwell's credit, he broke up one of the two incomplete passes. He also held Sanders to just 13 yards after the catch and no touchdowns.
Whichever team ponies up top free-agent money for Maxwell is going to hope for a little bit better than "bend, but don't break" against the game's top receivers and offenses. But Maxwell can be left on an island with a receiver of Sanders' ability for an entire game, and keep him from blowing the game wide-open.
There aren't a lot of cornerbacks in the NFL for whom that's true—and very few whose bags are packed and ready to go to whichever team is most willing to pay:
|Top 2015 Free Agent Cornerbacks|
|Pro Football Focus|
Comparing Maxwell to the other top free agents makes it very clear there aren't a lot of quality corners, and even fewer on the right side of 30.
Sherman and Patrick Peterson have set the top of the cornerback market at $14 million a year, per Spotrac.com, and Revis' payday—whether it comes from the New England Patriots or another squad—may well top that mark.
Maxwell will come much, much cheaper. But if he approaches the top cornerback free-agent contracts of recent years, such as Alterraun Verner's four-year, $25.8 million deal from 2014, teams will be paying a steep premium for scarcity.
There isn't a cornerback as big, good and young as Maxwell on the 2015 market, but if he ends up earning more than $6 million per year, he'll be approaching the salaries of Verner, Lardarius Webb, Brent Grimes, Chris Harris—players who, flatly, are both better and more proven than Maxwell.
Of course, players have benefited from changes of scenery in the past. Yet Maxwell seemed ideally suited to his role in Seattle. A lesser team paying $6-7 million per year and asking him to play a different role could be deeply disappointed—just as the Patriots were when they signed Brandon Browner, the last Legion of Boom member to hit the open market.