Cornerback Sean Smith Stands out as Prized CB in NFL Free Agency

Ian Wharton@NFLFilmStudyContributor IMarch 6, 2016

Kansas City Chiefs cornerback Sean Smith signals teammates during an NFL football game between the Denver Broncos and the Kansas City Chiefs, Sunday, Nov. 15, 2015, in Denver. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)
Jack Dempsey/Associated Press

We’re days away from the 2016 NFL free-agency period entering the “legal tampering” stage prior to the moratorium passing. Finance departments are double-checking their cap sheets and cash flow statements while front office personnel are assembling numerous backup plans for their grandiose fantasies.

Hitting the jackpot in free agency can mean as little as adding the right impact player or augmenting a developing force.

Top-tier positional players rarely find themselves on the open market to bid on. The franchise tag severely limits the amount of elite playmakers to change teams. The best overall player available in this unrestricted free-agency period is prized cornerback Sean Smith.

The Kansas City Chiefs understandably decided to use their franchise tag on safety Eric Berry, leaving Smith as their biggest free agent.

The Chiefs still have hopes of re-signing Smith, according to Terez A. Paylor of the Kansas City Star.

After cuts, they have $22 million to work with, which will make it difficult to retain Smith since the demand for cornerbacks is sky-high.

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What makes Smith so unique is his blend of speed, size (6'3", 218 lbs) and recovery ability. He’s one of the tallest and heaviest cornerbacks to ever be measured at the NFL Scouting Combine, ranking in the 99th and 98th percentile, respectively, according to Mock Draftable.

It’s rare to find players who move well enough at that size to play in man coverage.

Smith was a second-round pick by the Miami Dolphins in the 2009 NFL draft, falling to 61st overall. He needed time to develop his footwork and fell out of favor in Miami, leading to his departure via free agency to Kansas City. He became a bargain on his three-year, $18 million deal as he blossomed into a star in 2014.

After putting Los Angeles Rams cornerback Trumaine Johnson through my Coverage Productivity charts because he had a chance to avoid the franchise tag before the Rams ultimately decided he was worth it, it’s time to do the same for Smith.

You can learn more about the project, my methodology and 2014 results at Draft Centric.

Here’s what it boils down to: How often does a cornerback provide quality coverage throughout an eight-game sample against top opponents? It’s subjective, but the correlation between my charts helped predict a disappointing 2015 season for players like Joe Haden and Vontae Davis.

Smith performed very well in this study last year, as he was attributed with a loss in just 24.3 percent of qualifying coverages.

While I wasn’t able to chart every starting cornerback, I did get to 38 total. Smith’s raw score ranked as the fifth-best in the NFL. This is especially impressive as he faced the Denver Broncos twice and also went against Julian Edelman, Keenan Allen, Antonio Brown and the Cardinals’ array of receivers.

Kansas City’s man-based coverage patterns are aggressive and leave their corners on an island without much help.

Though Chiefs cornerbacks do benefit from a solid pass rush, this study negates the surrounding elements. If the cornerback loses at the apex of the route, a loss is charted whether the quarterback targets the receiver or not.

At 28 years old in 2015, Smith repeated his success for the Chiefs. See below for a breakdown of Smith’s performance against specific routes compared to the 2014 NFL average:

Sean Smith's Coverage Productivity
Route Defended2014 Losses2014 Total Routes Defended2014 Cumulative Burn Percentage2015 Losses2015 Total Routes Defended2015 Cumulative Burn Percentage2014 NFL Average
Cross1813%05037%
Quick In-Out51338%3743%32%
Slant41136%61155%49%
Comeback1911%41040%39%
Curl73719%42218%25%
Deep Out51050%050%45%
Dig3650%1119%40%
Corner2540%3743%40%
Post040%1523%36%
Go74117%104425%24%
Draft centric

His two seasons were quite similar in terms of overall impact for the Chiefs defense. His 2015 eight-game sample was impressive, as Smith had to guard against another talented list of receivers. The only receiver he consistently struggled with was Buffalo’s Sammy Watkins.

Watkins was able to beat Smith on four deep routes in their 2015 matchup, which really speaks to how freakish of an athlete Watkins is. And in fairness, the cornerbacks I chart against Watkins usually do poorly.

Smith was dominant for much of the season outside of that specific matchup.

Defenses that play a majority of man coverage must at least check in with Smith’s representation to see whether he’s in their price range or not. He is an excellent press cornerback with his length and hand technique but also because he guides receivers to the sideline effectively.

Even physically dominant receivers like Calvin Johnson couldn’t get separation or avoid being pinned to the sideline.

Smith forces tight passing windows because he’s more than just a height-weight-speed guy. He entered the league as a physical project oozing with upside, and he’s become a solid technician with discipline. He forces receivers and quarterbacks to work hard and earn downfield receptions.

There are a few ways Smith accomplishes this.

Credit: NFL Game Pass

The first is the most obvious, as his length would indicate. Even in trail coverage, Smith is not out of the play because he has the trump card to make up for mistakes early in the route. He demonstrated the impact of length with this tip-turned-interception in Kansas City's second game against the Broncos.

Smith’s not just reliant on the physical advantages he brings to the field, though. The reason he scored so well in my chart is because of his excellent footwork and fluidity.

The best way to see where a cornerback is with technique is to see how they handle Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Antonio Brown.

Credit: NFL Game Pass

Brown is one of the best technicians, if not the best technician, at the receiver position in the league. His feet are lightning-quick and precise, allowing him to run a complete route tree and keep cornerbacks off-balance.

Smith and Brown only logged five qualifying routes for me to chart, but Smith flashed his hip fluidity and efficient feet on this dig route from Brown.

It’s important for a player of Smith’s stature to be competent on more than just vertical routes. Stiff cornerbacks are often limited to specific schemes such as Cover 2, Cover 3 and Cover 4 zones. That doesn’t necessarily devalue those players, but it’s generally easier to find big corners for those schemes than for man coverage.

Smith’s effectiveness covering sharp-cutting routes helps illustrate his footwork and short-area explosion. He triggers from his backpedal into downhill acceleration with ease and closes quickly. He made Peyton Manning pay for staring down Smith’s side of the field in their first matchup of the 2015 season:

Credit: NFL Game Pass

Between Smith’s downfield coverage and ability to handle other popular routes such as curls and comebacks, he will walk into a locker room as the team’s best cornerback in all likelihood. There aren’t many better pure cover corners than Smith, and it’s uncommon for this type of player to be on the unrestricted market.

Darrelle Revis was a better player when he hit free agency in 2015, but he received the biggest contract for a corner in NFL history from the New York Jets.

Smith should receive similar interest and offers with so many teams needing a No. 1 corner. He’s an instant-impact player who performs at an All-Pro level.

With that said, there are some negatives to be mindful of. He was suspended three games before the start of the 2015 seasons for a DUI. Another off-field mistake could cost Smith an entire season under the substance abuse policy.

He’ll also be 29 at the start of the 2016 season, so his contract must give the team an out after the first three years in case Smith’s athleticism drops.

It’s standard for big free-agent contracts to be guaranteed for three seasons, so this shouldn’t be a major hiccup for negotiations.

In terms of talent, Smith should be paid as a top-five positional player. Teams pay a premium for unrestricted free agents, and Smith’s uniquely talented enough to demand such a price tag. With the average salary of the top five cornerbacks equaling $13.95 million, Smith’s demands should be in that ballpark.

For comparison’s sake, a much less talented player in Byron Maxwell received $10.5 million per year from the Philadelphia Eagles in 2015. That should serve as Smith’s absolute floor.

The list of teams with significant salary-cap space that would be a good fit with Smith is long. With his age and price, it would be best for playoff contenders to be top suitors. The best fit in terms of dollars and need is the Oakland Raiders.

The New York Giants, Indianapolis Colts, New England Patriots and Arizona Cardinals would be great landing spots as well.

The Chiefs should work hard to retain Smith if they can afford him. Wherever Smith lands, he will instantly provide a major boost of talent and savvy to one of the most valuable positions on defense.

 

Unless otherwise noted, all stats used are from Sports-Reference.com. Salary information courtesy of Over the Cap.

Ian Wharton is an NFL Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.