The 2016 NFL free-agency period officially begins March 9 at 4 p.m. ET. Days are dwindling until the legal-tampering window closes and deals can be finalized. Some teams will start at the top of their wishlist and make their way down, but the smart general managers have the second-tier free agents on speed dial in an effort to beat the crowd.
The top of the free-agent cornerback class starts with Sean Smith of the Kansas City Chiefs. But other impact players such as Green Bay Packers cornerback Casey Hayward and Los Angeles Rams corner Janoris Jenkins have valuable skill sets. Hayward is especially intriguing as he prepares to earn a big payday for his rare talents.
This crop of free agents will benefit from the lack of depth available and the influx of cap space. According to Spotrac, 19 teams have more than $20 million to spend and 10 are equipped with $40 million or more. Quality players who can step in and provide an immediate positive impact will deservedly be rewarded.
Hayward is our focus because it’s uncommon for a talented 26-year old cornerback to hit the market. The Packers are one of the teams with more than $20 million to spend, but their 2015 investment into the defensive backfield has apparently left them confident in Sam Shields, Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins. According to Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Wisconsin Journal Sentinel, the Packers are unlikely to make him a serious offer.
The gamble may prove to be the right decision, but it is risky because of what Hayward brings to the team. Hayward not only has good size at 5’11” and 188 pounds, but he’s experienced as a slot and boundary corner. Green Bay also exposed him to a mix of zone and man coverage schemes.
Free agency is only a high-risk proposition when teams don’t have a clear plan for their new acquisitions. Fitting a square peg into a round hole has led to disastrous deals in the past. While Hayward isn’t a Swiss Army knife capable of meshing into any scenario, he’s capable of fitting most NFL defenses and playing at a high level.
|Casey Hayward's Coverage Productivity|
|Route defended||Boundary Losses||Total Boundary Routes||Boundary Burn Percentage||Slot Losses||Total Slot Routes||Slot Burn Percentage|
To see just how well Hayward performed in 2015, I took an eight-game sample of games to chart. 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 the sample against top opponents? It’s subjective, but the project isolates the cornerback from the defense and level of competition. It also helps show where a player excels and struggles in terms of alignment and defending the route tree.
Since Green Bay often used a mix of Cover 5 and Cover 6 to protect against big plays, Hayward wasn’t put into man coverage as regularly as some of his peers. That’s not a negative, especially since every defense varies its coverage looks between man and zone. It did cut down on the total routes I was able to chart for Hayward, though.
Nevertheless, Hayward proved to be a solid boundary and slot defender. His chart above accurately reflects what Hayward showed as an athlete at the 2012 NFL Scouting Combine. He performed extremely well in short-area drills but had a 4.57 40-yard dash time. Predictably, Hayward often lacked the deep speed on go-routes but was sticky underneath.
The total number of routes was lower than most cornerbacks I look at, which is normal for slot corners because of their assignment volume. Nevertheless, he stacks up with the final numbers I accumulated from 38 cornerbacks in 2014.
It’s hard to find cornerbacks able to seamlessly slide into the slot since it requires a different skill set and mindset. The slot demands quickness but also a physical mentality. Playing outside needs speed, strength and length. Hayward performed well enough outside to be a quality rotational piece.
The only matchup that gave Hayward great trouble as a boundary corner was Denver Broncos receiver Demaryius Thomas. Although a nondescript route-runner, The 6'3" Thomas has massive speed and size advantages over most defensive backs. Hayward lost five of their 13 head-to-head plays.
More favorable matchups can be found against possession and slot receivers than true No. 1 receivers. For example, Hayward dominated his man coverage routes against Arizona Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald and Minnesota Vikings slot man Stefon Diggs. Combined, Hayward lost just four of 19 routes.
Even in zone coverage, Hayward has proved to be comfortable and capable. His nine career interceptions and 35 passes defensed help highlight his ability to find the ball and finish at the catch point. His reaction skills are a major asset for the position. Even if he doesn’t get the interception, he’s finding where the ball is headed to make a tackle.
This is where the physicality aspect of Hayward is a huge positive. Pro Football Focus had Hayward as the fourth-best run-stopper at the position in 2015, making 11 stops. 2015 was the first season in which he was asked to be such a force near the line of scrimmage, even blitzing at various stages. His effectiveness is another bullet point on the fifth-year corner’s resume.
Determining Hayward’s value is difficult because of his skill set. While almost every team desperately needs cornerback depth and versatility—and he fits all schemes except press—there aren’t many cornerbacks capable of executing at a high level both inside and out. Dallas Cowboys corner Brandon Carr might be the closest comparison, and he received a five-year, $50.1 million deal in 2012.
Hayward is better than Carr, but Carr’s deal has been at the high end of the market since he inked it. That seems like the floor for any Hayward deal given the cap has since risen drastically and how many suitors he should have.
As far as team fit, Hayward will draw a different crowd than the soon-to-be-29-year old Smith. A long-term investment into Hayward is perfectly acceptable for non-playoff contenders as well as playoff teams. He may choose to look for a three-year deal like Smith did in 2013 so he can cash in again before turning 30.
The Oakland Raiders, New York Giants, San Francisco 49ers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Tennessee Titans and Chicago Bears are in the top 10 of cap space and all have significant needs at cornerback. The Raiders and Giants should be interested in pairing Hayward with a true top cornerback such as Smith or rolling the dice on Prince Amukamara as a high-upside signing.
Wherever Hayward ends up, his new defensive coordinator must keep him as a defensive weapon. Moving him around and allowing him to roam the zone occasionally will maximize his repertoire of talent. He’s potentially the final piece for a Super Bowl-caliber defense or a building block for the future, making him one of the rare and more valuable free agents in the class.
All stats used are from Sports-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
Ian Wharton is an NFL Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.