Cornerbacks are still in high demand
Broncos coach Mike Shanahan championed the idea that a shutdown cornerback could take a playoff team and turn it into a Super Bowl team. He watched the 49ers beat the Cowboys to earn a Super Bowl berth thanks in part to Deion Sanders and watched Sanders go to Dallas and accomplish the same goal.
Without a second thought, Shanahan traded halfback Clinton Portis to Washington for cornerback Champ Bailey last offseason. Good thought. Bad timing. Bailey, perhaps the league's best shutdown cornerback, arrived in Denver the year the NFL clamped down on illegal contact after five yards. Instead of shying away from Bailey, opponents attacked, targeting him almost as many times as Kelly Herndon, the team's other starting cornerback.
Shanahan thought Bailey would be the difference in getting past Peyton Manning in the playoffs. But things got worse. Instead of throwing for 377 yards and four touchdowns and scoring 41 points as he did in 2003, Manning burned the Broncos for 458 yards and four touchdowns and led the Colts to 49 points.
So the question heading into this offseason was whether cornerbacks would be devalued? After all, if a shutdown cornerback goes against a team's best receiver under the current emphasis of rules, quarterbacks will make that throw every time. Single coverage in a contact-free zone is golden for receivers such as Marvin Harrison. Will illegal contact affect the contracts cornerbacks are given and their status in the draft?
The answer heading into the April 23 draft is "not in the least." If anything, teams are getting even more desperate for coverage specialists. The prices for cornerbacks this offseason skyrocketed higher than for the receivers they cover. While the top receivers in free agency received around $4 million a year, top cornerbacks received $5 million or more.
"There is no question you still need the true cover corners," Colts general manager Bill Polian said.
The value of cornerbacks should only be enhanced by the draft. Four to six corners could go in the first round. If teams study their boards and circle needs at the position, they might even sneak another one into the first.
Antrel Rolle of Miami, Adam "Pac-Man" Jones of West Virginia, Carlos Rogers of Auburn, Justin Miller of Clemson, Fabian Washington of Nebraska and maybe even Marlin Jackson of Michigan and Corey Webster of LSU could be first-round picks, particularly when teams study the costs of getting a starting cornerback in free agency next year.
Stats Inc. does a study of what it calls, "burned defenders." Stats counts the number of times cornerbacks are targeted and how many times they get burned. From last year's tapes, Stats determined that Gary Baxter of Baltimore, Anthony Henry of the Browns and Fred Smoot of the Redskins were among the 12 most burned defenders in pro football, having between 57 and 63 passes completed on them. Combined, the trio gave up nine touchdowns, according to Stats Inc.
Each moved on to a new team this offseason with a $5 million contract.
"Some of the guys claiming to be shutdown guys better cover better," Bucs coach Jon Gruden said. "Some of these guys that have this label didn't shut enough guys down this year. To use the contact rule as an excuse, to me, I don't like that. They've got to cover better."
One answer is coaching better techniques. Cornerbacks have to get used to being flagged for making contact after five yards. The emphasis on illegal contact isn't going away, in fact it was reinforced at the March owners meeting.
What's interesting is how differently teams are looking at cornerbacks in this year's draft due to the emphasis on illegal contact. Coaches are being less stringent on the physical dimensions of the corners and are studying their skills more. Some teams are considering shorter corners who might not have fit their previous profile.
Pac-Man Jones, for example, would lose in some draft rooms to taller corners. He measured out at 5-foot-9½ at the scouting combine in Indianapolis. His skills, however, are good enough that he's giving 6-1 Antrel Rolle a pretty good battle to be the top corner in this draft.
"Guys with coverage skills are going to move up the board," Giants coach Tom Coughlin said.
Coughlin's Giants were affected by the emphasis on illegal contact. According to Stats Inc., they were among the league leaders in illegal contact penalties. Will Allen finished second in times burned for a completion with 65. Things have to change.
"Our guys were hands-on guys, and players have to learn there are going to be penalties with that style," Coughlin said. "There is no contact down the field. They are calling it. It doesn't matter if you like it or not. It's a big adjustment."
Because more has to be asked of cornerbacks, apparently the answer was paying free agents more money. The Panthers gave Ken Lucas of the Seahawks a six-year, $37 million contract. The Patriots traded for oft-injured Duane Starks of the Cardinals. Samari Rolle got $5 million a year from the Ravens, who made Chris McAlister one of the league's richest cornerbacks last season.
Red flags are still translating into green for enriched cornerbacks.
Next year's free agent cornerback class is going be thin. Nate Clements of the Bills is the only sure bet and tops the class. Charles Woodson of the Raiders is technically a free next year but he is an unsigned franchise player looking for a long-term deal. Patrick Surtain of the Dolphins is free but he is awaiting a trade and a long-term deal. The Giants' Allen is the next name but he is coming off a tough season.
But as it turned out, they'll still get paid top dollar. The emphasis on illegal contact only made corners more valuable and teams know that heading into this year's draft.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.