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Assessing the Chargers needs and options with free agent cornerbacks

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Dallas Cowboys v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Count this among the reasons that total yards is among the worst ways to measure a team’s performance: it lacks the context of opportunity.

The Los Angeles Chargers finished with the fifth-fewest passing yards allowed in 2019 but watching the games, you knew that they were not the fifth-best pass defense. The Chargers gave up many big passing plays and had many regrettable moments on defense when they couldn’t make a critical stop that may have improved their 5-11 record. Gus Bradley’s defense was fifth in passing yards allowed but they also faced the fewest number of pass attempts in the NFL.

The Chargers ranked 20th in net yards per attempt allowed, 22nd in interceptions, and they were 20th in pass defense DVOA. According to NFLGSIS, LA ranked 32nd in pass defense to the deep left, 20th to the deep right, and 23rd to the deep middle. They were also 24th to the short middle.

They had 28 plays go to the deep left with an average gain of 15.5 yards. That could be telling us that whoever was opposite of Casey Hayward that day was not having a grand moment and that Hayward himself was not able to shut receivers down like he wants to. Speaking of which, Hayward was one of the best free agent signings of the 2016 offseason, going to San Diego from Green Bay and making the Pro Bowl in each of his first two seasons with the Chargers. Four years later, the team may want to check the market again for a starting corner.

What are their options?

Here’s a quick list of cornerbacks set to be free agents unless their teams retain them first:

Byron Jones, 27, Cowboys

James Bradberry, 27, Panthers

Jimmy Smith, 32, Ravens

Chris Harris, 31, Broncos

Darqueze Dennard, 28, Bengals

Bradley Roby, 28, Texans

Trae Waynes, 28, Vikings

Brian Poole, 27, Jets

Kendall Fuller, 25, Chiefs

Mackensie Alexander, 26, Vikings

Logan Ryan, 29, Titans

Kevin Johnson, 28, Bills

Tramon Williams, 37, Packers

Ross Cockrell, 29, Panthers

Javien Elliott, 27, Panthers

Mike Hilton, 26, Steelers (RFA)

Jalen Mills, 26, Eagles

Daryl Worley, 25, Raiders

Ronald Darby, 26, Eagles

Aqib Talib, 34, Dolphins

Johnathan Joseph, 36, Texans

Eli Apple, 25, Saints

Jason Verrett, 29, 49ers

Artie Burns, 25, Steelers

(More names via OverTheCap)

One thing you’ll notice is that many of these players have been in the slot recently or long term, such as Harris, Dennard, Fuller, Poole, Alexander, Hilton, Johnson, Ryan, Williams. Last summer, PFF ranked the Chargers as having the best cornerback trio in the NFL in large part due to Hayward and slot cornerback Desmond King. But King’s numbers and rankings took a major hit in 2019 compared to 2018, allowing more yards per completion, per target, more touchdowns allowed, and going from three interceptions to zero.

LA can now decide to just stick with the 25-year-old King for another year, but King is also set to be a free agent in 2021. There are a lot of slot options in free agency and the draft as teams are still more concerned about finding guys on the outside. Obviously that will also apply to the Chargers, who struggled there with Brandon Facyson and Michael Davis.

Obviously the splash signings will be Jones or Bradberry, if they hit free agency. Given the Cowboys must deal with Dak Prescott and Amari Cooper and so on, Jones seems more likely to hit the market. Whether the Chargers would be interested — Jones has spent the last two years learning from Kris Richard, who was a defensive backs coach under Bradley in Seattle with the Seahawks — is another story. Do they have the money?

Yes, they could make that work.

LA is set to have around $54 million in space per OTC, but could save $6.5 million by releasing Denzel Perryman, $5 million by releasing Tyrod Taylor, $5.2 million by releasing Thomas Davis, $4.25 million by releasing Brandon Mebane, $2.7 million by releasing Virgil Green.

Not that they will, but the Chargers have plenty of ways to get to $70 million in cap space, much of which of course will be used on finding or keeping a starting quarterback, or Hunter Henry, or Melvin Gordon, or another free agent. Can they afford a Jones or a premium slot? Last year, former Seattle slot corner Justin Coleman signed a four-year, $36 million deal with the Detroit Lions. For what it’s worth, Coleman struggled mightily with the transition, exemplifying that sometimes that change is a risk not worth taking, and other times a change of scenery becomes Casey Hayward.

But if Jones wants to be paid like Xavien Howard, Marcus Peters, who were also 27 at the time of their recent deals, he’ll be getting paid $14-$15 million per season. The first-year cap hit should be lower, maybe closer to around $11-13 million. It’s affordable, though the Chargers must also consider their 2021 free agent class of Keenan Allen, Mike Williams, Joey Bosa, Melvin Ingram, and so on.

Which corners would you want to target or stay away from?