There are several talented impending free agent cornerbacks this offseason, and two young guns expected to hit the free agent market are Green Bay Packers CB Sam Shields and Tennessee Titans breakout star Alterraun Verner. Both players racked up passes defended stats last season, and they are arguably among the top five impending free agent corners. Verner and Shields are expected to hit the free agent market, and it was reported yesterday that Shields will hit the open market. There’s still hope that the Titans can keep Verner, but they have plenty tied up in fellow CB Jason McCourty and might not want to meet Verner’s high asking price.
Both corners are fairly similar in terms of quality, and I thought it would be interesting to pit both players head-to-head in different categories to see how they match up against each other.
1. Ball Skills, Playmaking
Sam Shields is no slouch in this regard with 11 interceptions over the past three seasons, and he had passes defended totals of 12, 10, and 17 in each of those years. Verner, though, might be even better in this regard with five picks last year and a ridiculous 23 passes defended. When you add up their career totals, Verner has eight more passes defended but two less interceptions. It isn’t an easy call, but I have to give the edge to Verner based on the numbers. This could very well be a wash, though, because Shields has made some really tough plays in tight coverage, and I’ll never forget a pass break-up he had on Calvin Johnson in the end zone on Thanksgiving in which he out-leaped Megatron and had the presence of mind to knock the ball out as both were falling to the ground. Matthew Stafford didn’t make the best read, but a lesser corner would have allowed a TD on a one-on-one jump ball to Johnson, who rarely misses those plays. He also intercepted a pass to Johnson in the end zone in another one-on-one jump ball situation (he somehow clamped on the ball, wrestled it away, and held on has he fell), and he was one of the lone bright spots in that blowout loss due to those two plays that showcased his top-notch ball skills.
Slight edge: Verner due to “playmaking” part of it, but this is pretty much a wash
2. Run Defense
A cornerback’s most important job is to shutdown the wide receiver he is covering, but run defense is an underrated part of a CB’s game and can even be used as a tie-breaker when comparing talented players. Although it isn’t a primary trait for most corners in this league, teams like the New England Patriots like to have CBs who are capable run defenders. All it takes is a group of CBs who are liabilities in run defense, and you are susceptible to runs on the outside.
Run defense isn’t Shields’s forte, but it’s something that Verner has been consistently above-average at. He recorded a whopping 101 tackles as a rookie and quickly earned a reputation for being a quality run defender. Verner has tackle totals of 57 and 82 in the past two seasons respectively, whereas Shields has more issues with missed tackles. The gap between both players in run D isn’t huge, but I feel comfortable with giving the advantage to Verner.
3. Pure Coverage
The meat of the battle lies in this area, as it covers the primary job of a cornerback. Verner has had more successful seasons, with his best season coming last year. Shields’s finest performance was in 2012, when the Pro Football Focus tracked him with a meager 57.1 QB Rating allowed. Even though his PFF grade was higher than Verner’s last season, Verner allowed an even lower QB Rating (55.8) with less touchdowns and yards per completion allowed and more passes defended. Shields was targeted less and allowed a lower completion percentage, so his 2012 season and Verner’s 2013 season are almost even.
Verner’s 2012 season and Shields’s 2013 season are about on par with each other, but Shields gets the edge due to better coverage numbers across the board. When comparing their 2012 and 2013 seasons in conjunction with eachother, it becomes clear that both are about even players. Shields allows less catches than Verner and has that shutdown feel to him, but he also gets burned more than Verner does. It’s always interesting to evaluate Shields, because he has all the potential in the world with great physical tools and the ability to put a chokehold on receivers in coverage, but he lacks concentration and is too burn-prone to be trusted as a No. 1 CB at this moment in time. But it’s his potential and tools that will cause him to receive big money on the free agent market, and Shields certainly feels that he is worthy of being a No. 1 corner and being paid like one.
The advantage has to go to Verner, because he’s had more above-average seasons than Shields and has shown more consistency in coverage. More importantly, this league is a “What have you done for me lately?” league, and Verner was noticeably better in 2013. And if Shields were a shutdown corner, then the Packers pass defense defense theoretically would have been better than one of the bottom-seven units. I mean, you could make the case that he wasn’t even that much better than Tramon Williams last season.
4. Age, Expected Pay, Versatility, Upside, Final Thoughts
This is sort of the miscellaneous category where I take a look at the final pieces of the puzzle that could shape their value on the free agent market, and one of the most interesting factors is perceived upside. Verner and Shields are four-year pros who are 25 and 26 respectively, and they have elite potential. Both players could legitimately become two of the best players at their position, and Verner is already one of the best players at the position as a second-team All-Pro. Both players have the same “upside”, but the fact that Verner is actually better now and has already fulfilled most of that upside gives him an important edge.
There is no doubt that both Verner and Shields are very good in coverage in the slot, and that aspect of their games is a wash when comparing them head-to-head. Top cover corners mostly stay on the outside, but these two can certainly shut slot receivers down if they need to.
Verner will most likely receive more money than Shields, and that’s because he’s accomplished more than the Green Bay Packers CB. He’s the better player, he’s viewed as the better player, and he’s going to get paid like the better player. I could see Shields’s value drop if he isn’t signed quickly, because there are a number of very talented CBs hitting the free agent market. I mean, there are ten talented players at that position that are impending free agents, and I would expect half of them to hit the open market. Shields and Verner are going to be two of those sought-after players, and Shields’s market could be shaped by which other players (Aqib Talib, Vontae Davis) end up slipping into the free agent waters. If the market is considerably drier than last year’s, then the gap in pay between these two players won’t be as pronounced. But as it stands right now, Verner is younger and better, and he’s going to receive elite corner money from a team like the Minnesota Vikings that desperately needs him.