After Niners Live shuffled through the field and brought you the top three edge-rushers the 49ers should target in 2018, from our unique perspective, of course. We now turn our attention to the defensive backfield to highlight the top three Cornerbacks the 49ers should target in free agency.
Process of Elimination
There are a few names that have been on many team’s wish list and radar heading into free agency from the ever so coveted cornerback position; Patrick Robinson of the Philadelphia Eagles and fellow teammates Trumaine Johnson and Nickell Robey-Coleman of the Los Angeles Rams.
There is no question that all three players would be intriguing acquisitions, however, the chance of Philadelphia not re-signing Robinson who’s been on the rise as of late and who is coming off one of his best seasons thus far. And had arguably the biggest play of the post-season returning an interception for a touchdown that helped to turn the tide for the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC Championship game wouldn’t be realistic.
Johnson, however, could be likely looking for a new home as his asking price will be more than what the Rams may be willing to pay and for the 49ers’ frugal taste as well. Johnson was also on the market the last two off-season before being given the franchise tag of roughly $14 million in 2016 and $16.7 million in 2017, respectively.
Johnson’s overall Pro Football Focus grade has declined steadily over the last three years; 2015 (80.7), 2016 (80.5), and 2017 (74.3). And he’s rank, per PFF as the 68th best cornerback. Johnson’s size and physicality is his strength, not his speed or lateral quickness (see Pierre Garcon article).
Which is why the Rams will look to re-sign cornerback Robey-Coleman who played at a high level in 2017 (PFF overall grade of 84.9) at just 26 years of age. Therefore, making Johnson expendable.
Top Three Cornerbacks the 49ers should target
No.1 Aqib Talib, CB Denver Broncos, Super Bowl champion
Height: 6-1 Weight: 205 Age: 31
PFF Grade: 86.2 overall, 86.2 coverage and run def 78.8
Current Contract: two years remaining, Talib is due to make $11M in 2018 and $8M in 2019 (via Spotrac).
In his 11 seasons; Talib has played in 135 games starting 121 of those contest, amassing 34 interceptions which he returned 10 for touchdowns, 117 passes defended, four forced fumbles and accounting for 362 total tackles. This past season was again another Pro-Bowl caliber campaign to add to his resume as he was selected to his fifth straight Pro-Bowl, leading the charge for a Broncos secondary that finished in the top five in the league giving up just over 200 passing yards a game.
Although Talib still has two-years left on the six-year, $57 million (as seen above) contract he signed with the Broncos in March 2014, Denver is expected to place him on the trading block or cut him for salary cap relief. Talib, who will turn 32 on February 13, has a $12 million dollar cap hit this year with $1 million in dead cap space. And it should be noted: The Broncos already have $17 million tied up ( for 2018) amongst their two younger corners; Chris Harris Jr. (28) and Bradley Roby (25) so it would be hard to imagine Talib being brought back into the fold.
Why He Fits
With the 49ers in dire need of some leadership in the defensive backfield, Talib would be an instant upgrade that could be counted on to bring some toughness (just ask Michael Crabtree), physicality and experience into a young and up and coming group. Pro football focus rated him the 15th best among cornerbacks in 2017 which would immediately bring some credibility to this inexperienced Forty-Niners unit and give them some much-needed confidence and swag heading into next season
Talib brings big game intuition and the desired size to fit in Defensive Coordinator Robert Saleh’s scheme as he prefers to deploy big, physical defensive backs. He would also bring a shut-down mentally to a secondary that ranked in the bottom half of the league last year in yards given up (3,764) and interceptions (10), ranking 22nd and 27th respectively.
No. 2 Malcolm Butler, CB New England, Former Pro Bowler (2015)
Height: 5-11 Weight: 190 Age: 28
PFF Grade: 79.2 overall, 78.9 coverage and run def 56.2
Spotrac: One-year, $3.9 million (current salary)
Market Value: 5 years, $65,036,065, Avg. salary: $ 13,007,213
In his four-year career; Butler has started 48 of 59 games played amassing eight interceptions, 50 passes defensed, four forced fumbles, two sacks, and 177 total tackles. Butler’s 2017 campaign (51st best grade overall) wasn’t what we saw in 2015; ranking 13th best and 2016 seventh-best grade overall. And he displayed excellent ball skills; ranking fourth in pass breakups in both 2015 and 2016. However, in 2017 he did finish 13th in pass breakups.
Butler has allowed a passer rating of 91.9 and 21 touchdowns in his four years including the playoffs. However, based on his responsibilities in a Matt Patricia (defensive coordinator) coach defense; Butler could be often seen matching up against some of the league’s most talented wide receivers. And to his credit, he has also shown great durability missing only one game over the last three seasons.
Why He Fits
Butler has a knack for making big plays ( see break down above) at the most important times which is something that any team especially a team like the Forty-Niners at this stage in the rebuilding process would love to have on their side. Don’t let his size fool you Butler is a highly competitive football player that competes on every snap with a chip on his shoulder (undrafted free agent).
Butler brings playoff and championship (two Super Bowl rings to his name) experience to the table. Butler would be well worth the investment as he is still in his prime and would serve as a good mentor for some of the young and upcoming talents on the 49ers roster.
Could we see more historic Super Bowl moments (like we did against the Seattle Seahawks) in Super Bowl 52 versus the Philadelphia Eagles?
No. 3 Kyle Fuller, CB Chicago Bears, former first-round pick
Height: 6-0 Weight: 194 Age: 25
PFF Grade: 84.3 overall, 84.5 coverage and run def 46.2
Spotrac: 4 years, $9.68 million, $2.42 million annually (recent salary)
In his four-year career; Fuller has amassed eight interceptions, 41 passes defended, three forced fumbles to go along with 156 tackles. After missing the entire 2016 campaign with a knee injury, Fuller bounced back strong this past season accounting for 22 passes defended, 60 tackles and two interceptions as a vital piece to the Chicago Bears defensive backfield. The Bears were one of the stingiest pass defenses in the league ranking seventh overall in total passing yards surrendered.
Why He Fits
While Fuller has been somewhat inconsistent at times he played well enough last season to create some interest in his services. His best quality is his youth, being only 25 which still gives him time to develop his game and become one of the best at his position. He also has played under the tutelage of Former Forty-Niners’ Defensive Coordinator and current Chicago Bears Defensive Coordinator Vic Fangio who has a great track record for developing young defensive talent.
The Forty-Niners would not need to overspend to acquire Fuller’s services and based on his age, measurables, and upside. Fuller showed that upside against the 49ers when he had a signature game in week 13th .Fuller accounted for seven tackles, one being solo, one tackle for a loss, two passes defended and one interception and was all over the field making his presence felt. Fuller would have an opportunity to be a part of the youth movement that is taking shape in Santa Clara under the new regime and be part of the future.
Honorable Mention: Byron Maxwell, CB Seattle Seahawks, Super Bowl champion
Height: 6-0 Weight: 202 Age: 29
PFF Grade: 84.0 overall, coverage 83.3 and run def 79.4
Spotrac: 1 year, 900,000 (recent salary)
In his eight seasons, Maxwell has started 52 (eight coming in 2017) of a possible 83 games played and accounted for 11 interceptions, 62 passes defended, 11 forced fumbles and 213 tackles. In 2017 after his return to where he started his career in Seattle Maxwell played solid stepping in for a unit that was decimated by injuries. Of the 424 yards Maxwell allowed in coverage last season, only 12.07 percent came after the catch, which was the second-lowest percentage among the 126 cornerbacks with at least 150 coverage snaps in 2017.
Why He Fits
Maxwell would bring experience and knowledge of playing under Defensive Coordinator Robert Saleh during his run in Seattle. And brings playoff and championship experience. Maxwell can play both man or zone coverage, but he’s best as a No. 2 corner. The Forty-Niners would also benefit from having another player from their division rival that knows the personnel and scheme. And could provide an edge or spark in the future head-to-head match-ups.
Maxwell is known for his physicality and standing at 6’0 and 202 lbs. he fits the mold very well and can deliver punishment at will with his aggressive nature and disposition.
The new league year is soon to be upon us, and Cornerback is one of San Francisco’s most pressing needs. Dontae Johnson showed last season that he just isn’t a starting caliber cornerback and Rookie Ahkello Witherspoon has shown flashes, but still is an unfinished product.
Could we see this need get addressed in the NFL draft? Or will the Forty-Niners not take any chances and pull the trigger in free agency?
All very interesting questions which we’ll know the answers to soon, and until then, Niners Live will continue to keep the Faithful updated as the offseason/free agency and the draft unfolds. To be continued…
Please join us again soon on Niners Live, the home of the faithful fan and analyst from an objective/analytical lens, of course. Often imitated, but never duplicated.
All records, statistics, and accolades are courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com, Pro Football Focus, 49ers.com, ESPN.com, NFL.com unless otherwise indicated. Author, Content Creator, Editor Sequoia Sims. Contributor, Irvin Johnson Staff Writer at Niners Live.