By Tony Grossi
The Morning Kickoff …
Cornering the market: The Browns could be on the verge of becoming one of the most cornerback-centric teams in NFL draft history.
In 2010, the Browns used the No. 7 overall pick of the draft on cornerback Joe Haden of Florida. Two years later, they may use the No. 4 overall pick of the draft on cornerback Morris Claiborne of Louisiana State.
Two cornerbacks taken in the top 10 in the span of three years would be unusual, to say the least.
I have scoured the rolls of drafthistory.com and discovered only two situations similar to this.
In 1961, the San Francisco 49ers drafted UCLA cornerback Jimmy Johnson No. 6 overall. Two years later, the 49ers drafted UCLA cornerback Kermit Alexander No. 8 overall. Alexander played some safety in his career, but there were a few years the two players started together at cornerback.
In 1998, the Baltimore Ravens drafted Miami cornerback Duane Starks No.10 overall. The Ravens followed the very next year by drafting Arizona cornerback Chris McAlister also No.10 overall. In 2000, Starks and McAlister were the starting cornerbacks on the Ravens’ Super Bowl championship team that allowed 165 points – still the NFL record for least points over 16 games.
Rise of the waterbugs: When I first started covering the NFL, a quarterback confided to me his disdain for the position of cornerback in general. He referred to them as “those waterbugs.”
This quarterback felt the biggest mismatch obtainable in a game was to force defenses to put its third and fourth cornerbacks on the field – usually at the expense of starting linebackers. Back then, teams were lucky to have two good cornerbacks on a roster. The others were glorified “gunners” on special teams who were pressed into key defensive roles when offenses made the then-radical move of fielding three or four receivers on a given play.
“Quarterbacks love that,” the quarterback told me, “because we can usually find the weakest one out there and beat him.”
In his mind, the matchup was not the third cornerback v. the third receiver. It was the third cornerback v. the starting quarterback. Total mismatch.
The game has changed, of course. Repeated rules changes and bigger and faster receivers have led to more passing than the league has ever seen. As a result, cornerbacks have risen in prominence. Teams have made finding reputable cornerbacks a priority in the draft and free agency.
“Those waterbugs” nowadays are the third highest-paid position in the sport. The franchise tag – the average salary of the top five-paid players at the position – is $10.281 million for cornerback in 2012. The only positions higher were quarterback at $14.436 million and defensive end at $10.605 million.
Former NFL coaching great Bill Parcells said on an ESPN on Tuesday night that if he were actively coaching, he would field three cornerbacks and only one safety in his base defense to keep up with the three-receiver sets so prevalent today.
“More so than ever before, you give these quarterbacks today zones (coverage schemes) and they will pick you apart, just shred you,” Parcells said. “And there’s nothing you can do about it. You have to be able to (cover) man-to-man on first down.”
What will the Browns do?: On March 15, the Browns re-signed cornerback Dimitri Patterson rather than watch him leave in free agency. Patterson was the team’s third cornerback in 2011. The Browns gave him a three-year contract for $16.05 million, including $6 million guaranteed.
Patterson’s base salary for 2012 is $2.95 million. Incumbent starter Sheldon Brown’s is $3.7 million. Haden’s is $5.76 million. That’s a lot of money invested in cornerbacks.
But now I’m beginning to think they may invest even more in the position by taking Claiborne with their first pick. Claiborne is the likely choice for the Browns if a team jumps ahead of them and takes running back Trent Richardson with the No. 3 overall pick.
Haden, the seventh overall selection in 2010, andClaiborne, fourth overall in 2012, would become the highest-drafted cornerback teammates in NFL draft history.
Tony Grossi covers the Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR, ESPN 1540 KNR2 and www.espncleveland.com.
He has covered the Browns with distinction since 1984 and is one of 44 voters for the National Football League Hall of Fame. Email your “Hey Tony” questions to firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow Tony on Twitter @tonygrossi
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