Commentary

It's time to size up cornerback shuffle

Mailbag: Flowers' change of address will make Chiefs bigger and Chargers better

Updated: July 3, 2014, 8:25 PM ET
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

The Kansas City Chiefs' release of Brandon Flowers illustrates the changing philosophy at the cornerback position.

Copying the Seattle Seahawks -- who won a Super Bowl going with tall, man-to-man cornerbacks and letting them operate behind a great pass rush -- the Chiefs want corners who are 6-foot or taller. Flowers is 5-foot-9. Even though he is coming off a Pro Bowl season, Flowers became expendable because of his $9.75 million salary and not being at the Chiefs' new height mandate.

The San Diego Chargers quickly signed Flowers to a one-year, $3 million contract. To clear roster space, the Chargers released 6-1 Brandon Jones, who was then claimed on waivers by Kansas City.

Watching the cornerback market this offseason has been fascinating. The Chiefs and Jacksonville Jaguars head the list of teams trying to get taller at the position as NFL head coaches adjust to how the game is changing on offense. Wide receivers coming out of college are taller. More teams are incorporating pass-catching tight ends. A tall receiver or a tight end going against a short corner is a tough matchup. Adjustments needed to be made.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Flowers
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesThe 5-foot-9 Brandon Flowers became expendable despite playing at a Pro Bowl level for Andy Reid in Kansas City.

Let's study a few of these bold moves.

1. The Chiefs may have given the Chargers their biggest missing piece on defense. Last year, the Chargers struggled with Derek Cox, Shareece Wright and Richard Marshall at corner. The Chargers released Cox after one year of his five-year, $25 million contract. Opposing quarterbacks completed 60 percent of the passes thrown on Cox and beat him for five touchdowns. Now, the Chargers have Flowers, Wright, first-round pick Jason Verrett and Marshall.

The Chiefs have a lot of unknowns. Head coach Andy Reid made upgrading the cornerback position a priority last year by signing 6-3 Sean Smith and veteran Dunta Robinson. Robinson didn't play much and was released this offseason. Opponents completed only 56.5 percent of their passes against the Chiefs' nickel, which is helped by a great pass rush. Now, the Chiefs are going with Smith, Marcus Cooper and Ron Parker. The 6-1 Cooper filled in for Robinson as the third corner but his performance faded during the season. He gave up 800 yards receiving and was targeted 86 times. As a starter, he will be targeted even more.

2. The Denver Broncos learned a lesson in the Super Bowl. Peyton Manning struggled against the Seahawks' aggressive pass defense and physical cornerback play. Although they failed to re-sign Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, they did land Aqib Talib. The 6-1 corner was one of the best man-to-man specialists last year, when he gave up only 38 completions and three touchdowns with the New England Patriots. With a more physical safety, T.J. Ward,  added and getting DeMarcus Ware at defensive end, the Broncos believe they have taken their pass defense to a new level.

3. The Patriots hope cornerback additions can get them to the Super Bowl. Since 2008, the Patriots have drafted six cornerbacks in the top three rounds, and that includes 2010 first-rounder Devin McCourty, who now plays safety. After losing Talib in free agency, Bill Belichick signed Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner. Browner is perhaps the most physical press-coverage corner in the league. Revis is one of the best man-to-man defenders. Now, the Patriots have perhaps the NFL's deepest group of corners.

4. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers put their faith in the zone. Greg Schiano traded for Revis but didn't take full advantage of his skills by paying a zone early last year. Schiano's gone and Lovie Smith brings in Cover 2 zone scheme. He released Revis and signed Alterraun Verner, who feels more comfortable in zone. Opponents completed 66.2 percent of their passes against the Bucs' nickel and they gave up 7.71 yards an attempt. Smith hopes the numbers will come down.

5. Did the New York Jets find the right replacement for Antonio Cromartie? The Jets have taken a lot of criticism for not signing Rodgers-Cromartie to replace his cousin. Instead, the Jets signed Dimitri Patterson, who signed for $4 million a year less than DRC will get from the New York Giants. Here's the problem: The Jets face Aaron Rodgers, Jay Cutler, Matthew Stafford, Philip Rivers, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady in the first seven weeks of the season. If the Jets didn't make the right move at corner, they could be in a deep hole by midseason.

From the inbox

Q: As a 49ers fan, I cannot justify nor respect a Vernon Davis holdout. He is the third-highest-paid TE. He has two years remaining. What is his beef? Not to mention he never shows up versus Seattle. As a big-time player you need to show up in big-time games.

Matt in Richmond, Virginia

A: The 49ers have $5.2 million of cap room this year and are about $2 million over the cap for next year. Mike Iupati, Michael Crabtree, Glenn Dorsey, Frank Gore and Chris Culliver will be free agents. The team also has to decide if it wants to make a long-term deal with Aldon Smith. There isn't a lot of wiggle room. I don't see anything happening next year and it might be better for Davis to wait. If Jimmy Graham wins his franchise arbitration case or if he works out a deal for more than $10 million a year, Davis could be in a good spot for a bigger contract as part of a contract extension in 2015.

Major decisions have to be made about the offense over the next year. Anquan Boldin will be 34 in October. Davis is 30. Gore is 31. Stevie Johnson turns 28 this summer. The 49ers have to see if they have enough young players to move ahead past 2015. Timing is everything in negotiations and Davis' timing isn't great now for getting a new deal.

Q: In these days when you see a head coach take over one side of the ball, i.e. defense, and his coordinator taking over the other side, do you think we'll see the position of head coach become less important in the future?

Dan in Austin, Minnesota

A: The role of head coach in the NFL hasn't diminished. Head coaches need to be more CEOs nowadays because of the new demands of the jobs. Coordinators can focus on strategy. Head coaches have to follow the changes in the game.

With the new CBA, head coaches have to figure better ways to get the entire team ready to play when they have less time to practice. They have to study the trends of where the game is going strategically. Offenses are spreading the field with receivers and tight ends; the head coach must determine how to stay updated on offense and how to counter the new strategy on defense. With so many underclassmen coming into the league, head coaches must find ways to get them to focus quickly and be productive. From the cap standpoint, coaches must find solutions for not having as many seasoned veterans in backup roles because the cap has taken away a lot of the middle class of this league. Plus, a coach has to win within the first couple of years or he might be on the hot seat.

Q: As an Eagles fan, I'm concerned with the backup QB situation. No one seems clear on the arm strength of either Mark Sanchez or Matt Barkley. Would Chip Kelly consider bringing in someone -- anyone -- to bolster this position? If so, of the available (or probably soon-to-be-available) QBs around, who would you suggest as a good fit?

Jacquie in West Palm Beach, Florida

A: I think they are fine. I've heard good things about how Sanchez is picking up the offense. He may be coming off tough years with the Jets, but he's experienced and Kelly seems to have confidence in him. You may be right about Barkley's arm strength, but he has had a year in the system. After more than a year on the job, Kelly is in full control of this team. If he felt he needed another quarterback, he would have made that move before the minicamp.

Q: With all the Cowboys' wide-receiver issues of late, a friend and I noticed that former Cowboy Laurent Robinson appeared to be a free agent still. He was great for them and a favorite of Tony Romo. Why don't they snap him up?

Steve in Livermore, California

A: Concussion problems have teams staying away from Laurent. Robinson would be needed for slot receiver duty, but the Cowboys are OK in that area. Cole Beasley caught 35 passes out of the slot and he should be better this year. Dwayne Harris is another good option. No doubt the Cowboys are thin at the receiver position after letting Miles Austin go, so they need to keep checking for available receivers. Robinson might not be that guy.

Q: I feel the Jets finally made some much-needed improvements on offense. I still feel like they need to sign another veteran receiver and corner. I expect Geno Smith to be the starter and his play to be much better. Do you think they can finally challenge the Patriots for the AFC East? I expect them to at least be a wild-card team.

Frankie in North Haven, Connecticut

A: The additions of Chris Johnson and Eric Decker clearly make the offense better, but those moves aren't enough to catch up to the Patriots. The gap between Tom Brady and even an improved Geno Smith is too vast. The Patriots scored 154 more points than the Jets did last year. Decker and Johnson can't make up the nine-points-a-game difference.

The Patriots expect a 12-win season. The Jets are still in that eight- or nine-win model. That might be good for another second-place finish in the division, but not first place.

Q: Looking at the Cowboys, I can't see how they will be able to stop anyone. Every team in the NFC East is better than it was last year. At what point does it get too embarrassing? I can't see how they make it to 6-10.

Blair in Vancouver Island, British Columbia

A: The Cowboys are going to need a lot of breaks and luck to get to eight wins. You are right, the problem is on defense. They need Henry Melton and Anthony Spencer to come off major knee problems and put up Pro Bowl-caliber season. Since last year, they have lost DeMarcus Ware, Jay Ratliff and Jason Hatcher from their defensive line. Their replacements are mostly journeymen.

Jerry Jones said it the best this week. The defense can't be worse than last year. That might be true, but this could be a tough year for the Cowboys unless Romo has a MVP-like season.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer

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