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5 best NFL cornerback contracts

HOUSTON, TX - NOVEMBER 30: Johnathan Joseph #24 of the Houston Texans returns an interception in front of Bishop Sankey #20 of the Tennessee Titans during their game at at NRG Stadium on November 30, 2014 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)

As the NFL continues its evolution towards a passing league, finding numerous players that can cover on the outside is of ultimate importance. Despite a down year offensively, the Denver Broncos were able to win a championship in no small way due to the stellar play of the cornerback trio Chris Harris, Aqib Talib, and Bradley Roby. It’s no coincidence that, of the teams that finished in the top five in total team pass-coverage grades last season (Carolina, New England, Denver, Kansas City, and Arizona), four of those teams made their conference’s championship game. Teams looking to emulate the construction of rosters with substantial strength at the cornerback position will be best served to acquire cornerbacks that provide surplus value relative to their salary. Here we give the top five cornerback contracts (with rookie deals excluded).

[Editor’s note: All cap numbers are from Over the Cap.]

1. Casey Hayward, San Diego Chargers

Years remaining on current deal: Three

Average remaining cap hit: $5.1 million

Hayward has been a favorite of PFF since his outstanding rookie campaign in 2012, where he didn’t allow a touchdown on 76 throws into his coverage (with six interceptions and a 30.4 passer rating allowed). While he hasn’t reached that level of play since, he has graded positively in all four of his NFL seasons. Last year, he was a full-time player for the first time in his career, and finished 16th among quarterbacks in overall grade. He had the eighth-highest run-stop percentage among cornerbacks, which should help the Chargers in 2016, after the team finished dead last in the NFL last season in total run-defense grades.

After receiving only modest interest in free agency, Hayward joined the Chargers on a very reasonable three-year, $15.3 million deal in the offseason. He joins a position group that includes Jason Verrett and Brandon Flowers. If Verrett can cash in on his potential and Flowers can return to his 2014 form, the addition of Hayward would give the Chargers a very competent trio of cornerbacks heading into the 2016 season. The reasonable nature of Hayward’s deal helps cover for the inefficiency of Flowers’ (four years, $36.4 million).

2. Johnathan Joseph, Houston Texans 

Years remaining on current deal: Two 

Average remaining cap hit: $7 million 

After the Texans drafted his possible replacement in the first round of the 2015 draft, Joseph had his best season since 2011, finishing with the seventh-highest overall grade and the third-highest coverage grade among cornerbacks. After two negatively-graded games to start the season, he was the highest-graded coverage corner in the entire NFL thereafter, surrendering just a 70.2 passer rating into his coverage and leading all cornerbacks with 16 passes defensed.

Despite being one of the best cornerbacks in the league last year, Joseph enters the 2016 season with just the 21st-highest contract among cornerbacks on a per-year basis. His 0.93 yards allowed per coverage snap was superior to more-highly paid corners like Darrelle Revis (Jets) and Brandon Carr (Cowboys) in 2015, as well as players like Vontae Davis (Colts), Sean Smith (Raiders), and Dominque Rodgers-Cromartie (Giants), who are set to make more than Joseph in 2016. It will be interesting to see if Joseph can continue to play at this level in 2016 (at age 32). If he can, he will continue to provide exemplary value for the Texans at the cornerback position.

3. Captain Munnerlyn, Minnesota Vikings

Years remaining on current deal: One

Average remaining cap hit: $4.58 million 

After struggling a bit as a full-time cornerback in 2014, Munnerlyn took a step back last season, playing only slot cornerback for the upstart Vikings' defense. He responded to the move beautifully, producing the 18th-best grade among cornerbacks. He was stout as a run defender, coverage man, and blitzer, finishing 11th in run-stop percentage and tackling efficiency among cornerbacks, while finishing second in interceptions from the slot (two) and third in total pressures (eight).

Nickel corners are starters in today’s NFL, and Munnerlyn’s deal is bargain for such a player. Given that 2016 is the last season of Munnerlyn’s deal, and that the Vikings spent a second-round pick on his possible successor (Mackensie Alexander, Clemson), Munnerlyn should be especially motivated to produce an encore this upcoming season. For a Vikings' team that recently spent big money on star safety Harrison Smith, and having a decision to make regarding fellow cornerback Xavier Rhodes next season, another productive season from Munnerlyn at his current rate will be especially valuable as their defense aims to be among the league’s best.

4. Sterling Moore, Buffalo Bills

Years remaining on current deal: One

Average remaining cap hit: $0.68 million

Moore has bounced around the NFL during the course of his career, with stays in New England, Dallas, and Tampa Bay. In 16 starts the last two seasons (between two teams), Moore has produced positive overall and coverage grades. Last season, he allowed just two touchdowns into his coverage on 74 targets, intercepting one pass and defending three.

While Moore’s inclusion in this list has a lot more to do with his salary ($680,000) than any brilliant play on his part, the Bills get veteran presence in their secondary that has been a better (and cheaper) player than their current third cornerback, Nickell Robey. Last season, Robey was the 90th-highest-graded cornerback in the league, surrendering a 102.4 passer rating into his coverage and the fourth-most yards allowed (482) from the slot. Having a solid option to team with Ronald Darby and Stephon Gilmore should help Buffalo improve on their 11th-best pass-coverage grade last season in Rex Ryan’s second season at the helm.

5. Jerraud Powers, Baltimore Ravens

Years remaining on current deal: One

Average remaining cap hit: $1.75 million

Miscast as an outside corner last year, Powers had a down season for the Cardinals, and in response, he was not asked to return to the team for 2016. The Ravens signed Powers in the offseason to a modest one-year, $1.75 million deal, hoping he can improve on his 79th-best grade among cornerbacks last year. Many of his statistics last season were skewed by one game, earning a heavily-negative mark against the Bengals in Week 11, where he allowed eight receptions (on 13 targets) for 135 yards and a touchdown.

The Ravens in no small measure hope that Powers can return to his 2014 form, where he had a top-20 coverage grade among cornerbacks (playing primarily in the slot). In that season, he was tied for first in the NFL with three interceptions while covering in the slot, and his 15 total pressures were twice as many as any cornerback in the league. The Ravens have a significant need on the inside of their nickel defense this coming season. Getting 2014-like production from Powers at that spot, while giving him the 74th-highest salary among cornerbacks, would go a long way towards a rebound defensively for Baltimore in 2016.

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