NFL.com’s Gil Brandt has reported, and this blog has covered, that Detroit could very much be in play to sign coveted free agent cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha once the offseason actually gets underway. Let me get this out of the way first — landing Asomugha, arguably the league’s best cover corner (only Darrelle Revis has a legitimate claim to take that title from him at this point), would be a huge coup for the Lions and could turn this team into a true contender overnight, as long as the price is right.
That’s the issue, however: elite cornerbacks in the prime of their careers tend to demand rather large salaries, and Detroit has desperate needs at outside linebacker to fill. If Asomugha demands the highest salary of any corner in the league — and depending on how the CBA shakes out, that could certainly be the case — his contract could prevent the Lions from becoming a complete team, despite his lockdown presence in the secondary. I expect Asomugha’s negotiations to turn into a bidding war, and in that scenario I have a tough time (again, barring some major salary limits in the new CBA) seeing Detroit land him at a reasonable price.
I still would like to see Martin Mayhew ink a number one cornerback before the season starts, however, and luckily for the Lions there are a couple very intriguing alternatives to this season’s hottest free agent commodity.
The first on that list is Johnathan Joseph, a 2006 first-round pick by the Bengals who has excelled for Cincinnati over the last couple seasons. In 2010, Joseph finished second in the NFL in passing stop rate, according to Football Outsiders, stonewalling 48% of the passes that were thrown his way, and he finished first in the league at limiting yards per catch on the occasions when he did allow a reception. I’m all for a great-cover, good-tackling corner (of course), and it’s worth noting that Joseph is just 27 years old, three years younger than Asomugha. If Detroit can land Joseph and have enough money left over to go after a starter-quality outside linebacker, I think that could be the best-case scenario for this offseason.
Another interesting possibility is former Charger and Jet corner Antonio Cromartie, whose pass defense improved dramatically last season after displaying a propensity to take unnecessary gambles and give up the big play (we’ll call it “Dre Bly Syndrome”) early in his career. Like Joseph, Cromartie is just 27, and in 2010 he finished just one spot behind Joseph in stop rate on passes. While some of that success can be attributed to playing across from the aforementioned Revis in New York, Revis also spent much of 2010 fighting a hamstring injury and wasn’t his usual, “Revis Island” self. At 6-3, 209 pounds, and boasting great speed, Cromartie is a physical freak who could develop into a special cover corner. There’s certainly some risk involved here, especially if there’s big money on the table, but Cromartie’s performance last season showed he has the ability to make a big leap into the upper echelon among players at his position.
There are several other cornerbacks who will be hitting the free agent market, and players like Brent Grimes, Ike Taylor, Carlos Rogers, and Brandon Carr could be solid additions to the secondary if Detroit can’t land one of the players listed above. I’d love to see Mayhew swing for the fences, however, and it’s certainly possible that he could haul in Joseph or Cromartie and still be able to make an upgrade at outside linebacker. If he can pull that off, Detroit would be an extremely dangerous team, both in 2011 and further down the road.