On Wednesday, the St. Louis Rams released cornerback Cortland Finnegan while opening up $4 million in cap space and allowing them to have a possibility at a big name free agent. For the Rams, that free agent may be former Titans cornerback Alterraun Verner.
It is expected that Verner is going to test the free agent market, and given that current Rams defensive coordinator spent last season in Tennessee and helped Verner have his best season yet in the NFL, he could rejoin Williams in St. Louis.
Last season Verner had five interceptions and was rated the 12th best cornerback on Pro Football Focus, allowed only a 49.4% catch rate, the seventh best, and quarterbacks who threw in Verner’s direction had a 55.8 passer rating, the 4th best among cornerbacks.
There is no doubt Verner would be worth the money and given the fact that he is only 25 and has a lot of football him, the chances the Rams would experience de ja vu wouldn’t be as likely.
Two years ago, another top cornerback rejoined his coach from Tennessee in St. Louis, Cortland Finnegan. Finnegan singed a five-year deal worth up to $50 million and was just released by the team after only two seasons.
The Rams were victims of a top player not performing well after signing a big contract, and given that Verner is a similar situation, some are concerned the Rams could fall into the same trap.
The difference here is that Verner is coming in at 25 going into his 5th season while Finnegan was 28 going into his seventh. Verner is entering free agency still in his prime, while Finnegan was nearing the last part of his.
The Rams defense was the worst in the NFL in opponent passer rating on attempts traveling 21+ yards in air with 106.8, playoff teams defenses averaged of 73.4. Given what Verner is capable of, he could certainly help that statistic.
— Louis Riddick (@LRiddickESPN) March 5, 2014
Verner would also give the Rams a cornerback they could trust. Cornerbacks Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson definitely have a lot of upside, but it doesn’t seem like they are ready to be the one-two tandem, and it doesn’t seem like Fisher and the coaching staff trust them to be, either.
Verner would likely require one similar to what they gave Finnegan two years ago, and whether or not they are willing to do that is a question. They will still need to cut guard Harvey Dahl to be able to afford it and they would not be able to re-sign Saffold.
Another question is what the Rams secondary would then look like as Jenkins and Johnson are both more suited for the outside. It has been assumed that if the Rams signed Verner that the Rams would still be left without a nickel cornerback.
That could still be the case as the Rams would probably put Verner on the outside. However in 2011 playing he in the slot, he was targeted 51 times and defended 10 of the passes, a remarkable percentage. The average pass to Verner’s receivers netted just 5.4 yards, the fifth-lowest figure in the NFL. ( stats courtesy Football Outsiders.) Given that the Rams play a majority of their snaps in the nickel package, Verner would still be on the field a lot and it could work.
The Rams could also move Johnson to the slot where he played his rookie season, or use him as a rotational cornerback on the outside.
Another problem with Verner for the Rams, is that he rarely plays press coverage or jams a receiver at the line of scrimmage, and many of his snaps come exclusively to the right side of the field. However, even though Verner doesn’t jam many receivers at the line of scrimmage he doesn’t give up many short passes in front of him.
Typically, Verner handles deep routes or over-the-middle routes, while the nickel defender handles the flat and is the first line of run defense. When another defender is needed on the right side, the Titans usually stick a safety into the role and use Verner as the deep defender.
Verner isn’t going to be physical and jam the receiver at the line of scrimmage but instead play in space and adjust to the receiver while using awareness and athleticism to keep receivers from getting open.
The biggest downside by far in Verner’s game is his run defense which isn’t good in a run-oriented division like the NFC West.
The chances of the Rams going after a big name free agent like Verner is slim, but you can never count out Les Snead and Jeff Fisher. Releasing Finnegan may not pave the way for the Rams to sign Verner as much as it does for them to draft a top cornerback like Oklahoma State’s Justin Gilbert or Michigan State’s Darqueze Dennard.
Whether or not Verner is the next free agent star or the next Cortland Finnegan is still uncertain. Verner only plays one side of the field and it is uncertain how well he will do in another team’s scheme. With free agency that’s just a risk you have to take.