The debate as to who is the best cornerback in the NFL rages on, only this time, the Arizona Cardinals are putting their money where their mouths are. The Cards signed Patrick Peterson to a five-year contract extension, in a deal worth $70 million with $48 million guaranteed, which makes him the highest-paid cornerback in the NFL, dwarfing the four-year, $57.5 million contract extension Richard Sherman signed earlier this year.
— Patrick Peterson (@RealPeterson21) July 30, 2014
The fifth overall pick in 2011, Peterson is already a three-time Pro Bowler and a two-time all-pro who put himself on the map in his rookie season with an NFL record four touchdowns as a punt returner. He has 12 career interceptions, leaving only two players with more since he entered the NFL in 2011: Richard Sherman (20) and Tim Jennings (15), who have a 2015 cap hit of $12.2 million and $5.2 million, respectively.
But is Peterson worthy of top dollar at the position?
Most start with the shear fear opponents have when it comes to throwing in a corner’s direction. This is where Sherman has a sizable numbers advantage over most corners in the league. Opposing quarterbacks threw at his receiver in coverage just 57 times last season, 33 times fewer than Peterson.
Those same quarterbacks also posted a paltry 36.2 passer rating when throwing Sherman’s way, opposed to the 91.3 quarterbacks enjoyed with Peterson in coverage. However, part of that could be because of a difference in defensive schemes played by each team.
“If you look at their scheme and you look at our scheme, he’s a Cover-3 corner, period,” Peterson said. “A lot of guys say he’s a shutdown corner, but if you look at film and guys who understand the game, go back and look at film and see how his defense is. I believe if you put him in our system, I don’t think he’d be able to last, honestly, because I’m asked to do much more than he is.”
In a Cover-3 system, cornerbacks and free safeties divide the field into thirds and play zone coverage. In a Cover-1 system, which is found in Arizona, the corners play man-to-man coverage and rely on the strong safety and free safety to play deep.
In other words, Peterson is assigned to shut down the opponent’s best receiver while Sherman is tasked with guarding a specific side of the field, regardless of who is lining up in front of him.
According to Pro Football Focus, Sherman spent just 27 percent of his snaps covering the opposing team’s number one wide receiver whereas Peterson spent 55 percent of his snaps against a team’s WR1. In fact, 31 of the league’s cornerbacks playing 800-plus snaps spent a higher percentage of their playing time covering an opponent’s top wideout than Sherman.
Peterson almost spent more time covering the best receiver on the other team than Sherman saw against the opposition’s top two threats (58 percent) combined. And Peterson also shadowed a receiver, meaning he followed him around the field, 11 times in 2013: Calvin Johnson, Andre Johnson, Vincent Jackson, Steve Smith, Anquan Boldin, Michael Crabtree, Cecil Shorts, DeSean Jackson, Kendall Wright and Golden Tate (twice). Sherman had zero. That helps explain why Sherman’s stats such as yards after the catch and touchdowns against look so much better than Peterson’s in the aggregate, when in fact he is playing against softer competition.
That also explains why Peterson, and not Sherman, deserves to be the highest paid corner in the league.