Chargers Free Agency Preview: Cornerback Targets

Top Shots 2021: Best of Derwin James

Chargers Free Agency Preview: Cornerback Targets

Earlier this week, I wrote about how the Chargers were reportedly in on pending free agent Von Miller. The other big news that came out of Combine weekend was that the Chargers were going to be players in the free-agent cornerback market. After the initial press conference sessions last week, The Athletic’s Daniel Popper wrote that this was a possibility, and now the national reporters have added to that. I would expect this to be an even greater emphasis now that the Broncos have landed Russell Wilson

Brandon Staley said in his press conference and told anyone who would listen last week that the Chargers will always be looking for corners as long as he is the head coach. This obviously is the smart approach with how many talented wide receivers are entering the league on a yearly basis through the draft. With the amount of cap space the Chargers have, this could include big-name players such as the presumed top dogs of the free-agent market in J.C. Jackson and Stephon Gilmore

For as much flack as Tom Telesco catches on Twitter, the reality is that he always does his homework in signing premier free agents. If he and Staley decide they want to take a swing on Jackson or Gilmore, they will make it happen. Especially now that they will be working under the knowledge that they were able to extend Mike Williams, as opposed to dealing with the $19 million cap hit. That three-year deal will give them a lot more flexibility. 

The question is, should they go after one of those players? My answer is probably a no, and I’ll outline some of the other options on the market that I believe they should be targeting. 

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Charvarius Ward Kansas City Chiefs

As of now, this is my number one option in terms of free-agent targets due to his age and financial value; and per ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler, the Chargers are interested in potentially signing Ward after he has presumably priced himself out of Kansas City. 

By no means do I think Ward is a better football player than some of the top options at the cornerback position, but Jackson is looking for “Jalen Ramsey money”, and Gilmore will be 32 by the start of next season. Ward is a really solid number two option, turns 26 years old in May and won’t completely break the bank. PFF estimates his contract to be in the three-year, $40 million range. 

Ward, at 6’1 and 200 pounds, is a stereotypical outside corner that has a ton of man-to-man coverage experience playing under Steve Spagnulo in Kansas City. Ward finished the season as PFF’s 23rd highest-graded cornerback in coverage, among all corners with at least 50% of their team’s snaps. He was also tied for fourth in reception percentage (right behind former Charger Casey Hayward), allowing 50 receptions on 98 targets. 

His 11 pass breakups were the eighth-most in the league, and he added two interceptions as well. Ideally, you’d like to see him come down with more interceptions but getting your hands on 13 passes as an outside corner is certainly above average. He finished with the 11th lowest passer rating when targeted on the season as well. So again, not a top-tier corner by any means but one that would certainly be an upgrade for a team that finished with one of the worst third-down defenses in the NFL.

Darious Williams – Los Angeles Rams

Players who hit the market are mostly looking for financial opportunity, but ties to a team’s coaching staff might be second on that list, followed by scheme fit. The Chargers benefited from this when they signed Corey Linsley and Matt Feiler last year. Williams certainly checks both of those boxes thanks to his time with Brandon Staley in 2020, and Raheem Morris who continued to play the Staley scheme in 2021. 

The Rams are in “run it back” mode and could be looking at expensive extensions for Aaron Donald, Matthew Stafford, and Cooper Kupp in the near future. As well as the aforementioned Von Miller. They have a lot of key free agents that they might not be able to afford, and Williams is one of them. PFF projects his contract value to be in the three-year, $33 million range. 

So he would be cheaper than Ward, likely due to his age (he turns 29 next week), and because he is coming off down season in 2021 after breaking out under Staley’s watch in 2020, when he accumulated five interceptions and broke up an additional 11 passes. Under Morris, he was targeted at a much higher level in part to Ramsey’s increased role in the slot. Still, Williams’ reception percentage, and passer rating when targeted both took sizable jumps in the wrong direction. He was able to break 10 passes but recorded zero interceptions. Signing him would mean Staley would be confident he could bring the 2020 version of Williams back out, and if that did end up being the case this would be a very good potential signing. He is lower on my list than Ward and Jackson, but worth mentioning due to the connection to Staley.

Steven Nelson – Philadelphia Eagles

I wanted the Chargers to sign Nelson last summer after he got cut by the Steelers. He ended up signing a one-year, $3 million deal with the Eagles and had a very solid season. I think his best seasons are behind him, which is why he’s lower on my list, but he would still bring a stabilizing presence to the Chargers secondary while still being a capable starter. There’s still a lot of value in that, as the Bengals proved all season long with players like Von Bell and B.J. Hill. PFF has him at a two-year, $14 million evaluation.

Nelson isn’t directly tied to Staley or his staff, but he did just spend the 2021 season playing for Staley’s best bud in Philadelphia. There is a lot of schematic overlap in the coverages between the Chargers and Eagles. Nelson has also shown the ability to play in the slot, and on the outside throughout his career. We know how Staley loves that flexibility in his defensive backs. 

The signing of Nelson would also provide the Chargers with some draft versatility as well because it wouldn’t necessarily take them out of drafting one of the top cornerbacks if one were to be there with the 17th overall pick. Imagine a player like Nelson serving as your fourth corner as opposed to Tevaughn Campbell

Overall I do expect the Chargers to be invested in this market – they frankly don’t have a choice with three of the twelve best quarterbacks playing in the same division, and the rest of the AFC being stacked. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. Donte Jackson, Carlton Davis, Rasul Douglas, and D.J. Reed are other names that could make some sense as well. I would also expect them to be in the draft market.


Top Shots 2021: Best of Derwin James – Mike Nowak