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NFL Market Trend Sees Cornerbacks Thriving


If we have learned anything from the most prominent player movement and team spending of the past week, it is that the NFL has become a cornerback's world and the rest of the league is just passing through.

Or at least trying to pass.

Beginning with the Denver Broncos' rare blockbuster trade for Champ Bailey, it has been clear that NFL clubs are more determined than ever to have at least one top-notch cornerback in their secondary. I'm sorry. Did I say "top-notch cornerback?" I meant "shutdown cornerback," football's newest favorite buzz term.

Despite the many great rushing performances of the 2003 season, the NFL remains a league of throwers and catchers. To win, you'd better be able to make enough big pass plays when necessary (see the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots, who had the NFL's 27th-ranked rushing offense).

But, even more important, you'd better be able to stop enough of those plays when you have to (which the Pats did exceptionally well in the AFC Championship Game and just long enough in Super Bowl XXXVIII to prevent Jake Delhomme from becoming the MVP). You'd better be able to have a cornerback who can cover an opponent's best receiver one-on-one most of the time so that you don't compromise the rest of your coverage and so that you also have an available safety or linebacker to enhance your pass rush.

The Broncos gave up a super-talented running back and their most effective offensive player, Clinton Portis, to get Bailey, who established himself as one of the league's best shutdown cornerbacks in five seasons with the Washington Redskins. On top of that, the Broncos gave Bailey a contract worth a reported $63 million, including an $18-million signing bonus.

And Pat Bowlen, the Broncos' owner who wants to put a third Super Bowl trophy in his display case, couldn't have sounded happier about the staggering check he had just written.

"We haven't had a cornerback that would come close to him for a long time," Bowlen said. "Louie Wright was the last one I can remember."

Wright was a five-time Pro Bowler who spent 12 seasons with the Broncos and is a member of their Ring of Fame. If that reference doesn't underscore the importance of having a shutdown cornerback, perhaps this statistic will: The Broncos had the NFL's sixth-ranked pass defense last season. They might not have "needed" a cornerback, but they obviously had an incredible desire to get one.

Ditto for the Minnesota Vikings, who made one of the more aggressive plays of the free-agent signing period to land Antoine Winfield. The former Buffalo Bill became the top-rated cornerback in free agency after the Redskins slapped a franchise tag on Bailey and the Oakland Raiders and Baltimore Ravens did the same with Charles Woodson and Chris McAlister, respectively, to keep them out of the open market.

It wasn't just that the Vikings signed Winfield to a contract reportedly worth $35 million, including a $10.8-million signing bonus. They made an all-out recruiting effort that included phone calls from their two biggest stars -- Randy Moss and Daunte Culpepper. The Vikings were persuasive enough to pull Winfield away from an all-but-completed deal with the New York Jets. Winfield seemed so certain he was about to become a Jet, he skipped a commercial flight to Minneapolis. No problem.

Vikings coach Mike Tice called a wealthy friend who supplied his private jet to give Winfield a ride to Minnesota.

Tice sounded a lot like Bowlen when he said the following about the Winfield signing: "It adds a shutdown left corner to our roster. That's something we haven't had in Minnesota since I've been here in 1992. Hopefully, he can put us over the hump defensively."

The Redskins wasted no time attempting to patch the hole created by Bailey's departure. They signed former Seattle Seahawk Shawn Springs to a deal reportedly worth $30 million, including $10 million to sign. The Redskins have another outstanding cornerback in Fred Smoot, and Gregg Williams, their new defensive coordinator, is convinced the Smoot-Springs combo will allow them to play the attack-style scheme he plans to implement.

"Our corners have to be real strong in order to hold up in the pressure-kind of defense that I like to play, because they're on an island a lot," Williams pointed out. "I feel good about the guys we have there now."

The San Francisco 49ers paid a reported $25 million to keep their best cornerback, Ahmed Plummer.

The Detroit Lions paid huge money to acquire former St. Louis Rams cornerback Dre' Bly in last year's free-agent market. Bly rewarded them by earning a Pro Bowl trip as one of the few bright spots in an otherwise dismal season. This year, the Lions went back to the cornerback well, signing former Jacksonville Jaguar Fernando Bryant to a contract worth a reported $24 million.

Since the start of the March 3 free-agent signing and trading period, a total of 11 players at the position have changed teams to the tune of more than $200 million in contracts, including more than $60 million in signing bonuses.

Welcome to the wonderful world of NFL cornerbacks.

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