Thursday, March 08, 2012

The Case for Cortland Finnegan

The following is part 2 of a 2-part series, where we take a look at the two most likely candidates to be the Cowboys top target in free agency as they attempt to fix their cornerback issues. Yesterday, we looked hard at Brandon Carr of Kansas City in the same manner. Today, it is Tennessee's Cortland Finnegan:

Cortland Finnegan - Samford - Born February 2, 1984

If the comparison between Brandon Carr and Cortland Finnegan went by name recognition, we could end the study right now. Finnegan is well-known around the NFL with all of his moments that have been shown over and over again, both showing his excellence and his emotional boiling point which does not seem particularly difficult to achieve. More on that in a moment.

Jeff Fisher and the Tennessee Titans front office may not be thought of as the best developers of Quarterback play after the Vince Young experiment, but if there is one thing that organization understands, it is defense. And the cornerback position in general is something that any team can be jealous of. Last season, they had 3 corners that played the vast majority of their snaps. Finnegan was taken #215 of the 2006 draft. He was joined by Jason McCourty who was #203 in 2009 and Alterraun Verner who was the high pick of the three, taken #104 in 2010. And because they keep finding starting caliber corners deep in the draft, they allow them to replace the older, more expensive models on an annual basis rather than pay them the going rate of strong, veteran corners. And that is how they can elect to allow Finnegan, a team captain in 2011, to take his talents elsewhere next week.

Finnegan at 5'10 (if he is lucky) and weighing 190 (barely) is a smallish-to-average sized corner by many standards and certainly not imposing in the NFL. But, when it comes to a player who is willing to give you every ounce of battle and effort and to sacrifice his body to make a play while fighting for every last inch of real estate, I think you would be hard pressed to find anything better than Finnegan.

Like Carr, he entered the league without any regard to speak of. His size and 4.54 time in the 40-yard dash was rather unremarkable and being another small college guy (Samford), he was a guy who many teams didn't even have on their board. Here is his draft profile from Sports Illustrated:

POSITIVES: Athletic prospect with marginal size. Instinctive and quickly locates the ball. Explodes up the field in run defense, works hard in coverage and has a quick break to the play. Tenacious punt returner who follows blocks throughout the play.

NEGATIVES: Undersized, not strong at the point and has tackles broken. Struggles in man coverage when his back is to the ball.

ANALYSIS: A high-revving defender, Finnegan would be an asset on special teams in the NFL. Undrafted Free Agent

Since joining the league, he has only returned punts rarely, and has stopped altogether in recent years. But, that has more to do with establishing his play as a corner back who never backs down to anyone. As a cover man, he is certainly not a shut-down corner. He is a ball hawk and a battler, but he will be beaten his share, especially when he is going up against the large receivers. In fact, his tactics occasionally resemble Terence Newman on the outside when he is in off-and-soft man coverage, allowing a 8 yard cushion and then in a back pedal that allows the rather easy pitch and catch 20 yard out when the timing is right.

There is a lot of information going around the internet these days about Finnegan, including the claim that he is strictly a slot corner in Tennessee. I can tell you after watching much of his season this week that this is just not true. Yes, he does play in the slot a fair amount, but in normal personal packages, he is out on the edge all by himself doing what corners do. He played more than any Tennessee defender, so to compare his 1142 snaps with Orlando Scandrick's 679 as I have seen done this week is just crazy talk. Yes, he will play in the slot a lot. But, he can and will also play out wide and handle himself just fine.

But, I will admit that as an outside corner, he is above average, but not excellent. As a slot corner, he is very good and the type of guy who you can really see as an asset against the likes of Victor Cruz. He also can and will blitz and is equally effective in run blitz situations where he often blows up running plays with his reckless abandon. Where he gets into trouble in the slot is when teams get him to lock up with a tight end. Then, the size disadvantage - especially near the goal-line - can get him into trouble with 6'5 tight ends who weigh over 250 pounds. Joel Dreessen posted him up in Houston for a TD and Matt Willis (who is not terribly big) blocked off Finnegan inside the 5 as well for Denver. But, those were the only two touchdowns he allowed all year.

It certainly must be said that his emotional edge is something that is both attractive and disconcerting. I say that because he might be exactly what the defense needs as an emotional voice with a decorated resume that could not only lead by example but also challenge with his voice and perhaps inspire those who can go either way with their resolve to press forward. On the other hand, his repeated fights and losses of composure look to be both a headache and a bothersome habit that could rob you of one of your best players as he gets himself ejected. He is willing to fight and walking a fine line. His battles with Andre Johnson are legendary, and he has had a handful of other incidents that has made his name a regular at the league offices. Most of those incidents happened in 2010, which also was statistically his worst year. That may not be a coincidence.

He is as amped up as any player you watch, and that helps because he is often playing in games where his team was out of the game quite early. But, there is Finnegan, playing as if each play had the game on the line. Watching him run down plays from behind when he is on the other side of the field as he did against Pittsburgh on a long Jonathan Dwyer run was impressive to show that he was never conceding an inch. His motor is always running and he is not averse to taking on bigger players to make a play. There really are few equals in the NFL where you can find a player of his stature never back down to anything, including a 320 pound pulling guard trying to run him over. He is up for any challenge, and when he is in charge of his emotions, he is a very valuable player. And, he specializes in making his opponent lose their composure in the process.

At the same time, he has had some very good seasons and some very ordinary seasons. In 2011, his statistical year was really good, as he allowed only 456 yards while playing 1,142 plays. You will not see that ratio much. However, he did not spend a lot of time locking down premier receivers. Tennessee had him moving around a lot, almost like Green Bay did with Charles Woodson, and left the close cover match ups to the other capable corners. It is a nice luxury that the Titans had, but in Dallas, they will want him to be able to fix the inability to cover for long swaths of the game.

Here are his 4-year stats from

YearSnapsCompAttYardsQB Rating

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Summary: Finnegan would immediately be the Cowboys' best corner, but I do think his cover ability on the edge should not be over-solid as nothing better than solid. However, his versatility to play a dangerous role as a slot/blitzer type where he can be a playmaker is appealing, but to accomplish that fully, you might consider taking a corner in the draft in the 1st or 2nd round as well, while attempting to move Scandrick to the edge (which has been speculated recently anyway as a plan the Cowboys think is reasonable). Finnegan's appeal is largely based on his intangibles, where he can not only play corner for you, but perhaps immediately move into a leadership role and an emotional conscience for many of his mates. This should not be underestimated, but it should also not cost $45 million to fill that role. He has a very talented skill set, but he also has to be used properly.

So, Carr or Finnegan?

In my mind, after watching them both carefully, I give the edge to Carr for 3 reasons. His age (2 years younger), his size, and his superior cover skills in a press cover situation against another team's top wide out. Carr does not tackle or blitz like Finnegan, and he also does not possess those leadership intangibles. Of course, he will never get ejected for punching a player, either, if history is our guide. I love Finnegan's physical play, but I wonder if you can give a guy who plays like "every game is his last" can hold up physically at that size for 5 years at big money, too.

Either player will be a big acquisition that will improve this defense as the team moves on from Newman. I would think the Cowboys will negotiate with both to attempt to keep the prices in check by leveraging each against the other. But, if forced to choose, I would prefer to play even a little more to get the bigger Brandon Carr.

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