Analyzing the most interesting deals from free agency: Part I
Tremaine Edmunds! Jalen Ramsey!! Javon Hargrave!!!
The free agency frenzy is off and running. Let’s react to the most interesting deals that have happened so far.
Jalen Ramsey traded from the Rams to the Dolphins
Ramsey is on his way to Miami. The Dolphins struck a deal with the Rams 24 hours prior to the start of free agency, fending off three other suitors and landing Ramsey for the paltry price of a third-round pick and
No need to rub your eyes. Yes, it’s real. It’s a deal that feels overtly cheap for a 28-year-old superstar at a premium position, even one with a hefty contract. Given the Rams new timeline (tanking for Caleb Williams!) keeping the third-most expensive cornerback in the league was a non-starter. But having a player with the third-highest average per year contract at a premium position isn’t exactly an anchor around a team's cap sheet, particularly if a team is operating in a championship window. Given that, it’s peculiar that the best the Rams could squeeze out of negotiations was a pick that will wind up being a middle-to-late-round pick.
The Dolphins have already negotiated a fresh deal with Ramsey, according to PFT. The final result will entail reduced cash in 2023, more cash in 2024, and a full guarantee for 2023 and 2024. It’s a good deal for both sides. The Dolphins get a discount this season and Ramsey gets a guarantee for his second year. For the price of a third-round pick and a ho-hum prospect, that’s a bargain.
Despite obvious signs of erosion, Ramsey remains a top-of-the-second-tier cover corner. And you get the nagging sense that this could wind up being a Charles Woodson-to-the-Packers type signing: the aging, All-Pro corner who starts to age and so shuffles back to safety.
The Rams' style hamstrung Ramsey last season. Raheem Morris played with borderline preposterous depth in his defense. The Rams exagerrated their zone coverage, banking on a pass-rush that too often did not show up to do all the heavy lifting. Get depth in the defense, take away deep shots and intermediate completions, have the pass-rush come screaming home, that was the idea. At times, Ramsey, playing primarily as a boundary corner, was aligned as deep as a third safety:
It was a system constructed to hide weak links on the defense rather than highlight one of the best press-and-trail cornerbacks in the league. Those exaggerated zones took Ramsey away from the initial hand fight, bumping receivers up on the line of scrimmage, where he does his best work. And Morris limited how much he moved Ramsey around compared to 2021.
Back in those heady days, Ramsey re-made himself as one of the finest slot corners in the league, before bumping back outside in time for the Rams’ postseason run. And that could portend some of what’s to come in Miami. Morris used Ramsey in 2021 as a slot corner for two reasons: to get one of the team’s best run defenders (and Ramsey is one of the league’s finest force defenders) closer to the box; to lock the slot in man-coverage while zoning up on the perimeter, hiding, as best he could, an inadequate secondary and building a coverage scheme to match the pass-rush.
Ramsey played fewer snaps in the slot in 2022. That may have been tactical; it may have been due to Ramsey’s decline.
There is some noise in those figures. Ramsey was often dinged for the cushions the scheme coughed up before he was even in-phase with a receiver. But they’re also telling — he is giving up more chunk yardage than at any point in his career.
Corner is a position that ages fast. Ramsey showed clear signs of aging last season, even with the help of those wonky pre-snap cushions. He was stiffer in coverage:
Things often looked labored. The fluid athlete of old was replaced with someone with obvious signs of rust. That’s somewhat of an issue in bump-and-run, press-coverage. It was more pronounced when Ramsey had to sink into deep zones and twist inside and then out:
His value in 2021 was that he could drift into different positions — he was as twitched up moving in-then-out as a slot corner as he was breaking from out-to-in as a boundary guy. He still has all sorts of value as inside guy, but how he operates has changed.
It’s the same on the outside. One of the wonders of Ramsey at the peak of his powers was that he was the best in all phases of press coverage: he could sink his long arms into a receiver at the start of a rep, eliminating them from the route pattern altogether or disrupting their timing; he could mirror and match patterns with the best of them, undercutting routes, arriving at the catch-point, and breaking on balls from depth; he made plays on the ball. And if he was beaten, he had the recovery speed (and length) to still hit the receiver's landmark in time or to go attack the ball.
That’s vanished these days. He no longer has the top-end speed to recover against the best of the best:
That’s fine! Ramsey isn’t quite the player he once was. You cannot plant him on one side of the field, line him up toe-to-toe with the best receivers in the league, and bank on him as a fully comprehensive insurance policy. But how many of those guys are walking on Planet Earth? One? Two? There’s Sauce Gardner. There’s Patrick Surtain. That’s it. That’s the entire list.
Ramsey still sits comfortably in the second tier alongside a batch of bump-and-run, bigger-bodied old heads, and torqued-up risers: Stephon Gilmore, Darius Slay, Tariq Woolen, Charvarius Ward, Jaire Alexander. Right now, there are not five better corners than Ramsey. And if there are, they’re younger fighters who lack some of the positional variability that Ramsey still brings at this stage of his career.
Ramsey remains an instinctive press-corner who can win early in the rep and out in the pattern. Get too caught up in some of the declining lateral quickness and top-end recovery speed and you’ll miss all the fun-and-games when Ramsey is given a chance to play true man-to-man coverage. Sure, he’ll lose more reps than before. But as a bump-and-run corner, he remains an artist. He still has the physicality and instincts to jostle with anyone:
When sagging off, plays with the same attack-first instinct that has made him such a playmaker on the ball:
Look at that thing! Think about it. Ramsey is lined up ten yards off the ball and playing, ostensibly, as one of the three-deep defenders in a three-deep zone. Safety Nick Scott is tasked with patrolling the underneath portion of the middle of the field. If anything breaks there, his job is to drive on it.
Nope. Scott didn’t react quickly enough. He didn’t recognize the route concept quickly enough. Zach Ertz – nuts and bolts and spools falling off him – lumbered into a vacated spot in the middle of the field, sitting down between two underneath defenders. BANG!
Ramsey peeled off his zone. He recognized the concept and spotted that there was an underneath hook defender to account for the receiver to his side of the field. He spied Scott backing up and Ertz bandying into space. From his deep third zone, Ramsey broke inside, broke on the ball, and broke up the play in the middle of the field.
You cannot teach that. That’s just a high-IQ football player going and making a high-IQ play — scheme and convention be damned. Abandoning the scheme to go make a play in a void is a play reserved only for the game’s true warlocks.
Morris tried to devise ways to get Ramsey closer to the action. Against the Bucs, he shifted Ramsey into a free-roaming, dime linebacker role. Again, Ramsey wasn’t as fluid as in past years – and he didn’t thud quite as hard versus the run (when engaged, he remains one of the best force defenders in the NFL). But he was fluid enough to cover the range required, and it was a position that didn’t require as much stop-start explosiveness as aligning in the slot. He was effective as an underneath zone defender, his instincts allowing him to arrive in all the right spots against a barrage of underneath routes:
That might be Ramsey’s future. He’s on the back end of his career. He might not be worth the contract he’s playing on, but grabbing a player of Ramsey’s quality for a grab-bag of stuff — a pick, a player — represents a worthwhile gamble for the Dolphins. At worst, his an aging bump-and-run corner who gives up some shot plays and might have to move to safety (there is a strand of the multiverse where Vic Fangio makes Ramsey his every-down, weakside safety. And let me tell you: that would be all sorts of frisky). At best, he’s a malleable defensive piece who can still jockey with hall of Very Good on the perimeter, but who can shuffle to different spots along the defense, whether it’s moving to linebacker in smaller packages, sidling back to safety or playing in the slot.
Ramsey may no longer be an every-down game-breaker, but he can be one of the key components of a league-leading defense – and that feels like fine value for the price of a third and a chunky contract. Tacking this version of Ramsey onto a star-studded defensive front with Vic Fangio directing the proceedings? Sign me up.
Jonnu Smith traded from the Patriots to the Falcons
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to The Read Optional to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.