Chargers not in the corner market
With Hayward and Verrett, team should have it covered in the defensive backfield.
It wasn’t a trick question, but it seemed to catch Gus Bradley off guard, so the Chargers defensive coordinator’s first reaction was to laugh out loud.
If both Chargers cornerbacks, Casey Hayward and Jason Verrett, are physically sound, which one would cover the opponent’s best receiver?
“You know what? Right now, they’re playing left and right,” Bradley said after a training camp workout in Costa Mesa this week. “You’re always looking at things from game to game. You like to keep them left and right, but sometimes it’s based on skill set and matchups. You have some flexibility.”
The skill sets of Hayward, a seventh-year pro out of Vanderbilt, and Verrett, five years out of Texas Christian, give Bradley and the Chargers a luxury few teams have: a pair of Pro Bowlers at a position that ranks just behind quarterback as the most demanding and difficult in the NFL.
Verrett, 25, who is expected to return within a week from a knee injury that sidelined him for the final 12 games of last season, earned the honor in 2015; Hayward, 27, earned it in 2016.
The Denver Broncos, with Aquib Talib and Chris Harris, are the only other team with two Pro Bowl corners entering this season.
“Not many teams can say they have two Pro Bowl cornerbacks, and we’re one of them,” Hayward said. “I’m
definitely excited. The things Jason does well on the field, a lot of people don’t do, and the things I do well, a lot of people don’t do. To combine those two, I think we have a chance to be really good in the secondary.”
The 5-foot-10, 188-pound Verrett is quicker, faster and more explosive. He is comfortable pressing a receiver at the line of scrimmage and tracking him for the rest of the route.
The 5-foot-11, 192-pound Hayward is longer, more experienced and more fundamentally sound. He is a cagey defender who prefers to back off the receiver at the line, read the quarterback and, if possible, jump the route.
Verrett, a first-round pick in 2014, opened last season covering the opponent’s top receiver but yielded that responsibility to Hayward after suffering a partial tear of the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in the fourth game.
“I think we complement each other well,” said Hayward, a former second-round pick who played four seasons (2012-2015) in Green Bay before signing with the Chargers in 2016.
“Jason can press. He can go out there and shut your best person down. I do both. I can press, and I can get the ball. I play off a little more than he does so I can see the ball come out.”
Hayward led the NFL with seven interceptions, returning one for a touchdown, and was tied for second with 27 pass breakups in 2016. According to Pro Football Focus, he allowed a 53.4 passer rating when targeted, third-best in the league.
Big things are expected of Hayward. The NFL Network ranked him 64th on its list of top 100 players entering this season.
Verrett’s focus is on regaining the form that made him one of the NFL’s top cornerbacks in 2015, when Pro Football Focus ranked him 49th on its list of top 101 players after the season.
Verrett had three interceptions, returning one for a touchdown, 42 tackles and was penalized only three times. PFF praised Verrett for his “tight coverage and making quick tackles before the first-down markers” and gave him the highest coverage grade per snap among all NFL cornerbacks that season.
“He has coverage ability and he’ll tackle,” Chargers general manager Tom Telesco said. “His intangibles — how he carries himself, his leadership abilities — are really plusplus. He’s got everything you’re looking for in a football player. … He’s a big part of this team. We need him.”
The Chargers ranked 29th in the NFL in points allowed last season, giving up an average of 26.4 points a game, and 20th in passing yards allowed, yielding an average of 249 yards a game.
They were tied for first with 18 interceptions and fourth in turnovers caused (28), numbers the Chargers hope to build on this season with four cornerstone players — star Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram, and Hayward and Verrett.
The unit should benefit from the challenges it faces every day in camp, defending veteran quarterback Philip Rivers, running back Melvin Gordon, who is a pass-catching threat, and standout receivers Keenan Allen, Travis Benjamin, Tyrell Williams and Dontrelle Inman.
“It can only help going up against a future Hall of Fame quarterback, a guy who’s been doing it for 14-plus years now, and Keenan and Tyrell, who have had 1,000-yard seasons, and Dontrelle every day,” Hayward said.
“Any time you have a chance to go against those guys and compete and make plays, you have a chance to be good. We have a chance to have a really good secondary and a really good defense.”
right, led the NFL with seven interceptions last season, and Jason Verrett picked off three passes. They each returned one for a touchdown.