When All-Pro cornerback Cortland Finnegan joined the St. Louis Rams, he was coming off the best season of his career. As a member of the Tennessee Titans in 2011, Finnegan was the second-best corner in the league, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Opposing quarterbacks struggled when they threw into his coverage area. On 82 targeted throws, Finnegan only allowed 52 receptions for 456 yards. Additionally, he surrendered two measly touchdowns and defended 11 passes.
Head coach Jeff Fisher and general manager Les Snead believed Finnegan’s high-level play could drastically improve one of the league’s worst secondaries. So the organization awarded the veteran corner with a five-year, $50 million contract.
Finnegan’s high-dollar contract made him the highest-paid cornerback in the NFL. On average, he will make $10 million annually and $27 million guaranteed over the life of the contract.
Unfortunately for St. Louis, Finnegan hasn’t been able to live up to lofty expectations through 20 games as a member of the Rams. Last year, opposing signal-callers feasted on his soft coverage by completing 73.3 percent of their throws into his coverage area.
In addition to a high completion percentage, quarterbacks posted a quarterback rating of 80.9, via Pro Football Focus. Even though it’s hard to believe, things have gotten worse for Finnegan after four regular-season games in 2013.
He has one of the highest burn rates in the league, and quarterbacks have a perfect passer rating (158.3) when targeting the 29-year-old pro. Moreover, Finnegan has given up three touchdown passes through the air. The last time he gave up at least three scores in one season was 2010.
Let’s go to the tape and analyze which key skill sets have diminished in two years' time.
On this first-quarter play versus the Arizona Cardinals in Week 1, the Rams defense deployed a 4-2-5 look to counter the Cardinals' “10 Personnel” grouping. Finnegan was in press-man coverage against All-Pro wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald.
As soon as the ball was snapped, Fitzgerald darted off the line of scrimmage. Finnegan made a valiant attempt to play the inside trail position, but Fitz’s speed proved to be too much 10 yards into the play.
Sure, the single-high safety should have been there to cut Fitzgerald off before he reached the end zone, but Finnegan has to do a better job of staying tight on the receiver’s hip.
The end result was a 24-yard touchdown throw and catch from quarterback Carson Palmer to Fitzgerald.
This play was living proof that Finnegan has indeed lost a step. Two years ago he would have run with Fitz stride for stride and contested the pass in the end zone.
When speed isn’t a cornerback's strong suit, he is relegated to off-man coverage. It’s safe to say that Finnegan will be playing a lot less press-man coverage from here on out.
Instead of honing in on Finnegan’s straight-line speed, this second-quarter play against the Dallas Cowboys focuses on his closing speed.
The Cowboys offense was in “11 personnel,” while the Rams defense was in a 4-3 “stack” alignment. Finnegan’s assignment was to cover slot receiver Miles Austin’s out route along the sideline.
Playing back, in this situation, allowed Finnegan to not get beat deep in the end zone. The only catch was he had to make sure he quickly read the route, so he could close on the ball in time.
Lo and behold, Finnegan was slow to react as Austin came out of his route. This, in turn, meant he had little time to recover. A corner with top-notch closing speed could make up for a slow reaction time, yet that wasn’t the case.
Austin picked up eight yards on the reception, and the Cowboys scored a touchdown on the very next play. Despite keeping everything in front of him, Finnegan still suffered defeat on the play.
When a corner gives a receiver that much of a cushion, he needs to not only break on the ball quicker, but also needs to break the pass up for an incompletion.
Whether it’s press-man coverage or off-man coverage, Finnegan has been getting beat every which way.
This last play against the San Francisco 49ers (Week 4) may have been Finnegan’s worst play of the season. The 49ers offense was in an “11 personnel” set, and the Rams defense was in a 4-2-5 arrangement.
Finnegan was covering Anquan Boldin in the slot. He was hoping to stay in Boldin’s hip pocket as he ran an out route toward the sideline. San Francisco needed 19 yards for a first down, so all he had to do was keep the coverage close and tackle the wideout short of the first-down marker.
Disastrously, Finnegan was unable to keep his coverage close and stop Boldin short of the first-down marker.
As the big-bodied receiver came out of his break, he had already put a good two yards of separation between Finnegan and himself. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick put the throw on the money, and the rest was history.
Boldin’s 20-yard catch signaled the third touchdown pass Finnegan conceded in four games.
Coach Fisher had seen enough after that touchdown reception. Finnegan left the game with a "thigh bruise," yet we all know he was benched.
Without a doubt, Finnegan has been the Rams' worst player on defense, and he is a huge liability whenever he is on the field. Can St. Louis continue to play him when he is performing so poorly, or should he remain on the bench?
With cornerback Trumaine Johnson outperforming Finnegan, a week or two on the sidelines could do the Rams defense some good. Yet, it’s unlikely this scenario will play out because St. Louis doesn’t have a whole lot of proven depth at the corner position.
One thing's for sure—this may very well be Finnegan’s final season in the Lou. He doesn’t have any guaranteed money left on his contract after this year, which means the organization could cut him without any repercussions.
Mr. Finnegan, you had a good run, but your better days are now behind you.