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Is there an age wall for cornerbacks?

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We dig into the data to see when corners historically have seen their play drop off. Will Chris Harris Jr. break the mold?

Pittsburgh Steelers v Denver Broncos Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

Whoever said “age is just a number” never worked in the NFL, and certainly wasn’t in charge of handing out new contracts to players.

Outside of pure asking price, age is the primary consideration in the Chris Harris Jr. contract talks this offseason.

The issue at hand isn’t whether or not Chris Harris Jr. currently warrants top tier cornerback money, because he absolutely does. The question is how long will he warrant top tier cornerback money?

Harris is reportedly asking for upwards of $15M per year, which would put him up there with some of the highest paid corners in the league. However, when looking at all of the corners with the top 10 or 15 largest contracts, all of their deals were signed when they were 29 years old or younger.

Josh Norman, who’s contract often gets brought up as it is the largest average per year deal in the NFL for a corner (Xavien Howard’s recent deal is actually smaller when you include this year’s salary. He won’t crack over $15M in cap hit throughout his entire contract), but he was 28 years old when he signed his market setting contract.

If you look across the current corner market, nearly everyone in the range Chris Harris is looking to be paid has a deal that expires when they turn 32 years old, at the latest. Only Aqib Talib, Josh Norman, Kareem Jackson, and Robert Alford go one year past that with their deals expiring at 33 years old.

To better understand this, I dug into data on Pro Football Reference to see if it supports what seems to be an age wall in the early 30s for cornerbacks. The league certainly seems to think there is, as no one is committing significant guaranteed money to guys very far past their 30th birthday, but I wanted to make an attempt at quantifying it.

Methodology

While far from complete or the best measurement of success, the three variables I dug into were Pro Bowls, 1st team All-Pro selections, and number of seasons starting 12+ games, as these are the most readily available metrics and most conducive to a mass comparison like this.

The data includes 500+ corners from the last ten years, spanning 2008 - 2018.

Pro Bowls

Here are the number of corners selected to Pro Bowls sorted by age. You can see it peaks at 27, and drops off significantly at 29, then again at 32.

Here is a list of the players who have made the Pro Bowl past the age of 30. 14 different players since 2008 have accumulated 26 Pro Bowl selections after their 30th birthday.

All-Pro Selections

First-team All-Pro selections are scarce across the board, as you would expect given the rarity of the honor.

We can see from the chart above that once again the peak for corners is around 26-27 years old with a drop off at 30. The four players in the chart above who have made first-team All-Pro at or after 30 are Charles Woodson, Aqib Talib, and Charles Tillman.

Adam Jones also made it, but did not fit the criteria of 12+ games started, so he wasn’t in the original data set.

If you’re curious about the lone All-Pro selection at 21 years old, that’s Patrick Peterson, who is the only 21 year old to earn a first-team All-Pro honor in the history of the NFL.

Seasons Starting 12+ Games

Lastly, here is a look at the number of corners who started at least 12 games in a season.

Same pattern as before, but the steeper drop off is at 32, and a little more encouraging for 30 year old corners.

Conclusion

It’s easy to see from the data why no teams are committing significant guaranteed dollars to corners past the age of 32.

While there is a case to be made that excellent play can still happen well past 30 years old with very special players, and I believe Chris Harris fits that bill, the overarching story of the data supports the fact that this is a dangerous age to commit long-term dollars to a player.

Chris Harris wants to be paid like the Pro Bowl/All-Pro corner that he is, however, the data would suggest that the likelihood of Harris maintaining that Pro Bowl/All-Pro performance throughout the entirety of his new deal is small.

If the Broncos and Chris Harris are able to work out a deal, and I hope they do, you can expect three years to be the absolute max, with two being more likely, and the majority of the guaranteed portion to be paid out by the first or second year of the deal.

Special thanks to Joe Mahoney for letting me run my numbers and ideas by him, as he is the MHR data wizard.

What do you think? Is the cornerback age wall legit? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.