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Justin Coleman eyes big payday with a big season

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NFL: Arizona Cardinals at Seattle Seahawks Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been an interesting three professional years for Justin Coleman.

Undrafted out of Tennessee in 2015, Coleman signed with the Minnesota Vikings, but was released among the first round of cuts that year. He signed with the New England Patriots and was there for literally one day before being released again, then spent a day as a free agent before being signed by the Seattle Seahawks. Three days later, the Patriots signed him off of Seattle’s practice squad.

So on September 4 he was a Patriot and on September 9 he was a Patriot, but in between those days he was a Seahawk for a short period of time.

Coleman played in 10 games for New England that year, then recorded seven tackles in two playoff games. He returned the next season to play in another 10 games for the Patriots, but he made a smaller impact and he wasn’t active for the playoffs, including New England’s Super Bowl win over the Atlanta Falcons. He spent the entire offseason with the Patriots but as final cuts approached, New England opted to get what they could for Coleman — clearly deciding he wasn’t going to be in their plans either way — sending him back to Seattle for a seventh round choice.

The Seahawks had no idea how good the return on investment would be. Obviously the Pats didn’t either.

Playing in all 16 games, Coleman worked his way into being the starting cornerback in the slot, which is quickly becoming a more important position than a starting outside linebacker for a lot of teams that don’t run a base 3-4 defense. Against some offenses, the starting nickel corner could be a more important position than a starting outside corner. Like against the Arizona Cardinals, for instance.

Facing off against the Cards in Week 17, ProFootballFocus highlighted the Larry Fitzgerald-Justin Coleman matchup as the key to the game when Arizona’s offense was on the field. Here’s what they said about Coleman as he was getting set to face one of the top five receivers of all-time, a player who was still a top-25 receiver last season:

Fitzgerald will be looking to get the better of cornerback Justin Coleman, who has allowed an average of 0.99 yards per coverage snap and a passer rating of just 71.2 this season, which ranks 33rd and 28th among 85 qualifying corners, respectively.

One of the nice things for Coleman playing in Seattle is that he doesn’t have to face off against Doug Baldwin — the NFL’s best slot receiver — in game action but he does get to practice against him every week. Some of the receivers that NFC West teams may need to face this year include: Fitzgerald, Adam Thielen of the Vikings, Golden Tate of the Lions, Nelson Agholor of the Eagles, Sterling Shepard of the Giants, Mohamed Sanu of the Falcons, Cooper Kupp of the Rams, Jamison Crowder of Washington, Randall Cobb of the Packers, Cole Beasley of the Cowboys, and Keenan Allen of the Chargers.

In addition to the PFF numbers above, Coleman recorded 35 tackles, nine passes defensed, and two interceptions, both of which were returned for interceptions; Coleman became the 10th player in franchise history to have two pick-sixes in a single season, joining recent Seahawks like Brandon Browner, Bruce Irvin, and Josh Wilson. Said BleacherReport on Coleman’s season:

The statistics don’t highlight just how well Seattle Seahawks corner Justin Coleman played. When he took over the slot position from Jeremy Lane, he instantly boosted the pass defense. His short-area speed and fluidity stood out, as he can mirror receivers past the usual 10-yard mark where most slots begin to struggle. His biggest weakness is identifying when a receiver’s hands start to rise; he’s prone to panicking instead of being confident in his own hand placement and timing.

—NFL1000 DB Scout, Ian Wharton

As a restricted free agent, Seattle gave Coleman the second round tender, paying him $2.9 million. What could he expect as a free agent in 2019 if Coleman has a top-tier season in the slot?

Kendall Fuller had an excellent season in the slot for Washington and they packaged him with a third rounder to the Kansas City Chiefs for quarterback Alex Smith. That’s a pretty hefty valuation for the Chiefs to opt to accept that package for Smith rather than a high draft pick or a player at a different position.

Chris Harris, Jr. also went undrafted partly because of size (5’10 for Harris compared to 5’11 for Coleman), but has excelled as a slot cornerback, signing a $42.5 million contract with the Denver Broncos in 2014. That deal pays Harris $10.3 million next season and $8.7 million in 2019, the final year of the contract, which has a $8.5 million APY.

Patrick Robinson reboosted his stock after one year with the Philadelphia Eagles as a slot corner, then signed a four-year, $20 million contract to return to the New Orleans Saints. But Robinson turns 31 in September, whereas Coleman only just turned 25.

Much of what will become of nickel cornerback salaries and valuation in the draft seems to be up in the air as we speak. Teams used to shy away from 5’11 receivers and corners in the draft, but then guys like Bill Belichick helped make those receivers really important to the offense, so teams had to adjust and find equally important guys on the defense. Many of the slot corners seem to go on day three or undrafted, but if prospects start to specialize themselves in becoming “the next guy to shutdown the next Larry Fitzgerald” then they’ll start getting drafted higher and paid more. If Coleman becomes a shutdown slot corner in the NFC West facing off against Kupp, Fitzgerald, and Pierre Garcon (or Trent Taylor or whoever is in the slot), then a team will surely have to consider paying him $6-$8 million per season, if not more.

If the Seahawks ultimately decide that Coleman was found for a seventh round choice, and that the next Coleman could be had for something similar, then obviously they won’t be the team to do it. But it’s hard to predict, because things seem to be evolving in that area from week-to-week. Richard Sherman wasn’t hard to find in 2011, but then he became a part of how cornerback was played in the modern NFL, and Seattle is going through that replacement phase of Sherman right now.

After losing so much of the defense this offseason, will the Seahawks want to replace another starter in a year? Can they afford to and can they afford not to?