Raiders will regret spending millions on 'average' Hall

Don't be fooled by DeAngelo Hall's two Pro Bowl selections, writes Sal Paolantonio. Hall has a bloated sense of self-worth and is prone to making costly mistakes -- both mental and physical. Dale Zanine/US Presswire

The NFL's new math is mind-boggling: $80 million for
Nate Clements, $59.5 million for Asante Samuel, $70 million for DeAngelo Hall.

What do those three players have in common besides a bank account now flush with cash? They are all cornerbacks. And as pro football's offseason transitions from free agency to the draft, paying that kind of unprecedented dough for that position is at the heart of an increasingly contentious debate. So, let's leap into this argument.

Here's the question: Is the never-ending quest for the next great cover corner often paved with fool's gold?

Here's the answer: Yes.

Let's take the latest example. The Oakland Raiders have won only 19 games over the past five seasons. Since 1990, the only other team to win fewer than 20 games in a five-season span was the Bengals, who won 19 from 1998 to 2002, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

What was the Raiders' biggest problem in 2007? They couldn't stop the run. The defense allowed 4.8 yards per rush last season, worst in the league. It was the highest average ever allowed by an Al Davis team.

So what did Oakland do? With Warren Sapp retiring, the Raiders signed Giants defensive tackle William Joseph -- but mostly for depth. Their biggest free-agent pursuit was a cornerback: Hall, who ran himself out of Atlanta. In a trade, the Falcons got second- and fifth-round draft picks from the Raiders, who promptly made Hall a very rich man.

And what did the Raiders get? One of the most overrated defensive backs in recent league history.

One of the great "SportsCenter" highlights of Hall's career is from a game against the Steelers in 2006. You remember that -- when Pittsburgh wide receiver Hines Ward sprinted past Hall for a spectacular 70-yard touchdown catch and run. What's so remarkable about that play? Ward was missing one shoe.

And that play was unusual. Most opposing receivers beat Hall deep while still wearing both shoes.

Hall, who has been to two Pro Bowls, possesses many of the qualities great cornerbacks have. Great speed. Remarkable athleticism. Terrific leaping ability. Huge ego.

"I always feel like I'm the best guy out there," Hall once said. "When a guy catches a pass, it almost seems like luck to me. If a guy makes another catch, I'm like, 'Two? How did that happen?'"

In reality, Hall is an average cornerback who takes needless chances, gives up a staggering number of big plays, has never helped his team win anything and wore out his welcome with the franchise that drafted him in just four years.

"Everybody pumps him up like he's Deion Sanders," Lions receiver Roy Williams said. "But he's not Deion Sanders. He's DeAngelo Hall. He's not the shutdown type of corner that everybody expects him to be."

In three of Hall's four seasons in Atlanta, the Falcons ranked 22nd or worse in pass defense, and only once did they manage a winning season: in his rookie year (2004), when he was a part-time starter. So don't expect Hall's presence to improve the Raiders' pass defense dramatically in 2008.

But don't blame Hall for the folly of his contract. If the Raiders want to pay him $70 million, Hall should take every penny.

However, there is plenty of evidence that throwing good money at mediocre cornerbacks destroys teams' salary caps and does not improve their pass defenses.

Let's look at the San Francisco 49ers. In 2007, they jumped at the chance to sign Clements from the Buffalo Bills. The Niners' deal with Clements was eight years for $80 million. And what did the Niners get? From 2006 to 2007, the opposition's passing yards went up (from 3,817 to 3,826), interceptions went down (from 14 to 12) and sacks went down (34 to 31). And that's with the NFL's defensive rookie of the year, linebacker Patrick Willis.

It's obvious what the Niners really needed: a pass rush. That's why coach Mike Nolan persuaded his front office to sign defensive end Justin Smith from the Bengals. Did the Niners overpay for Smith, who had just two sacks last season? Maybe so. But they had no choice. You can cover all day, but if you can't rush the passer, you're not going to win in today's NFL.

The New York Giants proved that. Did you watch their Super Bowl XLII victory over the New England Patriots

In case you were one of the few Americans who missed it, that was indeed the most prolific offense in NFL history shut down by Steve Spagnuolo's defense. And guess what? Spags had no shutdown corners.

So, it didn't take big-name corners with big contracts to shut down Randy Moss and the most productive passing game in the history of pro football.

In the past five years, the head of league officiating, Mike Pereira, has made calling defensive pass interference and defensive holding downfield a point of emphasis -- thus diminishing the effectiveness of cover corner play.

Here's more evidence: In 2007, the Detroit Lions traded corner Dre' Bly to the Denver Broncos.

And what happened? The Broncos' pass defense promptly got worse. It surrendered more touchdown passes: 13 in 2006, 25 in 2007. Denver's interceptions went down (17 in 2006, 14 in 2007). So did sacks (35 in 2006, 33 in 2007).

In 2007, Indianapolis Colts president Bill Polian, who never gets enticed by free-agent seductions, let cornerback Jason David walk away. Another smart move by Polian. David was signed by the New Orleans Saints for four years, $16.5 million.

And, you guessed it, the New Orleans pass defense went downhill. The opposition passed for more yards: 3,122 in 2006 to 4,122 in 2007. Completion percentage was up: 56.3 in 2006 to 62.4 in 2007. Touchdown passes surrendered were up, too: 26 in 2006, 32 in 2007.

Why? Sacks were down. The Saints had just 32 sacks in 2007, after collecting 38 the year before David arrived.

What's more, in 2007, New Orleans allowed 15 pass plays of at least 40 yards -- tying the Baltimore Ravens for most in the league, according to Elias.

This offseason, hoping to improve their last-in-the-league turnover total, the Eagles jumped into the free-agent market, signing Pro Bowl cornerback Samuel to replace oft-injured Lito Sheppard. Samuel had 16 interceptions over the past two seasons -- tops in the NFL and double what Sheppard had for Philadelphia the past two years.

Samuel's addition to the Eagles' roster should provide the kind of turnaround in pass defense that coach Andy Reid was looking for. But Reid hedged his bet on Samuel. To improve Philadelphia's pass rush, after signing Samuel, the Eagles acquired defensive end Chris Clemons from the Raiders.

Which brings us back to Oakland and the decision to sign Hall to a megadeal. Nobody has been better at marketing himself than Hall. However, a quick look at Hall's impact in his four years with Atlanta tells a different story:

Saints-Falcons, Nov. 26, 2006: In the final seconds of the first half, Drew Brees unloaded a Hail Mary toward the New Orleans end zone. Hall was in position to knock the ball down and prevent a touchdown, but instead tried for a needless interception to pad his stats. He missed. And Saints reserve Terrance Copper came down with the football and a 48-yard touchdown that turned a 14-6 lead into a spirit-crushing 21-6 advantage as the first half ended. The Saints went on to win 31-13.

"I was being kind of lazy," Hall explained after the game.

Then there was the Falcons-Panthers game this past September. The Falcons had lost their first two games of the season but led Carolina 17-10 late in the third quarter. They had outgained the Panthers by more than 200 yards and were on the brink of salvaging their season with a win.

But as Hall left the field before a Carolina fourth down, his trash-talking with Panthers receiver Steve Smith got so out of control that Hall was flagged for taunting -- his third penalty, for a tally of 67 yards lost in 82 seconds.

What was Hall saying to Smith?

"I've been in as many Pro Bowls as you; I make more money than you," Smith said. "Just real immature stuff."

The Panthers -- thanks to the fresh set of downs -- scored a touchdown two plays later, then another before the quarter was over, eventually winning 27-20.

"You have to try to control yourself," Falcons teammate Warrick Dunn said.

On the final day of the 2006 season, the Falcons' hapless secondary was torched for a career-high 324 yards and three TDs by Eagles backup quarterback A.J. Feeley. Hall didn't spend much time covering anybody that day, but he certainly made an impression on Eagles receiver Donte' Stallworth.

"He called me a bum," Stallworth said. "He kept saying he's been to two Pro Bowls and I haven't been to any. Well, this bum is going to be in the playoffs next week while that two-time Pro Bowler is out on the golf course."

This is adapted from the best-selling book "The Paolantonio Report: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players, Teams, Coaches and Moments in NFL History" by Sal Paolantonio with Reuben Frank, which is available in local bookstores and at Amazon.com.