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NFL Team Building: Cornerbacks Must Be Like Decathletes

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Which cornerbacks should the Redskins select in the 2020 NFL Draft?

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2015 NFL Scouting Combine

There are a bunch of good cornerbacks who made themselves available for the 2020 NFL Draft.

The five year average number of defensive backs drafted is 50, including 21 in the top-100 (which breaks down to roughly 11 CB + 10 S).

What constitutes the ideal NFL cornerback?

When discussing receivers, I explained that they really do not require peak ability in every area, because a wide receiver can win by being either quick/elusive, or fast (elite top speed), or outstanding at competing for the ball against tight coverage (contested catches).

That’s not the case with cornerbacks. Because they are required to line up one-on-one against a variety of receivers, corners cannot fall short in any one attribute.

1) A corner who doesn’t have outstanding straight-line speed will get beat deep.

2) A corner who can not efficiently turn and “flip his hips” will not be able to “mirror” his opponent.

3) A corner who does not have an acceptable combination of length and vertical explosiveness will be victimized by jump balls.

The NFL Network’s Bucky Brooks explains it best. Brooks says “I ultimately look for a decathlete, the guy who has size, speed, athleticism, explosiveness” before adding “who is a technician, with a high IQ.”

What to look for at the NFL Combine?

Cornerback is often said to be a “clock watch position”. Factoring in weight, look for a speed score > 90 for cornerbacks.

Additionally, some teams will not draft a corner that is shorter than six-foot and some teams prioritize arm length of at least 32-inches.

Edit: The 2020 draft class only has five corners that meet both criteria (Jeffery Okudah, Trevon Diggs, Bryce Hall, Michael Ojemudia, and Lamar Jackson).

Those familiar with Kent (Twitter handle @MathBomb), know all about RAS (Relative Athletic Scores). When talking about what tests to look for from cornerback at the NFL Combine?

He says EVERYTHING, before breaking it down into zone corners need to be more explosive (jumps) and agile (3-cone, SS) than man corners who need to be big and fast (speed scores, 40 time).

So, why don’t NFL teams just sign track athletes?

The NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah somewhat disagrees with that all corners must be elite athletes.

Jeremiah says he looks for these three things.

1. Just be in the acceptable range in terms of speed, quickness, and fluidity, then the two things I look for are...

2. Ball Skills (generate takeaways)

3. Competitiveness (50/50 balls, tackling, toughness)

Back when current Raiders’ GM Mike Mayock was an draft media analyst, he said the two characteristics he prioritizes at corner are

1) being able to locate and make a play on the ball when your back is turned and

2) you got to be competitive in all phases of the game, including tackling.

According to some analytics by Rotoworld’s Hayden Winks, ”The NFL Combine has historically been more important for corners than on-field counting stats production, but it’s so based around instincts, that it’s harder to quantify at the NFL Combine or through counting stats. If you’re spending any time looking at any of the tackle stats, your process is flawed. If you’re looking at interceptions or pass deflections, then your process is flawed, but it’s less flawed then looking at the tackles stats. Instead, we need to be heavily using Sports Info Solutions and Pro Football Focus coverage stats.”

The Draft Network’s Benjamin Solak (on The Journey to the Draft Podcast) brought up an interesting point.

Solak says “When talking about good press cover corners, you want guys that are too aggressive, who you have to dial it back on...not guys who are not aggressive enough, that you have to teach them to play downhill and play physical.”

Finally, NFL Films’ Greg Cosell explains why the transition from college to the NFL is so difficult.

There is a steep learning curve from college coverage rules to those of the NFL. In college, DBs can ride receivers until the ball is in the air. In the NFL, you get 5 yards and then contact is called tight.

1. “It’s very difficult to evaluate a corner who does not play much press-man at all (in college). I think everyone at some point, everyone is going to have to play press coverage in the NFL.”

So, then you look at how a guy plays press...

2. Are they physical press-man corners or are they mirror press-man corners?

“If they are physical, they how do they use their hands. Do they jam? Can they disrupt without losing their balance and body control?”

“Mirror-match press man is when you don’t necessarily jam them physically, meaning that they will wait for the receiver to declare. they won’t put their hands on him. Depending on the route, they will either try to get into their inside hip or outside hip and just mirror him.”

3. When discussing the trend toward bigger corners with length. Cosell explains “Sometimes those guys (long and lanky) at times have balance and body control issues which in college they can compensate and camouflage.”

This is an important distinction.

Press-coverage: Is about how you use your hands

Off-coverage: Is about patience and good change of direction

What about Slot Defenders?

With inside corners, or nickelbacks, short-area quickness more important than deep speed.

Generally speaking, the less of a liability you are on the OUTSIDE, the more highly regarded you are going to be. However, the 2018 draft was the first time I saw significant draft capital being invested at the Nickel/Slot Defender position. Not only was Minkah Fitzpatrick drafted 11th overall, but MJ Stewart and Duke Dawson each just missed out on being top-50 selections.

No longer is a nickelback defined as the team’s third best corner, but instead it is a starting position, in which a unique skill set is required. In fact, the nickelback is more than just a starter. He’s a Swiss army knife who may tangle with the left tackle on a first-down run, cover the craftiest receiver on the field on second down and blitz on third down. Most modern NFL offensive tactics are designed to isolate and attack the nickelback. Teams place speedsters like Tyreek Hill and big, athletic Tight Ends like Rob Gronkowski types in the slot specifically so they can create mismatches against the nickelback.

When talking about Fitzpatrick, Alabama head coach Nick Saban said “The nickelback has to be a much more complete player,” Saban said, noting that he is a hybrid mix of a Sam linebacker and a fleet-footed defensive back. “That’s why the position is named “Star” (in Alabama’s scheme). So it has changed quite dramatically in the last 10 or 15 years.”

When former NFL safety Matt Bowen talks to The Ringer about this position. Bowen said “Whereas outside cornerbacks can utilize the sideline as leverage and squeeze opposing receivers into the boundary, slot corners and nickelbacks covering the middle of the field must rely on play recognition and elite quickness to stick with receivers. Inside, you have to play both an inside and outside releases.”

So, who are the top Cornerbacks in the 2020 NFL Draft?

Tier 1

Jeffrey Okudah, Ohio State. Nearly perfect prospect, out to prove he is on the level of Patrick Peterson and Jalen Ramsey.

Tier 2

Trevon Diggs, Alabama. Long limbed, former receiver is the younger brother of NFL wideout Stefon.

C.J. Henderson, Florida. A Bruce Feldman “Freak” who should excel at the combine.

Kristian Fulton, LSU. Underrated due to Greedy Williams/Derek Stingley.

Cameron Dantzler, Mississippi State. Performed well vs LSU passing attack.

Tier 3

Noah Igbinoghene (Auburn). Both his mother and father were Olympic track athletes. Noah is a product of his genetics. He appears to run in the 4.35 range, and can run stride for stride with any and every receiver. For those of you who subscribe to The Athletic, they do an excellent look into his backstory HERE.

Tony Pride (Notre Dame) is a two-time member of Bruce Feldman’s “Freaks List”, who doubles as a track star for the Irish. His 100-meter times of 10.47 and 10.5 are two of the six fastest all-time at Notre Dame. His best 40-yard-dash time, reportedly 4.32, would’ve been the third-fastest time among all prospects at the 2019 NFL Combine.

Jaylon Johnson (Utah). Dane Brugler considers Johnson a Top-50 prospect, but cautions he doesn’t have ideal size to match up against bigger receiver. According to Brugler, Johnson also “must improve his ability to find the ball, gain proper positioning and make a play without excess contact.”

AJ Terrell (Clemson). Terrell started all 15 games for Clemson’s 2018 national championship winning team. Along the way, he faced off against a bunch of NFL prospects, including the RedskinsKelvin Harmon, Deebo Samuel (South Carolina, 49ers), Miles Boykin (Notre Dame, Ravens), and the group of Alabama receivers like Jerry Jeudy. His pick-six was the first score in Clemson’s win over Alabama in the National Championship game.

He wasn’t as good as I expected in 2019. Before his highly visible struggles against LSU, Terrell gave up a 40 yard TD vs UNC. There is still plenty of inconsistency to his game, but I optimistically have him as a potential day two prospect entering the NFL Combine.

Jeff Gladney (TCU) has a lot of fans in the draft community and is expected to test well. I have not watched him as closely as others.

Damon Arnette (Ohio State). Some have pointed out that Clemson went after Okudah and avoided Arnette in the national semi-final.

Bryce Hall (Virginia) suffered a season-ending injury in 2019, but was PFF’s top graded returning corner from the 2018 season.

My Top Nickel is ...

Geno Stone (Iowa). I believe Stone could carve out a role similar to former Iowa CB Desmond King.

Described as an well-respected and intelligent player, both on and off the field, Harvard was the first school to offer him a scholarship. Read more about his backstory and importance to the team HERE.

Since the days of Bob Sanders, Iowa also has a long tradition of producing physical defensive backs. Stone follows in the footsteps of Charles Godfrey (2008), Amari Spievey (2010), Micah Hyde (2013), Desmond King (2017), and Amani Hooker (2019) as the next Iowa defensive back who should have a long NFL career, but whose size/speed metrics will likely prevent him from being selected in the top-100.

Antoine Winfield Jr. (Minnesota). The son of 12 year NFL corner Antoine Sr., I may move Jr. from my safety rankings into my nickel rankings.

Jared Mayden (Alabama). Was used in a similar role as Minkah Fitzpatrick but without the same results.