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Ranking the NFC East, 2020: Cornerbacks

Hogs Haven looks at all four teams in the division in an effort to identify the best and the weakest of the NFC East

The draft is done, the free agents have been signed, the coaches have met their players. Now there’s not much to do but wait for training camp. While we wait, it seemed like it might be fun to evaluate and rank the NFC East position-by-position.

Last off-season, Hogs Haven published articles that focused on ranking position groups in an effort to identify what the division would look like in 2019. This year, we’re going to do it again.

Click here to see all the Ranking the NFC East articles

NFC East Positional overview

In 2019, the NFCE cornerback review focused on players like Janoris Jenkins, Josh Norman, Quinton Dunbar, Byron Jones, all of whom are no longer in the division. Within the division, Ronald Darby has changed teams, moving from the Eagles to the Redskins, and Jalen Mills, while still in Philadelphia, has changed positions, now lining up at Safety for the Eagles.

Kendall Fuller has returned “home” to Washington, re-joining the team that drafted him after being traded away two years ago as part of the Alex Smith acquisition. The other big name additions to the division saw Darius Slay signed by the Eagles after a successful 7-year career in Detroit and James Bradberry added to the Giants roster after completing his rookie contract in Carolina.

After a largely disappointing 2019 season for all the teams in the NFC East, there has been a lot of change, starting with three new head coaches, and all this change at cornerback is unsurprising. It does set up a 2020 season that is likely to have a lot of uncertainty; for the Giants, that uncertainty may be greater as DeAndre Baker goes through the process of defending himself against serious criminal charges that have the potential to put his season in jeopardy.

Four fan bases are looking for improvement in 2020, and the new-look defensive backfields for all four teams are part of the excitement of the coming season.

What do scouts look for in NFL cornerback prospects?

Last year, the Giants fan site, Big Blue View, published a very good series on the topic, “What do scouts look for?”

I’d like to quote heavily from that series here. What follows is the BBV discussion of what scouts look for in running back prospects.

Covering today’s wide receivers is a tough chore. Rookies struggle at this position more than in most areas of the field and are picked on without relent until they prove capable. Offensive designs are so advanced today that cornerbacks are often put in a very difficult position. The league has been flooded with great young wide receivers (and there are many more coming) and much like the discrepancy between defensive linemen over offensive linemen in today’s NFL, the cornerback crop hasn’t quite kept up. This is a position that also often doesn’t have a great hit rate in the draft.

Size and speed are coveted at corner and rightfully so. The Seattle Seahawks are a great example of stressing the importance of taller cornerbacks with great length. Arm length is very important in their scouting process. Having a cornerback with size and strength is obviously an advantage. Seeing how fast a cornerback prospect can run a 40-yard dash is an important tool, but how does that straight-line speed really translate to the football field? And how often do cornerbacks really run a long distance in a straight line? Like is the case with any position in football, having smarts and football intelligence is important here as well. This is true with reading route combinations and the scouting and understanding of your opposing receiver and quarterback, as well as the offensive play-caller. However, if a prospect lacks such intuition on the field, you can simplify things and give a cornerback little wiggle room with his responsibilities. But they still have to know the coverage being asked. Also, having a cornerback that is a top-notch tackler is, of course, desired, but we also don’t necessarily require trained killers at this position. But if you are going to play in the slot, toughness is certainly a prerequisite. Being that close to the ball as possibly the smallest player on the field isn’t for the faint of heart. Lastly, there is a mindset needed for playing this position well in the league. Much like an offensive tackle, a cornerback can shut out his opponent every snap but one and the public will think he had a bad game or cost his team a big win. Confidence is needed, as is the ability to put mistakes behind you to concentrate on the current task at hand. If a cornerback is on an NFL football field hanging his head, he’s doomed.

If there were a fourth category listed below it would be eyes. Cornerbacks must have disciplined, well-trained eyes that don’t wander. Just think about it from their perspective. If the play call is man coverage, a cornerback’s eyes must be focused on his singular opponent. If it is a form of zone, the corner must use “Zone eyes” and see a much larger portion of the field starting before the ball is snapped. But inevitably, almost every play late in the down ends up as some sort of man coverage and knowing when to shift the focus can make or break how that play results.

3. Hands

There are three ways of seeing this. A cornerback’s hands are extremely important when pressing a wide receiver at the line of scrimmage. Much like an offensive lineman in pass protection, hand placement and punch are instrumental to success here. Next, there is an art to using hands properly as a coverage player during the phase of the route and officials in the NFL are very quick to throw a flag if the defender becomes too handsy. There is a fine line here and figuring out that line (that can change week to week) is a very difficult transition for rookie cornerbacks. But most importantly, hands correlate to ball skills. The best cornerbacks take the ball away. Excellent cornerbacks get their hands on the ball with some regularity when quarterbacks go their way, even if it just results in a pass breakup. However, many cornerbacks can’t find the football in the air or play the football at the catch point. Even if they are the most gifted of athletes, failure at the catch point can’t be tolerated.

2. Hips

Fluid “Swivel” hips are instrumental in keeping up with the wide receivers in the NFL. Remember, cornerback is a reactionary position. The receiver knows the route and where he is going while the cornerback has to react accordingly. In turn, cover men often go from a backpedal to a turn and run position, opening their hips and tracking a wideout. They have to constantly change directions with sharp hip movement to react to the receiver’s routes. By far, hip turn and rotation is the most important aspect here, but football players also derive explosiveness by unloading their hips. This is true in this instance as a cornerback coming up to play the run and driving his hips through the tackle for extra pop. But again, what we need to see is the ability to change direction with supple yet abrupt hip turn.

1. Feet

The great Bill Walsh used to say that if he only saw a quarterback’s feet, he could tell you if the pass was accurate or not. Here, if you could only see a cornerback’s feet, you can often decide if he has what it takes. There is a lot of footwork technique depending on what style of coverage is being played. But more than that, you want an athlete who can get his feet off the ground extremely quickly. You don’t want a player with slow feet or heavy feet at this position. That is the absolute kiss of death. By just watching a cornerback’s feet, you can tell if this player stays in balance throughout the entire play. You see how quickly they plant and go if they are coming downhill closing on a route or adjusting to when a receiver gets off press coverage. You can see how well he operates on the balls of his feet or if he needs to get every cleat in the ground to operate. Feet tell us everything when scouting cornerbacks.

The film room - Andrew’s analysis

In this section, we’ll offer a look at a few of the top players in the division, with an analysis of their styles, skills and limitations written by Andrew York, who has volunteered to co-author this series with me.

Andrew is a self-taught film analyst with a pretty impressive resume. He has a PhD in Experimental Particle Physics and has spent several years doing research with the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN, and now does R&D work as a US government contractor. He will put that analytical brain to work this off-season helping to analyze some of the top players in the NFC East.

He will break down film from 5 top NFC East cornerbacks:

  • Chidobe Awuzie
  • Darius Slay
  • Fabian Moreau
  • James Bradberry

CLICK HERE to read the 2019 breakdowns of Chidobe Awuzie and Ronald Darby

Chidobe Awuzie, Dallas Cowboys

Chidobe Awuzie (pronounced: ah-wooz-yeh) was a 2nd round pick by the Cowboys in the 2017 draft. At 6’0” and 202 lbs, and running a 4.43s 40 yard dash, he has all the measurables of a prototypical cover CB. His rookie year in the NFL was plagued by injury, causing him to see limited playing time. However, he has only missed one game due to injury since then.

Last year when I did these reviews, I said Awuzie looked like a developing cover corner who has the potential to be extremely good with continued development. He showed a clear arc of development over the course of the 2018 season and I think that in 2019 he picked up where he left off.

Awuzie is fast enough to run with any WR, but also physical enough to jam WRs at the line of scrimmage and get off blocks. He is a sure tackler and does an excellent job playing outside contain on running plays. Most importantly though, he has extremely good field/play awareness. Even when the ball is going away from him, he does a great job of diagnosing the play and ending up nearby.

According to the advanced stats, Awuzie played at about the same level this past season as in 2018. He allowed a catch rate of 60.4% and a passer rating of 105 on balls thrown his way, which is not especially impressive. When I watched the tape though, I got the impression that he’s better than his stats indicate.

When he lines up in man coverage, he never leaves his receiver’s side and usually shuts him down. The receptions I saw him give up in man occurred when a WR sold a deep route, then broke inwards or back to the QB. Quite a few receptions that would end up credited to Awuzie also occurred when he was playing soft zone coverage, and his job was to limit the big play rather shut a player down. It makes me wonder if he was getting coached to be very aware of giving up the big play, possibly because they didn’t trust their free safety play, which resulted in Awuzie giving up more completions than he otherwise would. Awuzie looked much better in 2018 when he was allowed to press at the line more often, and I think this difference in play was more a coaching decision than anything.

Awuzie generally plays on the hip of WRs he defends, which takes the WR out of the play, but results in few gaudy stats like interceptions. In 2018, he pressed at the line and ran with the WR more often. This past year (2019), he played further back and allowed more of a cushion, which resulted in giving up more comeback routes and crossing routes. I think this was simply how he was taught to play under Kris Richard, and it will be interesting to see if that playstyle changes under a new coaching regime. Awuzie isn’t a shutdown corner yet, but I think he’s a good CB and looks better when he’s allowed to press at the line and run with his WR instead of playing off.

Chidobe Awuzie

Cowboys @ Saints, Week 4 highlights | NFL 2019 on YouTube

Posted by Bill Horgan on Friday, May 8, 2020

[0:12] This was Awuzie’s only interception of the season, and in a lot of ways it looks like the ball just got batted into his lap. In reality, I think this play showcases Awuzie’s field awareness and ability to get in position to make a play on the ball even when the QB is avoiding him.

Awuzie lines up at the top of the screen and sticks with the WR opposite him. When the play breaks down, Awuzie sees Bridgewater looking towards Michael Thomas, who is being defended by Jaylon Smith. Awuzie runs toward Thomas to help bracket him, and is in perfect position to catch the ball when a big hit by Smith knocks it free.

Posted by Bill Horgan on Friday, May 8, 2020

[2:35] This was one of the few times Awuzie gave up a reception in man coverage, but it was due to excellent play by Bridgewater and Michael Thomas.

Awuzie lines up opposite Thomas and runs with him down the sideline. Thomas effectively sells that his is running deep and Awuzie gets caught with his head turned downfield in an effort to get ahead and defend the deep pass. As a result, he doesn’t see Bridgewater throwing to the sideline, and Michael Thomas stops on a dime and turns around just in time to make the catch.

It’s hard to defend timing like that, but Awuzie is at least in place to stop Thomas from gaining any additional yards.

Cowboys vs Packers, Week 5 highlights | NFL 2019 on YouTube

Posted by Bill Horgan on Friday, May 8, 2020

[8:32] Here, Awuzie (top of screen) is playing well back from the line of scrimmage in zone coverage. The Packers are playing a 3 WR bunch on his side of the field, and it looks like Awuzie’s job is to defend passes into the end zone (which he practically starts in) and plays up the sideline.

The Packers throw a pass to the sideline just short of the endzone, and although the pass is completed before Awuzie has a chance to get there, he reads the play and breaks on the WR to knock him down short of the end zone.

Although Awuzie did his job perfectly, this is the kind of play that will count against him on the stats sheet for allowing a completion.

Posted by Bill Horgan on Friday, May 8, 2020

[12:42] This is just a great, high-effort play by Awuzie.

The Packers hand the ball off to Aaron Jones, who dances around the backfield unable to find an opening. Awuzie diagnoses the run play and rockets forward from deep in the secondary to take Jones down behind the line of scrimmage.

Awuzie is a sure tackler and does a good job here, despite Jones getting very low as he sees the hit coming.

Darius Slay, Philadelphia Eagles

A multi-sport athlete in high school, Slay played basketball, was a standout in the 100- and 200-meter sprints, and played football as both a RB and DB. He committed to Mississippi State, but only started in his Senior year. He had a great Combine, measuring in at 6’1”, 192 pounds, with long 32.25” arms and running a blazing 4.36 second 40 yard dash. Slay had 1st round measurables, but his lack of starting experience in college caused him to slip to the 2nd round, getting taken by the Lions 36th overall in the 2013 draft.

Slay had a rough rookie year, but had developed into a top-tier CB by his 2nd year and has consistently been a shutdown corner since then, earning 1st Team All Pro honors in 2017. In every season from 2014 to 2018, Slay produced a PFF coverage grade above 70.0, ranking among the 20 best corners in the NFL in four out of five seasons. In 2019, he managed a coverage grade of just 56.9, which ranked 92nd in the NFL and was barely better than his 2013 rookie season. Some blame the regression on a hamstring injury he suffered week 3 against the Eagles that seemed to linger throughout the season. Undoubtedly some of the low grade is due to constantly being matched with the opposing team’s best WR, though that has been true for most of Slay’s career.

Watching Slay in several of last year’s games, both the good and the bad were evident.

First the good. Slay is a savvy, fiercely competitive CB who doesn’t get easily fooled by fakes or misdirection. His straight-line acceleration and speed are evident and he’s one of only a handful of CBs who can run with players like Amari Cooper man-to-man without giving much separation. His speed also means he can return the ball for a lot of yards and do a lot of damage if he gets his hands on a fumble or interception.

His height and arm length allow him to reach out and make plays on the ball from further away than the QB often expects. His arm length also helps him to jam WRs at the line without getting shoved back. He does a good job maintaining awareness of his WR by keeping a hand on him while they run together and is quick to notice changes in direction. Slay does a good job of maintaining inside leverage while following a WR down the sideline, making him particularly good at defending routes along the sideline. Slay generally does a good job of knowing when the ball is coming to him, either from reading the WR or peeking at the QB.

Now the bad. The thing that stood out to me most was that Slay was terrible at making tackles in an open field, either in run defense or against receivers who had some time to build up steam. Slay was hesitant, took poor angles, and failed to wrap up, instead shoving them or diving at their feet hoping to trip them up. He frankly looked like someone who was afraid of contact. This is in stark contrast to analysis I have read of him in years past that indicated he was a good, physical tackler and it makes me wonder if he was playing through more than a hamstring injury or if he was saving himself for a new contract.

In addition, although his long arms helped Slay to jam WRs at the line, he was not effective jamming more physical WRs and could get muscled out by them at the top of routes. This coupled with the poor tackling left me with the impression that Slay was not especially physical.

Although Slay has great straight-line speed, his lateral change-of-direction ability was not nearly as elite and he frequently lost a step on some of the quicker, good route-running WRs who suddenly broke inside. Slay also has trouble maintaining awareness of both the WR and the QB if he doesn’t have a hand on the WR and can get caught flat-footed peeking at the QB when the WR suddenly breaks inwards. Although Slay is good at maintaining inside leverage while near the sideline, he sometimes commits too heavily to facing the WR and the sideline, which makes him a bit slow to rotate around if the WR breaks inwards.

All of these coverage traits make crossing routes his kryptonite. The majority of the passes I saw him give up were on crossing routes, especially to quick, physical WRs who are good route runners. Keenan Allen beat Slay like a drum in week 2 (before the hamstring injury), and Terry McLaurin, Stefon Diggs, and Davante Adams did well against him late in the season (after his injury should have been healed). Although Slay still looks fast, I also didn’t think he looked quite as fast as in years prior and I wonder if his speed is starting to decline.

All in all, Slay is undoubtedly a savvy and fast CB with good coverage traits who is especially good at defending the boundary, but is not quite so good at defending crossing routes or the slot and is a liability in run defense. A big question to be answered this year is if this evaluation is overly-pessimistic due to last year’s decline being more about a temporary injury or Slay’s contract situation, or if he is in fact in decline. Assuming the Eagles maintain the same coverage scheme though, Slay should benefit from not having to shadow star WRs and being able to stick to the boundary.

Darius Slay

Lions @ Eagles, Week 3 highlights | NFL 2019 on YouTube

[4:42] Slay lines up bottom of screen quite a few yards off.

He keeps his eyes on the QB and the ball and moves to help when he sees the pass to Agholar in the slot. When Agholar fumbles the ball, Slay is in perfect position to scoop it up and runs it back 38 yards before getting tackled out of bounds by Wentz.

One of Slay’s nicknames is “Big Play Slay” precisely because of plays like this. If Slay gets his hands on the ball, his speed makes him a big threat to get a lot of yards bringing it back. His high school experience as a RB might help here as well.

Lions vs Cowboys, Week 11 highlights | NFL 2019 on YouTube

[0:42] Slay lines up top of screen opposite Amari Cooper. Slay gives him a slight press at the line and runs down the sideline with him, doing a good job maintaining inside leverage and keeping his eyes on Cooper and keeping a hand on him so he can feel when Cooper breaks back on a curl route.

Slay stops just as quickly as Cooper, locates the ball, and jumps to knock it away, his long arms allowing him to get in the play despite a few feet of separation.

Slay did a good job here of pressing Cooper and forcing him to the sideline, maintaining awareness of Cooper’s position with his hands and breaking suddenly with Cooper when the ball was in the air. Slay is one of only a handful of CBs with the speed to run with WRs like Cooper man-to-man.

[3:56] Slay starts out playing several yards off at the top of the screen. He follows a WR deep and is in position to make a tackle when TE Blake Jarwin catches a short pass.

Just about everything in Slay’s subsequent attempted tackle is bad. He waits for the ball-carrier to come to him instead of rushing to the ball, hesitates a second before making the tackle (business decision?), takes a poor angle when he finally does dive, and fails to even attempt to wrap up, instead bouncing harmlessly off the ground at the TE’s feet.

This was pretty typical of Slay’s tackle attempts in space last year and is the reason he should not be trusted in run defense. The hesitation, poor angles, and failure to wrap up unless he was already on top of the WR occurred throughout the season.

Lions @ Redskins, Week 12 highlights | NFL 2019 on YouTube

[0:50] Slay lines up bottom of screen opposite Terry McLaurin. Slay tries to press but has trouble anticipating McLaurin’s direction.

Terry runs up the sideline and uses his own hands to fight with Slay as he breaks inside, suddenly gaining leverage on Slay and redirecting himself faster than Slay. This allows Terry to get enough separation as he breaks inside on a crossing route to safely catch the pass and get the 1st down.

This play highlights two weaknesses I noticed with Slay. First, he can be out-muscled by physical WRs into losing the hand fight at the top of the route.

Second, he did terribly against crossing routes last year. Most of the catches I saw him give up in man coverage were on crossing routes. I think he tries too hard to funnel WRs outside, so he gets turned around and is a step slow if they break inside.

Also, as happened here, he sometimes gives up a step peeking at the QB to see what’s happening before redirecting with the WR and he’s worse at redirecting himself laterally than he is accelerating in a straight line.

Fabian Moreau, Washington Redskins

Fabian Moreau played running back in high school, getting converted to DB and redshirting his first year of college at UCLA. He was finally ready to start his senior year, but a foot injury ended his season after 3 games and forced him to return for an extra year and lead the Bruins with 10 pass breakups and 2 interceptions. Moreau tested very well at the Combine, measuring 6’0” and 206 lbs, running a 4.35 second 40, and scoring as a top performer in the broad jump. Unfortunately, he tore his pec in the bench press, which ended his Combine. The injury combined with his relative inexperience as a CB (only starting 1 season in college and playing almost exclusively Cover 3 and press man that season) caused him to slip to the 3rd round of the 2017 NFL draft.

The injury prevented Moreau from practicing with the team his first offseason in the NFL. Even though Moreau played exclusively on the boundary in college, the coaching staff decided to move him to the slot, where he started in his 2nd year. He started his 3rd year (2019) in the slot, but was finally moved back outside midway through the season to replace a declining Josh Norman. Finally playing his more natural position, Moreau improved throughout the season to have his best games somewhat late in the year.

The first thing that stands out watching Moreau play is his athleticism. He not only has tremendous straight-line speed, but also his history as a RB shows with his good lateral agility and more upper body strength and physicality than you typically see from a speedy DB.

He has the fluidity, quickness, and speed to run with any WR man-to-man. He also does a good job of keeping his eyes on the QB to read the play at the snap and as he runs with his WR down the field. As a result, he’s pretty quick to read and react to the play and makes plays on the ball rather than just the WR, helping him earn 3 INTs last year. He’s also a pretty strong tackler and good at wrapping up, though he needs to improve the consistency of the angles he takes and he does have a few whiffs.

Although Moreau seems to have learned the fundamentals of his new position well, there are still little ways in which I think his newness to it shows. As mentioned before, he only got a year of starting experience in college and even that year played almost exclusively Cover 3 and press man, so he didn’t get to practice many different coverages and learn their nuances. He just looks more natural playing man coverage than zone and clearly has the instinct to run to the WR and run his route rather than sit back in a zone and wait for the play to come to him. I think Moreau is still getting a feel for how much spacing he can allow in a zone, and some of the passes he allowed it seemed like he gave just a little too much cushion to allow him to react to the play.

He also struggles a bit changing assignments and communicating with other defenders when multiple receivers come through his zone, which I think contributed to him struggling a bit in the slot. And although Moreau is not especially prone to fakes, I did see him get faked out and beaten by some of the more nuanced route running WRs like Stefon Diggs.

All in all, I think Moreau has all the physical tools to be a great CB and I saw a lot of progress in his play just last year, but he’s still a bit raw for a 3rd year player and needs to continue developing. However, I think he will greatly benefit from switching to a primarily press man scheme if that is indeed the plan, as he is perfectly suited to it physically and it will simplify the game for him and allow him to focus on just the WR opposite him instead of responsibilities all around him.

Fabian Moreau

Redskins vs Lions, Week 12 highlights | NFL 2019 on YouTube

[2:45] This play really shows Moreau’s speed and ability to run with the fastest WRs.

Moreau lines up about seven yards back from speedster Marvin Jones Jr at the top of the screen. Moreau keeps his eyes on the QB the whole time and runs with Jones down the sideline, doing a good job of maintaining inside leverage and running apace with one of the NFL’s better deep threat WRs. As a result, he’s in better position to receive the ball than Jones and catches the interception when the ball is thrown his way, doing a great job tracking the ball as he runs.

He shows good ball skills here too, tracking and catching such a long bomb.

Fabian Moreau

Redskins @ Panthers, Week 13 highlights | NFL 2019 on YouTube

[0:54] This play is representative of most of the receptions Moreau “allowed” after he settled in at the boundary last year.

Moreau lines up about 7 yards back from another speedy WR in DJ Moore at the bottom of the screen. Moreau keeps his eyes on the QB and starts backpedaling at the snap, but isn’t fooled by the play action fake and immediately turns to break down on the crossing route as soon as the QB pulls back the ball. As a result, he is the first defender there to make the tackle and limit the gain to only a single yard after catch.

This was a very good playcall by the Panthers given the defensive formation. The WR only needed to gain 8 yards for a 1st down, so with Moreau starting 7 yards back, they had Moore break inside to attack the gap between Moreau and ILB Cole Holcomb, and Moore splits that gap right down the middle. It would have been very difficult for Moreau to recognize the play and cover that distance in time to break up the pass. Holcomb was in a better position to disrupt the pass by getting in the throwing lane, but he was frozen by the play action and didn’t read the play as quickly as Moreau (which is why Moreau gets to the WR first).

This kind of play is typical of the passes that Moreau “gave up” once he settled into playing on the boundary around week 11 or so. Stats will blame him for allowing a reception, but given his assignment and the playcall, there’s really not much Moreau could have done better. The blame for giving up the 1st down is really more due to the weakness of the defensive formation to that playcall (along with Holcomb not reading and reacting to the play quicker). You can see how this may have played out differently if Moreau were allowed to play closer to the line and run with Moore throughout his route.

[3:24] Moreau lines up top of screen opposite DJ Moore again. Landon Collins is on the same side and while he’s running up to cover the near zone decides to shove Moore to disrupt his route. Moreau breaks down and continues to run Moore’s route, leaving Moreau in position to make the catch instead of Moore.

Not only was this a great job by Collins of disrupting the route, but Moreau did a good job immediately reacting to the WR’s break inside and running his route for him. And Moreau again deserves credit for his ball skills, catching anything thrown his way. I also love how Collins, Holcomb, and Sweat are immediately ready to act as blockers for Moreau’s return (look how fast Sweat runs back there to deliver a block on Moore).

Fabian Moreau

Redskins vs Eagles, Week 15 highlights | NFL 2019 on YouTube

[2:33] Moreau does a good job here in run defense, getting a tackle to prevent a TD.

He lines up top of screen very far off, but as soon as the ball is snapped, diagnoses the run and sees an enormous hole get opened up on his side of the field. Moreau immediately runs up to fill it and does a good job wrapping up Miles Sanders as he runs through. Moreau could have taken a bit of a better angle on the tackle, but wraps up nicely and prevents the TD all the same.

I thought Moreau was pretty reliable in run defense, though he needs to get a bit more consistent with his angles as a tackler.

James Bradberry, New York Giants

James Bradberry was a small school player, starting 4 years at Samford as a boundary CB. Though he didn’t have a lot of production in college, a nice Combine vaulted him up draft boards. Measuring 6’1”, 211 lbs, and running a 4.50 second 40 yard dash, Bradberry had the size, length, and sufficient speed to succeed on the boundary in the NFL, particularly on a zone coverage team. Bradberry was drafted by just such a team, taken in the 2nd round (62nd overall) by GM Dave Gettleman of the Carolina Panthers. Bradberry has since reunited with the GM that drafted him via free agency this offseason.

Watching him play, Bradberry looks like a good zone CB, but one who will need a good supporting cast and the right scheme to keep playing at a high level. He really benefited from playing with an elite LB in Luke Kuechly, who guarded the interior field, and a good FS in Tre Boston, who guarded the deep field. In that sense, he reminds me of Josh Norman before he signed in Washington, though Norman was more physical and better at anticipating plays.

Bradberry is a very disciplined player, doing a good job of maintaining zone responsibilities and sealing the outside boundary on running plays. He also does a great job of reading the QB’s eyes in order to anticipate where the ball is going and he is at his best when he can hang back in off zone coverage to keep the WR and the QB in front of him to read them both and anticipate the play.

However, Bradberry has his weaknesses. The most obvious is lack of elite athleticism.

He is fine for the most part when guarding a zone to limit his responsibility, but will lose a footrace to the NFL’s faster WRs. He also lacks great lateral agility and is prone to getting beat on crossing routes by good route running WRs (especially when he gives them a cushion).

He generally played off coverage, but was pretty weak the few times I saw him pressing WRs at the line. His hand placement is poor in press and he has a weak punch, not really transmitting power from his body as he moves.

He also doesn’t do a great job mirroring WRs at the line, needing a second to process their movements and breaking with them a step late. Although Bradberry’s ability to read the QB’s eyes is generally an asset, he depends on it a bit too much, and he has more trouble against QBs with good eye discipline and can be drawn out of position by pump fakes.

Overall, I think Bradberry is a capable zone CB, but will struggle in man coverage (particularly press man) and even in zone coverage is weak against crossing routes and savvy QBs with good eye discipline.

James Bradberry

Panthers @ Buccaneers, Week 6 highlights | NFL 2019 on YouTube

[0:04] Bradberry lines up bottom of screen and quite far off, opposite Mike Evans. Bradberry immediately runs down and outside to bracket Evans with the LB inside. Bradberry sees Jameis Winston stare Evans down almost from the snap.

Winston hesitates on the throw, waiting to see Evans come back on his route instead of trusting his timing with the WR. By then it is too late. Bradberry takes advantage of this hesitation to jump inside the route and get the interception, reading the play from the QB’s eyes the whole time.

This is Bradberry at his best, staying disciplined in guarding his zone while keeping his eyes on the QB to read and anticipate the play, then using that anticipation to make a play on the ball.

Posted by Bill Horgan on Wednesday, June 3, 2020

[4:21] Bradberry lines up bottom of screen again, this time opposite Chris Godwin and playing much closer to the line in what looks like press coverage. However, Bradberry is slow to move his feet to mirror Godwin and does a poor job with his hands in press, seeming to move his feet out of sync with his hands and getting a very weak, poorly-placed jam as a result. This allows Godwin the opportunity to break inside for a quick, scripted reception and turn it upfield for a first down.

This was a very quick-strike play and Bradberry didn’t have much time to react, but I think with better mirroring and a better jam at the line, Bradberry could have disrupted the route and broken up the play.

Bradberry generally played off zone coverage last year, and I didn’t think he looked nearly as good when asked to press at the line or man up on WRs, as in this play.

James Bradberry

Panthers @ Saints, Week 12 highlights | NFL 2019 on YouTube

[6:07] Bradberry lines up top of screen, near the line of scrimmage and opposite Michael Thomas.

After the snap, he gets frozen by Thomas’ fake outside and gives up a step as Thomas breaks inside instead. Bradberry is too slow redirecting laterally to follow Thomas and the gap between the two widens in the endzone as Brees throws to him for a TD. Brees also did a great job on this play of selling play action, not looking towards Thomas until Thomas had already broken inside.

I noticed plays like this a few times; Bradberry’s lateral agility isn’t quite good enough to keep up with good route running WRs if he can’t anticipate the play by reading the QB. He was quite prone to getting burnt on crossing routes, especially if he was playing off as he just doesn’t have the makeup speed to close distances quickly.

[10:33] This is another play where the tandem of Brees-Thomas was too much for Bradberry.

Bradberry lines up bottom of screen, again opposite Michael Thomas. He starts near the line, but quickly moves further back before the snap, keeping his eyes on Brees the whole time. Bradberry runs ahead of Thomas and tries to anticipate the play by watching Brees. However, Brees fakes a throw early, causing Bradberry to break inside expecting a crossing route only to find it leaves him out of position as Thomas breaks outside, down the sideline for an easy first down instead.

Bradberry was very reliant on reading the QB, and could be pulled out of position by savvy QBs with good eye discipline and a quick release like Brees.

A look at the top of the depth chart for each team

Of course, no position group consists of just one star player. In a sport that is as physically demanding as football, one in which player injuries are common, the unit depth is as important a factor as the skill of the star players.

Here, we’ll take a look at the top of the depth chart for each team — the pool of players from which the ones on the final 53 seem likely to be chosen. Not all the players listed will make the team, and I might easily miss — especially for the Redskins’ division rivals — players who will make the Week 1 roster, but this list should give some idea of the relative depth of the four positional groups.


  • Chidobe Awuzie
  • Anthony Brown
  • Trevon Diggs
  • Reggie Robinson II
  • Maurice Canady
  • Daryl Worley


  • Darius Slay
  • Avonte Maddox
  • Nickell Roby-Coleman
  • Sidney Jones
  • Rasul Douglas
  • Cre’Von LeBlanc


  • James Bradberry
  • DeAndre Baker
  • Sam Beal
  • Corey Ballentine
  • Chris Williamson


  • Kendall Fuller
  • Fabian Moreau
  • Ronald Darby
  • Aaron Colvin
  • Jimmy Moreland
  • Kamren Curl (DB)


Who is the best CB in the NFC East?

This poll is closed

  • 6%
    Chidobe Awuzie
    (26 votes)
  • 0%
    Anthony Brown
    (2 votes)
  • 59%
    Darius Slay
    (222 votes)
  • 0%
    Avonte Maddox
    (2 votes)
  • 0%
    Nickell Roby-Coleman
    (1 vote)
  • 4%
    James Bradberry
    (15 votes)
  • 23%
    Kendall Fuller
    (88 votes)
  • 3%
    Fabian Moreau
    (14 votes)
  • 0%
    Ronald Darby
    (3 votes)
373 votes total Vote Now


Which NFC East team has the BEST cornerback group (taking backups into account) in the division?

This poll is closed

  • 19%
    (62 votes)
  • 31%
    (101 votes)
  • 4%
    (13 votes)
  • 45%
    (146 votes)
322 votes total Vote Now


Which NFC East team has the WEAKEST cornerback group (taking backups into account) in the division?

This poll is closed

  • 20%
    (65 votes)
  • 7%
    (24 votes)
  • 64%
    (204 votes)
  • 7%
    (25 votes)
318 votes total Vote Now


Which of the following defensive backs is LEAST likely to be on the Redskins 53-man roster for the Week 1 opener against Philly?

This poll is closed

  • 31%
    Aaron Colvin
    (87 votes)
  • 1%
    Jimmy Moreland
    (4 votes)
  • 30%
    Greg Stroman
    (83 votes)
  • 36%
    Kamren Curl
    (100 votes)
274 votes total Vote Now