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Is Ben St-Juste better suited to working the slot?

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NFL: Los Angeles Chargers at Washington Football Team Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

When Benjamin St-Juste was drafted in the third round last year, I had visions of him becoming part of a man-press heavy secondary, that had included the recent addition of William Jackson III - who had been one of the best press cover corners in league. At the time, I wrote:

So, like Jackson, St. Juste is a “press man coverage” specialist: A big, boundary corner who is physical enough to neutralize his man at the line of scrimmage, and to provide effective disruption of the short, quick passing game.

And, given his college experience, that seemed like a reasonable assumption:

But after a year in which WJ3 struggled, and Kendall Fuller played very well on the outside, it sounds like Jack Del Rio and Chris Harris have decided to shake up the cornerback room a bit.

My own stereotype is that slot CBs tend to be smaller, quick guys, who handle the fast developing plays in the middle of the field, so at 6’3”, 200 lbs, St-Juste seems slightly gargantuan for the position. But perhaps my preconceptions are limiting my vision.

The other day, I went back to pull up BSJ’s RAS score again, and was interested by what I found:

St-Juste’s straight line (40 time) speed is utterly unimpressive. Compared to the two other CBs, it’s downright slothful. William Jackson III ran a 4.37 before the draft, and Kendall Fuller was injured before the NFL combine, but ran a 4.5 at the Army All-American Combine immediately after leaving high school, and presumably got faster over his time in college.

St-Juste’s short-range agility scores, however, are quite a bit better than Jackson’s (and as mentioned above, those numbers don’t exist for Fuller). Jackson had a shuttle of 4.32, compared to St-Juste’s 4.01, and a 3-Cone of 6.86, compared to 6.63. St-Juste is also significantly larger than Jackson.

The Athletic Profile of Top Slot CBs

Let’s look at the athletic profiles of the top five slot corners in the league, per PFF. Going into the 2022 season, those players are the Colts’ Kenny Moore II, the Bengals Mike Hilton, the Patriots’ Jonathan Jones, the Bills’ Taron Johnson, and the Saints Chauncey Gardner-Johnson.

Moore was an undrafted free agent out of Valdosta State, and he was faster than St- Juste is. He’s significantly more “explosive,” though a bit less agile. Moore enters his 6th year in the league, with last year really being his breakout season.

Hilton was another undrafted free agent who is entering his 6th year in the league in 2022. His athletic profile is even less impressive than Moore’s. About the same speed as St-Juste, with poor “explosion,” but “good” agility scores: a 4.19 in the shuttle and a 6.86 in the 3-cone.

The Patriots’ Jonathan Jones was undrafted out of Auburn and has an athletic profile that appears completely the opposite of St-Juste’s. His 40-time was a blazing 4.33, but his agility scores were quite poor.

Taron Johnson was a 4th round pick out of Weber State with poor explosion and agility numbers, and good speed metrics.

Finally, the Saints Chauncey Gardner-Johnson - a third round pick out of Florida - basically scored “good” across the board.

The one common theme among these five players is that they are all relatively short-statured, ranging from 5’8” to 5’11”, so it seems as though my stereotype might have some basis in reality. But, their athletic profiles are legitimately all over the map. It’s interesting that St-Juste’s RAS score is the highest of the bunch, but it seems to be disproportionately pulled up by his size.

Doing a bit more digging, it turns out that St-Juste’s height is actually quite a rarity at cornerback in the NFL:

[T]here have been only three 6-3 ½ (heights were rounded off to the nearest half inch) cornerbacks taken in the first three rounds since 1986.

In 2009, Utah’s Sean Smith (6-3 ½, 209, 4.50) went to the Dolphins in the second. Although Smith never made a Pro Bowl, he was rated as a top-10 corner by Pro Football Weekly entering the 2015 and ’16 seasons.

In 2019, Vanderbilt’s Joejuan Williams (6-3 ½, 207, 4.60) went to the Patriots in the second. He has started one game in three seasons.

In 2021, Minnesota’s Benjamin St-Juste (6-3 ½, 202, 4.58) went to Washington in the third. As a rookie, he started three of nine games.

In the 2022 draft, however, seven of the top 10 corners were at least 6’0,” signalling a possible arms race, as the size of wide receivers continues to increase, and larger CBs are selected to defend them.

St-Juste’s Other Strengths

Looking back through St- Juste’s pre-draft profiles, some interesting remarks stand out. Regarding his route recognition ability:

Having the ability to mix coverages and read a plethora of different routes is certainly a plus for St-Juste. The route recognition is what stood out more to me, personally. He does well to anticipate breaks at the top of route stems, fakes or counters from receivers. Moreover, St-Juste appears to study how the opponent will position their bodies for a reception very thoroughly. It was encouraging to see how often he worked to get on the inside hip of the opposition, in order to gain added leverage. The same goes for squeezing down on shorter routes. If anything, there is a worry about St-Juste going up against deeper routes.

The description below, of his physicality, seems like it could be consistent with disrupting passes over the middle as well:

The most consistent thing St-Juste has shown to this point, is his ability to disrupt passes at the catch point. He has the extraordinary length to reach in at the last moment and jar the ball loose from the opponent’s grasp. Furthermore, St-Juste displays terrific extension to still cause havoc, even if his positioning and footing are not the greatest. Mainly, getting his arms in the throwing lane can distract opposing receivers. St-Juste also takes great pride in being physical at the line of scrimmage, while playing press man coverage.

Interestingly, the draft profiler includes in his assessment, “The only spot where I see St-Juste playing is on the outside. However, there are still many reasons as to why teams could use him in a variety of ways defensively.”

This assessment is a little incongruous though, given the other claims about BSJ:

  • “The long speed is simply not a part of this player’s game. “
  • “[H]is strides are long and choppy. This makes St-Juste difficult to trust against faster and speedier wide receivers on the outside, as a result.”
  • “[T]here is not much flexibility in his longer frame. St-Juste is a bit slower when attempting to transition or change directions.” (this would seem to be a potential weakness in the slot)
  • “Block deconstruction will be a major learning curve for St-Juste entering the NFL.”

With “nickel the new base” defense in the NFL, the importance of the slot cornerback has has increased dramatically. League-wide, NFL teams are in nickel around 60% of the time.

Why might BSJ be an effective slot CB? Let’s hear from Chris Harris Jr., the former Broncos corner who was, at a time, one of the best slots in the game:

Coming off the line, [a talented slot CB] gets his hands on the receiver and disrupts the route while it’s still legal within five yards. “Everything is about timing, and they run a lot of option routes,” Harris says of offenses. “The quarterback has to read it. If you can put your hands on the receiver and get to him fast, that messes up everything for them. If I don’t put hands on him, he’s probably going to beat me on the route.”

All the while, Harris is very conscious of his footwork, keeping his shoulders square and the receiver in front of him. If he turns his hips and “opens the gate,” as he puts it, and lets the receiver run free, he will get beaten that way, too. In practice, Harris does a specific drill that helps his footwork. He positions one receiver in front of him and another behind, mirroring the first receiver for about five yards, and then flipping around and covering the other.

The offseason is the perfect time for experimentation, and for figuring out where players best fit on the field, even if it’s not where the coaching staff originally had planned to put them. Will BSJ work out in the slot? Will he end up staying on the outside? What do you think?

Poll

Where will Ben St-Juste start out at the beginning of the season?

  • 32%
    Out on the boundary
    (233 votes)
  • 51%
    In the slot
    (368 votes)
  • 8%
    At safety
    (62 votes)
  • 7%
    On the practice squad
    (57 votes)
720 votes total Vote Now