The key to evaluating talent in the NFL is to continuously look back and check yourself to see if there were any real changes that need to be made in the future. Look at those trends and see where you went wrong. Is there a chance that there could be an outlier? Why were you wrong during your evaluation?
To effectively understand this article, you have to understand what the NFL is currently running and expecting from an NFL cornerback. To be frank, it’s not among the easier jobs in the league right now. Despite that, there are several very talented players who do an excellent job in the league playing the position.
Most of the coverage that a cornerback is asked to play is man coverage. The reason for that is because of the match-up driven scheme that so many offenses currently run. They want to force defenses to run man coverage to try and gain mismatches. Yes, defenses still run some zone coverages and different things to try and keep offenses honest – but the brunt of defensive play calling now is man.
Looking at some of the top cornerbacks in the game currently
I took to Twitter a couple of months ago when I was evaluating and I started to notice a pattern. I asked people what they thought were the top five cornerbacks in the NFL currently. I ended up with a pretty good list of ten cornerbacks who could make an argument to be a top five cornerback in the league.
- Jalen Ramsey, Los Angeles Rams
- Jaire Alexander, Green Bay Packers
- JC Jackson, New England Patriots*
- AJ Terrell, Atlanta Falcons
- Tre White, Buffalo Bills
- Xavien Howard, Miami Dolphins
- Darius Slay, Philadelphia Eagles
- Marlon Humphrey, Baltimore Ravens
- Stephon Gillmore, Carolina Panthers
- Marshon Lattimore, New Orleans Saints
This was a very diverse group. Some of these guys are great man coverage cornerbacks, others are very solid in zone coverage. Most were drafted in the first round of the NFL Draft, but not all as there were other rounds, and even JC Jackson was an undrafted free agent. What did these cornerbacks all have in common with each other?
They were all under 6’2″.
“The New Prototype” has somewhat failed in recent memory
It was about 2014 when people started talking about the “new prototype” cornerback in the NFL who could have the size, strength, and athleticism to cover bigger wide receivers down the field. NFL Media analysts hyped these players as a new breed of playing the position, oftentimes giving them first-round grades and begging teams to select them.
These same analysts pointed to Richard Sherman as the reasoning for their evaluation – a 6’3″ 195 pound cornerback who was among the pillars of the Legion of Boom in Seattle. The problem? The league was evolving, as it often does, away from zone coverage philosophies like the scheme that Seattle operated out of. Sherman was an absolute liability in man coverage.
I mean, just look at some of the examples here of the prospects who were drafted because of this “prototype.”
|Greedy Williams||LSU||2nd Round||6’2″||182||4.37||N/A|
|Lonnie Johnson Jr||Kentucky||2nd Round||6’2″||213||4.52||7.01|
|Kevin King||Washington||2nd Round||6’3″||200||4.43||N/A|
|Quincy Wilson||Florida||2nd Round||6’2″||193||4.54||6.86|
|Ahkello Witherspoon||Colorado||3rd Round||6’3″||195||4.45||6.93|
|Stanley Jean-Baptiste||Nebraska||2nd Round||6’3″||216||4.61||N/A|
The players in this group who have succeeded have been in heavy zone defense infused schemes. Ahkello Witherspoon was considered a bust until he ended up in the San Francisco 49ers zone defense. But for most of these guys? The transition to the next level hasn’t worked out.
What has been the cause of this?
I think that there is a certain issue with cornerbacks and getting them to react to the receiver properly while in man coverage beyond about 6’1″. It’s so difficult to flip your hips and work upfield with a receiver, remaining fluid, to make a play. The name of the game at that position is to limit the separation that a receiver is trying to gain on you.
There are two different types of athleticism that you have to take into account. There is playmaking athleticism – that’s a pure athletic ability. Think someone who can run fast, or can juke the shoes off of a defender. That’s not as important on defense, what’s more important is reactionary athleticism. How does a cornerback react when he has to change directions to limit separation after a cut? Can he sense slight adjustments in direction?
Nine times out of ten, playmaking athleticism is going to win over reactionary athleticism. It’s the nature between the two – it’s hard to react to a well-timed cut or juke or even a spin move.
Part of the issue, I think, too is guys being able to get their pad level low enough to stay with receivers. Not only do a corners hips need to be fluid and flexible, but they’ve got to control their upper body to run with a lower center of gravity to properly utilize those hips. Otherwise, you’re not going to have the time to react while limiting that separation. That’s very difficult to do as a taller player.
Is there a chance for an outlier cornerback? Of course. There are always outliers. In this class, we have a couple of guys who have a shot at really playing well at the next level despite their above-average size at this position.
However, with scouting, one of the most important things to remember is not to be looking for the outlier. That will only complicate and confuse things more. For me, I’m going to stick with the data I’ve researched and take it for what it’s worth.