Thursday, April 26, 2012

2012 NFL Draft: Corners and Safeties

As always, the order is not necessarily reflective of how I rate individual players, just how they appeared on my list when I collected their names.

- Alfonzo Dennard, Nebraska: We'll get this one out of the way first. Dennards stock had plummeted since he was arrested the other day on charges of assaulting a police officer, allegedly occurring when officers attended the scene of an incident that may or may not have involved Dennard in a fight. Connected with his on field fight with Alshon Jeffery last season, it paints a poor picture of Dennards character that has many teams reeling away.

Personally, even if he is completely exonerated of any wrong doing and can eventually rebuild his reputation off the field, on it I think Dennard is grossly, grossly over rated.

At the Senior Bowl and then later at the combine many scouts were left less than impressed by his agility and the flexibility in his hips - a key component of a corner being able to turn and run with a receiver. To me this is just another example of how badly scouts miss the obvious things that appear on tape.

Because without fail the one thing you notice about Dennard when watching him on the field is that he stinks when it comes to trying to run with receivers. He has made a career in college, like many corners before him, of grabbing the receivers jersey and/or arms and just holding them back. Now unless your name is Darrelle Revis, you're not going to get away with that in the NFL.

On the occasions when Dennard was unable to get to grips with his opponents (I mean that in the literal sense) he was left completely out classed by them. The phrase we might use here in the UK would be "beaten all ends up", a term from Cricket that is often heard when a batsmen swings at - but completely misses - the ball, which then passes through and takes out his stumps.

That's what happens to Dennard when he is unable to get his hands on a receiver. He swings so to speak, misses, and then has to watch as the receiver blazes past him while he fumbles around trying to get himself turned for the pursuit. He struggles against even some of the slower receivers, so don't count on him against the elite men. This was shown dramatically by his game against Jeffery where he was not even in the same class.

Dennard, to me, is a complete waste of a pick. Even without the character issues I feel that he has no place on an NFL field. He's just simply not that good. With the character concerns? I think you'd have to be a fool to pick him.

- Morris Claiborne, LSU: Ask yourself this question - do I want my cornerback to tackle? If the answer to that question is "no", then you're still in the running for Claiborne. Because this guy sucks at tackling. Maybe I'll do a post about this in the off season but a corner who can't/won't tackle is effectively a defender that can be left unblocked in the running game. Clairborne is one of those.

Against the pass he is rated as the number one corner overall and I can vaguely see where that line of thought is coming from, but I don't really agree with it. Interception tallies are a notoriously poor way to judge corners and Clairborne is no exception. His tally includes a lot of passes that were simply very bad throws.

In his defense, he does at least turn his head to find the ball, which is something that surprisingly few corners do. You have no idea how annoyed I get about corners not doing that. Clairborne does though and it helps to explain partly why his interception tally is above average, and also why he has a modest number of pass break ups.

Physically speaking he is pretty fast although his footwork is not that great at all and he is a little clumsy looking at times. He doesn't really have a back pedal, he just kind of runs sideways. Personally I think he does the same thing that Darrelle Revis does in that he deliberately plays high on the receiver (downfield) which leaves lots of opportunities open underneath.

His reputation will get him drafted in the first round but for me I don't think he has first round quality. He is a good return man and I think he may get a few picks here and there, maybe even go on to have a good career, but he lacks the stand out qualities of a true high level corner.

- Mark Barron, Alabama: So here is the problem I have with Mark Barron - he's a strong safety who isn't big enough to really tackle NFL players on a consistent basis, and he doesn't play the pass well enough to switch to the free safety position. So what do you do with a player like that?

Barron is projected as a top 20 player, but I just don't understand it? He's committed enough to making tackles, there is no disputing that. But he doesn't have the weight or technique to really get any punch behind them.

Against the pass he's ok, but you can see that he doesn't have the speed to stay with deep receivers and his ball instincts are not great. He often finds himself out of position due to errors of his own making and thus you can't really switch him across to free safety or corner.

That - to me at least - makes him a duff pick. He can't play strong safety in the NFL and he can't move anywhere else, so what use does he have? This truly is the worst draft class I've ever seen.

- Harrison Smith, Notre Dame: Ok, now we're getting better. I like Smith, who I can see ending up as a free safety, and who should probably go in the first round. He seems very alert, pretty quick, has good instincts and is not afraid to get stuck in.

He doesn't have the greatest hands in the world, which explains why he plays on defense and not on offense, but certainly he creates enough opportunities for himself.

And that's where I think Smith really earns his first round status. The phrase "ball hawk" is banded around far too lightly these days. It seems like all you have to do is make one or two picks and all of a sudden you're a "ball hawk".

Well Smith is what I would define as a true ball hawk, in the sense that he always seems to make three or four plays on the ball per game, and predominantly of his own making by using his movement and mental alertness to get into position. Alright, so he may not catch that many, but that doesn't discount the fact that anytime he has his hands on the ball that means one more pass broken up for the offense.

The only real down side is that his tackling isn't that great, but I think his play making skills make up for that. Keep an eye out for Smith because he might drop into the second round and if so, he has a lot of value. In fact, I have an odd feeling that the second and third rounds are going to turn up some of the best players from this draft.

- Dre Kirkpatrick, Alabama: So I came into this hearing a lot of good things about Kirkpatrick. First few plays that I saw he stayed reasonably close to the receiver and made the tackle to stop any yards after the catch.

And I kept watching. And that's all I saw.

Now don't get me wrong, tackling is an important part of a corners game and God knows I've complained a lot in the past about corners who don't tackle, but as great as it is when you can find a corner who loves a bit of contact, he still has to be able to do all the other things that corners do.

Like covering people down the field for example.

I don't see it. I don't get it. I see a lot of tackling and that's wonderful but I don't see any pass coverage. I don't see any tight coverage on a receiver followed by a pass break up or an interception. All I see is a lot of tackles being made after passes have been completed.

Frankly that's not good enough, especially not for a supposed first round pick. I hate to be down on someone who plays physically and does something that few corners do (tackle) but you can't be an NFL corner and not cover people. You have to do more than just be Johnny-on-the-spot once the pass is completed. Sorry.

- Stephon Gilmore, South Carolina: Screw this draft class. Honestly, I've almost had enough. Gilmore is crap. Crap!

I watched him get picked on repeatedly. That's how bad it was, people were picking on him. They were deliberately targeting him because they didn't think he could stand up to their top receivers. And they were right.

He doesn't tackle very well. He doesn't cover very well. He's not big enough or good enough to go man to man with NFL receivers. He's not quick enough or instinctive enough to play as a zone corner.

Seriously, how do these people end up as top rated players? Fuck this draft. This is gonna suck.

- Janoris Jenkins, North Alabama: Previously of Florida, until off the field issues with drugs got him kicked out and landed him with North Alabama. Again, and at the risk of sounding like a broken record, I've heard all these great things about how Jenkins is a shut down this and an elite cover guy that etc, but on the field I don't see it.

What I see is a very average corner who contributes in very sporadic bursts, tackles like Deion Sanders, and struggles a lot of time in coverage. He seems to have difficulty keeping his feet and only seems to be able to play from a very deep cushion.

He might, might, be able to contribute to an NFL team as a Nickel guy playing zone coverage on long downs, but really what's the point? You can still pick up free agent corners who are just as good at that as Jenkins will be, while being more experienced and with less off the field issues.

I think I'm starting to come to the conclusion that scouts and analysts realise how bad this draft class is and are just trying to rank the players relative to their peers in this draft, because there is no way in hell that you can tell me that people connected to NFL teams legitimately rank some of these players as being potential NFL stars.

- Trumaine Johnson, Montana: God give me strength. I say that partly because the blogger autosave function is driving me up the wall (after all, why should Google fix the one thing that was actually broken about Blogger when they can instead waste thousands of man hours redesigning the interface, despite the fact that I have never, EVER, seen a complaint about the interface on any feedback forum), and partly because Johnson is "pro ready" in the sense that I am.

Or in other words, he's not.

Not as a safety and not as a corner. He looks horrible in coverage, he's scared to tackle, and presumably will be about as much use to a defensive coordinator as a wet blanket. You'd have to be out of your mind to draft someone who often struggled to handle even the low tier opposition that Montana faced on a regular basis, let alone expecting him to cover NFL quality receivers.

- Jayron Hosley, Virginia Tech: As a return man, I'm not that keen on Hosley. His decision making is poor and he's one of the kids that either wants the touchdown or the sideline and doesn't seem that keen to just go and get some good yardage for his team.

As a cornerback? My prayers have been answered!

I'm not a particularly religious individual, but boy this kid can play and it was fun just to watch him. He looks back for the ball, he can easily cover most receivers man to man, he has great instincts when playing zone and great timing when jumping for the ball.

My only minor criticism would be that when he tackles he has a tendency to stick his shoulder down and come flying in for the big hit as opposed to wrapping up, but at least he delivers his shot full force and isn't afraid to take a big hit for the team.

I really like Hosley. I think he has genuine potential to go on and be one of the true stars of this draft class, regardless of position. Very, very impressive.

- Brandon Taylor, LSU: Hard safety to peg really. Instinctively he's not too bad, except of course when he makes the wrong read (which happens a fair bit) and he goes running right into a pile of bodies that are nowhere near the football.

As a coverage man he's nothing special but his willingness to tackle coupled with his speed means that there may be a future for him as a strong safety. He's a pretty athletic individual in a set of pads which works in his favour so I think he'll become somebodies project at the safety position.

I've seen second to third round grades and that's probably about right, maybe leaning a bit more towards the third or fourth. At that kind of position in the draft order I can see him having value as a work in progress. Needs to get a better handle on his coverage skills though.

- Josh Robinson, Central Florida: Let's make one thing clear, if Josh Robinson doesn't run a 4.29 at the combine then we're probably not going to be talking about him very much. In college he was very much an average corner who gave people far too much of a cushion.

That fact is all the more odd given his speed. A fast corner like Robinson would theoretically be better used to play either in a short zone or playing man to man, bump and run. He's not all that strong so you're not expecting him to aggressively bump people off the ball, but with his speed he can afford to hold a receiver up at the line, let the guy beat him, and then go blazing after him in the trail position.

I didn't see that in his games. What I did see was someone who didn't read routes all that well, was kind of conservative and struggled to really get involved in the game. Maybe a coach can take that speed and turn it into something amazing, but I wouldn't count on it.

- Casey Hayward, Vanderbilt: Seems like we're starting to get somewhere with a few of these kids. Hayward has his flaws, for example tackling is not his greatest strength, but against the pass he's pretty handy. He's not always in the best positions, but he seems to recover well and has an eye for finding the ball.

Given the pass first nature of the NFL right now, a young corner with his pass coverage skills could become a valuable asset. I certainly think he's a better corner than many of the players rated above him as supposed first round picks. I'm not entirely sure if he's a day one starter, but it wouldn't surprise me if he impressed enough in camp that someone decided to give him a shot.

Looking forward Hayward has a lot of potential if he can concentrate and accept coaching to iron out some of his flaws. Pretty darn good.

- Brandon Boykin, Georgia: Question - what do you do with a very athletic, reasonable smart corner with terrible coverage skills? I don't know the answer to that question and I'm going to be interested to find out what team thinks they do.

See the trouble with Boykin is that he is very athletic and he does seem to have a certain nose for sniffing out things like screen plays, which suggests that he pays attention to his coaches and learns from what he does and sees on the field.

Unfortunately when dropping back into coverage he's terrible. And I mean that in the very literal sense of being almost useless in coverage. He can't play man to man, and in zone coverage he just wanders all over the field like a lost puppy, not really sure about where he's supposed to be standing and what he's supposed to be doing.

It's sad to watch because that kind of athletic talent should really have an outlet. He played a little on offense for Georgia so maybe someone will see him as a kind of hybrid receiver/kick returner/dime back kind of guy, but the lack of a firm position for him makes him a tough pick.

I imagine someone will take a chance, we all know Bill Belichick likes an adaptable player, but personally I struggle to see where he's going to fit in and basically I just can't see him being a justified pick, not when you can draft better players who've played any potential position for longer.

- Markelle Martin, Oklahoma State: Safety.... and not an especially safe one at that. Just didn't really seem to do much. Kind of wandered around, occasionally ran a bit, made the odd tackle. But nothing there that would warrant anyone drafting him.

- Antonio Allen, South Carolina: Some of the very best safeties in the game today and in recent years have been strong safeties. Troy Polamalu. Brian Dawkins. These kind of players. Players who are very flexible, athletic, well coached and who study the opponent hard. The kind of player who can sniff out the run, fill a gap, take on a fullback or make a tackle. The kind of player who can just as easily rush the passer as he can drop back into coverage and pick the passer off.

Antonio Allen is the kind of strong safety who can kind of do some of that stuff, but really isn't in the same league. The trouble is he looks quite flash on film, running around making tackles and occasionally sniffing out a run early and getting into the backfield to make the tackle.

Unfortunately he doesn't do that nearly enough, nor make the correct decision about which gap to shoot nearly enough, and perhaps most damningly he isn't really much use in pass coverage. And I mean that in the sense of not even really being much use in short zones (what might be called "Sky"coverage, if your terminology happens to work that way).

For me that will hurt his draft stock. I just think he's a bit like Boykin in the sense that he makes a few show plays which make you kind of nod your head and go "oohh, that was impressive", but when it really comes down to it there isn't much substance behind all that. It's like scraping off the icing of the cake and realising you've just got plain sponge underneath instead of some sinfully, sickly sweet chocolate masterpiece.

And that's your lot as far as corners and safeties are concerned. The draft is no a matter of hours away and I have work to do. I'll be back later to look at what the first round throws up in as much detail as I can.

I'll also be testing out WordPress, a rival blogging site to Blogger, with an eye to possibly moving my blog over there, because frankly the autosave function has now gone beyond infuriating and into the realm of broken.

Stopping for two seconds out of every ten means that for every five minutes of typing, I've had to endure an entire minute of just sitting around waiting for blogger to finish saving. That means that for every hour that I sit here typing, ten minutes worth of time is lost just waiting for Blogger to save.

That is simply unacceptable.

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