Tuesday, May 06, 2014

2014 NFL Draft: Cornerbacks

"Shutdown Corner"

I hate that phrase, I really do. Most of the corners tagged with that title are not shutdown corners at all. They just play very high up the field and take away deep passes, while giving up potential plays underneath. Like many of the gunslingers of the old west, most shutdown corners survive (and get paid) off their reputations.

Observe what happened to Nnamdi Asomugha. Leaving the Raiders as one of the top two "shutdown corners" in the entire NFL he signed for the Eagles in 2011 and was paid almost $10 million per year. Two years into a five year deal he was cut. Signed by the 49ers on the cheap (a one year, $1.5 million deal) he was cut in November of 2013 after playing just three games. From "shutdown corner"/number two cornerback in the league, to having his career shutdown in two years, despite being in his physical prime? That tells you everything you need to know.

Cornerbacks are also notorious for being judged on interceptions, which is probably one of the worst performance measures in all of football. Most interceptions by corners - around 80-90% - are due to quarterback error or forced circumstances (such as hail marys). That's not to take away from the corners for their ball skills or having the speed to keep up with a receiver and the savvy to turn their head around and look for the ball (ala Richard Sherman), but it does mean that interceptions is a dubious measure to judge corners by (not so much of a problem with safeties and linebackers though).

And generally speaking corners are just very hard to judge. They're like the running backs of the defense; so much of what they do is dependent on other people. Show me a team with good corners and I'll show you a team with a good pass rush. And make no mistake about it, it's normally the pass rush that makes the corners, not the other way around. It's also very difficult to project corners based on their college performance.

Take Richard Sherman for example. Go and watch some of his college film at Stanford. There's a reason he was drafted in the fifth round. He looked awful in college. When he left college he had only been a corner for two years having switched positions and it was only in the NFL that he truly blossomed. That was literally impossible to predict (honestly, the college game tape really was that bad).

And if I'm honest, I nearly always end up adding a negative value to corners to account for the fact that they're so massively hit and miss. So many guys go from being a productive corner one year to being burned repeatedly the next. The aggressive attitude to undercutting pass patterns that someone like Asante Samuel brings to the field is normally the same thing that then gets exposed horribly on an "out and up" pattern for a touchdown. I just hate corners.

So we'll see how we get on. I'll be completely honest and say that you might want to take these analysis with a bit of a pinch of salt, although in 2012 I did a pretty good job of spotting Casey Hayward. And as always, this list is ordered the way it is because that's how the list I'm working from is ordered, and is not a reflection of my opinion on each player.

Justin Gilbert, Oklahoma State
Made a bunch of highlight reel plays. Shame the highlights don't show all the negatives, because if they did people would be less high on Gilbert. Him running a fast 40-yard dash time at the combine might have prevented people seeing the weakness as well.

I have some major issues with Gilbert. For one, he doesn't tackle. He avoids contact whenever possible and shirks from getting off blocks. On screen passes to his side he almost seems to move out of the way and allow himself to get blocked out.

In pass coverage he's a perfect example of what I was talking about above. He gets picks, providing the quarterback makes a horrible decision and even worse throw. Man to man he leaves a massive cushion underneath and gives receivers so much space to work with it's crazy.

In fairness he is quick and he can flip his hips with incredible speed. Playing in bump and run he doesn't get much bump, but he does have a great ability to mirror the receiver and isn't beaten easily by fancy footwork or feint moves. If he could tackle properly he'd be a much more promising zone coverage prospect.

Gilbert is probably going to be the first corner drafted this year and I can already see people lining up to praise him regardless of what happens. He'll be touted as another "shutdown corner", when in reality there are some big holes in his coverage game.

Me personally I'd be loathe to part with more than a third round pick for him. You can play all the deep coverage you want and pick off bad passes by bad quarterbacks, but those are not the games where seasons turn and where trophies are won and lost. The big plays he gives up when he loses the receiver are the ones that will hurt the most and pushing the likes of Calvin Johnson and Andre Johnson off the ball is a non starter for someone of his size.

Bradley Roby, Ohio State
Against an NFL quality route technician in the shape of Jared Abbrederis (or however you spell his name) Roby got beaten like an 18th century rug. He was turned inside out, bit on fakes, and only managed to keep the embarrassing amount of yardage given up from becoming laughable by tugging on Abbrederis's jersey. And you're telling me you want to use a first round pick on this guy and have him try to cover top NFL receivers? Err, no.

He does have some potential as a slot defender in nickel packages, not least because unlike Gilbert he's not afraid to put his head into danger and take a shot at someone. Fourth to fifth round pick, rotational nickel corner. At best.

Darqueze Dennard, Michigan State
Hmm, not sure what to make of Dennard.

Right from the snap Dennard shows good agility and mirrors the receiver effortlessly. The trouble is after about five yards he starts to lose the speed battle and as soon as that happens he starts to grab. And by grab I mean tug, pull, push, climb, rake, hold and just about every other verb related to pass interference. He's a walking PI penalty machine. He's also quite short, which can be a problem in a league bristling with tall receivers.

I know he has the amazing stats in terms of yards per target and all that business, but honestly, the quality of opposition was not great for Michigan State. He didn't really face a plethora of number one wideouts and in my personal opinion I think he got away with a lot of fouls that he just wouldn't in the NFL.

I think he does have value though. As a short zone corner I think he can be a number two. Someone who doesn't have to cover a lot of deep patterns and can play in a more confined space, using his quick initial burst and agility to its best effect, and where he can afford to be a little more physical. He does shed blocks quite well and he chases run plays that go away from him.

For me, from about the third round onwards I think Dennard has some value. Anything higher than that, which is what he's projected by most, is a bit much I think.

Kyle Fuller, Virginia Tech
Superb instincts and solid tackling are the foundation of Kyle Fuller's game. This may point to his future use.

The thing about Fuller is that he's brilliant at everything except covering people deep. Once the receiver gets past him on those deep patterns he struggles to match speed in the open field and lacks the speed to recover lost ground. He got beaten easily a number of times over the top and that ultimately limits what you can do with him.

Fuller is another player better suited as a short zone corner, playing underneath where his instincts are best utilised. Given the freedom to sit on intermediate breaking patterns and to take chances looking for interceptions, knowing that he has safety help over the top, then I think Fuller will excel and squeezes into being a second round value corner. Certainly outside of the second round he's a good pick up.

Jason Verrett, TCU
One thing that's worrying me a little about this list is all the corners at the top of it - who all seem to be the highest rated prospects - are from schools that played mostly weaker opposition, a lot of whom were run first team. So far I haven't seen anyone on this list go head to head with a really top college wideout, which is a little concerning.

But you can only judge what is put in front of you and Verrett was pretty good. He seemed to cope pretty well with people trying to beat him over the top and had good recovery speed. He sees plays developing quickly in front of him, reacts, and has the acceleration and speed to get down hill to make the tackle.

There are two major problems with Verrett though. Firstly, he's quite injury prone. He's missed multiple games throughout his career and this is in a 12 game season. On top of that he's only 5'9" with short arms, which for a cornerback can be an issue. If you imagine him going up against Texas A&M prospect Mike Evans, that's almost a foot difference in height.

Now we have to put that into perspective. It's not the end of the world. But it is another question mark to add to the others. For that reason I think Verrett, for my money at least, goes down to the fourth round. I think he can earn a spot as a number two corner in time.

Rashaad Reynolds, Oregon State
Another shorter corner, got picked on a lot which is normally not a good sign. Has some speed, but most of his picks come from the quarterback throwing the ball short and to the inside. He played a lot more man coverage than some of those above him on this list and held his own ok.

Not sure whether to say third round or fourth round pick. I guess if in doubt, grade down so a fourth round pick. Like Verrett though I think he has something to offer and potential to develop into a number 2 corner.

Keith McGill, Utah
6'3", McGill has a lot better size. He also has the speed to match.

McGill is the tale of two corners. One corner refuses to tackle much and generally shies away from contact, which is clearly a problem. He's almost a liability in the run and screen game. The other corner is good in coverage and can handle most receivers down field man to man. So which corner do you want?

The problem is that if you draft McGill you get both. You get the good and unfortunately you get the bad as well. What coaches have to decided is whether they can live with his faults in order to gain his plus side. Given that the league is predominantly pass orientated at the minute I suspect people will overlook the negatives in favour of the positives.

And I think that's a reasonable proposition at the minute. For me McGill is probably worth a third round pick. The reality is that his pass coverage skills are very valuable in the modern NFL. A bit grabby at times, but usually it's a little more subtle than someone like Dennard.

Bashaud Breeland, Clemson
Breeland was actually pretty good. I've seen a lot of complaints that he got "exposed" against Florida State, but that's a classic example of using statistics to try and justify something that doesn't match with the actual game footage (the pass was more like a check down to a receiver way in front of him who then ran for a long gain. It's not really fair to attribute that yardage against him).

He can tackle. Sort of. He has pretty good pass coverage and seems to be able to compete in one on ones down the field. I just have difficulty placing my feelings on Breeland. He wasn't exceptional, but he was good. Probably worth the value from the fourth round onwards.

Antone Exum, Virginia Tech
Spent most of 2013 on the bench having suffered a serious knee injury at the start of the year followed by an ankle injury shortly after he came back. That immediately hurts Exum's status because most of the film of him is a year old and coaches and scouts are left wondering whether he will come back as the same player or not. It also throws up red flags about possible injury proneness.

The other problem for Exum is that he can't seem to play without having a large cushion to protect him. He doesn't look for back for the ball, is slow to close on underneath receivers and isn't really much of a tackler. 

All these issues combine to make me think that I personally would pass.

Marcus Roberson, Florida
Got beaten a lot deep, grabbed a lot, pushed a lot, generally did little to suggest he'll cope well with receivers at the next level.

Stanley Jean-Baptiste, Nebraska
Lot of talk about Jean-Baptiste possibly switching to safety but I don't really see the point. He could probably play free safety in the NFL, but you might as well use him at corner because he's not bad at it.

He has decent speed, size and on occasion will run the receivers route better than them (he's a former receiver himself). Considering he's only been playing corner for about three years and has only just become a starting corner in 2013 it's easy to see that he has more room to grow yet. 

And that's the main appeal of Jean-Baptiste. He's just getting started as a corner yet he's already pretty handy at it. In time he could become very good. It's still a bit of a risk, so I say he's a third rounder for me, but with good long term potential to become a starter.

Loucheiz Purifoy, Florida
Has his moments does Purifoy. Unfortunately a lot of those moments are interspersed with getting beaten badly in coverage. Struggles with quick moves off the line by the receiver and struggles to stay with people deep down the field. I get the feeling peoples impression of Purifoy has been clouded by highlight reel plays such as occasional blitzes off the edge. For me he's a sixth round pick, a back up corner until you find someone better.

Jaylen Watkins, Florida
Meh. Just meh. Did some good stuff. Did some stuff that was average. Never really struck me as a great corner who was going to take people out of games. Against good opponents he went missing a bit and was beaten by NFL style route running. I'd pass.

Lamarcus Joyner, Florida State
Made some nice plays, but ultimately a very short corner (he's shorter than Maurice Jones-Drew!) who doesn't really have the amazing athletic ability to cover up his lack of height. Like Purifoy he attracted highlight reels for some plays, not all of them necessarily related to playing the corner position, while giving up some big plays (and missed opportunities for offenses). Just wasn't consistently able to hang in there against better opponents. Sixth round for me.

E.J. Gaines, Missouri
Mentally Gaines gets lost in a lot of coverages. This was during his senior year, when you'd expect him to have the system (or even just the general principles) down. He kept letting receivers go when clearly he was responsible for them. As a result, bizarrely enough, he would sometimes wander into position to have a shot at getting a pick. The fact that he missed many of these opportunities shows you why he's a corner and not a receiver. I'd pass.

Bennett Jackson, Notre Dame
Posted some impressive combine numbers. Didn't really do a lot on the field though. Often seemed to go out of his way to avoid contact and then make a spectacular but futile looking leap to try and convince coaches later that he had tried to make the play. Made a lot of mental mistakes in coverage, didn't run his head much. I'd pass.


And I'm gonna call time on the corners there at 16. Lot of small school corners on the list I have in front of me that I don't have games for and frankly, as I mentioned earlier, I'm just not a fan of corners. I just don't think you learn a huge amount about them by watching them in college and they represent probably the biggest crap shoot position in the entire draft process. I'd rather get on with looking at the safeties.

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