Last Friday, I wrote a post comparing cornerback play to offensive tackle play, and how bridging the two positions helped me during my evaluations of the cornerback class. Cornerback is arguably the most valuable non-quarterback position in football. It takes an incredible combination of athleticism, developed skills, and perfected technique to be able to go out on an island and lock up top tier wide receivers. The cornerback class is similar to most of the other positions in the 2013 draft in that there doesn’t look to be an obvious, elite player. However, it’s very deep, diverse and I assume that future starters will be found late in the draft. Here are the top 10 corners I’ve evaluated so far, separated by tier.
Just to be up front – I’m pretty biased towards corners with great technique for a couple of reasons, both of which I covered in last week’s article. First, one false-step from a corner an and often will lead to six points for the opposition. Secondly, I’ve never played or coached defensive backs in any capacity, so it’s much more difficult for me to try and project raw, physical skillsets or assume what is or isn’t coachable.
I have not evaluated Jamar Taylor, Darius Slay, David Amerson, Tharold Simon, or Nickell Robey yet.
Xavier Rhodes: Long-limbed, well-built, physical corner who oozes press coverage ability. When he plays with his feet under him and keeps his hips square, he’s capable of stoning most wide receivers at the line. However, too often he opens the gate and gives the receiver a clean release while trying to press, and he lacks the recovery speed to catch up once beaten. He doesn’t look to have elite speed, and he gets grabby with receivers when beaten. Great lower body strength, allowing him to plant and drive on the ball without having to gather himself. Very willing tackler, however his form needs works and he has a tendency to lunge. Also has a bad habit of giving up the sideline due to taking angles too far upfield.
Jordan Poyer: Arguably the most technically sound corner in the class. Stays low in his backpedal, keeps his hips square, opens up to run at the correct time, and has a devastating press that completely stalls wide receivers at the line of scrimmage. Has experience playing a lot of different coverages, capable of playing bail and ball-hawking and likes to try and undercut routes. Can line up inside or outside and has experience covering and blitzing from the slot. Short arms and lack of long speed is somewhat of a concern.
Leon McFadden: Undersized, physical, technically sound corner who compares well to Brandon Flowers. Keeps his hips square through his jam at the line. Excellent mirror skills and can change directions on wide receivers’ double moves easily due to staying square. Willing, aggressive, sound tackler against wide receivers in space and running backs in the ground game.
Robert Alford: A guy I am admittedly trying to get more video on, but I’ve been ecstatic with what I’ve seen so far in games and during Senior Bowl practices. Might not be able to start outside due to size (5’9, 186), but is a feisty player who has a lot of experience covering and blitzing from the slot. Excellent change-of-direction ability, mirrors receivers by staying square in front of them and not opening his hips up. Great ball skills and excellent vertical.
Dee Milliner: Experienced boundary corner with impressive length and recovery speed. Very fluid changing directions and can break on the ball in a flash. Plays a lot of bail coverage where he can freelance and play the ball. Willingness and ability to tackle leave a lot to be desired. Has a quick jam to disrupt, but opens the gate too much and gets beat at the line (although he has the recovery speed to catch back up). Mis-times jump balls in the air and might not get his hands on many footballs. Only 20 years old with the arrow ticking up.
Johnthan Banks: Long corner with a slight frame. Fluid change-of-direction ability. Former safety who is a willing tackler. Primarily plays the boundary corner spot, but does line up in the slot from time to time. Like Milliner, Banks was to play a lot of bail coverage, where he can peek in the backfield, freelance, and try to make plays on the ball. Doesn’t play much press coverage (likely due to lack of bulk), but does play some press-bail, where he shows a quick, disruptive jam. Will need to be taught to play out of a backpedal and continue to fill his frame out, but his ball skills, safety background, willingness to tackle remind me of a young Rashean Mathis.
B.W. Webb: Small-school corner like Alford who really shined during Senior Bowl week. Has the size to line up outside (5’10, 185), but could stand to add keep adding bulk. Incredible athlete who exhibits an elite closing burst, recovery speed, and the ability to play the ball in the air vertically. Willing tackler, but he has issues fighting his way through wide receivers’ block on screens. Very raw in press coverage; doesn’t shoot his hands, opens his hips up immediately and gets on his heels. Elite punt returner in college, excellent with the ball in his hands.
Logan Ryan: Physical underclassman corner whose technique is still very raw. Lost when not playing bail coverage. Gets his hips turned in his press and in his mirror. Flies around and sacrifices his body against the run.
Desmond Trufant: Has the requisite physical abilities and had an outstanding Senior Bowl week, but lapses in concentration and technique occurred far too often in college. Tight hips are a concern – gets tall in his backpedal, opens up too early, and is prone to getting turned all the way around on double moves due to over-extending.
Tyrann Mathieu: Heisman contender in 2011 forced to sit out the 2012 season due to off-field incidents. He’s a man without a position – too small and slow to play on the outside, with too tight/narrow of hips and change-of-direction ability to project to the nickel. Incredibly tenacious player, constantly gets his hands on the ball and causes turnovers, and has an impact in the return game.
Cornerback play has gone through an interesting evolution of sorts over the last few years. The rise of the Tampa Two in the 90s and 2000s, the re-emphasis on Illegal Contact after five yards, combating spread-to-pass schemes. A combination of those three previously mentioned things (especially the proliferation of up-tempo, spread-to-pass schemes) caused many defensive backfields to evolve into predominantly two-high coverages, where Quarters, Cover Two Man, and Two Read can all be disguised from the same pre-snap look.
Defenses have another problem to deal with now, however, and that’s the quarterback being utilized as a runner. The threat of the quarterback being used as a runner (whether via the spread-to-run zone read, or the Power O influenced Pistol run game) creates a numbers advantage to the offense. The defense must get out of two-deep coverages and play more single-high coverages in order to bring an extra defender into the box to account for an extra running threat. Without additional help over the top additional stress is placed on the corners, as they are responsible for a greater area. The need to tackle well and not get beat deep increases ten-fold. Undoubtedly, some new offensive wrinkle will infiltrate the NFL and switch things up for defenses, but the need for elite cover men who allow defensive coordinators to get more exotic in the front seven is still at an incredible premium and will continue to be.