How Do Scouts Break Down NFL Cornerback Prospects?
The one question I'm asked most by readers, Twitter followers and prospective writers is, "How do you break down NFL prospects?"
It is also one of the toughest questions to answer in a tweet or quick email exchange.
Here, I'll go deeper.
Each position requires different criteria for scouting, but the method of scouting remains the same. Tape study, background checks and pre-draft workouts are all a part of the puzzle that makes up a player's scouting report. But what goes into a deeper study of each position and each player at that position?
Want to see the other breakdowns? Check them out below.
- Running backs
- Wide receivers
- Tight ends
- Offensive linemen
- Defensive ends
- Defensive tackles
- Outside linebackers
- Inside linebackers
1. Knowing Your Coverages
Scouting cornerbacks to play in the NFL comes with a unique set of challenges, as each player is asked to execute five different types of coverage on a routine basis.
It's not quite as simple as putting down notes on man and zone coverage, respectively, although those would qualify as good blanket statements for the types of coverage we're seeing in the NFL today.
I'm a firm believer in education as a foundation for scouting. If you don't know the coverages you're projecting a player into, how can you scout him for it? Here's a quick rundown of the five coverages you'll see in the NFL.
Cover 0: Straight-up man coverage without a free safety helping over the top.
Cover 1: Man coverage by the cornerbacks and strong safety with free safety help.
Cover 2: Also called the "Tampa 2" at times. The safeties divide the field with zone coverage while cornerbacks play the flats.
Cover 3: Cornerbacks and free safeties divide the field into thirds and play zone coverage.
Cover 4: Cornerbacks and safeties divide the field into quarters and play zone coverage.
2. Traits and Characteristics
A. Speed and Burst
The job of a cornerback depends on numerous traits and characteristics, but in my book, no one trait is as important as speed.
You might think to yourself that coverage ability is the chief need of a cornerback, and you would be right when looking at football skills. But speed is the basis for all a cornerback can do. Think about a normal play.
The wide receiver explodes off the line of scrimmage into his route, and the cornerback must be quick enough to turn and run with the receiver. The offensive player knows the play, though, so he makes a cut back toward the ball.
That leaves our cornerback tasked with changing direction and accelerating to catch up to the receiver. Having elite speed makes the difference between allowing a catch, breaking up a pass and getting to the ball before the receiver for an interception.
Speed is the foundation on which coverage ability and ball skills are built. A slow cornerback may have elite technique, but he won't be able to keep up with fast receivers. And on top of that, technique can be taught. Speed can't. If you can't run a 4.4 in the 40-yard dash, you'll need elite size, cover skills and instincts.
There are top-tier cornerbacks in the NFL who don't run elite 40-times. Richard Sherman is one of the best in the game, and he ran a 4.54 at his Pro Day before the 2011 NFL draft. How is Sherman able to be one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL without fantastic sprinting speed?
Sherman excels at reading and reacting to the wide receiver and the quarterback. Throughout the regular season, he was thrown at 87 times (subscription required) but allowed just 41 catches thanks to his ability to see the route and respond without delay. That ability to go from seeing it to processing it to reacting is what makes Sherman an elite NFL cornerback.
C. Agility and Technique
Breaking down a college cornerback and projecting his ability to the NFL takes some imagination. What type of scheme will he fit in best? Will he be able to handle coverage on an island without a pass rush?
Oftentimes, it's impossible to fully evaluate a player's ability on college film because of limitations in schemes or opportunities. That's where scouting traits and technique can have a major influence.
A pro-level cornerback must be agile enough to turn his hips and run with receivers when they make cuts in their routes. You'll hear this called "flipping his hips," and it's genuinely a player's ability to go from a backpedal to a run at an angle.
Thankfully, this is easy to evaluate both on film, at a live game or at the NFL Scouting Combine. You want a player who seamlessly transitions from a backpedal to his angled run with no hesitation and quick, balanced feet to transition to the run.
Outside of agility for flipping your hips, being a great cornerback means having the quick feet to change direction. That can mean transitioning from a backpedal and coming up to stop the run or being asked to run through a double move in a route. Quick feet are in my top five most important traits for any cornerback—along with speed, instincts, change-of-direction skills and tackling.
It is always important to remember that technique can be taught, and for almost every player, there will be refinements made by NFL coaches after the draft. A big, strong, fast cornerback can be coached up in terms of technique and hand use.
Earlier we talked about Richard Sherman and his ability to excel in the NFL in spite of a less-than-stellar 40 time. Part of that is instincts, but part of it is thanks to his elite size. At 6'3", 195 pounds, Sherman is part of a new breed of cornerback being valued in the NFL.
A look around the NFL today shows that the best cornerbacks are often the biggest ones, as they are better equipped to take on the Calvin Johnsons and Julio Joneses of the NFL.
To combat a 6'5" wide receiver, you need a cornerback bigger than 5'10": Enter Sherman, Charles Tillman (6'2"), Brandon Browner (6'4") and rookie Dee Milliner (6'0") as big-bodied shutdown cornerbacks. Even Darrelle Revis and Joe Haden are 5'11" with almost 200 pounds of bulk on their frames.
Being big helps in controlling wide receivers at the line of scrimmage, challenging jump balls and coming up to play the run. Those three aspects are essentially cornerback play in a nutshell.
Tackling in the NFL has become a lost art form, but there are still those cornerbacks who aren't afraid to come up and take on the run or single-handedly pull down a wide receiver in the open field. Getting back to this will be something scouts look for more and more as NFL offenses attack the edges with quarterbacks and running backs in the run game.
Players like Antoine Winfield, who notched 101 combined tackles in the regular season and was a one-man wrecking crew against the run, are becoming more and more valuable each time Colin Kaepernick runs off-tackle. Winfield, Chris Harris, Dunta Robinson and other top-tier tacklers are able to influence the game on first, second and third downs because of their nose for the football.
Tackling will never be a top-of-the-list trait for cornerbacks, but you can bet that I'm taking the better tackler every time two players ground out close to one another.
Scouting cornerbacks will continue to be one of the hardest jobs in an NFL front office. Each year there are upward of 50 defensive backs drafted into the league, and it remains one of the highest bust-rate positions there is.
Making the decision on which areas a player can and cannot improve upon once in the league makes this a tough job. A seasoned scout can chart every play a cornerback is involved in and still not have a great feel for how well he'll do in a different scheme or with a better pass rush in front of him.
Production and level of competition are great, but when scouting a cornerback, remember to look at traits, abilities and coachability too.
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