Who is the Next Lockdown Cornerback in the NFL?
As players like Nnamdi Asomugha, Asante Samuel and even Darrelle Revis begin to enter the latter half of their illustrious careers, there is now room for a new generation of great young cornerbacks to build their own legacies in the NFL.
With passing records breaking on an annual basis, the demand for great cover men has never been so high. The role an NFL cornerback must play on a team is as complex and physically demanding as ever, and a great cornerback can be the difference between going home in December or watching confetti in your team’s colors fall from the rafters at the end of the season.
There are a handful of quality young corners that are building a strong reputation in the NFL, including Cleveland’s Joe Haden or the athletic freak in Arizona by the name of Patrick Peterson.
However, one player is (literally) head-and-shoulders above the rest—Richard Sherman of the Seattle Seahawks.
Sherman is known for his trash-talking and brash attitude, but he has earned every right to speak whatever he wants with his stellar play on the field.
As the 154th selection in the 2011 draft, Sherman hardly fits the stereotypical mold of a small, quick defensive back. Sherman, along with several other members of the Seahawks secondary, stands out because unusual size for the position.
At 6’3”, Sherman’s tall, lanky frame allows him to match up with bigger receivers that would give even the most technically sound corners trouble.
The idea of larger cornerbacks is yet to be a widely accepted. In fact, most larger corners are generally frowned upon, as their size is a perceived detriment.
Before the 2011 draft, many believed that Sherman would be too stiff and too top-heavy to be able to move with some of the quicker wide receivers at the next level. Here is an excerpt of NFL.com’s scouting report:
Sherman is a size prospect with some good intangibles that will help him mold into a contributing backup corner for a press-heavy team. However, he does not possess the natural coverage instincts, fluidity or burst to be considered a future starter.
Now that Sherman is an All-Pro, all of those perceived weaknesses are strengths in his game—and he can prove it all in one play.
Matched up against one of the most feared receivers in the game in Wes Welker, Sherman uses his size to his advantage. But he does not rely on it to get the job done.
Sherman is in a press-man position near the line of scrimmage, but he recognizes Welker’s lateral agility and does not lunge at him right away just to get a hand on him. Instead, Sherman trusts his own quickness and fluidity (something he supposedly lacked as a draft prospect), staying square to Welker and not taking any false steps.
When Welker makes his move to the outside, Sherman uses his flexibility and burst to match Welker's movement and get his hands on the wide receiver to let his physicality take over.
Sherman now has Welker pinned against the sideline. Against most receivers, this is a jump ball situation that would normally favor the offense (because receivers are usually bigger than corners).
However, Sherman’s size advantage flips the table in favor of the defense, as Welker is in no position to make a play on the ball.
Tom Brady, who is programmed to throw to Welker in one-on-one situations, winds up trying to force the ball to his former favorite wideout, and it nearly results in an interception.
This play, while not flashy or one that adds an interception or tackle on Sherman’s stat sheet, was a display of all of the makings of a great cornerback. While his height and length certainly helped him, he also showed plenty of agility, flexibility and burst staying with Welker.
He also displayed great technique and patience by not making any false movements and pinning Welker to the sideline. He had instincts and “feel” for the route, as he was able to look for the ball while staying stride-for-stride with Welker.
By the Numbers
We have now established that Sherman has all the talent needed to play the position, but how much has it translated to success so far? Pro Football Focus graded Sherman as the second-best coverage man in the NFL last year (plus-25.1 to plus-25.5)—just fractions of a point behind Antoine Winfield.
However, because the Seahawks play a man-heavy style that is much more burdensome on defensive backs, one could argue that Sherman’s slightly lower grade is more impressive than that of Winfield (click here for a full explanation of PFF’s grading system).
Throwing in Sherman’s direction is usually bad news for quarterbacks and their stat sheets. Sherman boasted the lowest quarterback rating against him for a player who plays over 800 snaps, better than any of the big-name corners in the NFL:
|Player||Team||Opposing QB Rating|
|Richard Sherman||Seattle Seahawks||41.1|
|Antonio Cromartie||New York Jets||69.7|
|Antoine Winfield||Minnesota Vikings||70.4|
|Joe Haden||Cleveland Browns||93.2|
|Tim Jennings||Chicago Bears||53.3|
|Patrick Peterson||Arizona Cardinals||64.8|
Quite a feat for a former fifth-round pick with just two seasons in the pros.
How Close Is Sherman from Being the Best?
Sherman was arguably the best defensive back in the league last year, but he benefited from the absence of the longtime king, Darrelle Revis. With Revis sidelined in 2012 after an ACL tear in Week 3, it would be wrong to call Sherman the best in the business simply because he was the best cornerback left in Revis' absence.
Still, the fact that Sherman is as good as he is this early in his career is beyond impressive, especially when you consider where he was drafted. Not even Jim Harbaugh, who coached him at Stanford, thought he would develop into what he has become—or he would have drafted him much earlier for 49ers.
If Sherman truly wants to be considered the best and better than (a healthy) Darrelle Revis, the Seahawks must be willing to put him in the same suicidal situations that the Jets did with Revis.
Sherman will need to follow a team’s best receiver all over the field, regardless of where he lines up, and shut him down without a blemish on his record.
Take a look at how these two teams approach a critical third-down situation. The Seahawks play a Cover 2 Man Under, which is man coverage on the outside with two deep safeties.
If Sherman or Brandon Browner needs help, he has a safety ready on his side of the field. The Jets, on the other hand, are much more aggressive and have infinite trust in Revis’ ability to hold his own against any receiver in any situation.
Revis is matched up against Dez Bryant (Revis was moved to cover Bryant after he torched Antonio Cromartie earlier in the game) in man coverage. Not only do the Jets play a Cover 1 (one deep safety), but they roll their coverage to help Cromartie handle Miles Austin on the other side.
Essentially, the Jets are playing 10-on-10 football in an alleyway by taking the most explosive receiving weapon out of the game.
The Seahawks have themselves a good set of corners that are hard to beat, but they are still limited to the use of “normal” coverage schemes.
With Revis’ health status still not fully known, Sherman is not only the league’s top young cornerback with the potential to be great, but he is arguably the best in the world at his position going into just his third pro season.
Sherman does have a way of rubbing people the wrong way with his on-field antics, but it actually plays in his favor.
Not only is he an aggressive player who has no shortage of confidence, but he gets under an opponent’s skin, causing him to direct all of his energy at getting back at Sherman rather than focusing on winning the game.
It remains to be seen whether or not Sherman maximizes his potential and becomes a household name as the gold standard of cornerback play for the next decade. For now, the future has never been more bright for the kid who was supposed to be too stiff to last in the NFL.
Advanced stats provided by ProFootballFocus.com (Subscription required).
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