The New York Jets may have averted disaster with the addition of Dimitri Patterson, but Rex Ryan's defense needs stellar play from the cornerback position in the long term—not year-to-year veteran Band-Aids.
Because his defense is so heavily reliant on good coverage on the back end, Ryan may still use his team's most valuable draft commodity on a cornerback, even if the Jets have a pair of cornerbacks who on paper might be good enough for other teams.
With their first selection not coming until the second half of the first round, the Jets realistically can target cornerbacks Darqueze Dennard of Michigan State and Kyle Fuller of Virginia Tech. Both players are highly talented and worthy of first-round selections, but they have different skill sets that may or may not fit what the Jets are looking for in their cover men.
If the Jets have to choose between one of these two corners, which one should they go with?
Arm length: 30.25"
In terms of upside and outlook as a professional player, Dennard is the superior player to Fuller in terms of his fluid mobility, length and athleticism. He has the textbook size for the position with underrated strength that allows him to compete for jump balls and direct receivers in press coverage.
What is most impressive about Dennard is his superior balance and flexibility, allowing him to mirror the moves of a receiver without taking false steps. On this play, Dennard does not fall for any of the moves the receiver put on him.
After surviving the line of scrimmage, Dennard stays in position with a fluid hip turn. Notice how close he gets to doing nearly a complete 180-degree spin with ease—a sign of great flexibility. He then finishes by running with the receiver and making a play on the ball.
What will make Rex Ryan and his coaches most excited about Dennard is his unwavering physicality and complete lack of fear when going against bigger receivers. He has the competitiveness and strength to battle with bigger receivers at the line of scrimmage and essentially run their routes for them.
Here, even against a much bigger receiver for Notre Dame, Dennard wins the battle at the line of scrimmage with a strong punch, directing the player towards the sideline.
Because he drove his man to the outside, the field is much smaller (and easier) to defend. As a result the impending back-shoulder throw—the most difficult throw for a cornerback to defend—is incomplete because Dennard is in great position to get in the way of the pass, even if he is unaware of it coming.
To top it off, Dennard is terrific in run support. Not only does he wrap up tacklers and get off blocks, but he is an unselfish defender who takes on blockers so his teammates can clean up the mess.
There is a lot to like about Dennard as a prospect, but drafting him does come with some risk. His straight-line speed is less than ideal, clocking a 4.51 40-yard dash at the combine. His fluidity allows him to get away with somewhat average speed, but it could be a concern against the Mike Wallace-type receivers in the NFL.
Dennard is also prone to losing his place in zone coverage, where he is not nearly as comfortable. He can be caught "ball watching" a bit too easily, losing track of his receiver—which is exemplified by this touchdown thrown against him.
What will scare teams the most about Dennard is possible durability concerns. A double-hernia surgery will give teams a lot of pause about using a top pick on him.
Those injury concerns aside, the fact that Dennard is less than stellar in zone coverage will not scare off a team like the Jets, who want to utilize press-man coverage as much as any other team in the league.
However, the Jets may be a bit turned off by Dennard's average 40 time. After all, they did use their top pick on a speedy corner last year in Dee Milliner, who ran a 4.37, indicating that John Idzik and his scouts prize speed more than other teams.
Still, based on what Dennard shows on game day, he is a great fit for Rex Ryan's defense with his skill and competitiveness in press coverage. Based on his polished skill set, he should be able to make a much smoother transition to the NFL than Milliner, who had to develop new techniques on the fly.
Arm length: 32.875"
From a size standpoint, Fuller is superior to Dennard in all aspects, albeit not by much. His extra inch in height and two inches in arm length give him a little more to work with, but both players are comparable in terms of stature. Dennard also has a slight edge in speed with a 4.49 40-yard dash at the combine.
Unlike Dennard, Fuller is at his best in off-man coverage. He diagnoses routes with the best of them, sticking to his receiver in any kind of "island" situation.
In this play against Alabama, Fuller is in off-man coverage in the slot—a difficult situation because the receiver can go in either direction. Fuller, however, is able to flip his hips enough to stay with the receiver after his break. His size, length and ball skills take care of the rest.
Fuller is almost the opposite from Dennard in that his allows his intelligence to do most of the work as opposed to his natural skill and athleticism.
What Fuller has in common with Dennard is his play against the run. Fuller hits like a linebacker with little consideration for the safety of his own body, which has actually got him into some injury trouble.
Fuller was also a team captain at just 21 years old, showing has leadership potential at the next level, an attractive trait for a team trying to replace a veteran as the Jets are trying to do, having seen Antonio Cromartie depart. Fuller is a longtime starter (42 starts) who played consistently well at the collegiate level (even on special teams), unlike Dennard, who burst onto the scene in 2013.
What makes Fuller a risky pick for the Jets is that he does not have nearly Dennard's ability to play press-man coverage. Fuller lacks the strength and the flexibility to hold up in that type of coverage and was thus not used nearly as often playing up tight against receivers.
Fuller is most vulnerable when asked to make "quick twitch" movements—essential for players trying to mirror receivers close to the line of scrimmage.
Even on this short completion against North Carolina, Fuller appears to labor when changing directions. The result of the play was minimal in terms of yardage, but the fact that Fuller struggled to change direction suggests that he will have similar struggles in the NFL.
While Fuller was a hair faster than Dennard in the 40, speed is not considered to be one of his strengths. While Fuller's instincts and route recognition are as good as it gets in this year's draft class, he does not have exceptional skills to fall back on if he guesses wrong, as rarely as it happens.
Fuller brings a lot to the table from the head up and is superior to Dennard in the cerebral aspects of the game. However, when it comes to scheme fit for a team like the Jets, Fuller would be a bit miscast in their man-coverage system.
Fuller is capable of playing in man-to-man coverage, but asking him to line up close to the line of scrimmage over and over will expose his relatively limited flexibility. His length gives him a chance to work out those shortcomings in the NFL, but drafting him as a man-to-man specialist is a projection nonetheless.
Some teams may have Fuller rated higher than Dennard on their board because he better fits their schemes, but the Jets are not going to be one of those teams.
WINNER: Darqueze Dennard
In terms of on-tape production, both players are very comparable, but Dennard's upside in athleticism and specialization in man-to-man coverage makes him the superior prospect, especially to a team like the Jets.
If Fuller is available, he could still be in play for the Jets in the first round. He may not have a great track record in man-to-man coverage, but his size and length, combined with his cerebral skills, could make him a plug-and-play No. 2 cornerback opposite Dee Milliner.
Fuller's upside is a bit more limited than Dennard's, but his steadier track record and play recognition make him a safer play as a rookie.
The problem for the Jets is that as man-to-man coverage becomes more popular in the NFL, the demand for Dennard will increase simultaneously. If the Jets want Dennard, there is a decent chance that they will have to trade up, while Fuller stands a good chance of being available when the Jets pick 18th overall.