This year's crop of cornerbacks delivers a range of players with different skill sets, strengths, weaknesses and experiences in college.
When projecting the best scheme fit for each player, a variety of different characteristics need to be taken into consideration. Here, we will look at the consensus top five cornerbacks in this year's draft class (in no particular order): Justin Gilbert (Oklahoma State), Darqueze Dennard (Michigan State), Bradley Roby (Ohio State), Jason Verrett (Texas Christian) and Kyle Fuller (Virginia Tech).
There are several different styles of cornerback:
- Press Man: Like man cornerbacks, press-man corners must have size so that they can "jam" or reroute a receiver as he tries to run off the line of scrimmage. Long arms can also help get a jam. It's important that these cornerbacks be able to turn and run too, in case they miss their jam.
- Off-Man: These cornerbacks must have a combination of size and speed to match up with big, fast receivers on the outside. These are not always the biggest or strongest cornerbacks, but they have the movement ability to keep up with a receiver.
- Zone (Cover 2, Tampa 2, Cover 3): These cornerbacks must be instinctive, quick and smart to react to short and intermediate throws and close on the play. These corners can be asked to match up man-to-man at times or even to press at the line and then sit in zone coverage (press-bail).
Let's take a look at the top cornerbacks listed above and find out which ones fit into which schemes.
Justin Gilbert, Oklahoma State
Best Schematic Fits: Man, Press Man
Gilbert has the measurables that all teams desire in their cornerbacks. At 6'0" and 202 pounds, with 33.25" arms, Gilbert has the size and length to match up with NFL-caliber talent at wide receiver.
He posted some of the most eye-popping numbers for any defensive back at the combine; his blazing-fast 4.37-second 40-yard dash and his impressive 20 reps of a 225-pound bench press showed his combination of speed and strength. Those are tools that will help him excel in a man coverage and press-man scheme.
Gilbert told Jonathan Webb of stlouisrams.com, "I’ve played a lot of press coverage—we were in press 70 percent of the game.”
With his combination of smooth athleticism and sharp instincts, Gilbert is one of the most scheme-versatile cornerbacks in this year's draft, according to NFL.com's Bucky Brooks:
He is smooth in coverage, with a knack for getting perfect leverage on receivers down the field. Gilbert rarely panics with the ball in the air, leading to a number of breakups and late-reaction interceptions. While most cornerbacks can exhibit those traits when playing away from the line of scrimmage (zone coverage), few are capable of consistently creating turnovers when playing bump-and-run coverage. Gilbert excels as a ballhawk despite playing extensively with his back to the quarterback (in press-man, cornerbacks keep their eyes on the receiver, as opposed to zone, where they play with vision of the QB).
At this point, Gilbert has to be considered the best cover corner in the draft. His talent would be best used in man coverage, but he has the explosiveness and "click-and-close" ability necessary to excel in a Cover 3 zone scheme as well. He will likely be taken in the top half of the first round by a team looking to use his size and athleticism in man coverage.
Darqueze Dennard, Michigan State
Best Schematic Fits: Man, Press Man
Darqueze Dennard is not a size-speed prospect like Gilbert, but he is sound in his fundamentals. Dennard isn't small at 5'11" and 199 pounds, but with arms measuring just 30.25 inches, he doesn't have what many would consider ideal length for a press-man cornerback.
Sometimes, the measurables don't measure everything. NFL.com's Nolan Nawrocki delivers a scouting report that doesn't match up with the size and measurables Dennard showed at the combine:
Good press strength. Controlled, efficient pedal. Field-fast with competitive play speed. Transitions cleanly in man-off coverage. Has very good eyes and anticipation and reacts quickly to what he sees. Good pattern recognition -- sorts out what he sees quickly.
Dennard is considered the most physical cornerback in this year's class and proved very effective in playing primarily press-man coverage at Michigan State.
He showed the ability to get a jam on the receiver and then quickly turn and run with the receiver downfield; according to CBS Sports' Rob Rang, Dennard allowed only three completions when targeted 15 yards or more downfield on 31 passes in his direction.
Dennard's lack of elite athleticism may limit his scheme fits at the next level, but he will likely find a suitable home with a team that plays man coverage and asks its cornerbacks to bump and run.
Bradley Roby, Ohio State
Best Schematic Fit: Man, Press Man
Roby has good size for an NFL cornerback at 5'11" and 194 pounds with 31.5" arms. He ran a 4.39-second 40-yard dash and posted a respectable 38.5" vertical jump, but his 40 time was his only top-five finish at the combine.
He can play man coverage effectively but needs to improve some aspects of his man-coverage game; Nolan Nawrocki says Roby "can be boxed out by tall receivers and outmuscled for '50-50' balls" and "could stand to improve jam strength in order to hem/re-route receivers bigger receivers."
He has some glaring weaknesses in zone coverage; too often he gets caught peeking in the backfield instead of knowing his assignment. He also isn't sound in his technique as a tackler, which can be a problem if he's asked to hold his own in space.
According to Rob Rang, Roby has a "tendency to concede underneath throws, although some might have been scheme-based in college," and he "must prove he can drive on the ball and limit plays in front of him."
For those reasons, Roby would probably be at his best in a defense that employs man coverage but where he could go to grow his skills and become a more versatile player.
Jason Verrett, Texas Christian
Best Schematic Fit: Zone, Man (Slot)
Verrett has keen instincts, strong ball skills and great awareness. Add a combination of short-area explosiveness (4.00-second 20-yard shuttle, 4.38-second 40-yard dash and 6.69-second three-cone drill all ranked among the top five cornerbacks at the combine), and you have an NFL-ready zone cornerback.
He has a lot of positive traits, but at 5'9" and 189 pounds, Verrett does not have the size of a man cover corner in the NFL. Ian Wharton points out that Verrett had a burn percentage of 34 percent in man coverage, "often losing due to size and strength," and adds that Verrett "was vulnerable when placed on an island with bigger receivers and could continue to be picked on if he's an outside receiver."
That being said, he showed the ability to run with receivers at times in college. If his size is his only weakness in man coverage, perhaps he would be best suited for a role in the slot, where his size will not be as exposed for exploitation as it would be on the outside defending fade routes and jump balls.
He could play either on the outside or in the slot in a zone scheme that will not ask him to cover big-bodied receivers one-on-one, or he could put his quickness to work and play in the slot in a man-coverage scheme.
Kyle Fuller, Virginia Tech
Best Schematic Fit: Off Man, Zone
At 6'0" and 190 pounds with 32.875" arms, Kyle Fuller looks like an NFL press-man corner. However, he does not have the functional strength necessary to capitalize on his length. With some time in an NFL training program, Fuller could add some bulk to his frame and get better at delivering solid jams at the line of scrimmage.
In the meantime, he has the speed and quickness to match up with receivers in man coverage when playing off the line of scrimmage. Ian Wharton points out Fuller gave up a burn percentage of just 16 percent in man coverage during the 2013 season but a jaw-dropping 50 percent burn rate in zone coverage.
Fuller still needs to improve his technique in that area, and his route recognition and read-and-react ability are both steadily improving, but if he learns to play within the defense instead of freelancing and biting on double moves, he could quickly ascend in this area of his game.
At the onset of his career, Fuller will likely be at his best in man coverage, probably in the slot due to his struggles at the line of scrimmage, but he has the tools to develop into one of the more complete cornerbacks in this year's class with time.
Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand or via team news releases. Combine measurements and workout numbers provided by NFL.com.