The 2016 NFL draft entrant pool has been decided, and now it is time to delve into the field of talent. One of the deeper positions in the 2016 class will be the cornerbacks, as 12 underclassmen at the position declared to forgo their remaining collegiate eligibility. Of the entire crop of cornerbacks, Clemson redshirt sophomore Mackensie Alexander is the best man-coverage corner in the class.
After looking at Alexander, Vernon Hargreaves III and a handful of other top cornerbacks extensively throughout this past season, I believe this class is not as strong as the group of rookie cornerbacks in 2015. Marcus Peters, Ronald Darby, Damarious Randall, Kevin Johnson and Quandre Diggs turned in impressive rookie campaigns. It is rare to see that type of depth and impact from young cornerbacks, and the 2016 class will not bear such quick and positive results as the 2015 class did.
That being said, Alexander and Hargreaves are solid prospects who excel in different ways. Our focus, Alexander, has the traits and film that project as a quality cornerback in man coverage. That distinction is key, since he’s most experienced in man coverage and is not an elite prospect overall.
Alexander was a 5-star recruit from Immokalee High School in Immokalee, Florida. At 5’11” and 195 pounds, he possesses a solid frame for the cornerback position. More importantly, he appears to have long arms that help him execute in press coverage and close passing windows.
The NFL Scouting Combine will help provide more context and a clearer picture of Alexander’s measurables, but I walked away from his film without any questions regarding athleticism. He’s smooth in coverage and can seamlessly transition his hips to mirror the receiver.
In just his second season of collegiate football, Alexander was dominant in coverage. According to NFL.com draft expert Lance Zierlein, Alexander allowed just 29.6 percent of his targets to be completed. Considering the competition he faced, this is impressive. His matchups included future NFL studs such as Oklahoma's Sterling Shepard, South Carolina's Pharoh Cooper, Notre Dame's Will Fuller and North Carolina's Mack Hollins.
When we look at the necessary traits of a starting-caliber cornerback, it’s important to know what the scheme will demand. Man coverage requires more physical traits and discipline. Losing in man coverage is more obvious than in zone because there are fewer margins for error. Thus, man-coverage cornerbacks are generally more valuable and harder to find.
There are a few distinctions of man coverage, as well. On-ball cornerbacks will line up directly over their assignment and may or may not jam the receiver. Making contact at the line of scrimmage is called press coverage, and allowing a clean release is called press bail coverage. A good example would be Patrick Peterson.
The other type of man coverage is off-ball. The cornerback may align seven or more yards off the receiver to help create a cushion. This is more common of physically limited cornerbacks who need that space to mitigate their deep speed. Cornerbacks who are quicker than fast can excel in this because they work back to the line of scrimmage well. Think of Brent Grimes in his prime.
Alexander showed advanced on-ball man-coverage talent despite being a second-year starter for Clemson. His fluidity in coverage is the first place to start. He has the ability to mirror any receiver off the line of scrimmage because his hips allow him to recover from any mistake he could make. In the NFL, these tiny mistakes can cost defenses large chunks of yardage because the receivers are so good at forcing them.
But Alexander has the trump card with his athleticism. The ability to cover sharp-cutting routes is not a common one, even in the NFL. It is a luxury to have a cornerback who doesn’t need a safety on standby for deep corner and post routes or a linebacker for curl and comeback routes.
Alexander was challenged so little that he logged zero interceptions and just 11 pass breakups in his two seasons. That’s far from ideal production, but forcing turnovers is difficult if the ball is going in another direction. He did put himself into position to finish at the catch point on occasion, even if it was difficult to come down with the ball.
Alexander’s physicality is a huge positive. Being overly physical throughout the route is a red flag that the player lacks confidence, awareness or physical talent; however, the best cornerbacks know how to mask small grabs and shoves to gain leverage. Despite his youth on the field, Alexander, 22, shows the ability to locate the football and use physicality to disrupt the receiver.
By establishing the intent to play the ball, Alexander avoids penalties. While it is not imperative to find the ball to avoid defensive pass interference calls, the likelihood of creating contact too early or late is dramatically higher because the corner is playing the receiver’s hands. If Alexander had issues looking back for the football, then his lack of interceptions would be more troublesome.
That’s not the case, though, as his ball awareness will help him force interceptions and provide great coverage in the NFL. His physical style is a nuisance for most receivers to constantly deal with. When you pair that with his confidence, he fits the intimidating mold of top cornerbacks.
We see his physicality translate to the run game as well. Alexander’s willingness to attack ball-carriers at or behind the line of scrimmage will give him the ability to shadow top receivers into the slot as well as the boundary. Even without elite size, he can finish plays with his aggressiveness.
What’s most to like about Alexander is his work ethic off the field. In a 2015 summer interview with Cris Ard of TigerIllustrated.com, Alexander was asked about who he had already studied for the 2015 season.
"I've watched Wofford, App. State, Notre Dame, Louisville, I've seen Florida State, I've watched South Carolina," he said. "I pretty much watched everybody and got a good glimpse of their personnel, their best targets and best receivers. I've got my notes on all of them, I know who they are."
Alexander continued to go more in depth about why he was already preparing for midseason games. "I've got a drawer full of notes," he said. "I've even got notes on our receivers. It's not just about college. It's about the next level also. It's about preparing my mind for the next level."
This level of commitment and determination is what makes Alexander more promising than any cornerback in the class. Mix in his character with an impressive on-field resume and skill set, and he has set himself apart from the rest. Improving is necessary for all players, and his work ethic bodes well for his outlook.
The areas for Alexander to improve upon mainly stem from his inexperience. Clemson mixed man coverages and zone looks but featured predominately on-ball man coverage. It allowed the Tigers' excellent athletes to play on an island and smother receivers.
Against North Carolina, Alexander showed a weakness by giving up too much space when he was asked to play a more unfamiliar role. As seen above, Hollins creates several yards for the quarterback and him to work with, and Alexander cannot allow this to happen consistently. It wasn’t a constant issue throughout his film, but it pops up enough to limit what he will be asked to do early on.
NFL offenses will attack this to death until Alexander can prove worthy in off-man looks. It’s not a surprising weakness for a player with only two years of playing time to still be feeling out a nuance of the position. However, it could cause a team that drafts him to take a slow-bake approach with him in the same way that the Minnesota Vikings developed Trae Waynes.
While Alexander is already a quality on-ball defender, there is room for growth and improvement. The risk in taking him is that he may not improve dramatically in zone and off-ball coverage. If he doesn’t, he can still be a solid starting cornerback because his current skill set and athleticism are good enough to ensure that.
When comparing Alexander to Hargreaves, some teams may prefer the latter’s ability to step in and start right away. He’s not the athlete that Alexander is, and he is limited with his frame and deep speed. Hargreaves is primarily an off-ball cornerback with a lower ceiling but higher floor.
If a team is working to create a great defense or needs a No. 1 cornerback for the unit to be complete, then Alexander is the top corner in the class. It’s nothing against his competition, but he has the tools, mindset and talent to deliver.
Recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports.