Will Size Stop Vernon Hargreaves from Reaching Elite NFL Potential?

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Will Size Stop Vernon Hargreaves from Reaching Elite NFL Potential?
Rainier Ehrhardt/Associated Press

There’s a language tied to the NFL draft, and if you listen hard enough between the NFL Scouting Combine and the first round on April 28 (the unofficial tentpoles for draft season), you’ll start to speak it fluently.

Much of the industry-standard vernacular has been championed by NFL Network’s Mike Mayock over the years. You might get an offensive or defensive lineman to blush by saying he has a bubble butt. The same large men will grumble if you observe they’re not natural benders.

But one simple word is the most damning of all, especially if it’s used to describe a wide receiver or cornerback, two positions where size has increasingly separated premier players from the more pedestrian middle-tier talents.

That word? Small.

Being labeled as small sticks as a stinging insult. It’s a word that analysts dance around but don’t quite land on when taking a microscope to Vernon Hargreaves III, the former Florida Gators cornerback who’s widely projected to be the second player off the board at his position.

NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein noted Hargreaves has a "lean, wiry frame," while Rob Rang and Dane Brugler at CBSSports.com observed he’s "an inch or two shorter than scouts would prefer, which shows up too often on film."

Both of those statements are true. At 5’11” and 192 pounds, per NFL.com, Hargreaves isn’t truly small. He can’t be crumpled up and tossed into a box labeled with that dirty word.

But in a modern pass-heavy NFL where extra bulk is trendy for shutdown corners, Hargreaves still finds himself standing in the shadows next to larger-bodied wide receivers.

His size is average and ordinary. He’s only slightly below the height of other top current NFL corners, but enough so that it’s noticeable. Which means that right now as Hargreaves begins the process of being poked, prodded, scrutinized and maybe even given a few Mayock-isms during the combine, it’s important to keep one overarching question in mind.

Can he compensate for his size deficiency at the next level and do it consistently?

When you press play on his 2015 game film, those size concerns begin to fade. But then, other reasons to worry emerge because of how Hargreaves goes about hiding his stature.

Before we dive in on that, however, let’s take a step back to establish a size baseline among the very top cornerbacks. Here are some of the best cornerbacks in 2015 put next to Hargreaves and sorted by Pro Football Focus’ metric of cover snaps per reception:

Height and weight of top NFL cornerbacks in 2015
Cornerback Coverage snaps/reception Height Weight
Patrick Peterson 19.5 6'1" 219
Richard Sherman 19.2 6'3" 195
Desmond Trufant 17.1 6'0" 190
Kyle Fuller 14.7 5'11" 190
Josh Norman 14.1 6'0" 195
Darrelle Revis 14.0 5'11" 198
Vernon Hargreaves N/A 5'11" 192

Source: Pro Football Focus

See, Hargreaves isn’t some sort of smurf cornerback. In both height and weight, the 20-year-old is just a tick or three below a group of elite corners that he hopes to join in the near future.

But if it’s not managed properly, that size difference could be glaring on the field in certain matchups. With size comes length, and Hargreaves needs to have finely tuned anticipation to break on balls that extra nanosecond sooner. His smaller frame means winning battles with physicality alone could become difficult against the sprinting tanks who play wide receiver in the NFL.

So, Hargreaves has to arrive first—and arrive aggressively.

That's exactly what he does whenever a football is in his general vicinity. Size concerns become a memory when a cornerback has the agility to mirror receivers in short areas and the tenacity to rip balls loose while taking aggressive angles as Hargreaves does.

Instead of "small," "aggressive" is the word that comes to mind when you watch Hargreaves’ film. He’s constantly hovering, which is why the Tampa native was given all-SEC honors for three straight years. It’s also how he recorded an SEC-leading 13 passes defensed in 2014.

A shining example of his decisiveness and ability to close gaps quickly in off-man coverage came when Hargreaves reeled in one of his four interceptions during the 2015 season. On 4th-and-long, he was giving an Ole Miss receiver a sizable cushion. His intention, of course, was a fundamental one in that situation: to pounce on anything and everything thrown underneath.

Credit: DraftBreakdown.com

But the gap he left as quarterback Chad Kelly wound up and prepared to fire was more than your standard space. Which is fine, because Hargreaves isn’t your standard cornerback.

He was baiting Kelly into the throw and almost taunting the quarterback. With his eyes and body language, Hargreaves was communicating a dare of sorts. He left a gap so large, and so tempting, that even though Kelly knew who he was dealing with—one of the best corners in the country who recorded 10 total interceptions over three seasons—he couldn't resist the roughly six-yard separation between cornerback and receiver.

Then, with the smallest fluid movement, Hargreaves dug in just as Kelly released:

Credit: DraftBreakdown.com

He planted hard, slamming the trap door shut on Kelly and erasing what seemed like an easy long completion. He did it with just one quick-twitch movement, followed by his typically aggressive angle (that word again!) and silky-smooth hands. Just like that, the ball was going in the opposite direction, and Hargreaves had a 36-yard interception return.

Hargreaves thrives when he’s put in position to first use his mind to diagnose a play and then his athletic ability to seize what’s in front of him. His confidence with both of those elements results in a cornerback who plays like he’s the football version of a '90s hedgehog hero.

It’s a style that comes with both high risk and equally high reward, and Hargreaves usually finds himself on the latter side of that equation. But there are times when the instinctive approach he’s developed to be effective at his size ends in a roasting.

Cornerbacks who are highly aggressive can excel at the next level. But over time, a ball-swarming corner needs to learn how to harness that natural instinct so he’s not torched by double moves and deception when isolated in one-on-one coverage.

Hargreaves has the foundation to develop in that fashion once he reaches the NFL. However, there are examples of him either staring into the backfield or biting on a double move and getting exposed. Which is why when he did get beaten in 2015, it was often for maximum damage. Hargreaves allowed 16.5 yards per completion during his final year with the Gators, per Zierlein.

As Bleacher Report’s Ian Wharton noted, Hargreaves’ tendency to bite, and bite hard, leaves him vulnerable against deep routes. The most glaring example of that flaw came against Michigan.

Hargreaves took two full strides forward and completely committed to an inside breaking route he thought was coming, only to then watch the ball sail over his head:

Credit: YouTube

Those mistakes are very much the exception for Hargreaves, not the norm. Instead, normal for him is exceptional for most other cornerbacks.

He likely won’t be the fastest at his position Monday during the 40-yard dash, which will prompt concerns about his closing speed if a receiver gets separation. And we know he’s also not the tallest.

But when watching Hargreaves, it’s easy to forget those deficiencies because of what he has in spades: aggressiveness and the instincts to make reads quickly and then act on them just as fast.

Those characteristics are clear when you turn on his college game film at any point, especially over the past two seasons. That includes 2014, when Hargreaves finished with a passer rating allowed in coverage of only 41.6, according to Pro Football Focus.

Just as it does for every prospect, that tape matters much more than any combine result. The visual evidence of what Hargreaves was capable of in the SEC—where he matched up against the likes of former Alabama Crimson Tide receiver Amari Cooper—will likely be enough to make him a top-10 draft pick and the second cornerback off the board behind only Florida State’s Jalen Ramsey.

The Miami Dolphins at No. 8 have been a popular projected destination for Hargreaves in early mock drafts, which is where Rang and Pete Prisco of CBSSports.com have him landing. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers at No. 9 are another widely mocked future team for the consensus All-American in 2015. That's where he’s pegged to go by Zierlein and his NFL.com colleague Daniel Jeremiah.

Either team would address a core need by selecting Hargreaves and immediately be able to plug in one of the best defenders in this draft class.

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