Josh Shaw Continues to Emerge as a Top Defensive Back Prospect in 2015 NFL Draft

Dan Hope@Dan_HopeContributor IIIMarch 19, 2015

Although he is best known for an embarrassing incident this past August, USC's Josh Shaw is also a top prospect for the 2015 NFL draft.
Although he is best known for an embarrassing incident this past August, USC's Josh Shaw is also a top prospect for the 2015 NFL draft.Harry How/Getty Images

Josh Shaw is more well-known for what he didn’t do off the field than anything he has done on the field, but that shouldn’t stop NFL teams looking for secondary help from taking a close look at the USC cornerback.

Back in August, Shaw made national headlines for all the wrong reasons.

Having suffered two high-ankle sprains from jumping off a balcony, Shaw initially told USC officials that he suffered the injuries while saving his nephew from drowning in a pool. His tale of heroism quickly turned to one of shame, however, when Shaw admitted that the story “was a complete fabrication,” per Jordan Moore of USCTrojans.com.

Suspended indefinitely for his lie, Shaw did not play in any of the first 10 games of his senior season.

Finally allowed to return to action against UCLA on Nov. 22, Shaw has been left to fight an uphill battle to restore his name.

So far, he has done a great job making his way over that mountain of embarrassment, and toward being one of the top defensive back prospects for the 2015 NFL draft.


Star of the All-Star Game Season

As a consequence of his suspension, Shaw’s senior season consisted of just three games, only two of which he started.

With limited chances to prove his skill set during the season, it was vital for Shaw to take advantage of the opportunities he received to participate in predraft all-star games.

The first of those opportunities came at the East-West Shrine Game in St. Petersburg, Florida, during the second week of January, just over three weeks after his collegiate career finale in the Holiday Bowl against Nebraska.

There at the Shrine Game—which is widely viewed as the second-best predraft all-star game, and annually includes players at each position who go on to be drafted—Shaw was dominant.

Over the course of the week of practices, Shaw shut down the vast majority of opponents he faced. He displayed physicality at the line of scrimmage, effective body positioning, good feet and a desire to compete for the ball.

Shaw continued to excel in the game itself, including an interception on a perfect break in front of a pass intended for Michigan wide receiver Devin Gardner in the end zone.


Thanks to his excellent showing in St. Petersburg, Shaw was rewarded with an invitation to the Senior Bowl—the premier game on the predraft circuit—and another chance to show scouts he could play against NFL-caliber competition.

During that game and its practices, at Ladd-Peebles Stadium in Mobile, Alabama, Shaw once again proved he belonged. He held his own in man-to-man coverage against highly talented wide receivers all week, and recorded another pass breakup—this time against Auburn wide receiver Sammie Coates, a projected first- or second-round pick—in the game.

Shaw’s Senior Bowl was not perfect; he got flagged for a defensive pass interference penalty that cost his team 41 yards, and he was also beaten on two catches by Central Arkansas wide receiver Dezmin Lewis, one of the top small-school prospects in this year’s draft.

Overall, though, Shaw’s efforts in Mobile capped a two-week run for the USC graduate that proved—at least in regards to his on-field talent—that he is worthy of an early-round selection in the 2015.

FootballGameplan.com’s Emory Hunt, who attended practices and both the Shrine Game and Senior Bowl, went as far as to say Shaw was the most impressive player he saw in action at those events (h/t Ryan Burns of FootballSickness.com):

Ryan Burns @FtblSickness

Among the more interesting @FBallGameplan notes on the pod: the most dominant player he's seen on the all-star circuit? USC CB Josh Shaw.


Fitting the Physical Prototype

Largely by virtue of the success that Richard Sherman and the Seattle Seahawks’ “Legion of Boom” secondary has had in the past few years, NFL teams are increasingly on the prowl for big cornerbacks—specifically, cornerbacks who measure in above 6’0” and 200 pounds.

Shaw meets the threshold. At the NFL Scouting Combine, he measured in at 6’0” and 201 pounds with 30¾” arms, according to NFL.com.

Of course, being big doesn’t mean much for a cornerback unless he combines that size with strength, speed and leaping ability.

Shaw checked all of those boxes in Indianapolis too.

In the bench press, Shaw put up 26 repetitions of 225 pounds, the most among all defensive backs at the event.

His 40-yard dash time of 4.44 seconds was tied for the best among defensive backs who weighed in at 200 pounds or more, and was tied for the fourth-fastest time among all defensive backs.

Shaw also tied for third among all defensive backs in the broad jump (10’10”), and 12th among all defensive backs in the vertical jump (37.5”).

Josh Shaw's NFL Scouting Combine Results
40-Yd DashBenchVerticalBroad3-Cone20-Yd Shuttle60-Yd Shuttle
4.44 sec26 reps37.5"10'10"7.01 sec4.12 sec11.65 sec

NFL scouts have reason to question what they can’t see in his limited tape, and they certainly have reason to question his honesty and reliability. But the combine should have erased all doubts about his athleticism, and therefore increased the likelihood that Shaw will come off the board in the first two rounds.


What Can Shaw Be for an NFL Secondary?

Ultimately, evaluators have to go back to Shaw’s game tape—even though there is not much of it from his senior season—to most accurately determine the answer to that question.

For the most part, scouts should like what they see from Shaw on the field. While he was never what one would call a lockdown cornerback, he regularly showed the ability to stay stride-for-stride and compete with even the toughest competition he faced.

The following clip from the 2014 Holiday Bowl is a textbook example of Shaw’s ability to cover deep. In one-on-one man coverage, Shaw put his speed to work as he stayed right in the hip pocket of Nebraska wide receiver Kenny Bell—who ran a 4.42-second 40 at the combine and is an NFL prospect in his own right—up the right sideline to force an incompletion.


Shaw is at his best when utilized in press man coverage. He excels at using his size, strength and length to jam a receiver at the line of scrimmage and stop his opponent from getting a clean release. That, plus his speed to stay in close quarters with his man, gives him the potential to be a star in a press-heavy scheme at the next level.

Playing in off coverage tends to give Shaw more trouble.

Shaw has adequate change-of-direction quickness, and good recovery speed, but his technical game needs some work.

Specifically, Shaw needs to become more comfortable in his back-pedal. While he is typically able to turn and run with a wide receiver with little trouble, he leaves himself susceptible to giving up underneath receptions, as receivers are able to stop their routes and break back to the ball before Shaw can get his head turned around and break with his man.

Another area in which Shaw needs to improve is in tracking the ball in the air. When he is able to do so, he is able to make plays on the pigskin, as evidenced by his six career interceptions and 14 career pass deflections. At times, though, Shaw will give up big plays even when he is in position, and even though he has good size, because he loses sight of where the ball is coming in.

The good news for Shaw—at least in terms of his draft stock—is that his flaws are not matters of physical deficiencies. With quality coaching and more time on the field, Shaw has the potential to improve upon his weaknesses, given that his measurables are top-notch.

That said, Shaw will be a far more appealing prospect to teams who regularly use their cornerbacks in press man coverage.

For teams that prefer off-man coverage and zone coverage, Shaw would actually project best as a free safety.

Shaw is a consistent tackler and has the height and range that scouts covet in a safety. He started numerous games in both 2012 and 2013 for USC as a safety, including the following game from 2013 against Arizona (video courtesy of Draft Breakdown).

In a draft class that is lacking in top-end safety talent, the prospect of Shaw being able to play that position could certainly elevate his draft stock. Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller, who ranked Shaw as the draft’s No. 106 overall prospect on his post-combine big board, considers Shaw to be among the top-five free safety prospects in this year’s draft.

Putting Shaw at safety would be a projection, and it would force him to improve upon his play recognition. But it's also easy to see why his tools could entice a team to draft him and move him there, as it is becoming increasingly common for collegiate cornerbacks to become NFL deep safeties because of their coverage skills.

With that being said, Shaw still projects to have higher value as a cornerback than he does as a safety. There are not many prospects in this year’s draft who can truly meet the NFL’s increasing demand for big cornerbacks, but Shaw is one of them. Additionally, moving Shaw to safety would take away his greatest strength, that being his ability to disrupt receivers' routes at the line.


Projecting Shaw’s Draft Stock: How Much Will His Lie Hurt Him?

No matter how successful Shaw is in the NFL, he might never be able to fully shake the stigma of his mistake this past August.

Much like former Notre Dame and current San Diego Chargers linebacker Manti Te’o in the aftermath of his girlfriend hoax scandal in 2013, Shaw will certainly be a frequent target of opponent trash talk and fan harassment as he begins his career in the NFL. Not that he hasn’t already, but as he steps into the limelight of playing professional football, Shaw will continue to be barraged with questions and jokes about the incident.

Shaw was investigated for domestic violence in connection with the August incident—as it turned out, Shaw’s fall from the balcony came in a moment of panic upon the arrival of police officers to his apartment—but ultimately, no charges were filed against Shaw, as reported by Gary Klein of the Los Angeles Times.

All in all, the incident at his apartment and subsequent story fabrication appears to be a singular set of lapses in judgment for a prospect whose background is otherwise clean.

At least one NFL scout, according to NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein, believes there is no reason to have off-field concerns about Shaw.

"I know about the issues he had this year, but I did plenty of background work on Shaw and I had no problem giving him a passing character grade when I turned in my report,” the NFC North area scout told Zierlein.

There have been players in past drafts—and probably will be players in this year’s draft—who have done worse things than Shaw, yet have still been early-round draft picks.

In reality, the most negative effect that the incident is likely to have on his draft stock is that it kept him from playing the majority of his senior season, which lessened his window of opportunity to improve as a player and put his best foot forward on the field.

If a team’s brass believes that drafting Shaw can help the team win games—and most importantly, is confident that Shaw is now being completely honest and forthright in interviews—the events of last August are unlikely to preclude that team from selecting him.

There are enough questions about Shaw, both on and off the field, to likely keep him out of the draft’s first round. But it should come as no surprise if Shaw is drafted on Day 2, potentially as highly as the early second round.

The aforementioned Seahawks, who could be in the market to draft a cornerback after losing starter Byron Maxwell to the Philadelphia Eagles in free agency, would presumably be the ideal match for Shaw.

That said, it is no guarantee that Shaw will still be on the board for the Seahawks’ first pick, which is not until No. 63 overall. Other teams that could target Shaw could include the Jacksonville Jaguars (whose second-round pick is No. 36 overall), Minnesota Vikings (No. 45), San Francisco 49ers (No. 46), Philadelphia Eagles (No. 52), Pittsburgh Steelers (No. 56), Carolina Panthers (No. 57), Baltimore Ravens (No. 58), Green Bay Packers (No. 62) and New England Patriots (No. 64).

All GIFs made via Gfycat using videos from Dailymotion.

Dan Hope is an NFL/NFL Draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.