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Minnesota Vikings Draft Countdown: Making the Case Against Trae Waynes

Arif Hasan@ArifHasanNFLContributor IIIApril 16, 2015

Michigan State cornerback Trae Waynes, right, intercepts a pass intended for Stanford wide receiver Michael Rector during the second half of the Rose Bowl NCAA college football game on Wednesday, Jan. 1, 2014, in Pasadena, Calif. (AP Photo/Danny Moloshok)
Danny Moloshok/Associated Press

The Minnesota Vikings have been linked to Trae Waynes more than any other player in the coming 2015 NFL draft, and though there may be good reasons for that, it wouldn’t be a wise move for the Vikings.

With the majority of mock drafts selecting Waynes for the Vikings and Bleacher Report's Bleacher Report indicating that the Vikings “are in love with” him, it’s clear that Vikings fans should look into the Michigan State cornerback.

Athleticism

Already at the top of the cornerback rankings before the NFL combine, Waynes' stellar 40-yard dash (officially reported to be 4.31 seconds) helped him move up boards, even if only a bit.

The idea that cornerbacks need to be fast is strongly held and well-corroborated by recent history. Looking at cornerbacks who have either attended the NFL combine or those who have been drafted between 2005 and 2011and considering the top ones by “Approximate Value,” a statistic designed to put a number on a player’s performance regardless of position (based on postseason honors, unit performance and individual statistics)there are clear relationships between speed and talent.

Five of the top 10 cornerbacks in Approximate Value in that time had times at or below 4.4 seconds, according to NFLDraftScout.com, even though the average tested time was 4.47 seconds. Six of the cornerbacks at the top had that score in the 40-yard dash, even though only 24 percent of cornerbacks who were drafted or attended the combine achieved that mark.

Top 10 Cornerbacks in AV Drafted Since 2005
PlayerWeight40-yard dashCombine Score
Darrelle Revis2044.389.2
Antonio Cromartie2084.477.7
Johnathan Joseph1934.316.6
Cortland Finnegan1884.346.2
Carlos Rogers1964.447.4
Richard Sherman1954.535.7
Patrick Peterson2194.3110.0
Leon Hall1934.397.2
Tim Jennings1854.325.4
Aqib Talib2024.448.1
All measurements used obtained from NFLDraftScout.com

But if Waynes’ case is built partially on the speed he recorded, then he needs to be evaluated, at least athletically, as a whole package.

Just like there is a way to create a rough score based on linebacker athleticism metrics at the combine, there is one to do so for cornerbacks. Speed is a big component, but so are length, weight, agility and explosion.

Using different weights correlated with previous cornerback success, one can rank the cornerbacks as position-specific athletes without only looking at 40 times. In that regard, Waynes grades out as an average player.

Looking at those top 10 cornerbacks in AV, we see that despite some mediocre 40-yard-dash times, there are players who generally score well. Every single one of them scored above the average, and eight of them scored better than Waynes did; he graded out at 6.1—and that includes his improved agility scores from his pro day.

Athleticism is more than just straight-line speed; it requires a combination of traits like agility and explosion, and it helps to weigh more.

Xavier Rhodes is not a reasonable athletic comparison for Trae Waynes.
Xavier Rhodes is not a reasonable athletic comparison for Trae Waynes.Jeff Haynes/Associated Press/Associated Press

Those who like Waynes and don’t think the agility time matters much like to point to Xavier Rhodes’ 4.65-second short shuttle and 7.29-second three-cone drill. That makes sense, but there’s a reason he scored an 8.4 in the rough cornerback athleticism score referenced above, despite having slower 40-yard-dash and agility scores than Waynes: length, explosion and weight.

Rhodes’ short-area burst is aided by explosive power, and it’s much more meaningful to move a 210-pound body as well as Rhodes does. It’s rare to get 11 feet in the broad jump, and the 40.5-inch vertical isn’t easy to come by either. Supplementing that with a 1.58-second 10-yard split is a pretty good package in terms of lower-body strength, which is also useful when it comes to pressing against receivers.

Waynes' scores in the explosion category are good but not great, and he has much shorter arms and only average agility to go with his speed, all while weighing in at a very light 186 pounds. Generally speaking, a cornerback who excels on the field has great scores in two of the five categories (length, weight, speed, agility and explosion) and often three.

Rhodes had not just the length, weight and speed but the explosion needed to overcome mediocre agility scores. Waynes only has speed.

Even Antoine Winfield, the go-to cornerback for those who defend smaller players, did well in his combine tests, as far as we can tell. His agility scores were top-notch (3.95 seconds in the short shuttle and 6.84 seconds in the three-cone) to go with his straight-line speed.

There are naturally exceptions to every rulefor example, it is perhaps unfair to compare prospects to Winfield, the smallest linebacker in the NFL not too long agobut pointing out that cornerbacks need to be fast in the NFL ignores that there are a great many other athletic qualities good cornerbacks generally have, and Waynes has shown no evidence of having them.

The idea that Waynes is athletic is a poor one built on just one flashy metric that doesn’t even account for how much easier it is to perform in it at a lighter weight. He is not athletic, and without that pillar of support, the case for him as a first-rounder does begin to fall apart—especially because it is often one of the first things mentioned in defense of Waynes.

Advanced Statistics

Another impressive feather in Waynes’ cap is the fact that he only gave up two touchdowns over the last two seasons, which is indeed impressive.

Unfortunately, that kind of statistic is only partially useful and tends to only measure one dimension of coverage ability while discounting the effect of scheme. It’s relevant, for example, that Michigan State safety Kurtis Drummond, who covered a quarter of the field in a base defense like Waynes did, gave up the second-highest number of yards per snap in coverage of all safeties in FBS football, according to Pro Football Focus.

It’s not necessarily that Waynes was so scary that quarterbacks refused to target him, but that Drummond was so exceedingly bad that they would rather target him. Drummond saw more passes head his way than any other safety for that reason.

Given that, it may surprise people to learn he gave up much more completions in coverage per target than other top-level cornerbacks despite a scheme that made it far easier for him to avert those completions through pass deflections and tight windows, allowing over half of the passes headed in his direction to be completed, according to PFF.

Scheme

By now, there’s been quite a bit said about the scheme at Michigan State, but the nature of what Waynes has been asked to do is important. As Chris Brown of Smart Football and Grantland pointed out, it really minimizes his responsibilities.

While often characterized as “man” or “bump and run” coverage, it really is much more of a zone-coverage scheme that gives Wayne outside responsibility for vertical routes and allows him to stay on top of a receiver, even if he cuts back on curl routes.

GIFs courtesy of DraftBreakdown.com

It also allows him to ignore in-breaking receivers in favor of any of those who may be switching to flag routes or other out-breaking deep routes. Brown quoted Narduzzi on these points:

Just because it looks like man and smells like man, however, doesn’t mean it’s actually man coverage, a mistake offenses frequently make. “Some guys might say, ‘That looks like man coverage. You’re manned up,’” Narduzzi said in the DVD. “We’re not manned up. It’s zone coverage.”

Because it’s zone, the Spartans’ cornerbacks benefit from inside help from linebackers and safeties, and if the no. 1 receiver runs a short route, the corner will typically let him go and drop into a deep zone. In the above clip, Michigan State is showing a man-to-man blitz that causes the QB to throw the ball directly to a zone-dropping cornerback. A pass coverage that’s at once zone and man-to-man is hard for opposing QBs to decipher.

In this way, outside players running post routes—which are far more frequent than corner routes in college and the NFL—are generally picked up by the safety, not the cornerback. The scheme makes things very predictable for Waynes and skews any real statistical analysis of his ability.

Traits

For scouting, “traits transfer” is truer than anything else. Every player has schematic issues to overcome when scouting, but that doesn’t make them bad prospects; it merely provides context when scouting them. On actionable plays worth evaluating, however, Waynes isn’t particularly impressive.

On the rare occasions that he did have interior responsibility, he did a very poor job, often relying on grabbing opposing receivers instead of using sound technique. He is likely the grabbiest receiver in the draft, and what he got away with in college is astounding.

GIFs courtesy of DraftBreakdown.com

GIFS courtesy of DraftBreakdown.com

It covers for a number of issues that Waynes has, including slow processing speed and a poor ability to decipher route combinations quickly enough to close on the ball.

There are different levels of concern with holding for prospective defensive backs. Xavier Rhodes was a concern, of course, but his level of grabbiness doesn't parallel what Waynes does, and Rhodes was not often covering up a deficiency like Waynes does when he tugs on jerseys.

Given the importance of pattern-matching in the Minnesota Vikings scheme, this isn’t a minor flaw; it’s extremely critical to evaluating who he is as a player.

Pattern-matching is a concept pioneered by Nick Saban at Alabama, one that combines man-coverage concepts with zone-coverage concepts.

Initially, Waynes may seem like the perfect fit; after all, Narduzzi has described his scheme as having man coverage with zone principles. But in this case, it’s the opposite case, grabbing elements from the two basic defensive setups that are the inverse of those from Mike Zimmer’s defensive setup, much closer to Saban’s.

Just like in Seattle and in previous versions of the Pittsburgh defense, the man-coverage principles used within MSU’s zone really only mean that the cornerback flips his hips quickly in press to follow the receiver and push him outside to the sidelines or sit on top of routes if those receivers don’t go vertical.

In Mike Zimmer’s defense (and Alabama’s), it requires much more in terms of traditional zone principles and deep study of the opponent. As Chris Brown explained in his book, The Essential Smart Football:

Pattern reading, on the other hand, is much like a matchup zone in basketball. Defenders are responsible for zones, but they play tight to the receivers who come through those zones. Moreover, pattern-read teams begin by immediately coaching their defenders on how to recognize popular pass route combinations (and indeed, the very concept of pass combinations themselves) and each week zero in on the five to fifteen most common pass concepts they will see from that opponent. When performed correctly, pattern-reading defenders know exactly how to cover receivers in their zones and seamlessly (in a quite literal sense) pass the receivers onto other defenders as they run their routes. Saban further distinguishes his defenses in that he uses pattern reading in almost all of his coverages, including the traditional Cover 3 or three-deep coverage, whereas many coaches only let certain defenders pattern read or only use it with certain defenses. Instead, Saban demands perfection and has no qualms about spending the grinding hours working on the finer details to make it happen.

Waynes’ slow recovery on out-breaking routes provides evidence that his slow agility scores aren’t merely bad days at the office; they’re part of legitimately poor ability to deal with routes as they break.

GIFS courtesy of DraftBreakdown.com

Further, though Waynes didn’t have much responsibility outside of vertical routes and flag routes, he did a poor job on those, often being late to recognize them or adjust his zone landmarks to late-breaking route combinations.

GIFs courtesy of DraftBreakdown.com

In fact, his zone landmarks when playing outside of the base scheme were often relatively easy to exploit.

GIFs courtesy of DraftBreakdown.com

There are times when his awareness is poor outside of simply moving his zone landmark, like on 3rd-and-1.

GIFs courtesy of DraftBreakdown.com

There are other things that Waynes does do well that fit within the confines of a Zimmer defense. Though he does a very poor job of reading routes when off the receiver, he does do a good job of reading the receiver when he’s in that player’s hip pocket—something Zimmer prefers in his matchup zone.

To that end, the defensive scheme in Minnesota keeps the cornerbacks within arm’s reach throughout most of the route and helps develop a feel for the receiver, quickening reaction times and keeping them on the ball. Those are things Waynes does very well.

His raw speed is evident, too, and he can keep up with almost any receiver on vertical routes, making him a nightmare to target on go routes. Teams will find ways to use his speed, which will help him retain his value in the draft.

Beyond that, Waynes does a decent job getting off stalk blocks from receivers, despite his size, and is willing to mix it up in the run game. His willingness to take on tackles from players 50 pounds heavier than him is admirable and reflected in how he plays the pass—he’s definitely physical as a cornerback in press but has been moved by 210-plus-pound receivers.

That kind of jam is also important and useful in the current setup of Minnesota’s defense and is part of letting the interior rush get home—by killing timing.

There should be serious concerns over his replicating that, for a number of reasons. His weight isn’t immaterial; heavier cornerbacks do better because it’s harder to move them around.

In the AV list of cornerbacks above, only two weighed less than 190 pounds at their combine, and only one less than Waynes. Both of those cornerbacks (Cortland Finnegan and Tim Jennings) excelled as Tampa-2 players who played off receivers instead of on them.

It is much more likely that a lightweight cornerback will be blown off the ball in the NFL than it is that he'll become Antoine Winfield.

Not every cornerback in the draft has all the traits one would want; he would be an easy top-10 pick. There are reasons players are selected outside the top 10. That said, the fact that all cornerbacks are imperfect doesn’t mean that selecting Waynes makes sense.

The mix of weaknesses and strengths of other cornerbacks later in the draft better match the critical factors in the Minnesota scheme. Marcus Peters’ biggest issues are run support and off-field problems, while Jalen Collins is more raw than habitually flawed.

Regardless, even if other cornerbacks aren’t fits, that doesn’t make Waynes a great pick at No. 11, or even in the second round. For other teams, Waynes’ mix of strengths and weaknesses aren’t as big a problem; he can be a fantastic cornerback for them. But his success there wouldn't mean he would be successful in another context.

Even so, the Vikings have all sorts of reasons to pick for a different position anyway. Though not amazing, the young cornerback corps was far better last year than people gave them credit for being.

PFF grades are not the end-all, be-all of projection or analysis, but it is certainly relevant than none of the cornerbacks finished with a negative grade.

Xavier Rhodes finished ninth in cover snaps allowed per reception, and Josh Robinson finished 36th of 73 (Munnerlyn was 41st). In passer rating allowed, Rhodes ranked 16th, Robinson 42nd and Munnerlyn 59th.

Aside from Rhodes, these are not elite or high-level scores, but given the other problems the team has, hardly something that demands a first-round pick to address. That isn’t to say that a first-round investment in the secondary is bad, rather that it would be wise to invest elsewhere given the talent landscape in the secondary this year compared to other positions.

The Vikings may be interested in Waynes, or they could be blowing smoke. Either way, they shouldn't pound the table over him.

All scores used in the table and referenced come from NFLDraftScout.com unless otherwise noted.

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