Who Will Be the Biggest Surprise of the 2016 NFL Draft?

Eric Galko@OptimumScoutingFeatured ColumnistJanuary 7, 2016

PHILADELPHIA, PA - OCTOBER 31: Tavon Young #1 of the Temple Owls plays in the game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish on October 31, 2015 at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

The Temple Owls finished with 10 wins for the first time since 1979, with three of their four losses coming against ranked opponents. Led by its defense, the Temple unit surprisingly finished top 20 in the country in fewest points allowed and fewest yards allowed per game.

While linebacker Tyler Matakevich became the poster child for Temple’s success, winning the Bronco Nagurski and Chuck Bednarik Awards as the nation’s best defender, cornerback Tavon Young deserves to earn more respect during the NFL draft process as the superior talent.

Underappreciated thus far, Young's opportunity to emerge as the Owls' best prospect is only just beginning.

Young, one of three Temple Owls headed to the Senior Bowl (along with Matakevich and defensive tackle Matt Ioannidis), is a three-year starter and four-year contributor on a Temple Owls defense that has progressively improved during his tenure.

In today’s NFL, sub-6’0 cornerbacks are looked down upon in the scouting process as NFL teams begin to covet bigger, longer press-type cornerbacks. Young, at just around 5’10" and 180 pounds, certainly doesn’t fit that build of the new NFL prototype.

But he offers a combination of what few cornerbacks in this draft class can: efficient tackling, persistent physicality and vertical coverage confidence against all types of receivers.

Efficient Tackler

Young doesn’t possess the ideal size or length to be a highly “effective” open-field tackler. But his “efficiency” as a tackler stems from his focus on his receiver’s route and his willingness to finish tackles in space.

Often lined up against vertically threatening receivers, Young’s responsibility is generally one of containment. And he’s developed a wide-base, low-positioned technique to attack his receiver’s legs and finish with strength. 

He does struggle in the running game, acting more as a containing player rather than a downhill-run defender. But Young understands his limitations against bigger runners and works to contain until help arrives.

Tackling won’t be the reason NFL teams draft Young. But his efficiency against quick, speedy receivers limits a team’s liability in having him as a starter on rushing downs.

Persistently Physical

Despite the rise in defensive pass interference calls at both the college and professional level, physicality in a cornerback is still highly valued.

Young offers both initial physicality in press coverage and the ability to knock a receiver off-balance in his initial route. He can hold his hands tight to his body and keep his receiver vertical to make the pass-catcher uncomfortable in tracking the ball.

He is effective at diverting a receiver's route by accurately and subtly positioning his hands in a receiver's chest plate off the press or under the arm during the route, a skill set that few college corners truly possess. His physicality isn’t without concern, however, as he often has “either-or” penalty calls that go against him.

Young also offers the upside to cover slot receivers effectively, an aspect of his game that NFL teams will appreciate in the draft process.

His lateral quickness initially combined with accurate hand placement can neutralize even the best of slot presences. In this sense, he offers similarities to how the New England Patriots' diamond-in-the-rough cornerback Malcolm Butler has begun to dominate opposing receivers in the NFL. That comparison, though ambitious, is one I expect evaluators to make during the draft process.

Oct 31, 2015; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Temple Owls defensive back Tavon Young (1) breaks up a pass for Notre Dame Fighting Irish wide receiver Will Fuller (7) during the second half at Lincoln Financial Field. Notre Dame won 24-20. Mandatory Credit: Derik H
Derik Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Confident in Vertical Coverage

In Young’s most important game of the year, against Notre Dame, he moved across the formation to match up directly with receiver Will Fuller, a potential top-two round pick and one of college’s best vertical threats. Young, though finishing with two borderline defensive pass interference calls, proved that his physical style of play, coupled with hip fluidity and vertical speed, can contain and run with top threats such as Fuller.

It’s Young’s finishing ability at the catch point that displays not only that can he run and disrupt a receiver’s route, but he is equally effective at attacking the ball.

While Young’s senior season interception total (zero) may worry some teams, he’s been highly effective in playing the ball on vertical routes in one-on-one matchups and staying in stride with receivers on in-breaking routes, something he displayed consistently against Fuller.

Most importantly, it’s the confidence Young possesses to stay firm in both press and off-coverage in his footwork, physicality and in-air skills that are required for slightly undersized cornerbacks. With a smaller margin of error in coverage, Young’s poise against top talents and comfort ability to anticipate—not guess—on routes are what allows him to be a truly special vertically protecting cornerback prospect.

During Temple's surprising run, Matakevich dominated the national media, and rightfully so. But in the NFL draft process, it’ll be Young who should seize attention. 

Few cornerbacks offer the ability to protect vertically and be physical across a receiver’s route, and Young’s performances on film, particularly against now-declared Fuller, will help to make his case as one of the top five cornerback prospects in the 2016 NFL draft.

His performance in the Senior Bowl in late January will go a long way in determining his NFL draft destiny, as he’ll face the draft’s best senior receiver prospect.

But based on his play during his senior season, I fully expect him to start surprising evaluators as a top 100 prospect en route to a draft process that could make him a valued early-round consideration and a future NFL starter.