Vernon Hargreaves Must Prove His Upside at 2016 NFL Combine

Ian Wharton@NFLFilmStudyContributor IFebruary 23, 2016

Florida defensive back Vernon Hargreaves, III (1) raises his arms to fans to cheer louder during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Georgia in Jacksonville, Fla., Saturday, Nov. 1, 2014. Florida won 38-20. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
John Raoux/Associated Press

The 2016 NFL Scouting Combine has arrived for the 332 players who will be evaluated physically and mentally over the next seven days. The best athletes can create momentum toward the draft, while others may disappoint and force teams to go back to the film room.

One player who needs to have a good combine is Florida cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III. The First-Team All-American had a spectacular career for the Gators in three seasons with the team. He proved to be one of the top playmakers for a top defense in the SEC.

Hargreaves had tremendous expectations thrust upon him before stepping foot on Florida’s campus. The former 5-star recruit from Wharton High School was the top overall cornerback recruit and third overall in the class of 2013, per 247Sports. Now entering the NFL, Hargreaves is aiming to be coveted in a similar fashion.

Hargreaves has produced great film to show NFL evaluators he is a fully capable contributor. He won’t even turn 21 until after the draft. He’s a young prospect who is as polished as any cornerback in the class.

The son of Vernon Hargreaves II, who was named to UConn’s 100th anniversary football team and coached for multiple NCAA schools, Hargreaves III plays with high football acumen at all times. With his consistent footwork and his physical nature against the run, the only remaining question about Hargreaves’ game is his upside.

Amid his great success at Florida, there were real reasons to question whether he can be a high-end starter at the next level. The NFL will only work to exploit his weaknesses if Hargreaves tests as an average athlete.

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There’s a baseline of athleticism that successful, above-average NFL cornerbacks must have. Of all starting NFL cornerbacks, Miami Dolphins cornerback Brent Grimes had one of the worst cumulative athletic testings at his pro day in 2006. I’ve been data-mining combine scores from the last decade, and Grimes is the only multiyear starter at cornerback with below-average drill results in every category.

Brent Grimes' Pro Day vs. NFL Average Measurables
MeasureableBrent GrimesNFL Combine Average
Height50925112
Weight177192
40-yard dash4.574.50
Bench Press415
Vertical Jump33.5"36"
Broad Jump121"121"
20-yard shuttle4.254.16
Three-cone drill7.136.90
Mockdraftable.com

That hasn’t stopped Grimes from making four Pro Bowls and Second-Team All-Pro in his career, but the odds are against below-average athletes at the position. Comparing combine measurements to NFL trends, every All-Pro cornerback since 1996 has had 32-inch arms. While height isn’t terribly important, length is.

That’s especially true for a player of Hargreaves’ build. NFL Draft Scout has his size projected at 5’10 ¾” and 199 pounds. His thin, wiry and shorter frame won’t keep him from achieving success in the NFL, but he must show high-end traits to serve as a trump card.

The first thing Hargreaves needs to show is his speed. While the 40-yard dash is overvalued by the public, it’s important for players who struggle with speed on the field to show they can improve. The biggest weakness Hargreaves consistently had on the field was handling deep routes.

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Cornerbacks are in a tough spot because the slightest mistake can lead to chunk yards for the offense. Hargreaves has to sell out hard when he feels the threat of a deep route when he lines up on the line of scrimmage. Alabama was able to take advantage of this in both 2014 and 2015.

Instead of staying sticky in coverage, Hargreaves struggled to throttle down because he had committed to protecting the go-route. This was unusual to see from him, but games against top competition must be weighted heavier than others where he was able to play seven or more yards off the receiver and prey on bad opposing quarterbacks.

He was often masked in off-man coverage to help mitigate his lack of recovery speed. Off-man coverage is beneficial for small cornerbacks with great short-area quickness because the scheme adds cushion and buys time for the pass rush to hit home. The cornerback is given time to be reactionary and work downhill instead of turning and sprinting with the receiver.

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When Hargreaves did line up over the receiver, he struggled to stay with the receiver past 20 yards. The lack of top-end speed is concerning because the defense must morph to always provide safety help on his side of the field. Defensive coordinators are able to provide that, but off-ball cornerbacks who struggle with speed and bigger receivers are red flags.

Speaking of the latter, Hargreaves’ physicality is impressive. He finished his college career with 121 total tackles thanks to an aggressive mindset against the run. He plays the run as tough as any cornerback in the class.

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But his lack of bulk shows in coverage. He struggles to withstand even modest contact at the stem of the route. NFL receivers are crafty with their physicality, and the best cornerbacks are skilled at holding up through the contact.

Offensive coordinators should look to exploit the size difference between their big-bodied receivers and Hargreaves. While Hargreaves can challenge at the catch point, he struggles to overcome bigger receivers. Kentucky exploited his lack of size several times in their 2015 matchup, including this basic slant that ended up going for a huge gain.

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These plays added up this past season until Florida’s bowl game against Michigan. Hargreaves’ worst three games in 2015 were against the teams he was asked to press or play over the receiver most often—Kentucky, Alabama and Michigan. These offenses went over the top against the All-American whenever they could.

Without safety help, Hargreaves is prone to being too aggressive in an attempt to break on the ball. He shouldn’t be criticized too much for this, as that’s the inherent risk of being a playmaker at the position. But Michigan receiver Jehu Chesson made Hargreaves look out of his league throughout their matchup because he was too fast and smooth.

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Maybe it was an aberration. After all, Hargreaves’ film is littered with impact plays and terrific coverage. He has the footwork expected of a coach's son and rarely wastes movement.

There are teams that run schemes that will protect his weaknesses and give him safety help. The Miami Dolphins, Cincinnati Bengals and San Diego Chargers all have major needs at cornerback and a history of working with undersized, off-ball players at the position. His high level of refinement would immediately earn him the second cornerback spot on each of those teams.

The off-ball cornerback market is one of the more interesting to look at. Despite the value of top cornerbacks, Grimes received an affordable contract from the Miami Dolphins in 2014. His four-year, $32 million deal made him the 15th-highest-paid cornerback in the NFL.

Brandon Flowers had a similar four-year, $36.4 million contract from San Diego. Leon Hall had a four-year, $39 million contract back in 2011. Slot extraordinaire Chris Harris has a five-year, $42.5 million deal with the Denver Broncos.

Beside Grimes, each of those players has tremendous physical testing results. Being small is fine so long as there are other overwhelming physical gifts. Hargreaves must prove at the combine that he can continue to improve in the NFL, or else his weaknesses could relegate him to a lesser role.

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The value of Hargreaves is solely based on the scheme and surrounding pieces he’ll be given. He needs a solid pass rush, or else he is vulnerable to getting exploited on longer developing routes. Another option would be one of the aforementioned teams or a defense that runs a lot of Cover 2 with safety help.

Hargreaves is a good player as he enters the next phase of his career. He’s as polished as any cornerback in recent years, including 2015 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Marcus Peters. But without the size and length of Peters, he could struggle to establish himself as quickly as the 2015 first-round pick.

I’d be comfortable drafting Hargreaves in the second half of the first round if I were the Bengals or Carolina Panthers. The top of the second round would be ideal value for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Dolphins or Chargers.

Few, if any, prospects have as much to gain or lose as Hargreaves this week at the combine. While his film speaks for his skill, his natural gifts must be proven before teams can be sold on his future as a top NFL cornerback.

All stats used are from Sports-Reference.com.

Ian Wharton is an NFL Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.