While Deshaun Watson received the Heisman consideration and national spotlight, it was the Clemson Tigers defense that grew into one of the nation’s best. As the leader of the Clemson secondary, Mackensie Alexander frequently matched up with the opposing team’s best receiver and emerged as one of the country’s most respected cornerbacks. After the Clemson defense’s breakout season and the team's national title run, Alexander’s entry into the 2016 NFL draft wasn’t surprising.
But with just an injury-related redshirt season and two years of college football experience under his belt, his lack of refinement consistently shows up on film. While his hip fluidity and overall athleticism give evaluators reason for excitement, unrefined technique in both his hand placement and footwork should worry scouts about his NFL future.
Hip Fluidity Is a Reason for Optimism
The cornerback position relies on hip fluidity for success. Not only do the hips allow a cornerback to make the initial turn to run with a receiver’s break, but the confidence that he’s even able to make that turn allows him to be aggressive to the ball. Athletically and flexibility-wise, Alexander has arguably the most upside of any cornerback in the 2016 class.
The former high school track and wrestling standout offers remarkable fluidity in his hips and the flexibility to stay explosive even when he's off balance. Alexander bends at the knees even as he's moving laterally, offering top-end burst from multiple foot platforms. What he lacks in top-end speed, he makes up for in his ability to burst and accelerate as he works downfield.
Alexander turns and runs without great footwork but with awesome recovery balance to re-engage in bump-and-run coverage downfield. The play above, which offers some footwork woes that I’ll discuss later, also optimizes the athletic hip turn that he offers. Covering the wheel route in the slot with a well-protected quarterback is no easy task, but Alexander has the flexibility and natural fluidity to meet at the initial wheel point, the bend on the perimeter and the ability to stay tight downfield to be in ideal position despite crossing his feet on multiple occasions.
Despite awesome hip fluidity and the explosiveness to transition in coverage in the open field, Alexander has plenty of work to do in his upper and lower half technique-wise. Starting with his hands, he meets with his initial hand placement as a press cornerback well, including in the slot, and can bump, turn and run while maintaining physicality in his upper half.
He can, however, be overly physical with his hands and needs to be more efficient with positioning and keeping his upper half in unison with his lower half. While the play above is an issue that even NFL cornerbacks have in the slot, it’s one that Alexander shouldn’t have to resort to, given his athleticism. He meets his receiver after five yards, holds onto him while the ball is in the air and draws the pass interference call. It’s Alexander's constant, subtle off-balance movements that force him, both in his actions and mentally, to resort to actions like this.
As a positive, he is a willing and engaged tackler but doesn't always finish with ideal technique, putting his head down and being deflected off at times. Still, his upper-half movement and quick hands allow him to separate in space, get past blockers and finish with plus-hitting ability.
Unfinished Footwork to Blame
This is easily the biggest area of concern for Alexander and one of the reasons he should have stayed in school one more year. NFL teams have seen plenty of early-round cornerbacks fail, and it’s a testament to NFL coaches’ lack of desire to truly develop the position. Pro teams have grown to appreciate young cornerbacks who can either get by early with length and physicality or by refined footwork, and Alexander offers neither to NFL teams.
His footwork when working vertically can get tangled, and he needs to keep his feet high as he's reading his receiver's route when turning downfield. His timing as an off-ball cornerback is indecisive, and he's constantly forced to meet, engage and run with receivers, something his athleticism has allowed so far. However, at the NFL level, he’ll struggle to rely solely on athleticism and may have the same concerns that former Michigan State and current Vikings cornerback Trae Waynes had in his rookie season.
First off, let’s revisit the play from earlier. While his hip fluidity allows him to get vertical and stay tight, notice how Alexander’s feet cross twice as he’s working to the perimeter, how he’s slightly off balance when he turns his head from the quarterback and how his momentum is carrying him to the sideline rather than straight in-line with his receiver. While it’s solid coverage at the college level and his positioning is impressive considering his misplaced steps, the throw is one that a more refined NFL quarterback can finish with consistency, and the route is one that NFL receivers can open a far larger throwing window for.
Alexander’s hip turn allows him to turn and recover vertically, which is a plus in the prevention of big plays. But his missteps in off-coverage and overall lack of confidence in his steps should continue to allow more decisive receivers to gain separation.
In the play above, Alexander works vertically well enough but is woefully out of position for a deep hitch. He’s five yards away and off balance, allowing the receiver to gather without much effort in protecting himself. Alexander’s poor footwork decisiveness and patience not only allows for a 10-catch but at least five more yards after a missed tackle.
Where Alexander’s Value Falls
Alexander has succeeded at the college level in preventing big plays vertically. While having no college interceptions is eye-opening, he’s been the recipient of limited action from opposing quarterbacks and a strong supporting cast from his pass rush that limited quality throws in his area.
He doesn't possess a prototypical cornerback body type, but he offers adequate length and the balanced lower half to remain explosive enough to get vertical or close distance quickly with bigger receivers. His ability to sink and transition in his hip fluidity gives him slot cornerback upside.
But cornerback, just like offensive tackle, is a position where preventing is far more important than creating a big play. Cornerbacks in the NFL see 30-40 pass plays per game, and limiting vertical throws or substantial yards after the catch can have a bigger impact than making interceptions or big hits. And while upside matters at any position in the NFL draft, cornerback has become a position where NFL teams value immediacy over potential.
Alexander is a work in progress. Without awesome size (5'10") or length (31 ⅜" arm length), he is reliant on his athletic upside to be a high draft pick. And with NFL teams putting a premium on readiness and reliability instead of upside and flashiness, Alexander’s raw talent and unrefined technical skills may be enough to push one of the draft’s most athletic prospects out of Round 1.