• Zach Pratt

Zach's Draft Corner: Cornerbacks

Image Credit: Mike Jackson/Twitter.com

Welcome to Zach’s Draft Corner, where it’s always amateur hour.

It might seem like the 2018 NFL Draft was just yesterday, but in just two short months, college football will once again be underway and fans will be clamoring to find their studs and sleepers of the 2019 draft class. For the next few months, I’m going to give you my names to note for the upcoming season at every position, along with a mini scouting report and where I’d like to see the prospects improve this season if they want to hear their name called early come April. Given in no particular order, these will be the prospects that, at least at the beginning of the season, will be generating the most buzz. Consider this a primer for the upcoming season of Saturdays, and a potential guide for your television if you aren’t sure which game to watch. Previously, I covered the wide receivers. This week, I switch sides of the ball and look at the cornerbacks who will be covering those wide receivers.

Andraez "Greedy" Williams – Louisiana State University, Redshirt Sophomore

The first cornerback on our list checks almost all of the boxes you want in a modern CB. Size? Williams is 6'2” and 183 pounds, so check. Versatility? Williams has the rare task of shadowing the opponent’s best receiver, following them to the left side of the field, the right side of the field, and even the slot, so check. Candidate for the all-name team? I mean, he’s a cornerback named “Greedy,” so that may be the biggest check of them all.

In all seriousness, Williams is one of the most complete CB in this draft. Although he is lean, Williams excels in press coverage while still being able to turn and run with almost any receiver he could face. He also plays the ball very well in the air, mentally getting into the optimal position and then letting his sheer size and length complete the play. Williams took control and was a leader of a strong SEC defense as a redshirt freshman, which is a tough task to complete. Even more impressive, Williams consistently runs the routes for the receiver, allowing him to jump the routes with ease. In his one year playing college football, he snagged six interceptions and defended an additionalten passes. Williams is a playmaker and is almost everything you want in a cornerback. The one concern is that he is not aggressive in run support and can be a little weak at the point of attack when attempting to tackle the ball carrier. This is a minor concern, but still something that I want to see him improve on. If he does so, Williams may be the first name off the board in the next draft, and could be a top-10 overall pick.

Deandre Baker –University of Georgia, Junior

Deandre Baker is a throwback, old-school cornerback who is the yin to Greedy Williams’s yang. If Williams is Deion Sanders, then Deandre Baker is Rod Woodson. Also projected as a high-first round talent, Baker had only three interceptions in his 15 games as a redshirt sophomore. However, that’s only because quarterbacks hardly targeted him. In the National Championship Game against Alabama, Baker was tasked, on most plays, with covering Calvin Ridley, a recent first round pick at wide receiver. On these snaps, Ridley had zero catches on two targets. The 5'11”, 180-pound Baker did such a good job in coverage that the Alabama quarterbacks hardly targeted him, and Ridley only had success on plays where Baker was covering a different receiver (including his game-winning touchdown).

When Baker was targeted, quarterbacks had only a 32.7 passer rating. Baker received first-round grades from scouts after the 2017 season, but he was adamant on returning to school to avenge Georgia’s loss in the National Championship. In 372 coverage snaps in 2017, Baker did not allow a single touchdown. Fundamentally, Baker is flawless, with his only detriment being that he doesn't have the size or pure athleticism that some other cornerbacks have. He still has plenty of athleticism to make it in the pros, but that isn’t an elite trait of his. Baker is also a strong tackler and very supportive in the run game. As a prospect, he is pretty much set. There isn’t much he can work on to really improve. Just sit back, enjoy his revenge season, and pity the quarterbacks that try to throw on him.

Julian Love - Notre Dame, Junior

There was a lot of chatter among scouts as to the true value of a guy like Minkah Fitzpatrick. The 6’1” defensive back was incredibly versatile, moving all over the field for Alabama with very strong zone-coverage skills and relatively weak man-coverage skills. However you felt about Minkah, prepare to feel similarly about mini-Minkah, Julian Love. Measuring in at 5'11” and 189 pounds, Love is a bit smaller than Fitzpatrick, but has the same set of skills.

Love is a strong zone cornerback who is not as strong in man, which could lead to a transition to free safety at the next level. Lending even more to the safety persona, Love is a strong and willing tackler who is very physical at the point of attack. The Fitzpatrick comparison even extends to Love’s ability with the ball in his hands, as two of three interceptions went for a touchdown and he averaged 51 yards per interception return. Love lines up in the slot, on the outside, as a free safety, as a linebacker, and anywhere else you can imagine putting a non-lineman. In 2018, I want to see him focus on man coverage and improving in that aspect of his game, or else he may be relegated to being zone cornerback or free safety, thereby decreasing his value.

Kendall Sheffield - Ohio State University, Junior

Ohio State coaches were ecstatic when Kendall Sheffield, a former five-star recruit who left Alabama to become the top Junior College prospect after the 2016 season, committed to be a Buckeye. The 6'0”, 180-pound cornerback was touted as one of the most athletic, size-speed prospects in years. Sheffield was also recruited as a track athlete and ran an Ohio State record 6.663-second 60-meter dash. I did the math for you, and that pace translates to a 4.06-second 40-yard dash. Long story short, Sheffield is one of the fastest prospects the NFL has ever seen.

The issue with Sheffield is not in his physical gifts, but with his play. He has all of the physical tools to be an elite CB, but needs to put it all together on the field. Sheffield had no interceptions andonlyfive passes defended in 2017, and this is with an elite defensive line helping him out. As a cornerback, Sheffield is simply too reactive instead of predictive. He relies on his physical tools to get him into position after the receiver has committed to his route, but is often caught out of position. With the departure of Denzel Ward, Sheffield will be relied on to pick up the slack. If Sheffield can do so, he can be one of the fastest risers in this draft class. Otherwise, he may have a future as an Olympic sprinter, but not in the NFL.

Michael Jackson –University of Miami, Senior

Although the name may lead you to think he is more of a finesse cornerback, the 6'2”, 195-pound form of Michael Jackson is the ultimate press CB. Jackson was a three-star recruit based purely on his size, and his technique in high school was lacking. Now a senior at Miami, Jackson has developed a close relationship with former 49er and current Miami secondary coach, Mike Rumph. This relationship may have been the best thing to happen to Jackson, as he experienced a breakout year in 2017 as a first-year starter. During the regular season, Jackson played 635 snaps, was targeted 45 times, allowing only 22 catches for 247 yards on those targets. Jackson also came down with four interceptions, meaning he intercepted almost 10% of the passes thrown his way.

What makes Jackson special are his elite press skills. Pro Football Focus charted that Jackson pressed on about 60% of his snaps, and the tape shows that he won most of those encounters. Jackson also has good ball skills and route recognition, allowing him to be a playmaker and to limit any reception that is made in his vicinity. Even better, Jackson is a strong run defender, which makes him an imposing force on the outside.

In 2018, I want to see him improve his technique just a bit more against smaller receivers. As with most physical cornerbacks that lack elite athleticism, Jackson can struggle against speedsters who manage to beat his press and get separation.You want to see him handle those types of receivers better. If you’re looking for a top talent who may fall due to what I assume will be poor testing in the draft process, look at Jackson. Particularly, this is a name to know for 49er fans, as Jackson fits perfectly into the Robert Saleh defensive scheme with his combination of play recognition, size, press-coverage skills, and willingness to play the run.

Iman Marshall – University of Southern California, Senior

Iman Marshall is a curious case in this upcoming draft class. His pedigree of being a multi-year starter at one of the highest profile universities in the country will make him a nationally known name, but on tape, there is something missing. Marshall measures in at 6'0” and 205 pounds, and is another physical cornerback with great size who excels in man coverage, pressing at the line of scrimmage, and providing run support. Marshall shows great awareness and instincts, has the athleticism to catch up to faster receivers, and displays the functional strength to match up against bigger receivers.

On paper, this sounds great. The issue is that he is too physical. Marshall draws a lot of penalties, and shows a penchant to hold when he gets beat. What also limits Marshall’s upside is that he doesn’t show the ability to play the ball, instead relying on bigger hits to separate the ball from the receiver rather than making a play on the ball itself. The lack of playmaking ability and his tendency to be too physical may limit him to being a second cornerback, or even a strong safety, but Marshall returned to school for his senior season. If he can improve on playing the ball rather than the man, he has the physical traits to be a top CB at the next level. If he continues to draw penalties at a staggering clip, then he may slip into the late rounds and be relegated to backup duty, or even a transition to safety.

Trayvon Mullen - Clemson, Junior

Clemson is one of those schools, at least recently, where scouting certain positions can be difficult. For instance, this year, Clemson’s entire defensive line is projected to be drafted in the first three rounds. With that type of talent up front, everyone else’s job on the defense becomes incredibly easy. Labelled “Exhibit A,” I present to you Trayvon Mullen, the 6'1”, 188-pound prospect who is the typical "more athlete than football player"-type cornerback. Luckily, in the Clemson defense, he doesn't need to be more than that, but that won’t be the case in the NFL.

Mullen’s job in the Clemson defense is to jam the receiver just long enough to let the line do their work, and then use his athleticism to play catchup if the receiver gets by. To Mullen’s credit, he is a physical CB and provides good run support, but his actual coverage skills are not great. He shows great hands for a cornerback when he is close enough to make a play, but the rest of his talents are all based on his athleticism. In 2018, I want to see Mullen prove that he can be a shutdown cornerback in his own right rather than relying on his defensive line to bail him out and make the plays for him.

Mark Gilbert – Duke, Junior

Mark Gilbert is one of the better redemption stories in the 2019 class. Gilbert comes from one of football’s more successful families. His father, Sean, was a defensive lineman who played eleven seasons in the NFL. You may have also heard of Gilbert’s cousin, who had some success as an NFL cornerback in his 11-year career, the recently-retiredDarrelle Revis. A stud high school CB in his own right, Gilbert had a lot of issues with immaturity. He admittedly didn’t watch tape in high school or at the beginning of his career at Duke, and also admitted that he didn’t study off the field. Still a backup during the spring practices after his freshman season at Duke, the 6'1”, 175-pound Gilbert reflected and made some changes in his work ethic. He kicked up the studying on and off the field, earned a job as a starter to begin 2017, and had a breakout season as a sophomore.

Gilbert had some of the most impressive stats in 2017, coming down with six interceptions and defended an additional 15 passes. This was all on only 60 targets, and Gilbert only allowed 23 total receptions in his 13 games. He was also an advanced stats darling, having a passer rating allowed that was at least above average for a cornerback in every potential route run. Gilbert’s overall passer rating allowed was 46.6, good for 43.8 less than the NCAA average. Gilbert’s worst route to defend was the hitch route, but he was still about 4 points better than the national average on such routes. In 2018, I want to see continued progression, continued dedication, and better defense on those hitch routes. However, if he can do so, he may hear his name early in the 2019 draft, just like his cousin Darrelle did back in 2007.

Lavert Hill, University of Michigan, Junior

Many talent evaluators, including 49ers general manager John Lynch, are touting the benefits of being a multi-sport athlete as a child. The 5'11”, 177-pound Lavert Hill may be one of these modern success stories, as he was highly recruited in both football and basketball, ultimately choosing football for his future. As one would expect looking at his size, Hill has experienced durability issues in his time at Michigan, missing time here and there with different injuries, including concussions.

Despite the durability concerns, Hill is a very instinctive and fundamentally sound cornerback, allowing a reception only once every 24.5 coverage snaps, and was targeted only once every 10.3 coverage snaps. Hill is the ultimate finesse CB with enough pure talent to have a spot in the NFL. Unfortunately, Hill faces similar problems as other small, lean CBs, having trouble with the stronger, more physical receivers, as well as in run support. You have to wonder if his physical deficiencies will limit his NFL ceiling. I would like to see him be more physical, but will that lead to even more injuries?Given his age, there is always the chance that he can bulk up to withstand the punishment he’ll endure at the next level. Otherwise, Hill may simply wind up being a finesse corner that can give you ten good games every year, but rarely more than that.

Levonta Taylor - Florida State University, Junior

Taylor may not be Kendall Sheffield-fast, but he might be close. Taylor is an ultra-athletic cornerback, but unlike Sheffield, he also has the talent and coverage skills to go along with that athleticism. The advanced stats have him as, hands down, the best overall cover CB in college football. Taylor allowed a reception once every 30.6 coverage snaps, was targeted only once every 11.4 coverage snaps, allowed only .39 yards per snap in coverage, and allowed only a 28.5 passer rating when targeted, earning him a top-3 spot in the nation in every one of those categories. Watching Taylor on tape, he simply sticks to the receiver's hip on every route, not even giving the receiver a chance to give the quarterback a target. Taylor shows great instincts in coverage, as well as a surprising amount of toughness in run support for a cornerback with his talents.

If Taylor was 6'0” tall, he would be an obvious first rounder. Make him 6'2”, and he is easily a top-10 pick. Unfortunately, Taylor only 5'9”. This might drop his stock all the wayinto the second round, which is a shame because has the talent and skills to be an elite cover CB. The only worry is what happens when he goes against a receiver like A.J. Green,who, at 6’6”, would have nine inches on him. Put Taylor on a team with a bigger CB who can handle those assignments, and he could be an elite cornerback in the NFL. He just has the limit of being matchup-dependent. At his absolute floor, Taylor could be a top-five slot corner. At his ceiling, he can reasonably shut down almost any receiver shorter than 6’1”.

SMALL SCHOOL SLEEPER - Rashad Robinson - James Madison University, Senior

When you are looking for small school sleepers, you want to find a player who absolutely dominates the competition at that level. There is a definite difference in talent between the FCS and the FBS divisions, especially when comparing the FCS schools to the elite conferences like the SEC, ACC, and Big Ten. Rashad Robinson may be going against inferior receivers and quarterbacks, but he has shown that dominance thus far.

In 2017, the 5'11”, 182-pound Robinson came down with a whopping seven interceptions, including two in a win over FBS East Carolina University. Robinson shows great ball skills with enough speed to last in the NFL. Ultimately, Robinson is a man coverage savant, showing great balance and mirroring techniques in coverage. A former quarterback, he uses this experience to recognize offensive sets and plays, enabling him to almost run the route for the receiver. It may not be quite as exciting to watch the elite defensive prospects in the FCS, as they are at their best when they aren’t letting anything happen. With his reputation, quarterbacks will likely avoid Robinson as much as they can, and it wouldn’t shock me to see Robinson having a shockingly low amount of targets this upcoming season. You’ll have to learn to not watch the ball if you watch any James Madison games this year, but you’ll be able to witness his dominance if you’re able to do so. Watching his games will be worth it to see what he can do if a quarterback makes the mistake of throwing in his direction. It will likely be a game-changer.


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