Zach's Draft Corner: Combine Winners and Losers/Cornerback Position Breakdown
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Before I even get into the introduction for this article, there is something that absolutely needs to be reiterated every March: you should NEVER move a prospect drastically up or down your board based on the results of the combine. The combine serves two purposes. The first is to confirm, either positively or negatively, something about a prospect's athleticism or physicality that you witnessed on tape. The second is to highlight the players where you should return to the tape because the athleticism, or lack thereof, that they showed in the combine drills did not jive with the product they put on the field.
If something is confirmed, that shouldn't move a prospect on your board, because you already knew this information. If you have to return to the tape for a prospect, you should only move the prospect up or down your board if the tape confirms your new perspective. That all being said, here are the players who did the most with their combine opportunities.
Winner - Henry Ruggs, WR, Alabama
We all knew Henry Ruggs was fast. His 4.27 40-yard dash time only confirms that. What we didn't expect was the level of explosion he would demonstrate, leading to a SPARQ score (an overall athleticism grade calculated by 3sigmaathlete.com) in the 99th percentile for all NFL wide receivers. With a 42" vertical jump and a 131" broad jump, Ruggs was the most impressive receiver in Indianapolis. Having hands at 10 1/8" didn't hurt, either. Ruggs confirmed his long speed, but also demonstrated an explosiveness that was overshadowed until now.
Loser - Quintez Cephus, WR, Wisconsin
I like Quintez Cephus. I really do. He is a tough, physical receiver who understands zone coverage and can get open in the short and intermediate areas of the field. However, with a SPARQ score in the 48.9 percentile and a 4.73 40-yard dash time, his combine confirmed that he is nowhere close to a deep threat. With this confirmation, you have to decide what the value is on a receiver with a limited upside for breaking a big play.
Winner - Jonathan Taylor, RB, Wisconsin
I do not understand how people are still overlooking Taylor in favor of Deandre Swift or J.K. Dobbins. Taylor has been the most electric runner in college football for three seasons, and he just had one of the most impressive combines for a running back in this class. With a SPARQ score in the 89.9 percentile, Taylor had the fastest 40-yard dash time of any running back, and did so at a whopping 226 pounds. He was the only running back with a sub-1.5 in the 10-yard split of the 40-yard dash. Taylor is big, he is strong, he is fast, and he has excellent vision. He is my RB1, and will be for the rest of the draft process.
Winner - A.J. Dillon, RB, Boston College
That's right, double winners from the running back position. For two seasons, the conversation was Taylor and Dillon are 1A and 1B. This past season, with a horrible offensive line, Dillon fell down the ranks to a day three prospect on many boards, with people calling him a glorified fullback. Dillon proved that his 2017 and 2018 tape should be what we watch, topping all running backs with a SPARQ score in the 96.7 percentile. At 247 pounds, Dillon was explosive (41" vertical jump, 131" broad jump), fast (4.53 40), and strong (23 bench reps). Imagine that. At 247 pounds, A.J. Dillon almost matched the jumps of an athlete like Henry Ruggs. Rather than a lumbering, short-yardage back, Dillon is now receiving Derrick Henry comps. Everything is right with the world again.
Loser - Anthony McFarland, RB, Maryland
This may possibly only be disappointing for me as a big stan of McFarland, but I was expecting more. McFarland looked fast on tape, and he certainly was with a 4.44 40-yard dash. However, he had terrible explosiveness, with poor jumps (29.5" vertical, 116" broad) and a poor 10-yard split. This resulted in an 18.3 percentile SPARQ score and a return to the tape, where I saw him run laterally often to build up speed before turning upfield. When running between the tackles or with patience behind the line, the acceleration just wasn't there. I thought his calling card was speed and explosion. Turns out he only has one.
Winner - Tristan Wirfs, OT, Iowa
My Iowa boys rarely disappoint me. Wirfs had a monstrous SPARQ score in the 99.1 percentile, driven largely by getting the best vertical jump and broad jump (36.5", 121") for an offensive lineman ever. He also had one of the best 40 yard dashes ever, and all at 320 pounds with huge arms. The only offensive lineman to ever run a faster 40 time at a heavier weight was Greg Robinson, who was also heralded as a physical marvel. Not bad company.
Loser - Trey Adams, OT, Washington
While Adams had one of the most memorable combine moments ever in wishing for a larger member, Adams should have been wishing for better athletic testing. A SPARQ score in the 2.4 percentile is terrible. His 5.6 second 40 was by far the worst among all offensive linemen, and his jumps were none the better (24.5" vertical, 92" broad). Adams has looked like he has lost athleticism from his injuries, and this only confirms that unfortunate fact.
Winners - Small School Safeties
There has been some chatter for a pair of small school safeties who seemed like they were athletic on tape, but against lesser competition. The combine is an excellent opportunity for these types of prospects to prove that they are not just athletic for a small school player, but athletic in general. Lucky for us, both of these prospects delivered. Jeremy Chinn, out of Southern Illinois, came away with a SPARQ score in the 99th percentile, a height of 6'3", a 4.45-second 40, 41" vertical, and a 138" broad jump. This only slightly outdid the performance of Kyle Dugger out of Lenoir-Rhyne, who also had a SPARQ score in the 99th percentile with a 4.49-second 40, a 42" vertical, and a 134" broad jump. These are numbers that would dominate any level of football, not just lower level college ball.
Loser - Slow Defensive Backs
Josh Norman is the only cornerback with a 40 time slower than 4.6 that has had Pro Bowl-type years as a professional player. This year, the players that fit this poor test mark included some big names, including Stanford Samuels, Cameron Dantzler, A.J. Green, and Myles Bryant. There is still time to change these marks at their pro day, but this is not a good start.
Winner - Isaiah Simmons, LB, Clemson
Isaiah Simmons is a Madden Create-a-Player from the days before you had a limited number of points to spend on guys. You know what I mean. You wanted to be "realistic," so you only put a few stats at 99, keeping the rest around 92 or 93. Then you end up with a linebacker that can run a sub-4.4 40, jump out of the stadium, and do so at a monstrous size. That's exactly what Simmons can do with his 98th percentile SPARQ score. At 6'3 5/8" and 238 pounds, Simmons ran a 4.39 40 with 1.51 10-yard split, jumped a 39" vertical, and also jumped a 132" broad jump. Simmons is insane.
Loser - Michael Divinity, LB, LSU
Divinity has been overtaken by Patrick Queen as the LSU linebacker you want to have on your team, but the Combine did not help his cause at all. Divinity ended his combine with a 10.7 percentile SPARQ score, a 4.85-second 40, 1.59-second 10-yard split, a 31" vertical, a 115" broad jump, and only 14 reps on bench. This means he was one of the weakest and slowest linebackers in Indianapolis. Not the best combination for a hopeful prospect with spotty tape.
Cornerbacks to watch
Trevon Diggs (Alabama)
There will be a few consistencies that you'll see in the pros the cornerbacks that are scheme fits for the 49ers. Rather than repeat it each time, know that (almost) every cornerback listed here will have good to great ball skills (i.e., ability to play the ball once it is in the air) and a strong ability to play zone coverage. For Diggs, in addition to these skills, he can also dabble in man and press schemes, which is why he is the highest rated among these cornerbacks. Stefon's brother, Diggs is a smooth athlete. However, Diggs's best trait may be that, while he can be aggressive, he is selectively aggressive in a very good way in that he rarely bites on moves designed to feed on a defender's aggressiveness. You don't see Diggs give up many big plays, but he certainly makes plenty of them.
Diggs is not the most physical defender. His tackling certainly needs work. While he can dabble in man and press concepts, it would be unwise to put him there consistently. He's average in these areas. If he excelled, he would be a surefire first round pick.
Where to draft: 31st pick or very top of the second round if there is a trade back
Bryce Hall (Virginia)
In addition to the consistent skills outlined above, Hall might be the most competitive player of this bunch. He is a tough, sure tackler. He couples that with being very intelligent in the way he processes route combinations and adjusts the handoff points in coverage based on these combinations. In my eyes, Hall is a first round talent that is getting pushed down because of his gruesome injury this season and the bevy of talent in this class.
Hall may be only an average athlete. Due to a broken ankle in his senior season, he won't be going through any drills in the pre-draft process, so it is hard to truly get an apples-to-apples comparison of him and other cornerbacks in this class. He does seem a little stiff when asked to drop back in man coverage, but he still manages to stay on the receivers relatively well.
Where to draft: Late second round or third round with a trade back
Michael Ojemudia (Iowa)
Ojemudia made plenty of plays at Iowa, and it seems like they always came when Iowa went into a Cover 3 scheme. This is fantastic news for the 49ers, since they employ the Cover 3 scheme often. He's got great length with some of the longest arms in the class. He's also a good tackler. An impressive combine shows he has good athleticism in straight lines and quick bursts.
Ojemudia lacks the flexibility needed for man coverage. As often as he made plays in zone coverage, he would get beat just as often in man coverage. Ojemudia is the first player on this list that is completely scheme specific, which is why he is the first cornerback that shows up in the day three range.
Where to draft: Early day three with a trade back
Lamar Jackson (Nebraska)
Jackson has decent athleticism for a cornerback of his size. He's also very willing to be physical, even if his finishing technique could use a little work. He understands route combinations well, making him good in zone coverage.
Jackson plays very stiff in close man coverage, but lacks the speed to play off man coverage. When he tries to press, his technique is not ideal. His sheer strength makes it work at the college level, but that may not be enough in the pros.
Where to draft: Fifth or sixth round
Jaron Bryant (Fresno State) (Not at the Combine)
Bryant is the opposite of Jackson, in that he has the technique to be a good tackler and loses occasionally due to a lack of strength. That being said, he does have good length to wrap up defenders and get into throwing lanes.
Bryant is a stiff athlete with poor acceleration. This makes it difficult to put him on an island with a larger zone, and needs a little more time to react, such as in deeper zones and Cover-3 schemes. Shallow zone coverage does not work as well for him due to his slower acceleration.
Where to draft: Sixth or seventh round
Nevelle Clark (Central Florida)
Clark is a very good athlete and has a good amount of flexibility, giving him at least the ceiling to develop into someone who is more than a pure zone coverage cornerback. His speed and acceleration make up for the slightly slower reaction times, although I believe the slower reaction times are more due to a lack of experience as opposed to a lack of talent or instincts.
Clark can easily get outmuscled, as his combination of poor strength and lack of desire to tackle makes for a bad combination. While he has the ceiling to play more coverages, his technique in anything but zone is horrendous at this point. He is a raw prospect with a high ceiling, but also a very low floor.
Where to draft: Seventh round or undrafted
Rashard Robinson (James Madison) (Not at Combine)
Robinson is a long, aggressive cornerback who has an impressive history of generating turnovers. He has all of the strengths needed to succeed in a Cover-3 scheme.
Robinson missed almost all of 2018 with an injury, and he wasn't quite as effective in 2019 after coming back from the injury as he was in 2017 pre-injury. Robinson also faced a lower level of competition, which can negate some of his positives in the eyes of some scouts. His lack of a Combine invitation shows that NFL teams may not be quite as excited about him as media scouts may be.
Where to draft: Seventh round or undrafted
Levonta Taylor (Florida State) (Not at combine)
Taylor is the one player that doesn't follow our model, because he is a slot corner as opposed to an outside corner. Taylor is a great athlete, even if he was not able to show it at the combine. Taylor is also very tough. He has good flexibility, and can stick with most any receiver from the slot position. He is a former 5-star recruit that was played in many positions, and many times out of position, in a Florida State defense that had way more talent than the play on the field showed.
Taylor is certainly a small cornerback, so much so that he will likely be a slot only guy. With K'Waun Williams still being on the roster, the need for another slot corner may not be there. While Taylor is aggressive in tackling, he simply is not strong enough to always finish.
Where to draft: Seventh round or undrafted
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