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2019 NFL Draft: Cornerback Grades - Hybrids and Scheme Limitations

Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

Hi all:

I have been working on the grades for this [really poor] Corner class in anticipation of the next Big Board iteration and decided to write separately in order to solicit some input. In the end it comes down to system fit.

We know the Steelers like hybrid players who let the secondary disguise it's coverage scheme. We know the team makes extensive use of that idea with Nickel Corners like Mike Hilton. But isn't there another type of hybrid that the team hasn't utilized yet? A hybrid between a rangy Free Safety and a Corner who could cover people successfully if he only had to worry about one-third of the field in a scheme comparable to Seattle's Cover-3? Am I making this up?

Sean Davis might fit that role if you think about it. Same with Brian Allen according to his physical profile. Thus Pittsburgh might be able to build in this new type of disguised/hybrid coverage scheme in by drafting a rangy Free Safety who could play the deep middle while one of those two dropped into a Corner role. It matters because Cover 3, Seattle-type Corners are by far the strongest group in this part of the class. What should their grades be on the BTSC Big Board in light of their limited chance to be a do-it-all Corner, and the fact that Pittsburgh hasn't yet shown a taste for this kind of hybrid?

What follows is a list of the two types of hybrid Corner/Safeties, along with the grades they would have if I published the next Big Board tomorrow. Please let me know your thoughts on all of these grades.

  • NOTE: Pay special attention to Darnell Savage because he would fit both of these descriptions and could thereby offer extra value as a multipurpose puzzle piece. He has the range and recognition ability to back up Sean Davis as a Cover-1 Free Safety, and also the coverage ability to play Nickel Corner in the traditional hybrid role. Plus he'd fit right in as a true, if undersized Cover-2 Safety. This versatility is why he's one of my personal favorites of the class (and why I might be showing some unintended bias in how he's graded).

NICKEL CB/SAFETY HYBRIDS:

2:12 Darnell Savage Jr., Maryland {Pre-draft Visit}. 5'10¾", 198 lbs. [30% CORNER, 70% NICKEL SAFETY] He looks too small to hit as hard as he does but facts are facts: he'd have earned his last name even if he wasn't born with it. Also blessed with exceptional (sub 4.4!) speed, suddenness, ball skills and football IQ. Despite buzz throughout the draftverse he is easier to grade if you view him as a true Safety with exceptional coverage skills rather than a hard hitting Corner - a statement made even though he ran with the CB class at the Combine and put up a 90th percentile SPARQ score to boot with exceptional scores in all the movement drills. Great team leader, locker room guy, etc.

4:16 Kris Boyd, Texas. 5'11½", 195 lbs. [20% CORNER, 80% NICKEL SAFETY] Feisty, aggressive, savvy and in-your-face player who tackles well but used a lot of college techniques that the NFL won't allow. A stream of Senior Bowl penalties and a poor practice week hurt his stock a lot. The Combine restored it by proving good speed (4.45), 87th percentile SPARQ score athleticism, and no particular athletic holes. The hands are B.A.D. Projects best as a Nickel S/CB hybrid with the upside to survive in an off- and zone-heavy defensive scheme.

5:01 Ken Webster, Ole Miss. 5'10⅞", 203 lbs. [20% CORNER, 80% NICKEL SAFETY] A 99th percentile SPARQ score wunderkind who blew up the Combine but emphatically failed to blow up the playing season. Perhaps he could be a free roving Safety or a tackling Nickel Corner?

6:01 Montre Hartage, Northwestern. 5'11⅜", 190 lbs. [30% CORNER, 70% NICKEL SAFETY] Actually has some decent technique, with good physicality and tackling skills. Looked good at the Shrine Game but tested poorly and slow at the Combine. Might profile better as a cover-capable Nickel Safety.

Next come the big, long Corners who fit the Richard Sherman Wannabe model to a tee. Alas, but those players thrive only in the limited context of the deep third, Cover-3 philosophy pioneered by the Seahawks because that system covers up their otherwise fatal lack of lateral quickness. Take them out of that system and even the best ones will get abused off the roster... unless they convert to a hybrid Free Safety role that will give them a chance to find snaps and roll into Corner mode when the team mixes in it's share of Cover-3. Their grade for Pittsburgh has to be built from combining (i) the small chance they could overcome the lateral movement issues with (ii) the difficulty they'd have playing Free Safety, and (iii) the possibility that Pittsburgh would add more Cover-3 looks into the coverage philosophy once the right talents were on this team to make that work.

  • NOTE: If we were building a Seahawks Big Board many of these players would have solid Round 2-3 grades. Enough teams have started to use the Cover-3 approach to make it very unlikely that any of the top five prospects on this list will fall into Day 3, let alone to the point where Pittsburgh might bargain shop for their undoubted boom or bust potential in the team's existing coverage schemes.
  • NOTE 2: Pay special attention to Trayvon Mullen who I've pegged with a 50/50 chance of having the versatility to transcend scheme limitations. I'm not sure he belongs on this list at all with odds that good.

Cover-3 CB/SAFETY HYBRIDS:

2:12 Trayvon Mullen, Clemson. 6'1½", 199 lbs. [50% CORNER, 50% COVER-3/FS HYBRID] The man of hope and mystery because no one threw in his direction throughout 2018. On the plus side Clemson gave him good experience in various coverage styles, and he scored "Average +" in the Combine testing with above-average 4.46 speed. On the downside the film does show some balance/COD issues in college, a bad habit of grabbing on when he gets beat by quickness, and he did not do the Combine C.O.D. drills we most wanted to see. He did seem to be pretty smooth in the field drills for such a big CB but also benefitted by comparison to how awful some of the others looked.

3:12 Justin Layne, Michigan St. 6'1¾", 192 lbs. [30% CHANCE TO BE MORE THAN A COVER-3/FS HYBRID] A long Corner prospect with proven straight-line athletic talent, a good attitude toward tackling, and room to grow. The Combine tests put him in the 90th SPARQ score percentile with vastly better C.O.D. testing than expected from what he pu on film. The coverage crew lauded his patience in coverage ("he never takes the cheese") but suggested he was likely to be another "Carroll type."

4:01 Isaiah Johnson, Houston. 6'2¼", 207 lbs. [25% CORNER, 75% COVER-3/FS HYBRID] Think Brian Allen: a long, speedy, physical, 97th percentile SPARQ score wonder with all but no technique to pair with the potential. An outright poor Senior Bowl week highlighted major lateral movement issues, but the Combine testing showed objectively good C.O.D. ability that suggests he could improve with good coaching. The coverage crew called him a "Pete Carroll prototype" and particularly lauded his ferocity in run support.

4:01 Lonnie Johnson, Jr., Kentucky. 6'1⅞", 213 lbs. (6'2¼", 210 lbs. at the Senior Bowl). [10-15% CORNER, 85-90% COVER-3/FS HYBRID] A long, physical Corner with straight-line athletic upside offset by bad tape and scheme limitations. The film is so bad that he started the process with a Round 4-5 grade. The stock rose because of a noteworthy Senior Bowl and a 90th percentile SPARQ score at the Combine.

4:01 Joejuan Williams, Vanderbilt. 6'3⅝", 211 lbs. [10-15% CORNER, 85-90% COVER-3/FS HYBRID] Awesome size that suggests press-man, but his best technique in college was actually off-man because his reaction time is surprisingly good and his 4.64 recovery speed is not. On film he shut down some great Ole Miss deep threats (Lodge, Brown) but got destroyed by Georgia's group of shifty guys (Ridley, Hardman, Godwin). Trained by Richard Sherman's college coach and friend.

4:16 Derrick Baity, Kentucky. 6'2⅛", 197 lbs. [10-15% CORNER, 85-90% COVER-3/FS HYBRID] Same old story. He's long, tall, and physical but short on the fluidity and change of direction needed to play outside a Deep Third coverage scheme like Seattle's.

5:01 Mike Jackson, Miami. 6'⅝", 210 lbs. [35% CORNER, 65% COVER-3/FS HYBRID] An excellent but straight line athlete who is probably more of a Free Safety than a Corner, but only if his tackling improves.

5:16 Jamal Peters, Miss. St. 6'1¾", 218 lbs. [10-15% CORNER, 85-90% COVER-3/FS HYBRID] Peters has the length and athleticism you want in a CB but lacks the technical understanding to fully capitalize on it. Being much rawer than Artie Burns was, and a 4.63 dash at the Combine (ouch), should keep his stock in the lower rounds. May project best as a cover-capable Safety.

6:01 Iman Lewis-Marshall, USC. 6'⅝", 207 lbs. but with very short (30⅝") arms. [10-15% CORNER, 85-90% COVER-3/FS HYBRID] Another prospect who straddles the line between being a Safety with poor tackling and a CB with COD and recovery speed issues. A good football heart raises his stock.

BONUS COVERAGE - The multifaceted "true" Corners

Here is a stripped down version of the updated Big Board narrative on all the Corners we think Pittsburgh might consider, organized alphabetically within large grade ranges. Specific grades are omitted because I want to focus on the hybrid types in this article, but that shouldn't stop anyone who wants to comment on them from doing so. Just... please don't go nuts over some idea that using these broader categories means I really think a prospect like James Dean (a Round 3 guy for me whose name starts with "D") deserves a grade equal to the one for Amani Oruwariye (a fringe-1st on my personal Board whose name starts with "O").

ROUND 1 GRADES:

Deandre Baker, Georgia. 5'11", 180 lbs. An undersized press-man Corner with B+ athleticism (on the NFL grading curve). Versatile enough to play Off Man too, but a bit less promising for Zone. The downsides are a reputation for mouthiness and some unconfirmed rumors about less than ideal study habits (complaints I have heard only in podcasts, but more than once).

Byron Murphy, Washington. 5'10¾", 190 lbs. with very short 30⅛" arms. A top notch Zone- and Off Man Corner who projects as a bit less promising if asked to press at the line. Pre-process rumor said he played at 170-175 in college but the Combine answered that resoundingly. A B+ athlete on the NFL grading curve with multiple bonus points for character, tackling, professionalism, etc.

Greedy Williams, LSU {Meeting at Combine}. 6'1⅞", 185 lbs. His actual grade ranges from 1:05 to UDFA depending on Top 10 tape and potential offset by a severe lack of tackling, lackadaisical physicality beyond the initial jam/hand fighting encounter, and a reputation for potential issues of the Justin Gilbert variety.

ROUND 2-3 GRADES:

Jamel Dean, Auburn. 6'1", 206 lbs. A 98th percentile SPARQ score prospect who ran a 4.30 dash at the Combine. The athleticism is real but there is no film and little technique to support it because his career has been crippled (so far) by an ACL and meniscus tear in 2014 and then an ACL tear on the other knee in 2016. He managed to stay mostly healthy in 2017 and 2018, and looked promising but still undeveloped. Boom or bust baby!

David Long, Michigan. 5'10⅝", 196 lbs. Lived and died in college on good but not great press-man skills, but he lacks the height and the length to excel as much that way in the NFL. Fabulous C.O.D. scores and solid speed/explosion numbers put him in the 90th SPARQ score percentile at the Combine and suggest he may adapt better to a more versatile system than many other prospects.

Julian Love, Notre Dame. 5'10¾", 195 lbs. A top notch off-man college corner who never really learned to jam receivers on the line. Fluid hips, great mirroring skills, sterling COD, three years of starting experience, excellent ball skills, and an active attitude in run support. Sounds almost exactly like the scouting report on Cam Sutton but with no injuries, much better size, and maybe a whisker more technique. Daniel Jeremiah compares him to a big Nickel Corner like Desmond King but he may have more versatility.

  • 2:12 Trayvon Mullen, Clemson. 6'1½", 199 lbs. [50% CORNER, 50% COVER-3/FS HYBRID] The man of hope and mystery because no one threw in his direction throughout 2018. On the plus side Clemson gave him good experience in various coverage styles, and he scored "Average +" in the Combine testing with above-average 4.46 speed. On the downside the film does show some balance/COD issues in college, a bad habit of grabbing on when he gets beat by quickness, and he did not do the Combine C.O.D. drills we most wanted to see. He did seem to be pretty smooth in the field drills for such a big CB but also benefitted by comparison to how awful some of the others looked.

Amani Oruwariye, Penn St. {Meeting at Senior Bowl} 6'1¾", 204 lbs. He and Greedy Williams may be the only prospects in the draft who have the upside to be true, on-the-island, shutdown CB's in the mold of an Ike Taylor. That rare potential and his high marks for football character are what drive his draft stock. It gets offset by maddening inconsistency, inexplicable lapses in recognizing a play, and the typical slew of technique issues common to college CB's. By way of comparison Greedy Williams has near-pro technique that is far better than Oruwariye's but his football character has often been questioned. Thus Williams is a clearly superior prospect for Years 1 and 2, but Oruwariye has a safer floor from a career perspective. Both are terrible tacklers who approach the job as if it hurts.

Rock Ya Sin, Temple. 5'11¾", 189 lbs. A ‘Temple Tough,' undersized press-man Corner with the physical ability to play in other schemes. Reviewers love his physical edge but also note a lot of technical flaws and related LOC concerns I lump together as "play recognition issues." Rumor says he interviews fantastically well and has a very high football IQ. The Combine revealed an average athlete overall who totally bombed the C.O.D. drills, but that conflicts with what he showed as the only Senior Bowl Corner who regularly fought the very shifty Deebo Samuel to a draw. Obviously better on the field than in shorts.

ROUND 4-5 GRADES:

Corey Ballentine, Washburn. 5'11⅜", 188 lbs. A small school phenom at Corner who also excelled in special teams as a gunner, kick blocker and a returner against his lower level of competition. He got torched at the Senior Bowl when he tried to step up against the college big boys for the first time, but his stock recovered some luster at the Combine when he put up a 96th NFL percentile SPARQ score and an athletic profile with no real holes. He is also reported to have high character with a nice, physical edge to his game. A solid developmental project but no more than that until Year 2 at the earliest and likely Year 3.

Sean Bunting, Central Michigan. 6'⅜", 195 lbs. Another prospect with all the physical tools but little evidence that he can learn how to use them. 93rd percentile SPARQ score based on major speed, length and explosiveness, but the scouting reports suggest that his very small college left a lot of gaps in his fundamentals and football IQ. A better boom or bust bet than most.

Mark Fields, Clemson. 5'9⅞", 192 lbs. He's got lots of physical talent that includes 4.37 speed but injuries and inconsistent play let a Sophomore sensation take over his starting job. Never looked bad, just underwhelming when much more was expected.

Tim Harris, Virginia. 6'1", 205 lbs. A tremendous Shrine Game week put his measurables and good tape on good display. The downside is the very limited amount of tape of a long history of miscellaneous injuries (shoulder, broken wrist, back, etc.). Developmental prospect with upside.

Donnie Lewis, Tulane. 6'0", 194 lbs. An experienced senior standout who projects best to a zone and off-man scheme, but has the potential to learn how to play press as well after a year or two of NFL strength training. Hands might be even worse than Ike Taylor's. Great attitude and energy raise his stock.

Brian Peavy, Iowa St. 5'9", 185 lbs. Mighty Mouse. Add 3-4" and he'd be in the conversation for Round 1, especially given the great experience and stats compiled against wide open Big 12 offenses. But the size simply isn't there and that limits him to being a prospect that might become a better version of Mike Hilton. A notorious Combine snub.

Kendall Sheffield, Ohio St. 5'11⅜", 193 lbs. He's got speed to burn (4.2-something?) and athleticism to match, but even the Ohio State coaches could get him anything close to consistent. Some of his bad games were epic. People particularly complain about problems finding the ball in the air, and making a play on it once he does. Franchise talent; major chance of a bust.

ROUND 6-7 GRADES:

Blace Brown, Troy. 6'0", 184 lbs. A hideous performance at the Shrine Game highlighted the lack of basic technique and low LOC. The Combine was even worse, if possible. Might work as a UDFA since he's got fine ball skills and the reaction time to make plays on the ball out of zone.

Jordan Brown, S. Dakota St. 6'¾", 199 lbs. Team captain; ballhawk; multiyear starter; obvious size; and supposed to have good speed. L.O.C. negligible, and he only managed to belong with the pack at the Senior Bowl. A good but purely developmental prospect.

Rashad Fenton, South Carolina. 5'10", 193 lbs. A smooth athlete who is only poor on the NFL grading curve (bottom 20% SPARQ score). Has experience in both man and zone coverage with a special talent for bump-and-run given his size. The skill set would fit the Steelers scheme if he can do the job physically and improve his tackling - but those are not small questions.

Jimmy Moreland, James Madison. 5'11", 174 lbs. One of those dynamo slot CBs who will go on Day 3 to a team that falls in love with the attitude and potential to succeed as a pure slot corner. The size prevents anything more, and the LOC suggests at least one redshirt year to learn his trade. Quickness, tackling, ball skills, and especially attitude... Those he nails.

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