2020 NFL Draft: Gators CB C.J. Henderson Scouting Report
When C.J. Henderson clocked a 4.39-second 40-yard dash at the 2020 NFL Combine, his first-round status was all but solidified.
The three-year standout defensive back for Florida, who Gators defensive coordinator Todd Grantham considers to be the best cornerback he's ever coached, is known for his speed. As a high school recruit, Henderson posted a 4.35 40-yard dash at 6-1, 179 lbs.
That athleticism translated to the field during Henderson's time at UF. In 32 games, starting 26, Henderson recorded six interceptions, 20 defended passes, 93 total tackles, four tackles for loss, eight defended passes, and two forced fumbles - making his presence known in all three levels of coverage and the backfield.
Across his entire collegiate career, Henderson has allowed 52.7% (58-of-110) of his targets in coverage to be caught, according to Pro Football Focus. Henderson's 19.1 snaps per reception allowed in 2018 - when he produced a career-best 50% completion percentage allowed - led all returning SEC cornerbacks. And according to PFF's analysis, he did not allow a touchdown during the 2018 season.
He was dinged for two touchdowns during the 2019 season - in which he missed three games early on due to an ankle injury and sat out of the Orange Bowl while preparing for the NFL Draft - but additional context on those plays could debate his responsibilities in both instances. We'll discuss that later.
The bottom line is, even though Henderson played fast at Florida and ran fast in high school, I wasn't convinced Henderson was going to break into the 4.3s after putting on 25 lbs. since he was a teenager. A result in the mid-4.4 range felt more realistic, which still would have been a good time.
I was wrong, and I was impressed. It led me back to his tape to give Henderson a thorough scouting report prior to the upcoming NFL Draft, set to begin on April 23rd. AllGators will continue to publish scouting reports like this one up until the event, which will be held completely virtually due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.
We'll take a look through Henderson's athletic skill-set, coverage skills, physical attributes, some issues of concern, and perhaps offer some clarity as to what makes Henderson a first-round prospect.
Simply put: Henderson's athleticism allows him to play in-stride with the best receivers you can find. Perhaps receivers with a bigger frame will out-muscle him as he continues to add strength, but you would be hard-pressed to find a receiver that could out-athlete Henderson as he's in coverage.
Against the 2019 Biletnikoff Award recipient Ja'Marr Chase above, Henderson begins with outside leverage with a split safety to provide help should Chase work inside. Though, Chase angles to the outside to pressure Henderson's cushion before stretching vertically with plenty of space for quarterback Joe Burrow to target his inside shoulder on the 9-route.
This is where Henderson's athleticism makes him special. Burrow and Chase win on this route more often than not - but even though Henderson has to work his way inside to this ball, his speed to remain in stride and 60th-percentile arm length among cornerbacks (31 5/8 inches) allows him to go over the top and break up this pass.
Henderson utilizes his athleticism beyond playing the deep ball. His skill-set presents far more than just long speed. Once again with outside leverage and in off-man, Henderson plays the endzone boundary and allows the receiver to eat up space so he can keep the route ahead of him. He mirrors the vertical stem of the route extremely well to maintain good positioning.
Proactive to the upcoming break outside, Henderson gets his hands on the receiver before he tries to push Henderson off. Disrupting the route while the ball is coming out, Henderson keeps himself in position to make a play, which he does with quick breaking speed working outside and by finishing through the pass.
Against Auburn - Henderson's first game back from injury - he plays this boundary route from the inside to eliminate space for the receiver to catch this pass. As the receiver releases outside the numbers, Henderson remains slightly on top of the route to give him room to react to an inside cut, but his coverage angle eliminates space for the receiver to make a catch in bounds.
Henderson ensures an incomplete pass by pushing the receiver out of bounds mid-air, as he forced any shot of a reception to come by pulling it in contested.
Once again, we see Henderson's long speed on display as he totally eliminates the 9-route - this time playing the route from the inside and boxing the receiver out from the underthrown pass with his outside hip.
It's tough to tell without All-22 footage, but it appears Henderson plays the route with a trail technique at the time of the throw that cornerbacks typically utilize with help over the top - which Henderson neither had nor needed on this play. I believe that, given the fact that Henderson's cushion is all but eliminated while he remains on the screen and the receiver releases outside - yet Henderson had yet to flip his hips.
With this technique, Henderson forces a low-percentage throw from the opposite hash to outside the numbers, and his speed allows him to get back into position to break it up in stride.
That's pretty impressive.
This pass from Auburn quarterback Bo Nix is both underthrown, but what is impressive is Henderson getting in position to play this pass from the outside. With safety Jeawon Taylor in position to undercut this should Nix let this ball out at the route break, Henderson is forced to work into the middle of the field patiently before accelerating to break the pass up.
Henderson leaves himself with ground to cover by playing this route with outside leverage. It's risky to play that far off and outside against deeper, in-breaking routes, but Henderson's agility will allow him to recover and play these types of passes.
The two touchdowns allowed
Noted in the beginning of this report, PFF has Henderson down for allowing two touchdowns during the 2019 season, both coming against LSU.
Neither of them should fall on Henderson, though.
Above is the first touchdown Henderson is dinged for, facing a slant against Chase with outside leverage and a deep cushion in a confined space within the redzone. LSU runs an RPO that draws safety Brad Stewart far into the box reading run, opening up the slant route with Henderson playing off.
While Henderson is athletic enough to get in position to play this slant, underneath help is expected here and Stewart could not provide that. That much can be seen in Stewart's reaction to the pass as he immediately stops and retreats as Burrow releases this ball, and could continuously be seen throughout the game.
Two quarters later, LSU calls the same play against the same coverage and personnel - and Stewart bites on the fake handoff once again which exposes space in the middle of the field. Henderson has to play outside leverage in off-man against teams like LSU who find a high level of success in the passing game, in order to prevent the deep ball. Safety help is required in the middle of the field, and Henderson didn't get it much against this play call.
Now, on this rep, Stewart does his job and Florida successfully beats the RPO. Stewart is patient in reading the run and doesn't overreact, which keeps him in a position to flip his hips and break up this ball while Henderson is over top of the route.
On the second touchdown, seen above, Henderson is aligned to cover Chase while linebacker Ventrell Miller is manned-up across from running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire, who is flexed out wide. Edwards-Helaire is a known threat in the passing game, running routes well for a running back and being explosive after the catch. Though he didn't have stellar production prior to the Florida game as a receiver, Edwards finished his season with 55 receptions for 453 yards and a score.
Meanwhile, Miller is far more dependable as a run defender given his lack of sideline-to-sideline speed. Miller allowed 75% of his targets in coverage to be completed in 2019 (per PFF), and prior to the LSU game, he had allowed 9-of-11 targets to be caught on the season.
Against the most dominant passing offense in the NCAA, Miller simply shouldn't be in a position to cover out wide. Florida had three timeouts with 5:52 left in the game at the time of this play - one should have been used to get Miller off of the field against this formation.
Instead, as Edwards-Helaire and Chase crossed their routes to create confusion, Henderson got tripped up by Miller and Chase blew past the coverage - taking an easy reception and turning it into a multi-score lead late in the game.
Based on the context within the two touchdown passes against Henderson, it's hard to pin blame on him for the scores as he was hung out to dry in both scenarios.
This also isn't the only game where teams took advantage of Florida's safeties biting on an RPO with Henderson in off-man coverage playing outside leverage to prevent a play down the boundary.
Unlike the LSU game with Brad Stewart, this time Jeawon Taylor is out of position after biting on quarterback James Blackmon's run read, which allows him to open up and throw the ball right over Taylor's head.
Could Henderson play straight over top the receiver in off-man, or with inside leverage? Sure, but the safeties are there to take away the inside and provide help - and Henderson moving inside to cover their tracks would open up opportunities at the boundary that Henderson has proven he can shut down.
Henderson has been knocked during his entire draft process for his inconsistent tackling in 2019. The concerns are valid, as there were times Henderson either simply didn't finish through plays or show 100% effort as a tackler.
But it's silly to suggest he can't do it, or that he isn't willing. On the clip above - a 3rd and 2 situation - Henderson is quick to read and react to the pass in the flats and flies down to make a big stop before Justin Jefferson can get upfield and across the line to gain.
This is a solid tackle and a high-effort play, against top competition. Henderson aims low because he isn't the strongest cornerback you'll come across in his upper body, but his acceleration generates a good amount of power from his lower body instead.
Against Miami, Henderson can be seen working into the box after his receiver was sent in motion. Reading the run, Henderson flies into the C-gap before the running back can step into the hole - being slowed down by initial disruption - and Henderson finishes the play just behind the line of scrimmage.
At the same time, there are moments where Henderson's lack of upper body strength as a tackler can hurt him. Should the ball-carrier possess strong contact balance, they can shake Henderson off. That can be seen in both the clip above and below, as Chase is dynamic with the ball in his hands and at shaking off contact.
But again, we've seen Henderson make open-field tackles in the past. His athleticism gives him a boost despite the lack of power to win as a perfect form tackler. This issue is coachable, and should improve as Henderson continues to get stronger at the NFL level. He may never be perfect in this respect, but that's alright when you consider what he has to offer as a coverage defender.
Henderson's speed also jumps off of the screen when he is deployed as a blitzing cornerback - which led to his four sacks at Florida. He doesn't tally one here against dual-threat Missouri quarterback Kelly Bryant - in fact, he misses at least one legitimate opportunity to finish the play and that needs to be fixed - but the pressure he puts on Bryant greatly disrupts the play.
C.J. Henderson isn't the perfect cornerback prospect. Concerns expressed regarding his tackling and effort during the 2019 season are valid based on a full evaluation of his entire 2019 season.
However, those concerns are also overblown when they get debated, because, for each concern, Henderson has proven on tape that he can overcome those issues. His tackling isn't perfect, but that doesn't make him a bad tackler. His coverage wasn't as dominant in 2019 as previous years, but it was still very good - and the blame sent his way for two touchdowns given up against LSU isn't necessarily valid when the context is provided.
With that being said, Henderson is considered a top-20 prospect in the upcoming NFL Draft for good reason. His size is ideal, his athleticism is top of the line, and he's shown everything he needed to on tape that suggests he can become a No. 1 cornerback at the NFL level.