The New Cornerstones

Speed still rules NFL secondaries, but teams are building around taller players who have the strength to jam receivers and the length to win jump balls. Just look at where the big cornerbacks are being taken in the NFL draft
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A few days after the Nebraska coaching staff gathered to talk about the depth chart in the spring of 2010, they set out to deliver often disappointing news: Position changes were coming, with too-slow safeties being moved to linebacker and the chubby linebackers learning how to play with a hand in the dirt.

Transfer wideout Stanley Jean-Baptiste, the Cornhuskers’ biggest receiver at 6-foot-3, 215 pounds, had but one catch in the spring game. The rest of the position group was almost entirely composed of underclassmen whom the staff loved. The defensive backs’ meeting room, however, was getting thin. And there was Jean-Baptiste, talented, though unlikely to see the field anytime soon.

Asked if he’d be willing to switch, Jean-Baptiste was crestfallen. He had no idea how to play corner, and he feared he’d never see the end zone again. “I just liked scoring touchdowns,” he says, “but mostly I just wanted to play.”

At first the transition to corner seemed easy. He intercepted Joe Bauserman in a comeback victory over Ohio State in his first game in 2011. But inexperience soon caught up with him; even in 2012 his new defensive backs coach said Jean-Baptiste was “kind of just surviving.” Entering his senior season last fall, his pro prospects weren’t great.

These are the college football players that NFL fans never used to hear about. A tweener is what we once called a cornerback who was too big to play cornerback and didn’t have the range to be a safety. Then the Seattle Seahawks happened. While Jean-Baptiste was making strides at Nebraska in 2013, Richard Sherman, Brandon Browner and Byron Maxwell took football’s most simplistic game plan and made life hell for more than a dozen offensive coordinators on their way to winning Super Bowl XLVIII with a 43-8 smackdown of the Broncos.

In his four seasons in Seattle, coach Pete Carroll had drafted according to a prototype, which defensive coordinator Dan Quinn explains here in great detail.

Stanley Jean-Baptiste (r.) switched from wideout to cornerback at Nebraska and fits the new NFL mold for the position. (Eric Francis/Getty Images)

TK inline (Eric Francis/Getty Images)

Length: “You want him to have 32- or 33-inch arms,” Quinn says. “He doesn’t have to be 6-3 or 6-4 to have length.”

Press ability/physicality: “You might not get to see him play on the line in college, but does he have the strength to potentially do it?”

Vision: “Can he track the ball? On plays that are down the field, his back is going to be to the ball. Even if you didn’t see when the QB threw it, you have to be able to quickly locate it.”

Ball skills: “Did he play hoops? Sometimes, if a guy played receiver, that can be cool too. For whatever reason it didn’t work out at receiver, he still has to have good ball skills.”

Suddenly, Jean-Baptiste doesn’t sound so anonymous anymore. Neither does Keith McGill, the 6-foot-3 converted safety out of Utah who is projected to go in the second round. Likewise for Pierre Desir, the 6-foot-1 product out of Lindenwood University who attracted scouts from five teams to his Division II school’s pro day in St. Charles, Mo.

Ten years ago, Quinn says, Jean-Baptiste might have been a sixth-rounder. Now, it would be a shock to see him slip beyond the third.

“Before, it was just purely based on top-end speed,” Quinn says. “It was just, OK, 4.3, no matter what—it was just, look at the speed. Not anymore.”

When did this happen? It didn’t start with Sherman, a fifth-round pick out of Stanford in 2011. And it won’t end there either. The average NFL cornerback is 5-foot-11, 193.4 pounds. The average wide receiver: 6-foot-1. In the 2001 draft, four men over 6-1 entered the league as cornerbacks, and only one stayed a corner. By 2003, the Jets insisted on switching fourth round pick Jamie Henderson to safety. Ravens second-round pick Gary Baxter played mostly corner at Baylor, but was drafted as a safety—he quickly switched back, and then the Ravens let him walk after his rookie deal expired. The Lions moved fourth-round pick Anthony Henry to safety, eight years into an unremarkable career. Only 2001 first-rounder Willie Middlebrooks stuck at corner, but his position didn’t really matter; he started twice in a five-year career.

By 2005, the makings of a trend had emerged. Second-rounders Stanford Routt and Ron Bartell and fourth-rounder Travis Daniels—each 6-foot-1—amassed a combined 160 starts for eight different teams. Still, 25 of the 29 corners drafted that year were under six feet. The league missed on a gem that draft; the outrageously large Brandon Browner (6-4) out of Oregon State. He would land in the CFL and lead the Calgary Stampeders to the Grey Cup in 2008; he famously jumped into the stands during a touchdown celebration in 2009 and chugged a fan’s beer through his face mask.

Pete Carroll found Browner in 2011 and installed a simple game plan, best summed up by safety Kam Chancellor: “We play man-to-man or Cover-3, not much more than that. It's not a secret.”

Browner and Sherman could be found jamming receivers at the line and harassing them down the field, or retreating to the deep thirds. Whatever they lacked in foot speed, they compensated with disruption and ball skills. The only way to move the ball against Seattle was to pick away at the flats or to attack the linebackers on the edges, and even then it was tough going for 2013 MVP Peyton Manning. In the aftermath of the Super Bowl, scouts were put on notice.

“The problem with most bigger corners has always been that they don’t have the quickness or the speed to cover as well as a guy who was your standard corner,” says 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. “But there’s just been a couple here lately, with Richard being the lead guy, that have had success, and now everybody is looking to get the next guy.”

Tall corners like Richard Sherman must be able to disrupt receivers off the line. (Robert Beck/SI/The MMQB)

Tall cornerbacks must have the physicality of Richard Sherman to disrupt receivers coming off the line. (Robert Beck/SI/The MMQB)

With the addition of Byron Maxwell, Seattle’s was easily the largest corner group in the NFL since Bobby Taylor, Troy Vincent and Al Harris led a tradition-smashing Eagles unit in the early-2000s built on the zone blitz. In 2001, coach Jim Johnson’s defense was the fourth in league history to go a season without allowing more than 21 points in a game. Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott was an assistant on that team.

“We were very fortunate at that time,” McDermott says. “We felt ahead of the curve that it was a passing league, and so we knew the importance of being able to defend the perimeter of the field.”

McDermott runs a more conservative defense than Johnson’s, which coach Ron Rivera calls "intelligently aggressive." McDermott has to account for one offensive innovation his mentor never witnessed. Twice a year, the Panthers have to gameplan for 6-foot-5 tight end Jimmy Graham split from the tackle, often all alone. Enter the 6-1 Melvin White, who went undrafted in 2012 after running a 4.6 in the 40. In 2013, only four Panthers played more defensive snaps than White.

Says McDermott: “We’re seeing Jimmy being flexed out on the backside like a wide receiver. You’ve got to have CBs who can match that caliber player and athletes who, if you will, play above their limb. It’s a matchup game, particularly in our division.”

Most teams will aim to achieve the kind of diversity the Panthers have in their backfield: One or two big press corners and a stable of speedsters. Some, like the Seahawks, will stock up. Having Maxwell waiting in the wings served them well when Browner was suspended for the postseason.

Of course, there’s a way to thrive without the Seahawks’ prototype. The 49ers did just fine without a corner taller than six feet in 2013 (though they just signed the 6-2 Chris Cook in free agency) or even a big-budget corner (their highest-paid player at the position, Tramaine Brock, owns the 21st highest cap number).

The difficulty in finding players like Richard Sherman is how seldom taller cornerbacks are asked to do things in college that they’ll have to do in the NFL.

Fangio explains: “We just try and mix our coverages as much as we can, so they don’t try and get a beat on us. Our corners mix press and off technique and we try and be competent in both. We try and win with some pass-rush and help them that way, but we just generally just mix the coverages up.”

The difficulty in finding a Richard Sherman, whom Fangio coached at Stanford, is how seldom taller corners are asked to do things in college that they’ll have to do in the NFL. Their résumés are almost always incomplete. Even Sherman, for instance, played very little press at Stanford. When you look around the college ranks, very few schools practice physicality at the line.

Says Fangio, “I think the passing game is so much more efficient and better in the NFL than it is in college football that the ability to press and disrupt a passing game is more critical than it is in college.”

Jean-Baptiste did some of everything at Nebraska for coordinator Joe Papuchis, but spent the majority of his time off the ball, covering the flats. He improved vastly on a lackluster junior year, collecting four interceptions while shadowing the opposing team’s best receiver in 2013.

Improving on his combine numbers, Jean-Baptiste ran a 4.46 at his pro day, which might have been enough to get drafted without the breakout season. Former Maryland corner Nolan Carroll missed his senior season with a broken leg and still went in the fifth round in 2010 thanks, in part, to his height (6-1) and his 40 (4.39).

That’s not to say a Jean-Baptiste or a McGill is likely to be overdrafted. A look at the 2009 draft and the ensuing four years for each draftee shows just the opposite is happening. In ’09, 27 corners under 6-foot-1 were drafted at an average position of 133, and their weighted career Approximate Value (a metric designed by Pro Football Reference to gauge contributions) averaged out to 9.8. For the eight men selected to play corner at 6-1 and over, the average position was earlier in the draft (120) and their contributions thus far greater (11 AV).

In the copycat NFL, expect that average draft position to rise in the big corner column.