The Cleveland Browns made Mississippi State cornerback Martin Emerson their first pick of the 2022 NFL Draft. The Browns just traded their slot corner, but Emerson may be better suited to stick on the outside instead of filling that hole.
Standing 6-1.5 201 pounds, Emerson is a bigger corner, and not just in height; Greedy Williams is 6-1.875, but 185 pounds. Emerson's 33.5-inch arms also give him a wingspan that is a full five inches longer than Williams'.
Emerson's size is the best aspect of his game. When he can get his arms onto a receiver at the line of scrimmage (or within five yards, as is legal), he can disrupt their route timing and move them off their track, which allows him to start off in control of the rep, as opposed to reacting to the receiver's movements.
He has to be able to do this, otherwise, guys with superior quickness and long speed will be able to easily create separation. Emerson's foot speed is not terrible for a bigger defender, but it's not a positive for him. He can get stacked right away if he isn't able to press properly, and his lack of speed (4.51-second 40-yard dash) forces him to give receivers a sizeable cushion in off coverage, and he doesn't have the click-and-close needed to cover the space he gives up on a curl, for example.
The hope is that Emerson will be able to stick just close enough to those faster receivers for his long arms to do their job in defending passes. He had 11 of those on 59 targets in 2020 and gave up a career 56.2% completion percentage.
Emerson looks to be a quality #2 corner in the NFL, but his lack of speed will likely limit his ceiling. It's far from impossible to overcome, however, and there are plenty of examples of slower corners becoming legit #1s. See Richard Sherman, Casey Hayward, James Bradberry, and Carlton Davis in recent years.
He enters the league as the fifth CB on the depth chart, and it will be interesting to see how much playing time he can earn as a rookie. Denzel Ward and Greg Newsome are entrenched as the starters, though one could move inside to the slot now with the trade of Troy Hill. Greedy Williams is solid depth even if his career has been disappointing relative to draft hype, and A.J. Green was phenomenal in limited snaps in 2021.
It seems unlikely that Emerson would man the slot, as although he is more effective in the short and medium distances of the field, he just doesn't have the quickness to stick with many of today's slot corners, who are typically smaller and faster, and many are part of the NFL's elite. Emerson also logged only 15 reps in the slot during his career. Still, he'll likely see snaps inside at least in training camp and the preseason, just as Newsome did as a rookie, despite playing all of 18 slot snaps over his three years at Northwestern. Newsome ended up playing 102 snaps from the slot in 2021.
Long-term, does Emerson stick on the outside while Newsome moves inside? Given that the team just signed Ward to a five-year $100.5 million contract extension, he probably isn't going the be the full-time slot. So perhaps that will end up being Newsome's role for the next few campaigns.
Another possibility is that Emerson is crosstrained at safety given his physical profile and ability against the run. His size and length are his elite traits and the best way to use those is playing up close and physical with receivers and maybe even tight ends.
Martin Emerson brings a unique body to the Browns cornerback room and it will be very interesting to see how Joe Woods best makes use of Emerson's traits and how he utilizes the (at least) five playable corners on his roster. Even though he is buried on the depth chart, a team can never have enough quality cornerbacks, and Emerson looks to have the traits to become one of those.