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Evaluations

Building the Perfect 2020 Cornerback Prospect

by Derrik Klassen
Updated On: April 18, 2020, 1:10 pm ET

The 2020 cornerback class is loaded, but Ohio State's Jeff Okudah stands a clear tier above his peers. That being said, for the sake of this exercise, all players will be held to two categories max so as to avoid listing Okudah eight times. 


Build: C.J. Henderson, Florida

Honestly, picking an “ideal” cornerback build from the top of this cornerback class is sort of nonsense. Almost all of the top guys are within an inch and five pounds of 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds, which is about the perfect range for a cornerback as is. 

As such, we will just roll with someone who is not Jeff Okudah (so we can still give Okudah two categories), but has nearly identical features: C.J. Henderson. Okudah and Henderson each measured in at 6-foot-1, but Henderson came in one pound lighter at 204. Henderson sports 31 ⅝” arms on his tall, lean frame, which puts him in the 60th percentile for arm length. 

Play Speed: C.J. Henderson, Florida

Utah's Javelin Guidry ran the fastest 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine, but raw speed is not necessarily the same as play speed, especially when two players run comparable times. While Guidry clocked in at 4.29s with his 5-foot-9 and 191-pound frame, C.J. Henderson ran a 4.39s with his previously mentioned 6-foot-1 and 204-pound frame, which is as or more impressive than Guidry's time at his size. 

The play speed is also evident on tape for Henderson. While his technique can be shoddy and he loves to gamble in zone coverages, Henderson has incredible closing speed, both when working vertically and when flying downhill to cover the short area. No amount of separation is safe against Henderson. 

Henderson's gambling play style as well as how his speed enables that play style is on full display in the clip above. From the outside position Henderson started in, many cornerbacks would ride the wide receiver's outside shoulder as far as possible and try to disrupt the pass from over the receiver's back. Henderson does not have the patience for that, though. He sees a window to close on the ball sooner and takes it. Henderson cuts inside to get under the receiver and reach for the ball before/as it gets to the catch point, which is obviously a major risk if Henderson mistimes his move or the ball gets tipped up behind him. Due to his speed and closing ability, however, Henderson is able to close the distance in a hurry and make a play on the ball.

The confidence and play speed to get away with a play like that can only be found in a small handful of other cornerbacks in this class. 

Physicality / Press: Kristian Fulton, LSU

Just like former teammate Greedy Williams last year, Kristian Fulton thrives off physicality at/near the line of scrimmage. Fulton is as comfortable as they come in press coverage, be that legit press coverage in which he jams the receiver at the line or press bail in which he lines up right on the line of scrimmage then bails off at the snap. Either way, Fulton wants to start each play in as close proximity to the wide receiver and go from there rather than play off-coverage and wait on the receiver to make a move. 

According to Pro Football Focus, Fulton's 301 snaps in press-coverage are the third-most of any player in the class. Additionally, Fulton graded as the SEC's best cornerback in 2019, which puts him above players such as teammate Derek Stingley Jr., Alabama's Trevon Diggs, Florida's C.J. Henderson, Mississippi State's Cam Dantzler, and a handful of other. Granted, that does not necessarily mean Fulton had the best press-coverage grade, but being his overall coverage grade was elite and he played a ton of his snaps in press, it is fair to assume his press-coverage grade is quite good. 

Fulton is also physical later in routes and at the catch point. He understands very well how to "stack" on top of a wide receiver and slow down their route without making a blatant push that brings on a penalty. That subtle, nuanced physicality is what often separates good cornerbacks from the great ones. 


Footwork / Technique: Jeff Okudah, Ohio State

In every sense, Jeff Okudah is a smooth operator. Hips, feet, eyes -- all of Okudah's traits and skills blend together perfectly and allow him to flow smoothly through any coverage. Being that Ohio State operated heavily out of press Cover 1 shells, Okudah also has a ton of experience in press coverage and has subsequently become very comfortable executing press techniques. No matter the coverage or assignment, Okudah has the feet and technique to give himself a foundation to play on and the athletic tools to capitalize. 

In this clip, Okudah is playing a deep-third in a zone-match coverage that effectively turns into man coverage because of the route distribution. As the wide receiver gets vertical, Okudah stays locked into his inside hip to cut off any inside breaks while keeping his outside arm ever so lightly in contact with the receiver so as to feel out an outside route break. Okudah sinks and flips his hips the instant the wide receiver turns, which saves him just enough time to drive back toward the ball for the pass break up. 

Okudah's ability to take away the middle of the field through his leverage while keeping himself ready to flip his hips at a moment's notice to play the outside is a tough ask for any cornerback. In many cases, cornerbacks will play from the outside-in because it is easier to take away the sideline via leverage and break inside, but Okudah made the inverse work because of his clean technique and stunning downhill burst. 

Man Coverage: Jeff Okudah, Ohio State

To me, the “perfect” cornerback is just whoever takes the crown in this category alone. Man coverage is king, especially in the NFL. If defensive minds such as Bill Belichick, Wade Phillips, and Dennis Allen could just run Cover 1 variants all game, they would — heck, Belichick darn near has over the past couple seasons with Stephon Gilmore as his No.1. Getting three capable man coverage cornerbacks and a smart free safety, however, is difficult in a sport with a hard cap and a draft system. 

Jeff Okudah takes the cake for man coverage in this year’s class. In fact, Okudah is the best pure man coverage cornerback prospect since fellow Ohio State alumni Marshon Lattimore in 2017. 

Executing man coverage at a high level requires high-end hip mobility, sharp footwork, and a keen understanding of how to use one’s arms to disrupt opposing receivers throughout their route stems. All three traits / skills have to blend together just right to make for an elite man coverage defender who can keep up with any type of wide receiver. 

Zone Coverage: Trevon Diggs, Alabama

The previous section talked about man coverage being about mostly physical tools. Of course, there is some degree of savvy and smarts required to play man coverage, but being able to keep up athletically is the real foundation of man coverage. The opposite tends to be true for zone coverage. While an adequate amount of burst and change-of-direction skills are necessary, zone coverage is rooted in a cornerback’s ability to read route patterns and/or opposing quarterbacks’ eyes and trigger toward the ball on time. 

Trevon Diggs is arguably this year’s sharpest zone cornerback. When asked to sit back, read patterns, and trigger on the quarterbacks’ movements, Diggs was exceptional for the Tide. Diggs often proved to be at his best when he was able to keep plays in front of him, which zone coverages tend to do for cornerbacks.  

Diggs’ ability to flow around the field and manipulate space in coverage can be devastating for opposing quarterbacks. Even the great Joe Burrow was caught slipping by Diggs’ eyes and trigger in zone. 

Ball Skills: Amik Robertson, Louisiana Tech

Amik Robertson defended more passes than all but one player in the country last season. With 16 pass breakups and an additional five interceptions, Robertson finished the season with 21 total passes defended. Robertson also recorded 16 total passes defended (four interceptions) in 2018. Even at 5-foot-8 and 187-pounds, the Louisiana Tech product knows how to find and fight for the ball as well as anyone. 

Part of Robertson’s ball skills are rooted in something that permeates throughout his entire game: fearlessness. Robertson does not think about what might happen at a collision point or how he may fall after getting his hands on the ball. He just wants to make the play at all costs. Most bigger cornerbacks do not have that kind of reckless abandon, so seeing it from the smallest cornerback in the class can be a bit jarring. 

Tackling: Jaylon Johnson, Utah

As is often the case with Utah defensive backs, Jaylon Johnson is a physical player in all phases of the game. Though a bit slender at 6-foot and 190-pounds, Johnson has no qualms about fighting through blockers to get to the ball-carrier and help out with a tackle. 

Versus screens, the Utah cornerback is the type of player to sprint full-speed at the first blocker in his way, blow them up, and try to clean up the mess with his tackling efforts. Johnson can be a bit reckless in that way, but I'd much prefer a cornerback with the willingness to play with that kind of head-on-fire effort than not. Johnson is also a sure tackler -- or at least as much of one as a cornerback can be. It was rare to see Johnson get his arms wrapped around a wide receiver in 2019 and not bring them down.