More than ever NFL teams are looking for cornerbacks with huge size and length to match up with the freakish athletes that play receiver in today’s game. If a player doesn’t meet their size thresholds (say, 6’0 or taller or a certain arm length) they will remove them from their draft board altogether, despite whatever their tape might say. This draft is deep on talent, but not on size, and some of the best players on tape won’t meet many teams’ size or athletic benchmarks. Despite statistics saying smaller corners generally don’t play as well and tend to have shorter careers, in recent years the Bucs have preferred smaller cornerbacks in part because they prize short-area quickness, instincts, and ball skills. This is a scouting style Licht likely picked up from Bill Belichick from his time in New England, and Licht had a hand in drafting Tyrann Mathieu in Arizona as well.
In this 2016 article from the Patriots SB Nation site Pats Pulpit, there are seven traits Belichick values in his cornerbacks. They are:
- Foot Quickness
- Acceleration/Recovery speed
- Solid tackler
- Confidence/Mental toughness
- Ball Skills
Many of the players in this class that meet most teams’ size benchmarks struggle with many of the requirements on this list, be it tight hips or or poor ball skills. Since the Bucs aren’t shy about taking a smaller player there are several that posses good tape and have the agility Licht looks for that other teams might cross off their list.
Licht has drafted two cornerbacks in his time in Tampa Bay, Vernon Hargreaves III and Ryan Smith, and both fit this mold, though to date they have struggled. Since Hargreaves will be moving inside, outside cornerback is clearly one of the team’s two biggest needs going into the 2018 draft, along with running back.
I wish I could post clips of game tape for you guys but time is short, so instead lets use Combine numbers to see if we can figure out the Bucs’ benchmarks. First, the athletic webs of Hargreaves and Smith from mockdraftable.com:
This is an admittedly small sample size, but the Bucs don’t seem to care about height/weight, length, hand size, 10 yard split, or being more than just average in the 40 yard dash. You can see why Hargreaves was taken 11th overall, but even Smith’s web tends to strength and being above average in short area quickness. As a 4th round pick he wasn’t going to be elite anyway.
The Bucs need at least one corner and a running back and don’t have a 3rd round pick, using it in the trade with the Giants for Pierre-Paul. It seems likely the Bucs will take a running back and a corner with their first two picks but they could be in any order. So, who are some of the cornerbacks the Bucs could target early that might fit their benchmarks?
Four stood out to me that could start outside for the Bucs in 2018: Denzel Ward, Jaire Alexander, Mike Hughes, Quenton Meeks. Without going over their tape I can’t say whether they meet some of the other requirements, but maybe we can do that in a follow up article. Here are their athletic webs:
Ward is likely a 1st round lock and seems to exactly fit the type the Bucs like but he still has solid NFL size at 5’10. Ohio State teaches its corners to grab and he won’t be able to get away with that in the NFL but he is still a very good cover corner prospect and will have the best man cover skills on the team if he is selected.
Louisville’s defense was awful in 2017, but Alexander was a bright spot. He dealt with some injuries in 2017 that hurt his play, but if the Bucs trade down in the 1st round he might be someone they look at, or in the 2nd if he slips.
Hughes went to North Carolina before being suspended for an late-night/early-morning fight at a frat house. He transferred out and ended up at UCF where he was excellent for the Knights in 2017. I’ve seen Hughes mocked in the 1st and 2nd rounds, but he is still raw and only has one year of good tape, though the tape was very good. One of Hughes’ athletic comparisons is (a better) Ryan Smith.
I included Meeks because even though he’s bigger, I think the Bucs may look at someone as big as him because of his 3 cone time. Other than his 20 yard shuttle Meeks’ athletic profile isn’t that dissimilar to Desmond Trufant’s, who played for Mike Smith in Atlanta. Meeks is a solid player that lacks physicality but was good in off coverage, which the Bucs have run the last few seasons. He compares athletically to a lot of safeties.
I would be remiss if I did not include Minkah Fitzpatrick and Derwin James.
Fitzpatrick did not play outside corner at Alabama and shouldn’t in the NFL as he is a slot corner/safety hybrid, but he is a playmaker because of his intelligence and instincts and will make his living not at one position but in the middle of the field against slot receivers, tight ends, and running backs and even as a single high safety. His role is the future of NFL defensive backs as the adoption of the spread accelerates and teams look to put their best athletes in space in the middle of the field. Fitzpatrick can also rush the passer and knock down balls.
M.J. Stewart seems to fit this role too but I don’t think the Bucs will look at this North Carolina player.
Even though Derwin James is not a corner the Bucs are clearly very interested in him for their 1st round pick. James is a true athletic freak and a do-it-all game-changing playmaker with all-pro potential. He should play a safety/linebacker hybrid role shaded towards the LOS. Still, his athleticism and cover skills allow him to man up on slot receivers, tight ends, and running backs and keep up with them down the field. He can also effectively rush the passer against not just tight ends but offensive tackles as he possesses a rare ability to effortlessly convert speed to power. A creative defensive coordinator will get the most out of him by utilizing all and not just some of his skills. He is a step slow to react in deep zone coverage but otherwise has the top tier athleticism and instincts you look for in an elite safety. If Fitzpatrick is the future of MOF corners James is the future of safeties and players will be compared to him in future drafts.
There are other cornerbacks that may fit what the Bucs like that should go in the middle rounds but didn’t do certain drills at the Combine, including Isaiah Oliver, Parry Nickerson, D.J. Reed, Darious Williams, and Donte Jackson, and Avonte Maddox.
Oliver will be an early round day 1 or 2 pick that could start outside for the Bucs immediately. He has 6’1” size but struggles changing direction without losing speed; still his ability to start outside is what the Bucs are looking for and I think he could be in play, especially if he is there in the 2nd.
Maddox seems to fit the profile perfectly, but he might be too small even for the Bucs. At 5’9” he is almost certainly too small to fill the outside corner role the Bucs are looking for. His play style attempts to make up for it by playing aggressively and is a good blitzer, but will obviously struggle in man coverage at the next level. Would the Bucs take him in the middle rounds and gamble that Hargreaves can fulfill his potential like they did with Doug Martin? Or could he be a player they look at for depth?
Nickerson is also over 6’0 like Oliver but only weighs 180lbs and will likely go in the middle rounds, with the potential to develop into an outside starter.
Reed is another 5’9” tiny corner that is better suited for the slot and like Maddox makes up for his size with physical aggressive play that might be someone they look at in the later rounds.
Jackson has elite speed and short-area quickness but is also undersized even at 5’11 because he weighs 175lbs. He may not be ready to play outside year one but like Nickerson the potential is certainly there.
Darious Williams from UAB is an interesting case, and Licht likes small-school players. Williams, who is from Jacksonville, went to a Division III school before walking on at UAB, a football program which recently came back from the dead. I don’t believe Williams was invited to the Combine so I don’t have a web for him, however, his pro day was incredible:
Williams’ finished his pro day workout with a 4.44 second 40-yard dash (tied for No. 9 among combine top CB performers), a 39” vertical jump (tying for second-best CB jump at the combine) and a 6.84 second 3-cone drill (would’ve put him at No. 10 among CBs at the combine).
At 5’10” 180lbs he is yet another slight “undersized” corner but with his athleticism and ball skills he should be a contender for playing outside at the NFL level and someone the Bucs will definitely look at.
The fact the Bucs might be more willing than most teams to look at undersized corners increases the depth of the class for them, and with a need at cornerback adds to the flexibility the Bucs have when deciding on their draft strategy.
If the Bucs take a defensive back in the first two rounds, who would you draft?
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