This article got delayed for a few reasons, but only one reason as it relates to this article. Throughout the college season I had Michigan State’s Darqueze Dennard and Virginia Tech’s Kyle Fuller as my number one and two ranked corners and I gave Dennard the edge simply because of how physical he is. Fuller is a physical corner as well, but not quite as physical as Dennard and for that reason alone I gave Dennard the edge and I only watched a handful of cut-ups on them early in the draft-process as I didn’t feel the need to study them as much as the other corners because I knew what I was getting with those two. Then over the past week I decided to focus on all of Dennard and Fuller’s games I had access to, to see how close the battle for first and second was and it was much closer than I expected.
To be honest I still can’t really tell which one I’d prefer, I think you can’t lose with either one, but we’ll get into the reasons why I can’t seem to make up my mind on those two along with other defensive back options with the 18th pick.
To be a quality corner in the NFL you need to be able to play both man-coverage and zone, even mostly man-coverage defenses have to mix in some zone coverages and vice-versa, but I like my corners strength to be in man-coverage. I’d much rather ask a press-man corner to play zone every once in awhile than ask a zone corner to go man and as we know Rex Ryan shares this belief as well. So, while these are my rankings, I think Ryan and the Jets also have Dennard and Fuller as their top two corners I’m just not sure in what order.
1a) Darqueze Dennard – Dennard is a true press-man-coverage corner. He’s physical, aggressive and fundamentally sound. A technician who uses his hands well and has the ability to stick right on the inside hip of the receiver and run with him step-for-step. Even if the receiver does get a step or two on him he has excellent closing speed and will use his body to box out the receiver or make a play on the ball deflecting it with his hands. When he does get beat he doesn’t let up and will often make a play on the ball right before or after the catch, whether sticking his hands out right above the receivers hands so the ball can’t drop in or wrapping both hands around the receiver to make a tackle and knocking the ball loose for a fumble.
Dennard lined up all over the field, outside (right and left), slot, deep off-coverage and he made plays from every position. When asked to play zone-coverage he played it well more often than not. He’s a willing and able tackler against the run, good recognition of when to come off his receiver and play the run. Got pushed around a bit against the physical rushing attack of Stanford, but never stopped hustling and will make plenty of effort plays.
Occasionally Dennard can get a little sloppy following receivers out of breaks, rounding off his cuts and giving the receiver too much cushion but usually he stays right on the receiver’s hip.
The one concern I found when I went back and watched all his games I could was, ironically, is he too physical? I say this because I noticed an awful lot of hand-checking all the way down the field. If I’m watching a game live and I notice it, but he’s not drawing a lot of flags, I love the physicality, but on tape I wonder if that will bite him a bit in the NFL. Refs let college corners get away with a lot more hand-checking and body-bumping down field than in the NFL so, will he be racking up penalty yards? Also is his ability to get away with hand-checking so much the reason he was as dominate as he was in college?
That is, however, a relatively minor concern. I’m not concerned with his straight-line speed because of his technique, hips, acceleration and competitive fire. I expect he’ll be just fine, it might take him a little while to adjust, but he’s got great hip movement, strong fundamentals and awareness and has the competitive desire and fiery attitude you like to see in a corner.
1b) Kyle Fuller – I think sub-consciously I gave Dennard the clear edge over Fuller because of Logan Thomas. Of course that sounds ridiculous, but while I liked both of them a lot during the 2012 season I only watched a handful of Virginia Tech games last season because I couldn’t stomach watching Thomas play. So, I watched a lot more of Dennard last season and I think that just made everything he did stand out in my head more because week-after-week he’d reaffirm my belief in how good he was. I knew I loved Fuller, but the reasons why weren’t as fresh in my head. I knew he was an extremely physical press-man corner with excellent play-making ability, I simply forgot just how good he was.
Fuller and Dennard both excel in many of the same areas so, when I say one is better in a certain area it still means the other is really good in that area just not quite as good. I would say Fuller is more of a play-maker than the steadier Dennard, but Fuller is also more of a gambler and will get beat trying to be too aggressive more often than Dennard. Dennard is the better tackler, finishing tackles and doesn’t overshoot the runner as much as Fuller. Dennard attacks the runner and tries to close down the angles. Fuller is a better athlete, but Dennard is stronger and a shade more physical, more fundamentally sound and less susceptible to getting beat on double moves.
As with Dennard, Fuller lined up all over the field (even as a safety and linebacker), played mostly man-coverage handling the opposing teams best target, is physical and strong enough to press and comfortable enough when asked to play zone, but clearly more comfortable in tight man-coverage. He has solid technique and sticks on the receiver’s inside hip stride-for-stride and is a natural play-maker. Has great awareness and instincts, even if he’ll occasionally get burned from gambling for a big play.
Has good closing speed, does an excellent job of playing to the receiver, positioning himself to use his good timing and anticipation to undercut routes or cause a deflection. Plays the ball well in the air and has a knack for making plays on defense and special teams, whether a punt block or blocking during a kick return. He’s aggressive and has the same type of desire/attitude as Dennard.
The main criticism on Fuller is that he can be too aggressive at times, the double moves got him a few too many times, but that’s what you get with a gambler like Fuller. He’s a willing tackler, but needs to work on technique and discipline when finishing tackles.
Just as some people/teams prefer man to zone corners or zone over man, some people will prefer the play-maker to the steadier corner while others will prefer the opposite. The play-maker is more exciting, the other guy is more reliable. Really you can’t go wrong with either one of these guys, it’s just a matter of personal preference in my opinion. I’ll give Dennard the slightest of an edge in a vacuum, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the Jets decided they need a play-maker in their secondary and drafted Fuller and I wouldn’t argue with the decision, assuming he/they are still available.
3) Jason Verrett – Reading how much I value physical man corners over zone corners it shouldn’t be surprising I rank Dennard and Fuller over Gilbert, but if me having Verrett over Gilbert surprises you it should only tell you just how much I value man corners over zone corners. Verrett is another strong, physical corner who sticks on the receiver’s inside hip. He has fluid hips, good technique and positioning/change of direction, lines up all over the field and plays the ball well in the air. He’s fundamentally sound with good awareness, though he has to work on turning his head around toward the ball earlier.
He’s short (only 5’10”) so some think he will have to play the slot, but I think he could handle playing outside as long as he isn’t asked to cover the likes of Calvin Johnson, A.J. Green, Julio Jones, Brandon Marshall etc. etc.. He also tends to be a bit too passive against the run, if he has a clear lane to the ball carrier he’ll take it with good solid technique otherwise he’ll sit and wait for the runner to come to him and end up getting blocked or beat.
Verrett is worth a late-first for certain teams, but not the 18th overall pick in my opinion. If the Jets are going to take a corner in the first I think it has to be Dennard or Fuller, I don’t think the other corners have a high enough grade to be the 18th pick.
4) Justin Gilbert – Maybe I shouldn’t be so hard on zone corners who aren’t very physical. The NFL has gone over the cliff with the way they flag corners for ticky-tack contact, so maybe I shouldn’t be so concerned when a corner isn’t particularly physical, but I’m just not ready to go there yet. Maybe I’m being stubborn and just holding on to what I have always loved most about the defensive back position, but I’ve always been partial to the more physical players.
Gilbert is an out-standing athlete with excellent ball skills and play-making ability, he has fluid hips, quick feet, great acceleration/top-end speed and change of direction. He just isn’t physical enough and is too stiff in tight coverage to be left alone in man-coverage against the top NFL receivers and I’m not drafting a corner in the first if they lack that ability.
5) Bradley Roby – Roby is fast, 4.34 40, and a great athlete, but is far from the most disciplined corner. Raw technique, late getting his head around and while he has a physical style he is only 5’11” 194 lbs., which will lead to him getting pushed around by many NFL receivers. There are character concerns with him as well, but as always I won’t let that influence my rankings because I won’t assume I know anything about him personally, just what I see on the field. What bothers me most about what I see on the field is he is easily beat on double moves, gambles much like Fuller and Gilbert do but without as many positive results and lacks discipline.
Roby certainly has the physical tools and ability to succeed in the NFL (great footwork, acceleration, change of direction), I just haven’t seen him put it all together enough to spend a first round pick on him.
1) Ha Ha Clinton-Dix – Real name is Ha’Sean, but Ha-Ha is so much more fun. If Clinton-Dix were to fall to the Jets at 18 there’s a good chance he would be the pick as he’d fit right in immediately with this defense, I just don’t see that happening. Clinton-Dix is athletically gifted with excellent recognition and awareness, reacts immediately and instinctually. Great vision and ability to see the field and read the play. Physical and aggressive, excellent ball skills with fluid hips and the speed to make up ground on the back end. Good against the run and a ballhawk/big-hitter in passing game.
His aggressiveness can work against him on cutbacks, double moves and misdirection plays. Smart receivers/running backs will use his aggressiveness to force him to commit and then make a move past him.
2) Calvin Pryor – An excellent strong safety prospect, but the Jets need more of a play-maker free safety more. (Can you say Jimmie Ward in round two?) Great vision, strong open-field tackler who delivers devastating hits making his presence known and will hit anything in front of him, including receivers releasing underneath. He does a great job of wading through the sea of blockers or just running through blockers, but has stiffness in his hips and allows players to get by him in space. Doesn’t have the range or natural coverage ability to handle the roaming duties of a free safety. Pryor will be an excellent safety, but he shouldn’t be the pick for the Jets at 18 unless everyone else they like is gone.
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