Cornering the market

Posted Mar 5, 2018

Defensive backs on display in large numbers.

The NFL Scouting Combine wrapped up today with 42 cornerbacks among the 70 defensive backs on display.

There’s a reason why there were more cornerbacks being evaluated at Lucas Oil Stadium than any other position, according to NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock.

Mayock’s take:

“We are at the point, I think, in the NFL where we’re playing ‘nickel’ and ‘dime’ and sub-packages 70 to 80 percent of the time for some teams. We’ve got to the point where it’s the age of specialization.

“There are two starting outside corners, but there’s a ‘nickel’ corner. There’s a ‘dime’ linebacker that’s sometimes a corner or a safety hybrid. There are corners that are press (coverage) only. There are corners that are off (coverage) only.

“This kid Minkah Fitzpatrick, he’s the only guy here who could play all six of those positions. But that’s rare, so in this age of specialization I think teams are looking, saying, ‘I want a press corner,’ or, ‘I want an off corner.’ Some of the teams say, ‘I need a guy who can play both,’ or, ‘I need a ‘nickel.’ Because let’s face it, a ‘nickel’ is a starting player now, right? He’s playing 70, 80 percent of the snaps.”

HISTORY, NOT PROPHECY: The defensive backs were the ones doing the drills, but Penn State running back Saquon Barkley’s name still came up repeatedly.

“Lotta talk that Saquon Barkley is now at the top of the list there in Cleveland,” NFL Network host Rich Eisen said. “The last No. 1-overall running back was from Penn State, too.”

Ki-Jana Carter was drafted with the first overall selection by Cincinnati in 1995.

“How’d that work out?” Mayock offered.

Carter played in 59 games (14 starts) in seven NFL seasons with the Bengals, Redskins and Saints. His career stats included 1,144 rushing yards and 20 touchdowns on 319 attempts, and 66 receptions for 469 yards and a touchdown.

“I’ve said it since before we’ve been here, the two best players I’ve seen on tape were Saquon Barkley and (Notre Dame guard) Quenton Nelson,” Mayock said.

FEAR THE TURTLE: Maryland cornerback JC Jackson’s presence, and relative lack of fanfare, had Mayock wondering if Terrapins are under-appreciated.

“Maryland’s had some interesting guys drafted in the last few years who were kind of a little bit off the radar,” Mayock observed. “(Vikings wide receiver) Stefon Diggs was a fifth-round pick, (Steelers safety) Sean Davis a second-round pick and how about (Jaguars defensive end) Yannick Ngakoue? He went in the third round.

“This young man (Jackson) is a pretty good football player.”

THE PROCESS IS THE PROCESS: Mayock said one of his favorite Pro Day stories involved Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin:

“A kid tells the assembled scouts he’s not going to do a vertical jump. Mike Tomlin looked at him and said ‘why?’ He said ‘choice,’ And Mike Tomlin looked him right in the eye and said, ‘Son, I flew a hell of a long way to get here to watch you jump and I ain’t coming back when you choose to jump. So you either do it today or we’re gone.’”

Mayock said the player jumped 37 inches.

“He’s great with the kids,” Mayock added. “I love being around Mike Tomlin. He’s one of those, I call them ‘energy givers.’ Mike Tomlin’s one of those guys.”

ROLL TIDE: Alabama cornerback Anthony Averett was a high school track guy, “but like any Nick Saban defensive back he competes and he tackles,” Mayock insisted. “I’ll tell you right now Nick Saban personally gets involved with the defensive backs every single day. They are so well coached, so technically proficient.”

PENN STATE SHADE: Mayock questioned why there wasn’t more buzz about Penn State cornerback Grant Haley.

“I think he’s one of the most under-valued defensive backs in this draft,” Mayock said. “I think he’s a nickel. I think he’s tough. I think he’s quick and fast. And for some reason nobody talks about this kid.”

Countered NFL Network analyst Deion Sanders: “That’s probably because corners don’t really come from Penn State, it’s just reality. They have a wonderful program. Penn State fans, I love you, I appreciate you, but it is what it is.”