For every great pass and every exceptional one-handed catch, there is a cornerback in coverage who failed to make a play. NFL cornerbacks are both trained and paid to stop the passing game, and almost making the play never counts.
The immediate job facing the top six cornerbacks taken in the first round of the 2020 NFL Draft is an extremely difficult one, and it comes with tremendously high expectations. Here is a look at how those cornerbacks performed during their time in college, along with a preview of what will be expected of them at the NFL level.
[Editor’s note: Click this link to see PFF’s 2020 NFL Draft grades for all 32 teams. And if you haven’t already, be sure to pick up a copy of PFF’s 2020 NFL Draft Guide by subscribing to PFF EDGE or ELITE.]
PICK 3: DETROIT LIONS — CB JEFFREY OKUDAH, OHIO STATE
The Detroit Lions used the No. 3 overall pick to select Ohio State corner Jeffrey Okudah because they believe that he has all the skills to perform immediately as a press-man defender.
The Lions’ defense finished the 2019 regular season with a 28th-ranked team coverage grade of 50.5 while playing 347 snaps of man coverage, the most of any defense in the NFL. And after their cornerbacks and safeties combined to allow 0.187 expected points added (EPA) per pass play along with the 107.7 passer rating on throws into their coverage — both of which ranked 30th among NFL secondaries — the Lions will be expecting their third overall pick to stop the bleeding in their pass defense.
Okudah has the requisite size and length to play aggressive man coverage without the fear of getting beat. He allowed only 23 receptions on 426 coverage snaps in 2019 while his longest completion allowed went for only 28 yards.
The Ohio State product held quarterbacks to a 41.6% completion percentage during his three-year career in Columbus, a figure that is tied for second in the nation among the 202 cornerbacks with at least 100 targets over that span, while his 54.8 passer rating allowed ranks eighth among that very same group.
In man coverage alone, Okudah allowed just 25 receptions from 62 total targets over the last three seasons, giving up just 325 yards and only two touchdowns while coming away with one interception and 13 total forced incompletions. His 61.6 passer rating allowed in man coverage since 2017 ranks 20th among the 131 cornerbacks who saw at least 30 targets in man coverage over that period.
A year after tying for a league-low seven interceptions, the Detroit Lions have now found the right man to perform as a shutdown man-coverage cornerback — one of the league’s most difficult roles.
Pick 9: Jacksonville Jaguars — CB C.J. Henderson, Florida
A once-dominant Jacksonville defense saw its production plummet to a 27th-ranked 50.7 PFF coverage grade in 2019. And after they traded away starting cornerbacks Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye, the team started the rebuild at the position by using their ninth overall pick on Florida cornerback C.J. Henderson.
In 2018, Henderson used his exceptional coverage skills to earn an 81.7 coverage grade while allowing only 18 receptions and zero touchdowns on 365 coverage snaps. But in 2019, he battled injuries and mental errors en route to a 58.9 coverage grade and gave up an alarming five receptions of 40 plus yards in nine games.
The Jaguars will now need Henderson to help a defense that finished the 2019 regular season with the fifth-fewest interceptions (9) while also allowing 0.077 EPA per pass play, the 10th-worst figure among defenses.
When Henderson is on his game, he shows patience in press coverage at the line of scrimmage without flinching. Since 2017, he allowed just 45 receptions from 87 targets in press coverage, and he gave up only three touchdowns on those targets. More impressive, however, is the fact that he hauled in five interceptions and recorded 19 total forced incompletions, giving him a 21.8% forced incompletion rate in press coverage that tops that of some of his classmates, such as Noah Igbinoghene (19.8%), Jeffrey Okudah (19.6%) and A.J. Terrell (18.4%).
His 4.39 speed and 21 reps on the bench projected well enough for the Jaguars to make him a top-10 pick. However, his inconsistency between 2018 and 2019 should be a concern until he is able to string together multiple seasons of success.
Pick 16: Atlanta Falcons — CB A.J. Terrell, Clemson
Clemson’s A.J. Terrell earned an 80.0-plus coverage grade for two consecutive seasons while allowing just 23 receptions across 426 coverage snaps in 2019, and he has the length and speed to transition smoothly in press-man coverage.
Terrell returns to his hometown of Atlanta as the Falcons’ 16th overall pick, where he will be expected to help improve a unit that earned a team coverage grade of only 52.5 last season, 25th among teams. The Falcons played zone coverage 53% of the time a season ago, so Terrell will be expected to play a high volume of both zone and man coverage.
Even with his 4.42 speed, Terrell was beaten repeatedly by LSU’s Ja’Marr Chase in the national championship game, where he allowed 143 yards and two touchdowns on five receptions. That said, his body of work across his entire college career paints a much better picture.
During his two seasons as a starter for the Clemson Tigers, he allowed a completion rate of 52.9% on 102 targets to go along with his five interceptions. His 78.6 passer rating allowed and his average of 0.89 yards per coverage snap rank 36th and 13th, respectively, among the 105 cornerbacks who saw at least 100 targets over that period. He is also one of only 11 qualifying players in the nation who earned a 78.0-plus coverage grade in both man and zone coverage.
Cornerbacks who earned PFF coverage grades of at least 78.0 while seeing at least 30 targets in both man and zone coverage (2018-19)
|Name||Man-coverage grade||Zone-coverage grade|
|Thomas Graham Jr.||79.5||78.7|
|Derek Stingley Jr.||89.9||85.0|
Terrell must now lean on his skills and traits to help Falcons defensive coordinator Raheem Morris build a secondary that must hold up against the likes of Tom Brady and Drew Brees in the NFC South.
Pick 19: Las Vegas Raiders — CB Damon Arnette, Ohio State
Damon Arnette earned good, but not great coverage grades for three consecutive seasons at Ohio State, never quite managing to crack the 80.0 threshold. And while we at PFF projected him as a third-round pick, the Raiders made him the fourth cornerback to come off the board as the 19th overall selection.
Primarily a man-coverage team, the Raiders played only 343 snaps of zone coverage in 2019, the ninth-fewest among all 32 defenses. So, the team will rely on Arnette and his 4.57 speed to help them defend against the speed of Tyreek Hill and now Jerry Jeudy in the AFC West.
Arnette was somewhat of a late-bloomer for the Buckeyes. He allowed over 800 receiving yards from 2017-18 — allowing a catch rate of 63.7% over that span — while his 86.2 passer rating allowed over that period ranked 111th among the 202 cornerbacks who saw at least 75 targets. Just like his coverage grades, his numbers were passable but far from stellar.
He showed improvement in 2019, allowing only 25 catches for 306 receiving yards on 56 targets (44.9%). Raiders fans will also be happy to know that he allowed only 11 catches from 32 targets in man coverage, giving up a passer rating of just 65.0 on those throws that ranked 10th among qualifying corners.
He will now be asked to improve a Raiders secondary that allowed the league’s sixth-highest passer rating (106.6) and the second-most EPA per pass play (0.217) in 2019. But as daunting as that sounds, Arnette has played more than 1,000 coverage snaps in Ohio State’s pro-style system that has a history of developing some of the NFL's best cornerbacks.
Pick 30: Miami Dolphins — CB Noah Igbinoghene, Auburn
The Miami Dolphins earned the lowest team coverage grade in the NFL a season ago; they also gave up 36 touchdown passes — second-most league-wide — and ranked 27th among teams in EPA allowed per play.
But after drafting cornerback Noah Igbinoghene with the 30th overall pick, the Dolphins will be planning to join their first-round pick with highly paid veteran corners Xavien Howard and Byron Jones to build a coverage-first defense that's fit for the modern game and capable of going toe-to-toe against the speed and athleticism of today’s quarterbacks and wide receivers.
Just like the New England Patriots — Brian Flores’ former employer — the second-year head coach prefers to play a high volume of both man and even zero coverage. In fact, the Miami Dolphins played 293 snaps of man coverage a season ago, the fourth-most among teams in the NFL.
Igbinoghene’s 4.48 speed and sudden change of direction allows him to play with his own brand of confidence in man coverage. Armed with textbook patience and a wicked punch at the line of scrimmage, the Auburn star played the ninth-most press-coverage snaps of any cornerback in the nation last season (267), allowing a catch rate of just 51.1% and a passer rating of 84.6 on those targets.
The only knock against the son of two Nigerian-born Olympic-caliber athletes is his ball skills, as he managed to haul in one interception on 945 coverage snaps during his two seasons at Auburn. But considering he’s only 20 years old, he has plenty of time to develop this aspect of his game.
Pick 31: Minnesota Vikings — CB Jeff Gladney, TCU
Sometimes it’s not about when you go, but where you go. TCU’s Jeff Gladney was the last cornerback taken in the first round of the 2020 NFL Draft, but his location may prove to be the best of the bunch.
Gladney joins a Vikings defense that earned PFF’s third-highest coverage grade in 2019 (91.3), and their safety tandem of Anthony Harris (91.6) and Harrison Smith (91.4) — who ranked first and second, respectively, among safeties in PFF coverage grade last year — is the best in the NFL.
Gladney will be expected to play some man coverage, but last season roughly 80% of the Vikings’ 506 coverage snaps were some variety of zone defense. Mike Zimmer favors a Cover-2 scheme that allowed the fourth-fewest yards per reception (10.4) last season while generating a first-ranked 73 forced incompletions.
The TCU product has the 4.48 speed to stick and stay in coverage by winning at the top of the routes. Boasting a three-year forced incompletion rate of 22.4%, Gladney competes to win on every play in pass coverage. And during his last two seasons, he held opposing quarterbacks to 5.3 yards per attempt and a 41.5% completion rate across 130 targets.
This offseason, the Vikings said goodbye to three former highly drafted cornerbacks in Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander. Jeff Gladney has the talent to help Vikings fans move on from the past and embrace the better days that are to come.