One of the advantages of the PFF system and database is not just that we can put an overall grade and coverage number to every single defensive back in the 2020 draft class, but that we can use that system to dive into deeper and more complex — and potentially meaningful — subsets to see how players fared.
Some players may have exceptional overall numbers, but what happened when they were asked to cover in single coverage instead of patrol in zones? What happened when they were tested deep downfield? How did they perform in obvious passing situations? These are all questions we can ask and answer using the PFF data.
So, let’s see who the best performers in the draft class were in these various situations.
In Single Coverage
Not all coverage is created equal. While zone coverage is far from simple — and there are corners who never fully get a feel for how to play it at a high level — research at PFF has shown single-coverage skills to be more predictive and translatable to the NFL.
The days of everybody playing man coverage every snap may be long gone, but that skill set still gives a very good indication of how a player will cover in most situations. Here are the top 10 corners in the draft class by their performance in single-coverage, ranked by PFF grade.
|1||Amik Robertson||LA TECH||91.9||40||13||32.5%||19.8|
|3||Damon Arnette||OHIO STATE||84.2||36||10||27.8%||33.3|
|6||Jeffrey Okudah||OHIO STATE||80.2||36||13||36.1%||39.2|
|7||Luq Barcoo||S DIEGO ST||80.1||59||25||42.4%||43.3|
|8||A.J. Green||OKLA STATE||77.1||36||15||41.7%||71.9|
|9||John Reid||PENN STATE||76.8||32||13||40.6%||70.4|
The top 10 in this scenario features a series of big-name, first-round prospects such as Jeffrey Okudah, Kristian Fulton and Trevon Diggs. It’s notable that Diggs is so high, in particular, given the concerns many have about his game — he may be a scheme-specific player, but as indicated by this data, he could be exceptional in a well-suited scheme.
Okudah’s Ohio State teammate Damon Arnette is a hipster’s choice in this draft process and shows very well in a lot of statistical categories, so this is yet another interesting data point in his favor. I would also be remiss not to mention a favorite of Steve Palazzolo’s — Amik Robertson — at the top of the list, as well. An extremely feisty corner from La-Tech, Robertson may have to move inside at the next level, but don’t be surprised to see him make plays in the NFL, and also expect to see him repeatedly appear in the rest of the lists we are going to cover.
Vs. Clean-pocket throws
Pass-rush and coverage have a symbiotic relationship. Top corners can buy time for the pass-rush to get there and therefore look better, and a top pass-rush can hurry or sack the quarterback, minimizing the time corners have to cover on the back end. Thus, the less pass-rush there is, the harder the cornerback’s job becomes. So, let’s now look at the top cornerbacks when there was no pressure on the play.
|1||Amik Robertson||LA TECH||92.6||111||66||59.5%||69.8|
|7||A.J. Green||OKLA STATE||89.6||104||57||54.8%||98.4|
|8||Jeffrey Okudah||OHIO STATE||89.5||72||31||43.1%||57.6|
I’ve extended the data set this time to two seasons to try and improve the sample size of the various subsets, and that brings in Virginia’s Bryce Hall, who was exceptional in 2018 before injuries and a rough 2019 season caused his stock to tank.
Again, plenty of the top players in the draft feature on this list, including Diggs, who once more proves that he was excellent at what he was asked to do in his scheme. Once again, Amik Robertson appears at the top of the list, and his grade could have been even better if not for the 13 missed tackles on these plays, almost double the amount of the next closest player on the list.
Vs. Passes that were thrown in 3 seconds or less
As I hinted at when I talked about pressure, the longer a corner is asked to cover for, the harder it is for him. Research has indicated that performance on plays up to and including three seconds between snap to throw is a strong critical factor in projecting coverage, so here is that top 10, again over a two-year sample.
|1||Amik Robertson||LA TECH||92.5||127||70||55.1%||53.1|
|10||A.J. Green||OKLA STATE||89.6||111||62||55.9%||99.9|
Diggs and Robertson are No. 1 on the list, which also features Fulton and Bryce Hall. Utah’s Jaylon Johnson is another big name that notably jumps high up this list, but Jeffrey Okudah falls off it due to his 2018 play. Had this been just 2019, he would have been in the top 10, along with most of the other lists.
Michael Ojemudia is another mid-round prospect who has a lot of supporters, especially since he’s coming from a program (Iowa) that has had some recent success in getting defensive backs drafted. Obviously, no one of these metrics is the number to work from to the exclusion of all else, but any player building up a picture of ranking highly in each is definitely enhancing his image in terms of NFL projection.
Vs. Obvious Passing Situations
In part due to small sample sizes, this is an area that lacks the same predictive strength of the other lists we have looked at, so we have maintained the two-year look at the data set. This is a top 10 in PFF grade over the past couple of years in obvious passing situations — how each player performed when everybody was focused on the pass and usually targeting a specific landmark to move the chains.
|1||Amik Robertson||LA TECH||91.0||29||12||41.4%||26.4|
|3||Damon Arnette||OHIO STATE||83.6||17||7||41.2%||26.8|
|5||DJ Williams||UTAH ST||81.1||21||8||38.1%||44.4|
|7||Jeffrey Okudah||OHIO STATE||80.4||21||6||28.6%||26.9|
|10||A.J. Green||OKLA STATE||77.0||15||4||26.7%||44.9|
Again, Robertson is at the top of the list, while Okudah and his less-heralded teammate, Arnette, both rank well. Oklahoma’s A.J. Green has been popping up at the bottom of a few of these lists. Green has a very inconsistent tape over the past few seasons, but his high-end play is intriguing, and he does show well in some of these situations.
In contested-catch situations
Contesting catches is a vital part of coverage, and while the volume and percentage of targets that are contested is a significant indicator of quality coverage, that’s effectively taken care of already with the other subsets we’ve covered. What isn’t, necessarily, is the performance of the corner at the catch point when they do get to contest targets. Which players have been able to limit the damage most effectively when they have contested targets over the past two seasons?
|1||Amik Robertson||LA TECH||98.3||38||9||23.7%||14.4|
|2||Zane Lewis||AIR FORCE||96.3||27||3||11.1%||36.5|
|4||Trajan Bandy||MIAMI FL||95.0||21||6||28.6%||16.5|
Again, over a two-year sample, it’s becoming hard to find a way of slicing the data that doesn’t have Amik Robertson at the top. Again, he has the highest grade on these plays. Obviously, this subset is a group of positive plays for corners by and large, so the grades are higher across the board, but Robertson also allowed a passer rating of just 14.4 on targets that he managed to contest.
Fulton, Gladney and Diggs are all present among the big names, while Nebraska’s Lamar Jackson allowed an absurd passer rating of just 1.2 on these plays, thanks to three interceptions and no touchdowns on his targets.
Vs. Accurate Passes
Coverage is often at the mercy of the opposing passing game. You can be in tight coverage, but the perfect pass and the perfect catch beat the perfect coverage almost every time. At PFF, we also chart exact ball location accuracy data from quarterbacks, so is there anything to be gleaned from the plays where the pass was deadly accurate?
|2||Kobe Williams||ARIZONA ST||72.3||57||47||82.5%||138.9|
|3||Jaron Bryant||FRESNO ST||71.2||61||56||91.8%||125.5|
|5||A.J. Green||OKLA STATE||66.5||63||54||85.7%||144.4|
|6||Kindle Vildor||GA SOUTHERN||66.2||50||43||86.0%||117.1|
|7||Amik Robertson||LA TECH||65.8||70||64||91.4%||129.8|
|10||Damon Arnette||OHIO STATE||61.0||52||41||78.9%||127.2|
Obviously, in this case, the grades are down across the board, but it’s interesting to see Fulton remaining right at the top of the list. Fulton, in fact, broke up a crazy 17% of all highly accurate passes thrown his way, and nobody else in the top 10 in terms of grades is above 10%.
This statistic is also the first one that is able to shake Robertson away from the very top of the list. Still, he comfortably makes the top 10.
Vs. Deep Passes
Preventing the big play is another big differentiator for cornerbacks. Sometimes players can be excellent overall, but when they switch off or get beaten, it’s on big plays, and those can be backbreakers for a defense. This is a two-year snapshot of how the corners have done on passes that were thrown 15 or more yards in the air past the line of scrimmage.
|1||Travion Banks||MIAMI OH||89.9||28||12||42.9%||78.7|
|3||Marcus Strong||WASH STATE||82.1||45||14||31.1%||52.5|
|4||Amik Robertson||LA TECH||81.8||49||10||20.4%||24.7|
|5||Cameron Dantzler||MISS STATE||80.6||26||7||26.9%||42.9|
|6||Troy Pride Jr.||NOTRE DAME||79.8||43||13||30.2%||41.4|
Again, Fulton is at the sharp end, and Robertson is back inside the top five, but there is also the first appearance from Mississippi State’s Cameron Dantzler, who has some excellent overall numbers but hasn’t fared well in these various subsets of play. Notre Dame’s Troy Pride Jr. also makes an appearance, having had a strong showing at the Senior Bowl practices during the one-on-one drills there.
None of these subsets are the answer to anything in and of themselves, but it’s interesting that Kristian Fulton, in particular, was consistently showing well in most of these categories. Jeffrey Okudah was strong in the most predictive metrics, while his teammate Damon Arnette suggested he might be worth a longer look while teams are grinding Ohio State tape.
The real star of these lists, however, was Amik Robertson, who has some of the most impressive coverage numbers of any cornerback in the draft.
Top Cornerbacks in forced incompletion percentage
A cornerback’s primary job is to stop the receiver catching the football, and while he can certainly do this through tight coverage every down, it’s always interesting to see how active he is once the ball is thrown into his coverage. Below is a list of the top 10 (11) corners over the past two seasons when it comes to forced incompletion rate.
|4||Reggie Robinson II||TULSA||80||39||20||25.0%|
|4||A.J. Green||OKLA STATE||128||69||32||25.0%|
|8||Madre Harper||S ILLINOIS||68||37||16||23.5%|
|10||Keith Washington Jr.||W VIRGINIA||90||48||21||23.3%|
LSU’s Fulton leads the draft class with almost a third of all targets thrown his way over the past two seasons actively broken up. He has allowed just 43.6% of the passes thrown his way to be caught and has 32 forced incompletions over that time. Florida’s CJ Henderson also makes his first appearance on one of these lists, breaking up 23.3% of the targets into his coverage over the past two seasons.
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