by Matt Waldman
“Sure he was great, but don't forget Ginger Rogers did everything he did backwards ... and in high heels!" -- Bob Thaves from his comic strip Frank and Ernest, on Rogers and her more celebrated dance partner, Fred Astaire
Cornerbacks don’t wear heels, but there’s a little bit of Ginger Rogers in every good one that has to line up and do the dance with a receiver. Much like Astaire’s underrated partner, there are some misnomers surrounding the cornerback position. The biggest one is that cornerback is a one-size-fits-all position.
The value of a cornerback prospect depends on numerous factors that reflect the style and personnel of NFL defenses and how they match with the skills and deficiencies of the corner. Does the defense play a lot of zone, off-man, or bump-and-run? Will the corner need to have the skills to play the wide side of the field, or does the team have the luxury to use him to the narrow side where he’ll earn more assistance?
North Carolina State cornerback David Amerson, whose FBS record-breaking, 13-interception performance in 2011 as a sophomore placed him among the top-five prospects at his position heading into the season, is a good example of a prospect whose skills make his draft stock more volatile than others in his class. Interceptions may heighten a player’s public standing because they tell a positive story, but that one stat is not the book on the junior defensive back.
Darrelle Revis is considered one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL and he has only 19 interceptions in his career. The best one-year interception total Champ Bailey had during his 14-year career is 10 in 2006. To give that more perspective: Bailey has just 12 interceptions in the six seasons since that double-digit year. Still, every wise soul from Athens, Washington D.C., and Denver knows that 70 percent of the earth is covered by water and the rest by Champ Bailey. Amerson’s 13-interception season is a great feat, but it doesn’t make him a great cornerback.
Based on 2011 performances against Clemson and Louisville, as well as the 2012 opener against Tennessee, Amerson is not a shutdown corner in the style of Revis or Bailey. These two NFL players have the thing that Ginger Rogers did. When seeking a cornerback with shutdown potential, you're looking for a player who has a physical, man-to-man style; recovery speed; and the ability to bring the lumber against the run. That makes Alabama's Dee Milliner and Florida State's Xavier Rhodes wiser investments for those NFL shoppers.
Amerson’s hands, off-man and trail coverage skills, and skill at reading the quarterback are all strengths that could make him a good starting corner in the right NFL defense. It also can help Amerson make the transition to free safety if he can improve his tackling. Yet, here's where versatility without a dominant skill suited to one position can become a liability. Amerson's specific talents aren't likely to overshadow his deficiencies in the same way running back Darren McFadden’s incredible speed, aggressive downhill style, and skill at cornering like a vehicle compensate for his mediocre lateral agility. Amerson’s specific combination of talents and deficiencies give him a chance of disappointing in the NFL.
Off-Coverage and Trail Technique
One of the reasons Amerson may have more potential as a safety is his skill to play with his back to the end zone and eyes on the quarterback. This is one of the reasons why he excels at off-man coverage on shorter routes and off-man with trail technique on longer patterns. Amerson also benefits from his safety help over top or to the inside, and his foot speed may influence his use in the N.C. State scheme.
Here is a second-and-10 from the N.C. State 15 with 8:57 in the third quarter versus No. 7 Clemson last year. With his safeties playing two-deep coverage, Amerson is in off-man against Clemson’s DeAndre Hopkins, one of my favorite draft-eligible receivers yet to declare.
The knowledge of the coverage is a key factor involved with Amerson's play of Hopkins, a receiver with excellent body control and good route skills at the college level. Amerson has the narrow side of the field with a safety over top and the linebacker covering the slot receiver. This makes Amerson's job a lot easier because there’s a lot less space on the field that he’s responsible for handling on this route. Clemson has Hopkins run a post-corner, hoping the double move will draw Amerson or the safety out of position and give Hopkins a fighting chance to win the ball one-on-one.
Since Amerson knows he has help, he’s reading the quarterback after the snap. As Hopkins makes his initial break towards the post, Amerson has his back positioned to the sideline so he can read the quarterback and funnel the receiver towards the safety help to the inside if this is an in-breaking route. Amerson doesn’t buy the in-breaking move because he is reading quarterback Taj Boyd’s hips and feet, which are pointed toward the pylon. If Boyd is going to throw a post, he’s not facing his eventual target, and that’s a big tell.
Once Boyd issues the pump fake, which is more of a shoulder fake than an NFL-quality pump, Amerson has enough room with his off-technique to react a step, yet still adjust and drop with the receiver’s break to the corner.
Amerson has time to square himself between the receiver and the goal line, then time his leap ahead of Hopkins while still facing the passer. This body position throughout the route helps him play the ball rather than the man. It is impossible for the receiver to work behind Amerson and the play becomes a jump ball situation outside the end zone, which the corner knocks away. Amerson’s ability to read the passer, maintain good position on a receiver, and time his play on the football is something that shows up a lot in his performances.
Reading the Field
On this fourth-and-18 with 3:12 in the third quarter against Clemson, Amerson demonstrate the skills one likes to see from a free safety. Once again, Amerson has the narrow side of the field and help from his safety in the middle of the field.
Clemson hopes to run off Amerson and the strong safety with a post by tight end Dwayne Allen so it can get running back Andre Ellington open downfield on a wheel route against a linebacker. The speedy Ellington against a strongside linebacker is a clear mismatch in favor of Clemson. If you didn’t know this before, somewhere Aaron Schatz is excited at the mention of a wheel route. I’m with you, Aaron; it’s one of the most enjoyable, slow-developing plays in a passing game.
Quarterback Boyd rolls right to set up a throwback across the field to the wheel route. Clemson has a fondness of throwbacks -- particularly on screen passes in the short passing game and wheel routes when going deep. Boyd’s movement along with the delayed release from the running back influences Amerson to drift inside to help the safety with the tight end Allen. Just as Amerson is about to leave the screen, you can see him turn his head back to the quarterback and this is the moment were Clemson’s plan unravels.
Boyd is turning back to the running back and Amerson, as he continues running with the tight end, begins to triangulate his position with that of the passer and the intended receiver breaking up the sideline. In short, he’s baiting the quarterback to throw the football. Otherwise, he would have made his break as soon as he saw the quarterback change direction to set up for the throwback.
Amerson peels off the tight end, works back to the left sideline, and gets into position to make a play on the ball.
What distinguishes Amerson from other cornerbacks is his skill at adjusting to the football and making catches like a skilled wide receiver. He consistently catches the ball with his hands and at the first available window. This next play, an interception that ties the ACC record held by former North Carolina and St. Louis Rams cornerback Dre' Bly, is no exception.
This play comes while Amerson is in trail technique against Louisville with 6:39 in the third quarter of last year’s Belk Bowl.
Amerson is well over a yard behind the receiver on this deep, in-breaking route that appears open to Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. However, the throw is late for this type of route and forces the receiver to wait on the ball. This delay gives Amerson time to recover.
Amerson once again demonstrates a nice vertical leap, getting his arms over the receiver’s head. His athleticism gets him in position to fight for the football as the receiver reaches for the pass.
The cornerback steals the ball from the receiver, maintains his balance, and proceeds to weave through the Louisville offense 65 yards for the score. Amerson’s ball-hawking ability is excellent, but he’ll need to prove he has the foot speed to play this style of coverage in the NFL. I have my doubts.
Quickness yes, long recovery speed? No.
A good way to determine the speed of a cornerback is to watch him recover against a route where he's initially fooled or where he has to change direction and pursue a ball carrier. I believe the following two plays help gauge Amerson’s speed. The first is an out-and-up by Tennessee receiver Cordarrelle Patterson for a long touchdown in N.C. State’s 2012 opener.
Amerson is looking into the backfield and watching the play-fake as Patterson begins the route. This double-move catches Amerson off-guard. By the time he is in the general area of the pass, he's two yards behind the receiver. Patterson is a prospect with the kind of speed and acceleration one will find from a primary option at the NFL level, but his reported 40-time of 4.49 seconds –- if you believe college sports information programs, which are often suspected of inflating these numbers -– is about on par with Bengals rookie Marvin Jones, a player perceived (debatable) as more of a possession receiver.
By the time Patterson reaches for the ball, Amerson is still in the dust trail of the Tennessee receiver’s path. The cornerback's only hope is for the receiver to tip or juggle the ball so there is time to make a play. Unfortunately for Amerson, this play begins at the N.C. State 41, so there’s too much open field for the corner to recover from the misstep. This play is one indication among five or six others that, against an receiver with NFL-caliber vertical speed, Amerson may lack the recovery speed on deep routes that one would see from a true shutdown corner.
In contrast, I’ve seen Rhodes and Milliner recover on deeper routes with greater consistency. I’ve also seen them do it playing press coverage as well as off-man. Rarely have I seen Amerson play press, which is an additional indication his recovery speed may not be shutdown quality.
The next play shows that in a situation with a shorter field, Amerson’s recovery speed appears more sufficient. This is a second-and-10 pass against Clemson from N.C. State’s 17 with 4:13 in the third quarter. Amerson is playing off-coverage versus the outside receiver in a 2x1 receiver set.
Clemson does a good job of setting up the outside route so it forces Amerson to play on an island. The slot receiver and tight end on that same side occupy the attention of the linebacker and strong safety, which means Amerson has no help.
This is slant-and-go up the left side and Amerson bites hard on the initial move.
But, as the receiver works outside, Amerson is fluid with his movement, and quick enough to turn inside and regain a position where he gets even with the defender.
Because Amerson has to change direction, the receiver has a head start with his acceleration downfield, and as they race from the N.C. State 10 to the goal line, the receiver builds an early lead.
The recovery speed comes in the final five yards from the goal line to the middle of the end zone. This is where Amerson is just quick enough to regain position and make the reception difficult on a great throw by Boyd.
It’s hard to tell if Amerson gets his hand on the ball before it reaches the receiver's catch window, but his presence is felt as the ball arrives and it contributes to outcome of the play.
Returning to Amerson's matchup with Tennessee’s Patterson, there's more evidence from this game that, barring an injury Amerson is keeping under wraps, the Wolfpack corner's recovery speed may not be first-round quality. This is an end-around to Patterson on first-and-10 with 0:45 in the first quarter.
Patterson gets a 15- to 20-yard running start before Amerson comes into the picture. The cornerback comes from the opposite side of the field and has to address Patterson’s lead blocker just as the ball carrier is a step from cutting under Amerson so he can work across the field.
For a corner to have to turn and accelerate anew against a receiver with this much momentum is a difficult task for any player. However, if Patterson runs a 4.49-40, and top-flight cornerback prospects run the 40 in the mid-to-high 4.3's, Amerson should have enough space to recover.
And if you look at the angle Amerson takes, in contrast to the turn I drew above, the corner makes a more efficient change of direction and has a good angle on Patterson right away.
Amerson’s angle is good enough that he should be able to cut off Patterson at the turn. The worst-case scenario is that he should be able to run down Patterson at the sideline despite the receiver’s early momentum advantage. Because prospects like Rhodes and Milliner play a lot more press than Amerson, I think the scheme choice is probably a reflection of Amerson’s speed and this play underscores that assertion.
Amerson no longer has the angle just a few steps later. Perhaps he could have gauged the angle better so he accounted for Patterson’s head start, but even this far into the receiver’s circuitous route to the end zone, Amerson should have somewhat of an advantage to close the gap within the next 20 yards.
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Amerson’s angle comes up short by the time Patterson reaches the 10 and the Volunteers receiver scores on the play. The more I review this play, the more I believe Amerson’s angle was part of the problem. However, it’s not enough to dissuade my thinking that these types of plays, along with the way the Wolfpack defense uses him in coverage, is done to complement his speed. Amerson is not too slow to play corner, but I don’t think he is fast enough to be a shutdown, bump-and-run player. This is another reason why I suspect the discussion among draft analysts who talk with various scouts are hearing the possibility of Amerson transitioning to safety.
One of Amerson’s off-season goals between his freshman and sophomore years was to improve his tackling. He accomplished that goal, but he is still not as good as his peers at the top of analysts’ draft boards. He does a solid job of wrapping his opponents, but these tackles don’t consistently pack the weight of his body behind the wrap.
Amerson tends to wrap and lean into the opponent rather than hit and wrap with his force, like Milliner or Rhodes do. He also favors cutting an opponent when facing them rather than hitting and wrapping. This second-and-10 tackle of Tennessee running back Rajon Neal for a loss with 9:00 in the third quarter is a good example of strong diagnosis and a good angle to the ball carrier. There’s nothing wrong with an effective cut of an opponent, but it will be more difficult to get this type of result in the NFL with his execution of the maneuver.
Amerson’s hit is delivered to the waist and thigh of the runner and this is an excellent angle for a cut -– ideal for pass protection or tackling. However, the corner engages the running back with his back bent and his head down. A more agile, savvy runner will be able to push Amerson to the ground with a stiff arm or dip away from the contact altogether.
Here is another play where Amerson’s head is down while executing a tackle.
Tackling might be a lost art in football, but there are still defensive backs that do a more consistent job of hitting and wrapping with more sound technique.
Amerson is an intuitive player with excellent ball skills when playing off-coverage. If his speed isn’t a problem and his tackling continues to improve, I think he can become a good corner in a system that uses a lot of Cover-2 and off-man coverage techniques. If recovery speed is a concern, free safety is a possibility. However, his tacking form still isn't up to snuff because he leads with his head, gets blocked by receivers, or misses angles he should see.
In this respect Amerson would remind me of Reggie Nelson of the Bengals. Despite Nelson’s high draft stock, he hasn’t met those expectations. My worst fear for Amerson is that his skill set lies in a netherworld between corner and safety and he’s not good enough to produce in either role. I don’t think it’s automatic that he’ll be a first-round pick if he declares for the draft. Depending on his workouts, I think a second- or third-round grade may be more appropriate for what I’m seeing.