Futures

Analyzing the tape of college football's best players... and the NFL's future stars.

Futures: Justin Layne

by Derrik Klassen

Michigan State's Justin Layne arrived in East Lansing as a four-star wide receiver recruit. This weekend, he will leave East Lansing as a cornerback worthy of a top-100 pick in the draft. Regardless of how much Layne still needs to develop as a cornerback, it is not easy to switch to a position on the opposite side of the ball and play well enough to earn a clear shot in the NFL.

Part of Layne's successful transition can be credited to his athletic ability considering that many of the same athletic traits that work at wide receiver can be mirrored at cornerback. For one, Layne is as lanky as they come. Standing at nearly 6-foot-2 and 196 pounds, his 80⅛-inch wingspan measures in the 96th percentile among cornerbacks since 1999, per Mockdraftable. Additionally, his 134-inch broad jump trailed only Corey Ballentine among cornerbacks at the combine this year and notched in the 97th percentile since 1999. The 4.50-second 40-yard dash and agility times he clocked were not quite as impressive, but not nearly poor enough to suggest Layne can not hang with NFL athletes.

Though a capable athlete, Layne is still trying to grasp his new position. Wide receiver is a proactive position -- a wide receiver gets to dictate the way a route develops and is run; they control the pace of the play. Conversely, cornerback is a reactionary position. A cornerback must mirror the wide receiver and attempt to disrupt him. Making the switch from proactive to reactive is not easy.

Layne's most common issue right now is footwork, particularly when working against in-breaking routes. Slants, digs, square-ins -- anything that forces Layne to cut to the middle of the field is a struggle for him. He too often takes extra steps when mirroring breaks and widens away from the receiver before accelerating to catch up.

via Gfycat

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Here is an example of Layne giving up ground to a slant route vs. Michigan. Layne, at the bottom, opens far too wide with the wide receiver's break. He then continues to work backwards and away from the wide receiver as he is fully turning his body to a position where he can close on the ball. By the time Layne has turned his body to a position to run the receiver down, the receiver is already 3 yards out in front because Layne worked away from the receiver during his transition.

via Gfycat

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This time versus Ohio State, Layne faces a different issue. Layne (top) completely opens his hips and gets into an upright position almost immediately. Playing from an upright position makes it more difficult to match sharp breaks because it tends to take more steps to redirect. From a lower, more controlled stance, Layne would have been better positioned to change direction quickly and explode in pursuit.

Layne has also had a tough time recalibrating his sense of spacing and ball-tracking to playing cornerback. Wide receivers get the luxury of better knowing when and where a pass is thrown, thus giving them the advantage in positioning themselves for the ball. Cornerbacks, however, must be able to feel out the wide receiver's positioning while trying to track the ball after having their back turned to the quarterback for half the play. Developing a good sense for how to maneuver these situations is a journey, and one which Layne is only just starting.

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Here is a quick clip of Layne (bottom) losing to Arizona State's N'Keal Harry on a back-shoulder fade. Though Layne sticks tight to Harry the whole way, his sense of where the ball needs to go and when to react to it is lacking. He allows Harry to turn, leap, and reach for the ball almost entirely uncontested. In this instance, and others like it, Layne struggles to anticipate what is coming and how to defend it properly.

via Gfycat

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Again versus Harry, Layne struggles to reposition for a 50/50 ball and draws a penalty here. Rather than just keep one arm on Harry to maintain contact or look to locate the ball, Layne squares his shoulders to Harry and hugs him. No technique, no awareness, just a frantic effort to save what he thought was a doomed play.

It is fair to say that ineptitude in spots like this is more a product of inexperience than anything, but that does not automatically mean improvement will come with time. Assuming Layne can take major strides in his spatial awareness and ball skills is a lofty projection.

Question marks about Layne's footwork, spacing, and ball-tracking down the field are concerning. However, despite his incompleteness, he has traits to be hopeful about.

There is some comfort in Layne's skill set in that he has a clear way to win. Layne has the eyes, quickness, and willingness to tackle to be an effective short-area cornerback right away. For such a green cornerback, he does a fantastic job of peeling off of routes to flow around the flat area and rally to ballcarriers.

via Gfycat

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via Gfycat

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Layne is to the top of the screen in both of these plays. Neither of these plays highlight extraordinary skill, but it is impressive to see Layne on his toes and ready to peel to the flat when he needs to. That he is also a willing, albeit inconsistent, tackler is a nice bonus that defensive back coaches will surely appreciate. Limiting yards-after-catch opportunity is a subtle but important skill in today's space-oriented passing league.

via Gfycat

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Layne is the outside cornerback to the top of the screen here. As Purdue motions another receiver to Layne's side, he and the defensive back next to him must communicate who covers who depending on the route stems. In this instance, Layne passes off the No. 1 receiver to his teammate and picks up the No. 2 running the speed out. He is quick to identify the route and close on the catch point for a pass deflection, forcing Purdue into fourth down.

Similar to these situations where he is pushed to the boundary, Layne thrives in the condensed area of the red zone. Likely due to less space and fewer routes for wide receivers to work with, Layne is confident enough to morph into a mean, physical cornerback inside the 20. He knows how to ride a receiver into the boundary and fight for the ball, specifically on back-shoulder throws and fades at the goal line.

via Gfycat

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Recall the Layne-versus-Harry matchup from earlier. Whereas Layne (bottom) could not find the ball versus Harry earlier, he does so in the condensed area in this clip. Since he knows he has inside help from the safety (No. 27), Layne does not bite on Harry's possible inside route and instead plays back to let him declare his route in full. Once Harry commits to the sideline, Layne has no issue pinching him to the boundary and leaping for the ball as it enters the area.

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Here is Layne (top) making a nearly identical play versus Nebraska, this time with no safety help. He once again shows patience and the ability to drive the receiver to the boundary, as well as a nice finish to punch the ball away at the catch point.

Perhaps the most encouraging nugget of Layne's career at Michigan State is his development in playing down the sideline. When he first converted to cornerback, he often lost track of wide receivers running vertically down the sideline and failed to sense when they were turning on the jets. Likewise, he rarely showed he knew how to squeeze wide receivers into the sideline and force a tighter window for the quarterback. If there was anything Layne learned in his three years as a cornerback, it is that the sideline is a defensive back's best friend.

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At the top of the screen, Layne is in press bail coverage. He bails and turns his back to the sideline as soon as the ball is snapped so as to work over the top of the vertical wide receiver. Just running step-for-step with the wide receiver is not enough, though. Layne takes it a move further by locking into the wide receiver's hip, then slowly drifting toward the sideline as he's pressed to the receiver's body. In doing so, the receiver gets squeezed into the sideline and has nowhere to go; Layne is blocking any inside movement and the receiver can not work outside because he would illegally step out of bounds. By successfully capping and squeezing the receiver on this play, Layne is able to slow down the receiver and create a smaller window for the quarterback, presenting an improbable completion for the offense.

The hang-up with Layne is whether or not he can replicate this progress. While progress in using the sideline is a good sign for his potential to grow overall, there is no certainty he will develop elsewhere. Improvement in one area does not guarantee improvement elsewhere, or at least the same level of improvement.

Considering Layne's weakest areas are footwork and ball-tracking, two critical skills for a cornerback, he will not be ready to play right away unless the scheme protects him. Any scheme that asks him to play in anything other than Cover-2 or Cover-4 as a rookie will not be doing him any favors. Otherwise, Layne being exploitable off the line and at the catch point will lead to all types of NFL receivers taking advantage of him early on. Even Cover-4, given its common man-match principles, may expose him to assignments for which he is not yet equipped.

Layne is almost entirely projection at this point, but with how enticing his blend of length and athletic ability is, there is no doubt teams will talk themselves into him. Six-foot-2 cornerbacks with freakishly long arms and a 4.50-second 40-yard dash time can not be found just anywhere. That Layne is a project will be drowned out by teams convincing themselves they can not miss out on a cornerback who looks and moves the way he does.

A player with Layne's profile and risk factor is a third-round pick in a normal class, but with a particularly weak cornerback group this year, teams will be willing to gamble on Layne sooner rather than later.

Comments

1 comment, Last at 27 Apr 2019, 5:21am

1 Re: Futures: Justin Layne

by Jerry // Apr 27, 2019 - 5:21am

"A player with Layne's profile and risk factor is a third-round pick in a normal class, but with a particularly weak cornerback group this year, teams will be willing to gamble on Layne sooner rather than later."

Late third round, as it turned out, albeit to a team that's not notorious for developing corners.

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