Press coverage is king. There is not a more valuable way to cover a receiver than to disrupt his timing out of his stance and forcing him off his desired path to get through his route. As fragile as passing concepts can be due to the speed of the NFL, even the slightest delay in route-running can be the difference between a quarterback seeing a covered receiver instead of an open receiver.
While a few impressive cornerbacks with press coverage credentials will go in the first round on Thursday, there will still be plenty of Day 2 options who may be able to provide that pesky press style teams are looking for. Among that group is Auburn's Noah Igbinoghene, one of many SEC cornerbacks who grace the top of this draft class.
Igbinoghene was recruited to Auburn in 2017 as a four-star wide receiver. Though he served the Tigers as a kick returner as a freshman, he hardly saw the field as a wide receiver in 2017, earning just six receptions for 24 yards. Igbinoghene made a switch to cornerback the following offseason and immediately proved himself worthy of a starting position. The fresh convert, all 5-foot-10 and 198 pounds of him, started the entire 2018 season as a true sophomore opposite 2019 third-round pick Jamel Dean.
What is more jarring about Igbinoghene's transition to cornerback is not that he started right out of the gate, but that his area of strength is press coverage. Seeing as Igbinoghene used to play wide receiver, it may have been fair to assume he would rely on reading routes and finding the ball in the air. That's not how things turned out. Instead, Igbinoghene was among the nastiest, most technically sound press coverage cornerbacks in the country the past two seasons. He plays with a command at the line of scrimmage that says, "Hey, if I do not get to play wide receiver, then neither do you."
Take the following rep against Florida's Van Jefferson, for example. Jefferson is among the best route-runners in the class. He dismantled LSU freshman star cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. in their meeting last season, which almost no other receiver who faced LSU can say. Additionally, Jefferson's father is Shawn Jefferson, who played wide receiver in the NFL for over a decade and has been coaching receivers in the league for all but a few seasons since he retired from playing in 2003. Suffice to say that Jefferson knows how to play the position, even if he is not the scariest athlete.
Jefferson takes a delayed release as the No. 2 receiver (middle) to the trips side on this rep. Considering Jefferson seems to trigger off of the quarterback's first foot hitting the ground, the delayed release is likely used as a means to help with the timing of the route relative to the quarterback's eyes and footwork. The extra beat does not deter Igbinoghene from jamming Jefferson when he comes off the line, though. Igbinoghene waits on Jefferson's initial step toward the outside, perhaps anticipating Jefferson would be cutting back inside. The moment Jefferson steps inside, Igbinoghene jams a hand into the receiver's chest to stop him from getting the depth he wants for the route. Igbinoghene is then free to ride Jefferson for the rest of the route and reach over the receiver's back to swat the pass away.
Igbinoghene does not just beat up on short and/or slender receivers, either. He is a bully who does not back down against pass-catchers of any size, not even tight ends. Igbinoghene will try to take it to anyone at the line of scrimmage, no questions asked.
To the top of the screen is Igbinoghene pressed up against Florida's stud "move" tight end Kyle Pitts. With a couple of extra pounds added during the offseason and some work on the blocking sleds, Pitts will be the first tight end off the board in the 2021 draft. Pitts, like Jefferson, tore up LSU's secondary and was head coach Dan Mullen's most dangerous, versatile weapon all year. Like in the Jefferson clip, Igbinoghene stays patient through Pitts' release and waits for him to fully declare his inside stem. Igbinoghene jams both hands into Pitts' chest, rides with Pitts for a few steps, then sinks his hips to drive his hands into Pitts' frame as the tight end is trying to break inside on the slant route. Florida's quarterback had no choice but to check this one down to the flat.
There is no fallback plan in Igbinoghene's game, however. Igbinoghene is the cornerback equivalent of a one-trick pony wide receiver who can only function as a deep threat. To be dramatic: it is press coverage or no coverage for Igbinoghene. He is still early into his career as a cornerback, so there is a case to be made that his skill and feel for the position can still be developed, but that does not change who he will be when he steps onto the field for rookie OTAs. Igbinoghene has a steep learning curve ahead of him.
Physicality is all Igbinoghene knows about playing cornerback. While it is a valuable trait to a degree, it can become a crutch when it is one of a player's small handful of tricks to lean on. When Igbinoghene does not get to jam his opponent or his jam does not connect well, he resorts to physicality to slow down his opponents and allow himself to catch up. In some instances, Igbinoghene manages to get away with it (as many of the best cornerbacks do regularly), but he far too often strays into penalty territory. Holding penalties and defensive pass interference calls were already an issue for Igbinoghene in college. That will only get worse in the NFL when faced with bigger, faster, and savvier wide receivers.
In other instances, it looks as though Igbinoghene is completely devoid of any natural sense for the position. Again, that may very well be a product of inexperience and perhaps something which fixes itself over time, but that is who he is right now.
Igbinoghene is lined up directly over LSU slot receiver Justin Jefferson to the right side of the formation. At the snap, Jefferson hops to reset his feet and squares himself to Igbinoghene in order to threaten a release to either side. The suddenness of Jefferson's action gets Igbinoghene to freeze for just a moment, which grants Jefferson a route to explode inside and attack Igbinoghene's inside shoulder. Unable to slow down Jefferson at the line of scrimmage, Igbinoghene must resort to just keeping up with Jefferson in a foot race and hoping to match his steps from a trailing position. About 12 yards down the field, Jefferson gives a head fake inside before bursting outside on the corner route. Igbinoghene bites hard on Jefferson's fake and tries to lean into the inside break to help slow him down, but he just ends up thrusting himself at air as Jefferson slips out the other way.
Jefferson is one of the slipperiest route-runners in the class, so Igbinoghene was not the only cornerback to fall victim to those first-round skills. However, Igbinoghene showed similar issues throughout the year whenever he was not able to dominate the line of scrimmage. Against most of the SEC's average or worse receivers, that was seldom an issue, but the future NFL talents Igbinoghene faced painted the picture that he is more of a coin flip at the snap of the ball than a complete shutdown man-coverage cornerback.
At the same time, few cornerback prospects in this class can match Igbinoghene's technique, attitude, and raw strength at the line of scrimmage in press coverage. Ohio State's Jeff Okudah is the best overall cornerback in the class and LSU's Kristian Fulton is this year's press coverage king, but beyond those, you can make the case Igbinoghene is the best cornerback at the line of scrimmage in the class.
As such, the question with Igbinoghene that every general manager and coach needs to ask is: how much of Igbinoghene's incompleteness beyond the line of scrimmage can be fixed as he grows into the role? Nobody can say for certain. That being said, if Igbinoghene is to be a Day 2 pick as many analysts forecast, then he must be drafted by a team which is either in a position to sit him for a year -- something the Cincinnati Bengals and Mike Zimmer defenses have regularly done with cornerbacks -- or is willing to live with him getting cooked from time to time in his first year, as was the case for rookies such as Rock Ya-Sin and Greedy Williams last season.