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The Cornerback Gold Rush

One of the unintended consequences of the spread-offense revolution is the huge demand for good cornerbacks. Lucky for NFL teams, this draft is loaded with them. This is the story of how the college game’s addiction to high-octane offense has created a cornerback renaissance.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Cornerbacks have been the losers of this football era. Starting in 2007, when the Patriots decided their playbook was "Randy Moss, go deep!," cornerbacks have had a rough go of it. Passing yards rocketed 18 percent from 2006 to 2016. Completion percentage during that time is up to 63 percent from 60 percent. Cornerbacks are the new Washington Generals, standing idly by while a golden generation of receivers — Antonio Brown, Odell Beckham Jr., Julio Jones — acrobatically embarrasses them. There have been too many good quarterbacks, too many athletic receivers, and not enough cornerbacks that can defend them well. But those inside the game are noticing an unusual change this year. The cavalry is coming, with a 2017 draft class loaded with talented corners.

This is the end result of a dramatic market correction. "It’s almost Darwinian," said former University of Tennessee defensive back Charles Davis, now an analyst for the NFL Network. "We are seeing, for the first time in years, more great athletes finding a way to become defensive backs, guys who are saying, ‘I’m a dime-a-dozen at wide receiver, but I’m one-in-a-million at corner.’ And it’s working."

Chiefs general manager John Dorsey said at his team’s predraft press conference that there may be seven cornerbacks taken in the first round, and that it’s the deepest class in at least a decade. Joe Douglas, the Eagles’ vice president of player personnel, has said the number of draftable cornerbacks is "significantly higher" than at any point in the last few years.

This is good news for general managers, because teams are so desperate that they’ll draft basically any corner these days. Last year, teams selected 31 defensive backs in the first four rounds — up from 22 from five years ago, during the 2012 draft, this despite the fact that last year’s crop was not considered particularly great. Prospects who could be drafted Thursday include Ohio State’s Marshon Lattimore, Colorado’s Chidobe Awuzie, Alabama’s Marlon Humphrey, Washington’s Kevin King, LSU’s Tre’Davious White, Florida’s Quincy Wilson, and USC’s Adoree’ Jackson.

There are a few theories that explain the cornerback boom (and why it will last at least a few years), but mostly it comes down to the proliferation of the spread offense. The point of the spread is to overextend the defense by putting more receivers on the field. With an increased demand for wideouts, there’s an increased supply, forcing more elite athletes to choose other positions to get noticed. Upon switching to corner, those athletes are testing the "10,000-hour theory" of defensive back play, chasing teams like Baylor, Oregon, and Texas Tech all over the place. During the 2016 college season, 26 teams faced at least 35 passes per game — in 2006, only two teams faced that kind of passing barrage.

Cornerbacks have been forced to adapt to the high-octane offenses that have become the norm in college. "These guys are seeing so many balls in the air, they are now coming at [the ball] with a quicker pace, they cover tons of routes, they have to react quickly on every snap," Davis said. He added that for about a decade, the best and tallest athletes were offensive players. This started to change, drastically, in the last four years. Mike Farrell, national recruiting director at Rivals, said youth players have been figuring out what positions to play earlier on in order to "go where the money is in the pros." The spread has made good corners a hot commodity in the NFL, and they get paid like it. According to Spotrac, there are 10 cornerbacks who average over $12 million a year; there are six receivers who average that. Josh Norman, Patrick Peterson, Joe Haden, Desmond Trufant, Stephon Gilmore, and Richard Sherman are currently on contracts worth at least $40 million guaranteed. Darrelle Revis is basically Warren Buffett.

"I guarantee you [Florida State’s] Derwin James could have been one of the best receivers in the country," said Farrell. "Instead James is primarily a defensive player and is practicing at cornerback for the Seminoles this spring."

Farrell has had prospects who played multiple positions on offense or defense argue with him if they aren’t listed at cornerback in the Rivals recruiting database.

Farrell told me about Florida’s Quincy Wilson. "He’s pretty tall and we weren’t sure he was able to cover, but he insisted on staying at corner, staying outside at 6-foot-1," Farrell said.

According to Farrell, the 6-foot-1 athletes who switch to cornerback do so because they have a better chance of standing out. "The same thing is happening with 6-foot-4 guys who are great athletes and would have played basketball before — they realize now that they wouldn’t go anywhere in hoops, but would be an elite tight end or a freaky linebacker. Guys know … what attributes will make them attractive — and a 6-foot-1 guy at cornerback is more special than at wide receiver." Former Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti said that in previous eras, a 5-foot-9 corner could hack it in most defenses, but most college teams seem to have a 5-foot-11 minimum now, and taller is preferred. Washington’s King, for instance, is 6-foot-3 and most top prospects are 6-foot or above.

College corners are seeing more passes and more snaps. The hurry-up craze has led some college defenses to adopt a rotation system. Back in 2008, Aliotti was the defensive coordinator for Oregon and he started to treat his defense "like a hockey team," rotating players whenever possible to minimize the fatigue caused by the fast pace. "We got to a place where we had 20 to 23 guys we could count on each game," he said. "You needed to combat the passing. We’d switch out a linebacker and one or two corners per play, I don’t think anyone did that prior to us."

Aliotti is now an analyst with the Pac-12 Networks, and he’s since visited with many coaches, including Alabama’s Nick Saban, to discuss how to utilize a similar rotation system. The idea has spread throughout college, Aliotti said. Ohio State has rotated their defensive backs in recent years, and could have as many as three picks in the top 15 of this draft. OSU cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs recently floated the idea that up to seven players could rotate at cornerback for the 2017 Buckeyes.

More players are defending more passes than ever, and those defensive backs are more athletic than ever — tall and long enough to stop the college passing game. That translates well to the pros.

If there’s a drawback to these über-athletes in the defensive backfield, it’s that they lack the physicality that comes with the speed. "It’s become such a space game," Aliotti said. "The lost art is tackling. Whether you are playing zone or man doesn’t really matter anymore, because it’s all about being able to tackle in space, because the college game is so horizontal. Watching games every Saturday, I can’t tell you how much atrocious, terrible, ugly tackling there is."

Farrell said that many of these all-around athletes choosing corner are defensive neophytes, lacking perfect form on their tackles. "Guys like [LSU’s] Tre’Davious White are not great tacklers, but they flip their hips so quickly, they have such good body control and balance, they can react and close," he said.

But who needs tackling? This generation, Farrell said, plays the ball in the air better than previous ones, so tackling can take a back seat. These young defensive backs sharpen their skills in high school, and at the seven-on-seven tournaments that exist throughout the country now, and are played nearly year round. Those tournaments are heavy on passing and allow defensive backs more opportunity to learn how to cover. Farrell also said that summer camps, common stops for every top prospect in the country, are also heavy on one-on-one battles between defensive backs and wide receivers. Thus, these athletes can develop good ball skills that allow them to pass for elite corners, even if they can’t tackle like one. After all, breaking up a pass or even picking one off is better than bringing a guy down once he’s caught it.

"If you’re tall, have range, and good ball skills — I think of [last year’s first-round pick] Eli Apple as someone I wasn’t sure of, but he had the skills and stayed at corner and had huge success," said Farrell.

Davis said the shift is now complete and that there will likely be a generation of defensive backs coming in to disrupt the NFL’s passing game for the foreseeable future. "For 10 years, if you had a big-time recruit, you stuck him on offense, and you felt like you were wasting a guy if you put him on defense," Davis said. "That’s no longer the case and won’t be for a bunch of years."