Roger McCreary is not a trash talker. “No, sir,” the Auburn cornerback told The Ringer ahead of the combine in February. “But when a receiver starts trash talking to me, that’s when I start trash talking [back].” McCreary, who measures 5-foot-11 and 190 pounds, lets his play speak for itself.
Last season, McCreary led the SEC in passes defensed (16, tied for sixth most in FBS last year) and his 20 total forced incompletions led FBS players, according to Pro Football Focus. A three-star recruit ranked 989th overall by 247Sports in 2018, McCreary earned first-team All-American honors as a senior, capping a four-year career during which he broke up 30 passes, fifth most among FBS players in that span.
Objectively hilarious play from Roger McCreary pic.twitter.com/gfhHSBfvDn— Austin Gayle (@PFF_AustinGayle) January 25, 2022
McCreary has more than held his own against several of college football’s top receivers during his career, including reigning NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year and former LSU wideout Ja’Marr Chase; Alabama’s John Metchie III, Jameson Williams, and DeVonta Smith; Arkansas’s Treylon Burks; Georgia’s George Pickens; and Penn State’s Jahan Dotson.
Despite all of that success, McCreary probably won’t hear his name called during the first round of the NFL draft on Thursday night. The two-year starter is a case study in how teams gauge whether or not outstanding production at an increasingly critical position is enough to outweigh an underwhelming athletic profile.
The biggest knock on McCreary’s NFL future is his arm length. According to MockDraftable.com, the average arm length of the 786 defensive backs logged in its database is 31.502 inches. McCreary’s 28 7/8–inch arms (measured 29 1/2 inches at his pro day) rank in the zero percentile of corners recorded by MockDraftable.
That’s a big reason McCreary has gone from being viewed as a late first-rounder to a Day 2 prospect. His case is the inverse of potential top pick Travon Walker. The Georgia defensive lineman has seen his stock skyrocket largely because of his physical profile, even though he would have the fewest career sacks (9.5) of any defensive end chosen in the top 10 since the NCAA first began tracking sack stats in 2000. Meanwhile, McCreary, a Senior Bowl participant, has proved his chops as a pass defender but is seeing his stock slip.
Many NFL scouting departments have physical thresholds they want draft prospects to meet. Considering how beneficial length can be for pass defenders, it makes at least some sense that there’s skepticism behind McCreary’s pro projection. His short arms caused some to suggest he will be a better fit as a slot or nickel defender, a role that will place him against smaller receivers more often than if he lined up on the outside. Among the 50 NFL cornerbacks with the most slot coverage snaps last season, per PFF, 12 had 30-inch arms or shorter: Michael Carter II (29 1/8 inches); Dont’e Deayon, Tre Norwood (29 3/8 inches); Avonte Maddox, Elijah Molden, Troy Hill, Myles Bryant, Darnay Holmes (29 1/2 inches); Mike Hilton (29 3/4 inches); Ross Cockrell (29 7/8 inches); Cameron Sutton and Rudy Ford (30 inches).
One consistent thing on Roger McCreary’s tape is unique ability to disrupt in-breaking quick game routes. Longer comers usually excel in these situations but @Rogerjamez has knack for “playing around” people, which is why some NFL teams love his upside as a ball-hawking nickel. pic.twitter.com/olKgYle9HM— Jim Nagy (@JimNagy_SB) March 15, 2022
Being labeled a nickel defender shouldn’t be seen as a slight. The role’s importance leaguewide is increasing as defenses line up in dime looks more frequently to counter pass-happy offenses.
“He’s really become one of your 11 starters,” first-year Rams defensive backs coach Chris Shula said of the nickel spot earlier this month. “You’re really typically going to have five DBs on the field, I would say, about 75 [to] 80 percent of the snaps if you look at the totality of the year. And when you look at these college guys, colleges are doing the same thing. So what we call the star position or nickel position is a position that is really taking on a life of its own. And it’s really what you just want out of the position.”
Per PFF, McCreary registered 60 snaps as a box defender, 70 from the slot, and 770 as an outside corner during his senior season. So he has some experience in the slot, but moving him there full time will require an adjustment.
“The action in the NFL is backside or in the slot,” Chargers coach Brandon Staley said in March. “With the way the passing attacks are in the NFL nowadays, you have to defend longer because of the mobility [of quarterbacks]. The worst thing to play [is zone] because when you play zone, there’s more air in the coverage for them to take advantage of off-schedule. And so when you have good coverage players, you can stay connected longer in the down, and it’s better.”
Auburn/Senior Bowl CB Roger McCreary's short arms might have people plugging him into the slot. Vs Alabama he showed big time ability to compete outside and in the slot. Wanted to show him vs vertically pushing routes. I've seen his speed questioned. Didn't think it was an issue pic.twitter.com/u4pLfvXwiP— CROCK-MAN⚡️ (@eric_crocker) February 4, 2022
But McCreary shouldn’t immediately be cast off as only a nickel defender. His consistent ability to stick with receivers downfield and quickly clamp down on targets gives him the potential to play on the outside as well. According to Sports Info Solutions, McCreary limited receivers to an overall catch rate of 63.2 percent (6.4 percent below expected) over his two years as a starter. When defending explosive routes, that figure was even better, as he held receivers to a 40 percent catch rate (15.8 percent below expected). He posted an impressive 90.2 PFF coverage grade on 215 snaps in press coverage, fourth best among FBS cornerbacks last season.
Treylon Burks: 6’2” & 225 lbs with 33.5 inch arms— Kendall Mirsky (@MirskyKendall) March 11, 2022
Roger McCreary: 5’11” & 190 lbs with 28.875 inch arms
Seems like McCreary should be at a disadvantage in the redzone here…guess again
McCreary has heard the conversations, but there’s a calmness in his disposition, as if the 22-year-old is welcoming the challenge. He perks up a bit when discussing his passion for the game.
“That’s one thing about football,” McCreary said. “That’s what I love. It’s the only thing I truly need. I’m quiet off the field, but I’ve been playing football my whole life. That’s what I love about it: playing against great competition every time, playing against great players that make me better. I just like the drive to compete. That’s why when the game comes, that’s when I’m able to focus. I just do my best to beat my opponent. And that’s how I come every time, no matter who I play against.”
Terrance Crawford, an Alabama-based personal trainer, has been instructing athletes for 11 years. Crawford began working with McCreary two years ago—“right before COVID,” he said—when he was already training former Auburn corner Noah Igbinoghene (a 2020 first-round pick by the Dolphins) and linebacker Jamien Sherwood (a 2021 fifth-round pick by the Jets). Crawford’s first impression of McCreary was that the Mobile, Alabama, native was “veeeeery quiet” and it took a while to get a feel for him. Then it clicked.
“He just wanted to work,” Crawford said. “That’s it. He’s a man of not too many words. He still has his fun and he still laughs and all that, but when it’s time to work and lock in, he works.” It’s what helped inspire Crawford’s nickname for the Auburn DB: “Quiet Assassin.”
“If you look at Roger, he’s not the biggest guy,” Crawford said. “So you have to have something else that sets you apart. He’s got that ‘dog’ in him.”
When asked what drives him, McCreary explained that it was the inspiration of his mother, Felicia James. “That was my ‘why,’” he said. “It was to make her happy and she loved the sport.”
Felicia still loves football. Her uncle, Angelo, played defensive back for the Eagles in 1987. She also played for two years, starting when she was 13. Jeffery, one of her five younger brothers, was playing football at the Optimist Boys & Girls Club in Mobile, and she figured joining the league would allow her to keep watch over him. Initially, the boys on the team pushed against it.
“When I first said something about it, they was like, ‘No, no! Girls can’t play football!’” she recalled. “And Loretha [one of the coaches] was like, ‘Why not?! Why not?! We gon’ call her Ice Box!’ And right then, she went and got me a jersey made. I was the only girl on the team, and I was the only one that had a name on the back of my jersey.”
Felicia played linebacker. McCreary has said that she once broke a teammate’s collarbone at practice. Her team made the playoffs her first year, and in her second year, won the championship. That run inspired her to put McCreary in football when he was 4 years old. He played everything—quarterback, running back, and receiver—through his youth league and high school career. He didn’t play corner for the first time until he arrived at Auburn. He took special interest in developing into an all-conference defensive back.
“When I got into college, I learned through my transition from my freshman to my senior year [that] improving as a player is something that you love,” McCreary said. “Seeing how you did and you became that much better. That’s why I love learning more about the game and especially going against other great players and being a competitor.”
That feistiness is apparent in plenty of McCreary’s reps. He was one of college football’s best press coverage corners and displayed versatility by playing a mixture of zone and man in first-year defensive coordinator Derek Mason’s scheme during his senior season. The accolades he earned last season confirm just how much he’s developed, and hint at his potential at the next level. Still, when he hears critiques of his game (or regarding his pregame meal choice), he doesn’t get down on himself. He listens and assesses.
“I just take it in because I might know that I need to improve,” McCreary said. “As a corner, you always need to improve something. So when people say in their opinion how they feel about me, I always look at them and hear from them. And if I don’t believe it’s true, I won’t believe. But if it’s true, I’ll be real with myself and try to work hard and practice.”
That’s an admirable approach. McCreary might not benefit from outstanding testing numbers or ideal length. But only a few years into playing his position, he’s battle-tested and proved. Perhaps that will be enough to carve out a lengthy NFL career.
“He’s a competitor, man,” Crawford said. “He doesn’t care where he goes, he just wants to play ball. And that’s it. That’s what he’s about.”