Scouting the Broncos: Cornerbacks

Although no team in recent memory has complained of having too many talented cornerbacks, Denver is in a good situation at this time. There are factors that could change that - such as the possibility that Perrish Cox is convicted in his sexual assault case and does jail time - but as things stand today, Denver has a fairly nice group at the CB position. Here’s the breakdown:

# Name Ht Wt Age Exp School 2011 Salary Signed Through
24 Champ Bailey 6-0 192 32 12 Georgia $11,000,000 2014
32 Perrish Cox 6-0 198 24 R Oklahoma State $405,000 2013
21 Andre' Goodman 5-10 184 32 9 South Carolina $2,880,000 2013
29 Chevis Jackson 5-11 193 25 3 LSU $555,000 2011
33 Nate Jones 5-10 185 28 7 Rutgers $800,000 2013
22 Syd'Quan Thompson 5-9 191 24 R California $405,000 2013
41 Cassius Vaughn 5-11 195 23 R Mississippi $405,000 2012

I’m guessing at this point that Chevis Jackson is camp fodder - could be wrong, but I haven’t seen anything from him at this point. Although a third-round choice in 2008 (by Atlanta), Denver is already Jackson's fourth NFL home (they claimed him last December of waivers from New England). Nate Jones doesn’t thrill me, but the ability to move to safety or corner is prized in the NFL, and he is one player who can do that. With his versatility added to the other players we’ll discuss, I think that Denver’s cornerback group is in fairly good shape moving forward. Here’s why, listed alphabetically:

Champ Bailey defines the position, has the kind of confidence that every good CB has (but rarely needs it, since he rarely gets beaten) and has every skill that you could ask for. He mirrors well, knows where the ball is and often gets to it before the receiver. He loves to play off-man coverage, starting with his back to the sideline so that he’s able to read the WR and the QB at the snap. He’ll turn 33 in June but plays like he’s 25, and he has the experience to see the field in a way that few cornerbacks can boast. Champ’s a quiet leader, usually guiding by example, but he is comfortable mentoring the younger players both in the film room and on the field. Champ is one of the best in the game, and I doubt that will change much over the four years of his new contract.

Perrish Cox has shown the kind of consistent confidence that a CB in the NFL needs. He was beaten more than a few times during his 2010 rookie year, but that’s part of being a pro. He was thrown into the mix quickly when Andre' Goodman was hurt, and opposing QBs don’t pass towards Champ when there’s a rookie on the other side - so he’s dealt with a tough situation. Even so, he’s got classic size, and although slightly short on speed, Cox has very good route recognition for a young player and has excellent short area quickness. I expect him to continue to develop, if he can get his legal issues solved.

Andre' Goodman is a top CB as far as coverage goes. He has a weakness in his tackling skills, perhaps due to being a little light, and I don’t know exactly how he’ll fit into the new defense, and whether the new defense will run more man or zone coverage. He gives Denver two top coverage CBs, and that’s never a detriment. However, he also turns 33 before the next season starts, and injuries may be catching up to him more than they are to Champ. We’ll find out during the preseason.

Syd’Quan Thompson has confidence in spades. He’s not fast over the long haul, but he’s extremely quick in short areas and is pretty much made for a zone coverage scheme. He tackles well, using all of his weight and usually wrapping up well. He’s very tough for his size, and his route and play recognition are very good, which go a long way to compensating for his lack of pure speed. I’d expect him to flourish if Denver goes to a zone-dominant approach to the defense.

I’m honestly not sure on Cassius Vaughn yet - he’s faster than heck (his best time at Combine was 4.36) and has the length that you hope for in a CB, but he doesn’t seem to have the best level of natural skill, tends to side-shuffle his feet at times, and generally needs work on his footwork. Due to those tendencies (and others) he can give up position to the receivers. I like him, though: I thought that he did well in limited reps over the course of 2010, and with some development he could be a contributor in dime packages. He’s also playing well on special teams. I’d like to see him kept and developed more, which affects how I see the draft and free agency with respect to this position.

It’s often said that if you can’t start, you’d better contribute on special teams; and with a great kick-return TD in the season finale versus San Diego, Vaughn may have given himself a role on the team. From where I’m sitting, I think it a good idea to get wideout Eddie Royal off of the return team - Eddie’s not that big, he’s recovering from hip surgery and with Vaughn’s speed, Cassius could step in and handle that role for the team, permitting Eddie to work on his WR function. For whatever reason, it’s common for return men to not play receiver quite as well when they do both - I honestly don’t know why, but the stats on it that I’ve seen were fairly compelling. Cassius’ ability to handle mistakes without being affected by them hasn’t come up yet to the point where I could say yes or no to that question with him.

Speed and the CB position

Here’s Bill Walsh again:

Of course, you need quickness and explosion. Full-sprint speed is important, but there have been cornerbacks who have overcome a lack of sprinters' speed and played many years and become Pro Bowl participants. You'd like to think of the cornerback being able to run 40 yards in under 4.5 seconds. He must be able to do the kinds of things receivers do when they go up for a ball. The great cornerbacks have been good against the run, too.

Cornerback is one of the few positions were the 40-yard dash has been shown to be a good indicator of eventual success in the NFL (along with the other necessary skills, of course). That being the case, I went back on most of the players to see what their speed was at their respective combines. Vaughn’s average speed for the 40 was 4.43, so he’s well under the mark. Cox had a low of 4.42, but an average of 4.58. His straight-line speed isn’t top drawer, and that was exposed some last year. It’s not a huge problem - his issues seem to lie more in getting his recognition down and getting his first step faster. He’s close in speed, even if not perfect - he’ll need to make up for the speed issue with technique. Syd’Quan Thompson is a bit slow by CB standards - Syd timed at 4.62 with a low time of 4.52. He had one bad run of 4.78, and it tainted his other times. As Ted pointed out in his excellent You Got Served of April 1, Syd’Quan’s very quick in the short zone, and will play zone very well for Denver on the plays that they go with that approach. Syd’Quan also has a talent for reading routes and reading the QB, and that will serve him, and Denver, well. Being fast is important, but reaction quickness can make up for a full tenth of a second or more.  I dug out Andre' Goodman’s 40 and found that it was timed at 4.36, which helps explain his long career in the NFL.

Champ Bailey, as most fans know, timed at a blazing 4.28 in the 40. That and the ability to read the QB, backpedal in perfect form, flip his hips smoothly, see and recognize what the WR is trying to do and to jump the route have created one of the most recognized players in history, with ten Pro Bowl selections in his twelve seasons. When you to this add his ability to take joy in hammering the running back, his willingness to tackle anyone and his desire to play special teams long after most players would have given it up, you have a picture of the ultimate CB. Sure, he’s going to slow a bit over the course of his thirties, but the game has slowed down for him so much that it really doesn’t matter much at this point, and may not for years. His efforts in shutting down Kansas City's Dwayne Bowe (0 catches) and Baltimore's Anquan Boldin (1 catch) and keeping Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald and Indy's Reggie Wayne out of the end zone last season were classic Champ and showed how little his skills have diminished. Champ has been penalized for pass interference only once during the last four years in the 291 times he was targeted. That’s 0.34%, according to Stats Inc. On top of everything else, Champ is an unusually disciplined player.

By the way, there are different factors that you can read from the three phases of the 40-yard dash, so let’s use them to take a look at how Champ managed to break the 4.3 mark in his 40. First, Champ’s 10-yard split - the first ten of the run - was timed at 1.48 seconds, which tells you that he explodes off the line like a half pound of Semtex. It’s a very high mark, and a very low time, so he came off to a fast start. It tells you that he’s got an unusually high percentage of fast-twitch fibers in his musculature. His 20-yard split was timed at 2.49, so he gets even faster as he moves. He covered that second 10 yards in 1.01 seconds, which is outrageous. When you look at that mark against his 4.28 total, that means that he covered the last 20 yards in 1.79 seconds, so he was continuing to get faster as he ran, which is fairly rare. Most players either hold to their top speed over the last 20 (or even slow slightly from fatigue if they aren’t in top shape) but Champ averaged 0.9 seconds for each segment of those final yards, running even faster as he ran farther. That tells you that he was in top physical shape and has excellent slow twitch capacity as well. The receivers that he plays against will tell you that, too.

All in all, just by breaking down his timed 40, taken in total, you can see that this is a rare specimen of a football player. It’s not surprising that when you add his impressive cognitive abilities and his willingness to charge into contact and tackle like a linebacker, you get one of the best cornerbacks to play the game. I hope that he ends his career in Denver - probably as a safety, which will give Denver one of the best centerfielders in the game for a few years, and then goes to Canton on the first ballot, as he well deserves to do. 

Conclusion

With Bailey, Goodman, Cox, Thompson and Vaughn, you’ve got an excellent group with a variety of skillsets. Denver may hit the free agent market if Goodman doesn’t fit their needs, and you never pass on a cornerback in the draft who others don’t seem to ‘get’, but I don’t look for Denver to take LSU's Patrick Peterson and I don’t see them using a high pick on this position. They are already flush with young talent, and have two solid veterans to boot.

It’s a good bet that Denver, with all the other needs it has, will hold back on drafting anyone to the cornerback position unless they go to a zone coverage defense and decide to bring in someone to replace Goodman. Even then, I’d see a veteran free-agent pickup as a high likelihood. The current combination of veteran leadership and young, developing talent gives the Broncos some breathing room. They don’t really need any receivers, can take a TE or stand pat in that group for a year, and they are in good shape at CB.  When you’re rebuilding a team, having some areas of strength makes a big difference.

When’s that draft? Go Broncos!

Learn to laugh at yourself. You will be ceaselessly amused. - Sri Gary Olsen

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