Scouting the Draft: 2012 Defensive backs

I recently rewatched the Combine film from Indy to study the DB tests and drills again. Combine can be overrated, but there’s an aspect to the live views of players that’s very helpful to a guy like me who makes part of his living doing and teaching postural analysis. It comes into evaluating players - usually ones that i’ve seen before, but if not, it helps me to understand what’s being said about them and to look for those tendencies, even on highlight film (which is often terrible).

I enjoyed watching the various players through the drills - not as much the tests, although I always like getting a greater feel for the players’ posture, and build - before I went back for a second and third look purely out of the pleasure of it. Although I strongly agree with those that feel the Combine tests are often heavily overweighted, the opportunity to do some analysis of why you see the things that pop out on film of the drill segment is one that I don’t get all that often.

Say, for example, that you have a player who has problems in his backpedal. On your average broadcast film, the back end of the field is out of the frame more often than not. I get to see the guy as the snap occurs (usually), then there’s generally a point where they don’t show anything on the defensive backfield until the pass is thrown or the runner breaks into the second level.

I’ve studied (and will continue to - it’s an endless subject) both the basic and more intricate route patterns, and I usually understand what the teams are trying to do. I recognize the different forms of coverage and I notice who is and isn’t doing well on defending passes. I’m curious enough to want to figure out ‘why?’.  Even so - the angles of the broadcast film doesn’t permit me to see the player’s hips as well as I’d like, nor to follow them through a defensive route unless something happens - an INT, a great PD or an impressive completion - that draws the view from a camera that was in a good angle and you get to see a replay of the whole route.

Seeing the players on the field, closer up, in slow motion when I prefer, in shorts and tops exposes every little quirk in their technique, and that’s why the Combine is so helpful, in addition to the teams having a chance to get a very full medical and an interview with each player. Having all-22 film of college games would improve what I can see, but until it’s available, I find the Combine drills useful. Not so much the tests, although I think that they have uses with individual players; but the opportunity to see the players attempting to move in fairly established drills allows me to see two things:

The first is how much they’ve practiced - you don’t have much trouble seeing who’s more and less prepared for the experience, and I’d add to that who looks like he handles that stress well. The second is to have a chance to leisurely break down certain specifics in their posture, build, movement and technique. I have to admit - sometimes I find myself so interested in those aspects that I miss some of the names as they go past. I generally catch it in the next drill or rep, so it’s no big thing.

Backpedal drills

A simple drill has both safeties and corners backpedaling off the line and flipping their hips to run as if with a WR. It sounds easy and it should be, since it’s basic to all forms of coverage, and they’ve known they were going to do that drill for years - it’s standard. For most of the candidates, it wasn’t easy in the least, and this is very helpful in figuring out who can cover on the edges. This is a phenomena that you’ll see throughout this kind of event - in most cases, the players coming out of college don’t have the technique truly mastered yet. Because of that, when you see it done well, you usually see it with the most natural athletes on the field. It doesn’t ensure their performance at the next level, but it really helps. If you can’t flip your hips well, staying with a receiver down the sideline is one very tough problem. Denver has long used man coverage - occasionally press, but often off-man - to deal with the X and Y receivers.

To do the basic backpedal and turn properly, the player needs to stay low, maintaining their hip level throughout the turn without popping straight up at the end of it. This is accomplished by keeping the hips low, by staying up on the toes, and by keeping their bodies on a single horizontal line, with the hips low. They should also be using the inside elbow, swung tightly near the body to increase their circular momentum, and have to be stepping very precisely to stay in balance as they move through their turn. It requires hours and hours of practice to master - generally in the range of 10,000, in my experience.

I recall that they used to tie ropes around people’s hips in kyokushinkai-kan karate  with someone pulling hard on each end to force the fighters to keep their hips level - it was very effective and the theories aren’t dissimilar. Start low, stay low, turn with your hips on that same plane, use the swing of the inside elbow in a tight circle to increase your momentum, and practice the steps of the turn until they’re second nature. You come out of that technique with your hips on that same low plane and continue on your run. It’s basic, it’s essential to coverage skills, and it’s very tough to do right.

Training in it often isn’t rigorous at the college level. Janoris Jenkins and Morris Claiborne each had a textbook rep on the drills, but George Iloka of Boise State is six inches taller than Jenkins and has five inches on Claiborne, and it showed in how much tighter and stiffer he was. Few did it smoothly. Actually, what stood out were the players who can actually do it right at all - there weren’t all that many. As I said - it’s a tough drill to master, but it’s also essential to a cover corner and important to anyone who’s going to be in coverage.

The errors that were easiest to see where these:

  • Popping upright as they came out of the turn. Staying low permits the player to monitor the WR more easily, to maintain their speed more effectively, and to cut at their own top speed.
  • Failing to stay low through the whole exercise, which often shows a lack of proper conditioning in the lower body and core.
  • A lack of both balance and time in training for this drill. Footwork is often the issue when the players were off balance. Since the backpedal is essential to playing the positions of safety and cornerback, you have reason to expect it to have been worked on heavily.
  • Failing to keep the elbow in tightly. The tighter the circle, the more powerful the move. You will easily be able to see their elbow out swinging in the breeze from the players who haven’t mastered this.

They moved from drill that into one that shows a double move. The theory of the exercise is that you’re in your backpedal against a receiver who uses a double move on his route. The player has to start in the same backpedal, but this time they have to flip their hips first in one direction, while keeping their eyes focused back on their starting point, and then to flip them in the other direction, breaking into a run away from the starting point at that moment. This was very hard for nearly all of them, for whatever that’s worth. It’s not an easy drill to master either, and footwork is a big key on both of them. Janoris Jenkins and Jayron Hosley got some very well-earned attention for their smoothness.

George Iloka got some deserved attention for being stiff. What catches my eye with him is that he was surprisingly fluid in a couple of reps during the drills, so he’s got that capability in himself, but he needs NFL-level coaching and conditioning. Someone is going to have to work hard with him to both loosen the over-stressed muscles in his long torso and hips and teach him to move with them in a more supple, relaxed state (Bill Walsh was a master at doing the same thing with QBs on their dropback and throwing motion). If they can, Iloka will be even faster, stronger, and potentially quite helpful in TE coverage. There’s a sizable drop-off between Mark Barron, Harrison Smith, and then George Iloka. Barron and Smith can run your defense for you. Smith may play a different role, but it could be quite valuable to the right team.

The issue, good and bad, with George is simply that he’s incredibly long and while he’s well-conditioned and powerful enough, there aren’t a lot of guys in the draft who are playing CB and FS yet who are 6’4”, 233 lb and also have 34.5-inch arms to work with. That’s very unusual, and you have to figure how to develop him and where to use him before you know what he’s worth to you - his lengthy physical build makes it harder to keep his hips low and level. It’s not something that he wouldn’t be able to overcome with proper training, though, so you have to look at that aspect of your organization and see if you have a slot for him to develop in. He can play ST right away. Down the road, he’s potentially got a special use.

Obviously, making him a LB has come up - he’s four inches taller than Denver's Wesley Woodyard and weighs 5-8 lb more, last I heard on Wesley. His shoulders are a bit narrow, but he’s muscular, taut, and might be able to fill out a little more as he matures. He hits and tackles well, and he hasn’t shown any tendency to flinch in a run-support role. Given that, his coverage skills might work well with a nickelback role - you have to account for a top TE in today’s game, and Iloka might be the one of the best options in the draft for that specific role. I don’t see him in a FS/deep corner coverage role: he didn’t appear to have that kind of speed last season, and his 40 tended to support that (4.66). If I’m right, that may limit what he’s best suited for in the modern game. It’s something to think on. He’s strong, doesn’t flinch from contact, and those long arms with his coverage background could confound a lot of TEs.

Other drills

The next two drills were the W, where the player runs up and then backpedals around between the lines (five yards) in showing off their ability to start and stop, changing direction and keeping their hips right, and then the plant-and-cut drill, where they run out and put their foot in the ground, carving a 90% turn. Not surprisingly, the last drill was where most of them had their best work - sticking their foot into the ground is something they’ve done since high school. What stood out on that drill were the few who didn’t do it well;  none of the names were from athletes who seemed at all elite in any other drills, either.

Another interesting option might be a player who’s currently a cornerback out of Notre Dame, Robert Blanton. He’s a very disciplined, almost military player who’s intelligent, very hard working, doesn’t mind contact and is 6’1”+ and 208 lbs, very strong but lacks the truly elite speed to be a true man corner. He’s happy inside and might be a nice nickel for someone, but that football intelligence, his leadership, and his attitude could also make him a free safety and/or someone that you put on the TE. He has the strength and the toughness, he’s talented at covering, but just doesn’t have WR speed. He takes good angles to the receiver though, so safety might be his best position. Making that decision about where to use him could be a good problem to have. He’s a skilled athlete; he’s just not a coverage corner. 

I’d want to take him later if he dropped to me and move him:  he could develop in special teams first. He’s not a truly brilliant athlete, but he’s a heady guy who has good skills in coverage that should work as a nickel or free safety. At the least, I think he’ll be a good backup and ST player and he might become a starter over time. I particularly liked his hustle and I liked his attitude - very focused, utterly on the task at hand, just what I want in a ST pick who might be more later in his career. He wasn’t the best athlete on the field, but he didn’t embarrass himself in any way, handled the drills fairly well, and stood out when it came to how he presented himself. I would have loved to have sat in on an interview to see how he came off. 

I’ll be honest - when it came to the best in the corners, they were very much what you’d expect. The ones that stood out included, in no special order, these guys:

Janoris Jenkins - you wonder if he’s put his issues behind him, but he’s a remarkable athlete. He’s short enough that it might be an issue with some of the monster WRs in the NFL; but he was fabulous in the tests and drills.

Morris Claiborne is one of the most incredible specimens of homo sapiens that I’ve seen in a while. He’s got good height, weight and proportions, is absolutely chiseled, and is fast on both the field and on the track. I watched him during the season, and I thought that he was as good at press-man as anyone that I saw last year. You can easily understand what the fuss over him is about via film of games or of Combine. He’s got the potential to be unusual in a league of elite athletes.

Ron Brooks out of LSU is as much a cipher to me today as he was a month ago - he played behind such talent that you don’t have film on him. He’s very fast, and looked good, but not exceptional in the drills. It’s really not enough to have much of an opinion.

‘Bill’ Dwight Bentley looks very much like a good nickel corner until you see how suspect he is in run support - actually, you have to be very good at something for that to not matter, from my end. Fast player, though, and you can’t deny his talent;  just his hitting. He also struggled in man coverage at a smaller school, so I don’t buy into him as much, despite his speed. Speed doesn’t cover - speed, effort and technique do. If he liked to hit, he’d be a good nickel. With his speed, someone will bite and try to coach him up.

Jamell Fleming and Stephen Gilmore both looked good to me. I wanted to like Asa Jackson out of Cal Poly for a ridiculous reason - I spent a long vacation in that town and thought that the area was one of the prettiest I’ve ever seen - it had everything from from rolling grassy hills and streams to stands of deciduous trees, minutes away from rocky bays and shorelines that teemed with life, and the pounding of that surf took the breath from your lungs. Sadly, despite a 4.49 40 that drew attention, he still wasn’t that strong a candidate. Life’s like that sometimes. Trumaine Johnson out of Montana made IAOFM reader Black Knight happy and looked to be everything I’ve ever heard about or seen from him - smooth, strong and talented.

It’s a strong CB class, despite the issue of fundamentals. That’s often true of CBs - three-year learning curves are all but normal when they arrive in the NFL. There were a wide variety of safety types but Harrison Smith and his leadership stands out - he’s so big, so strong, and so fast that he’s a very interesting choice who would appeal to me on his multiplicity of talents and his potential as a true field general. Smith was nervous at first, but man, he’s one big, strong, quick guy. Very impressive player on tape and ‘in person’ on the Combine film.

I look for Denver to take on a press-man friendly corner with one of their first picks, although I have no idea which way they’re leaning (hint - if their lips are moving, they’re probably lying). From all I’ve seen and watched there are several good choices, which will give them a better chance of catching one they rate highly. One guy that caught my eye during the 2011 season was CB Cody Sensabaugh out of Clemson. Part of Clemson’s reputation that’s earned is that they like to play press coverage, which you don’t see that often at the college level. He’s fast on the field and on the track. His cousin is Gerald Sensabaugh, who plays safety for Dallas, after spending four seasons in Jacksonville. Cody is unusual in that he’s better in man than in zone. Given that, his speed, his film, and his athletic abilities, he’s a very interesting option.

For whatever reason, several folks have mentioned this being an unusually enjoyable offseason. The quality of the players I’m seeing might be one of the reasons why, but in any case I find that they’re right.

Go Broncos!

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

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