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What do NFL scouts look for in cornerback prospects?

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Former NFL scout Matt Williamson breaks down the traits most important to the position

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 14 Ohio State at Indiana
Jeffrey Okudah
Photo by James Black/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

In Part 8, the final piece of our position-by-position scouting series, we examine cornerbacks. Check out the first seven parts of this extensive series HERE.

Covering today’s wide receivers is a tough chore. Rookies struggle at this position more than in most areas of the field and are picked on without relent until they prove capable. Offensive designs are so advanced today that cornerbacks are often put in a very difficult position. The league has been flooded with great young wide receivers (and there are many more coming) and much like the discrepancy between defensive linemen over offensive linemen in today’s NFL, the cornerback crop hasn’t quite kept up. This is a position that also often doesn’t have a great hit rate in the draft.

Size and speed are coveted at corner and rightfully so. The Seattle Seahawks are a great example of stressing the importance of taller cornerbacks with great length. Arm length is very important in their scouting process. Having a cornerback with size and strength is obviously an advantage. Seeing how fast a cornerback prospect can run a 40-yard dash is an important tool, but how does that straight-line speed really translate to the football field? And how often do cornerbacks really run a long distance in a straight line? Like is the case with any position in football, having smarts and football intelligence is important here as well. This is true with reading route combinations and the scouting and understanding of your opposing receiver and quarterback, as well as the offensive play-caller. However, if a prospect lacks such intuition on the field, you can simplify things and give a cornerback little wiggle room with his responsibilities. But they still have to know the coverage being asked. Also, having a cornerback that is a top-notch tackler is, of course, desired, but we also don’t necessarily require trained killers at this position. But if you are going to play in the slot, toughness is certainly a prerequisite. Being that close to the ball as possibly the smallest player on the field isn’t for the faint of heart. Lastly, there is a mindset needed for playing this position well in the league. Much like an offensive tackle, a cornerback can shut out his opponent every snap but one and the public will think he had a bad game or cost his team a big win. Confidence is needed, as is the ability to put mistakes behind you to concentrate on the current task at hand. If a cornerback is on an NFL football field hanging his head, he’s doomed.

If there were a fourth category listed below it would be eyes. Cornerbacks must have disciplined, well-trained eyes that don’t wander. Just think about it from their perspective. If the play call is man coverage, a cornerback’s eyes must be focused on his singular opponent. If it is a form of zone, the corner must use “Zone eyes” and see a much larger portion of the field starting before the ball is snapped. But inevitably, almost every play late in the down ends up as some sort of man coverage and knowing when to shift the focus can make or break how that play results.

3. Hands

There are three ways of seeing this. A cornerback’s hands are extremely important when pressing a wide receiver at the line of scrimmage. Much like an offensive lineman in pass protection, hand placement and punch are instrumental to success here. Next, there is an art to using hands properly as a coverage player during the phase of the route and officials in the NFL are very quick to throw a flag if the defender becomes too handsy. There is a fine line here and figuring out that line (that can change week to week) is a very difficult transition for rookie cornerbacks. But most importantly, hands correlate to ball skills. The best cornerbacks take the ball away. Excellent cornerbacks get their hands on the ball with some regularity when quarterbacks go their way, even if it just results in a pass breakup. However, many cornerbacks can’t find the football in the air or play the football at the catch point. Even if they are the most gifted of athletes, failure at the catch point can’t be tolerated.

2. Hips

Fluid “Swivel” hips are instrumental in keeping up with the wide receivers in the NFL. Remember, cornerback is a reactionary position. The receiver knows the route and where he is going while the cornerback has to react accordingly. In turn, cover men often go from a backpedal to a turn and run position, opening their hips and tracking a wideout. They have to constantly change directions with sharp hip movement to react to the receiver’s routes. By far, hip turn and rotation is the most important aspect here, but football players also derive explosiveness by unloading their hips. This is true in this instance as a cornerback coming up to play the run and driving his hips through the tackle for extra pop. But again, what we need to see is the ability to change direction with supple yet abrupt hip turn.

1. Feet

The great Bill Walsh used to say that if he only saw a quarterback’s feet, he could tell you if the pass was accurate or not. Here, if you could only see a cornerback’s feet, you can often decide if he has what it takes. There is a lot of footwork technique depending on what style of coverage is being played. But more than that, you want an athlete who can get his feet off the ground extremely quickly. You don’t want a player with slow feet or heavy feet at this position. That is the absolute kiss of death. By just watching a cornerback’s feet, you can tell if this player stays in balance throughout the entire play. You see how quickly they plant and go if they are coming downhill closing on a route or adjusting to when a receiver gets off press coverage. You can see how well he operates on the balls of his feet or if he needs to get every cleat in the ground to operate. Feet tell us everything when scouting cornerbacks.