(Field Yates, a former Chiefs scouting assistant under general manager Scott Pioli, continues a month-long series offering insight into how teams scout for players at each position.)
OVERVIEW: The NFL has become a passing league. Quarterbacks are throwing for more than 5,000 yards in a given season and shattering records along the way. That means the need for dependable cornerbacks has amped up, as these players are integral to a defense’s efforts to slow the high-octane passing offenses seen around the NFL, including the Patriots. Not only has the need for a quality cornerback increased, so too has the need for a greater quantity of cornerbacks on a roster, as teams routinely turn to what is known as their sub defense (which stems from the insertion of an additional defensive back in lieu of a linebacker or defensive lineman). Despite reaching the Super Bowl in 2011, the Patriots endured major difficulties at the cornerback position (and secondary as a whole), relinquishing the second-most yards in a single season in NFL history. The yardage total isn’t all on the secondary, but it’s clear that the team could stand to see a number of players step up in 2012.
DESIRED TRAITS: Examining first the physical build and mold of a cornerback, it’s important to find a player who has sufficient size to match up against the massive receivers starring in today’s NFL. A cornerback who is size-deficient (less than 5-10) must make up for it with the ball skills needed to be disruptive at the point of catch.
A cornerback does not need to be the fastest player on the field, but good speed in no way hurts his value. Moreover, he needs to be a very good reactive athlete, which means he is able to mirror the movements of the receiver he is covering. He must have good ability to backpedal, side-shuffle, turn his hips to run, and not make false steps in his transition. He will need to be able to stay with a receiver at the top of his routes; this requires quick and efficient footwork.
Although most cornerbacks will be noted for their pass defense merits, they must also be willing and able tacklers and run supporters. This comes from toughness and strong form, and their physicality will also show up as they work to jam receivers near the line of scrimmage. A cornerback who can reroute and use his leverage to gain an advantage over a receiver from the snap can tilt the play in his favor.
Like a pitcher in baseball, a cornerback must have a short memory. This, combined with grit and confidence, is perhaps the most important trait toward a player’s success. He can have any physical skills a coach desires, but an inability to shake off one bad play will only lead to further struggles. A cornerback will find himself in man coverage against an offense’s best player at times; backing down from such a challenge is not an option. It can be difficult to gauge from the exterior, but it appeared as though Patriots cornerback Devin McCourty struggled with confidence after a slow start in 2011.
SPECIAL TEAMS ANGLE: Cornerbacks can play a variety of roles in the kicking game, both as returners of kicks and punts and members of the core special teams. Because of their speed and quickness, the tougher cornerbacks are often used as gunners and vices on the punt and punt return teams.
PATRIOTS TAKE: Make no mistake about it, the Patriots struggled versus the pass in 2011. That can be traced to a number of factors, but the team looks to turn the tide in 2012. Along the starting front, three players – Devin McCourty, Kyle Arrington and Ras-I Dowling – figure to play major roles. McCourty must prove he is more the player of 2010 than 2011, while Arrington will look to build off his seven interceptions from 2011 – tied for most in the NFL. Dowling, meanwhile, must prove he can stay healthy, as he missed nearly all of 2011. Reason for optimism about Dowling stems from his impressive performance versus Brandon Marshall in the 2011 season opener, particularly his ability to play physical football in the red zone. Behind those three, the Patriots have added a pair of veterans in Marquice Cole and Will Allen who could be used in a slot/reserve role (Allen may also platoon at safety). The team also has a pair of intriguing young players in second-year man and AFC Championship Game hero Sterling Moore and rookie draft choice Alfonzo Dennard. Moore may also play a dual role with safety responsibilities, while Dennard flashed impressive ball skills in offseason workouts. This group has more talent in it than the results of 2011 would suggest, and needs to avoid a repeat performance in 2012.