Where the best rookie CBs in the NFL have excelled and where they need to improve

This year’s defensive draft got off to a good start as two of the top four picks were the divas on the defensive side of the ball, the cornerbacks.

By the end of the third round, there were already eleven cornerbacks selected and by the end there were 56 defensive backs in total.

The last time there were five defensive players selected to start a draft was in 1991. In that year, of those first six defenders who were selected, all of them made the Pro Bowl.

After looking at the quality of last year’s draft cornerbacks, let’s see how this year’s rookies compare.

Even though it’s just the preseason, we’re going to break out the movie and examine where these rookie cornerbacks have shown positives, as well as areas where they may need improvement!

Kaiir Elam, Buffalo Bills

Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Although this list is not in any particular order, Kaiir Elam may be one of the standout rookie cornerbacks on this list. It’s true that Elam has had 64 cover snaps, so this number obviously helps development, but what he showed early on is what made his future so promising.

In his first series of his first preseason game, against the Indianapolis Colts, Elam made a big impression. On third-and-4, he was in man coverage against fellow rookie catcher Alec Pierce.

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Since Elam is lined up with inside shade, this forces the receiver to either have to move him off of his spot or use physicality in order to get inside. Elam doesn’t budge and he stays square showing his toughness within the first five yards.

In his last preseason game against the Carolina Panthers, Elam was faced with a similar situation but this time playing off-coverage and the offense is on a crucial third-and-2.

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Since Elam is playing off-coverage, he has to anticipate the route and make a play on the ball using his speed, rather than his physicality.

When defenders are either playing zone or off-coverage, this usually gives them a chance to keep their eyes in the backfield. This is exactly what he did here in order to be able to time his play on the ball.

There was little downside to Elam’s gameplay so far this preseason. Even though cornerbacks are not known for being physical players who can be relied on to protect a boundary, Elam did that job without getting his hands dirty.

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In the clip above, Elam doesn’t allow his receiver to block him down field. He uses his play-strength to push his receiver into the backfield and getting to the edge, forcing the ball carrier inside to his teammate.

The Panthers only targeted Elam that one time and he didn’t allow a single reception in his third preseason game.

Andrew Booth Jr., Minnesota Vikings

(Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)

Next up is Minnesota Vikings second round selection, Andrew Booth Jr. During preseason Booth had 53 total snaps and 37 of those were in coverage during the first two games.

Booth was playing 97% of his snaps at the boundary. He lined up on the right side 47 times and only three snaps on the left side of the defense.

So more often than not, the Vikings wanted Booth to cover the number one receiver on the offense. For the most part, he did his job.

In the clip below Booth does a great job closing on the receiver at the top of his route, forcing the quarterback to hold onto the ball leading to a sack.

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This was an improvement from his first game against the Las Vegas Raiders, where he received a defensive pass interference penalty when he wasn’t able to recover from the deep curl route up the sideline.

Booth has made up for a few of these catches with protecting the boundary against the run, as shown in the clip below.

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The outside receiver had a choice to either block the boundary cornerback or the safety, and he chose the latter. This gave Booth an opportunity to make a play.

According to PFF, Booth has allowed an 80% reception percentage, which he will certainly need to improve as a boundary corner. Luckily, he will have eight-time Pro Bowler Patrick Peterson on the other side of the field to help his development.

Kyler Gordon, Chicago Bears

(AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

Chicago Bears second-round selection Kyler Gordon has shown some sticky coverage throughout preseason. In his two preseason games, he’s played majority of his reps from the slot corner position (45 snaps) and had only eight out wide.

Gordon has shown great coverage in both man and zone schemes. In the clip below, Gordon is hand fighting with the receiver while they make their way up field. Gordon does a great job maintaining that physicality and anticipation to jump the route from the inside, knowing he has help to his outside.

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That same spacing awareness showed when he was in zone coverage as well.

In the clip below, even though this looks like man coverage, the defense is in zone and Gordon does a great job watching the quarterback’s eyes to make a read on the play.

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Even though the ball was batted at the line of scrimmage, Gordon put himself in a good position to make a play. That is really all you can ask for.

If the regular season will be anything like preseason, expect Gordon to be all over the field. He lined up mostly in the slot but also registered snaps in the box, on the line and even at free safety.

Ahmad ‘Sauce’ Gardner, New York Jets

(Syndication: The Record)

When his New York Jets teammates said that Ahmad Gardner needed to earn his ‘Sauce’ nickname, he didn’t disappoint. Gardner ended preseason with zero targets on 24 snaps in coverage after three preseason games.

Without those official targets, obviously it’s hard to really measure a player’s skillset, but if I’ve learned one thing from playing and watching the position, no targets for a cornerback is a very good thing!

In the clip below, Gardner is lined up on the outside and the receivers are going to attempt to force a collision to open up the post-route in the endzone. Unfortunately, Gardner doesn’t bite the bait.

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Instead of Gardner continuing to back pedal, he steps up to disrupt the receiver within the allowed five yards.

Gardner also showed great spacing in the redzone when in zone coverage. In the clip below, Gardner prevents the touchdown throw while staying square and cleaning up the underneath pass.

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From what we have seen so far, Gardner is certainly the real deal. We will have to wait until the regular season to see any downside to his game!

Roger McCreary, Tennessee Titans

(Syndication: The Tennessean)

After only playing in one preseason game and getting only 11 snaps in coverage, Tennessee Titans cornerback Roger McCreary still impressed in his light preseason load.

In the clip below, there are three of the most impressive sticky coverages by McCreary in his only game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

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Because of his ability to mirror receivers down field, he wasn’t targeted at all. This makes it difficult to assess any downside when defending the pass.

When it comes to the run, there was one play that jumped out to me and apparently also PFF.

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This play might be why he received a 26.0 tackling grade. But if we are honest, who would want to take on running back Leonard Fournette in their first NFL game? Nobody.

Overall, McCreary will be an important piece to the Titans defense, as he had a variety of responsibilities in this game. He registered a blitz, lined up six times in the box, five times from the slot and eight times out wide.

Derek Stingley Jr., Houston Texans

(Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)

The Houston Texans cornerback Derek Stingley Jr played in two preseason games and had 43 total snaps lined up out wide. Entering the draft, majority of analysts had Stingley as the number one cornerback overall, especially when it came to his skillset in man coverage.

This is also the type of defense I mentioned in my article about the ‘Top rookie cornerback prospects scheme fits‘, back in April of this year.

Despite this, the Texans ran him in a lot of zone concepts over the two preseason games. The first clip below shows Singley at the bottom of the screen running with his hips slightly open while covering the boundary.

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On a similar defensive design a few plays later, Stingley makes an adjustment. This time when the receiver is about to make his break, he gets his hands on him, giving himself an opportunity to disrupt the timing of the pass resulting in a pass breakup.

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Until we see Stingley run more man coverage, we won’t see his full potential, but he certainly made a presence when given his chance.

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Stingley wanted to prove that he wasn’t a corner who is afraid to put his body on the line. He prevented a first down conversion in the clip above and registered a total of three tackles in his first NFL preseason.

On 12 coverage snaps against the Los Angeles Rams, Stingley saw two targets and allowed only one reception and forced one pass breakup. In his second game versus the San Francisco 49ers, he wasn’t targeted at all and finished the preseason with a 71.3 PFF grade.

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