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Best CB scheme fits for New York Jets in 2021 NFL draft

Greg Newsome
(Photo by James Black/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

These cornerback prospects would be excellent fits in Robert Saleh and Jeff Ulbrich’s New York Jets defense.

Slot cornerback

The New York Jets have an obvious gaping hole at outside cornerback, but they are currently thin in the slot as well. Brian Poole remains a free agent after two strong seasons in New York, leaving Javelin Guidry as the current penciled-in starter at the spot. The 2020 undrafted free agent showed signs of promise near the end of the year, but the sample size was too small for the Jets to feel comfortable about throwing him into the fire without any competition. So, the Jets could certainly have the slot position on their radar come draft weekend.

Looking back at Robert Saleh and Jeff Ulbrich‘s defenses in 2020, it would appear that the Jets will want a slot cornerback who is comfortable playing primarily zone coverage but is capable of handling a healthy mix of zone and man.

In San Francisco, Saleh’s primary slot cornerbacks in 2020 were K’Waun Williams and Jamar Taylor. They played zone coverage on 57.7% and 63.8% of their coverage snaps, respectively. Williams played zone 64.3% of the time as the 49ers’ main slot man in 2019.

Over in Atlanta, Ulbrich was part of a Falcons defense that utilized its slot cornerbacks in a similar way. Atlanta’s top slot corner, Isaiah Oliver, played zone on 56.1% of his coverage snaps in 2020.

Here are three prospects who could fit the bill (all stats are from the 2020 season unless otherwise noted).

Trill Williams, Syracuse
  • Percentage of cover snaps in the slot: 74.4%
  • Percentage of cover snaps in zone coverage: 54.8%
  • Class: Junior
  • Height: 6-foot-2
  • Weight: 198 pounds

A native of Yonkers, New York, Trill Williams is big for the slot at 6-foot-2, but he thrived in that role throughout his career. When covering out of the slot, Williams was targeted 59 times over his three years with the Orange and allowed 35 catches for 357 yards (6.1 per target), one touchdown, and three interceptions (61.2 passer rating). He was clocked with a 4.42 time in the forty-yard dash at his pro day.

Aaron Robinson, UCF
  • Percentage of cover snaps in the slot: 73.2%
  • Percentage of cover snaps in zone coverage: 54.8%
  • Class: Redshirt Senior
  • Height: 6-foot-1
  • Weight: 193 pounds

Aaron Robinson had a disappointing season in 2020, allowing four touchdowns, snagging zero interceptions, and coughing up a 101.0 passer rating.

However, Robinson still has highly intriguing appeal in the slot based on his stellar 2019 season. That year, Robinson stuck to slot receivers like gum on a shoe, giving up 5.1 yards per target and a 57.0 passer rating in slot coverage. His average of 0.63 yards per cover snap allowed out of the slot ranked sixth-best out of 92 qualified FBS defensive backs with at least 200 snaps in slot coverage.

Robinson was clocked between 4.39 and 4.40 in the forty-yard dash at his pro day.

Elijah Molden, Washington
  • Percentage of cover snaps in the slot: 72.0%
  • Percentage of cover snaps in zone coverage: 53.3%
  • Class: Senior
  • Height: 5-foot-10
  • Weight: 191 pounds

A positionless defensive back who primarily lines up in the slot but can also play free safety, inside linebacker, and outside cornerback, Elijah Molden had a short-but-strong 2020 season. He only played 234 defensive snaps over four games, but he dominated in that time frame as he allowed just 65 yards over 18 targets (3.6 per target), which is absurdly good.

Over a full 13 games in 2019, Molden was one of the most active playmakers in the country. He led the Pac-12 in interceptions (4) and passes defended (12) while posting the fourth-best Pro Football Focus coverage grade (90.9) among qualified FBS cornerbacks.

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Outside cornerback

Whereas we may have somewhat of an idea of how the Jets will utilize their slot cornerbacks based on the parallels between Saleh and Ulbrich’s former teams, it remains to be seen how the Jets will deploy their outside cornerbacks. The 49ers and Falcons had different approaches here.

Saleh favored zone coverage for his outside corners. When the 49ers defense was at its healthiest in 2019, San Francisco’s top-two outside corners – Emmanuel Moseley and Richard Sherman – ranked 12th and 13th in zone coverage frequency out of 136 qualified cornerbacks, dropping into a zone on 70.9% and 70.7% of their coverage snaps, respectively.

San Francisco’s zone numbers went down in 2020 as the 49ers battled injuries on the defensive front and were forced to blitz more, but they still ranked in the upper echelon. Their top-two outside corners were Moseley and Jason Verrett, who ranked 39th (67.4%) and 54th (64.4%) out of 137 qualifiers.

Meanwhile, Atlanta ranged from average to below average when it came to their zone reliance on the outside. The Falcons’ top-two outside cornerbacks in 2020 – A.J. Terrell and Kendall Sheffield – ranked 76th (58.8%) and 84th (57.4%) in zone frequency out of 137 qualified cornerbacks. In 2019, their starting outside duo of Damontae Kazee and Isaiah Oliver ranked 90th (54.9%) and 104th (52.4%) out of 136.

For the sake of this article, let’s lean towards Saleh’s peak 49ers defense in 2019 and assume that it is the primary unit the Jets will be looking to model their defense after. Having built a defensive front that has the potential to match the dominance of San Francisco’s 2019 unit and considering that they are likely to field a young and unproven cornerback depth chart, the Jets will probably blitz at a low rate that is similar to the 2019 Niners, which would presumably lead to a high amount of zone coverage in the back end thanks to the increased amount of available reinforcements.

So, let’s say that the Jets are looking for outside cornerbacks who primarily play zone coverage (at least around 60% of their coverage snaps) and thrive in that facet of the game. Here are some prospects who fit the bill (ignoring top-tier prospects who are unlikely to be available to the Jets).

Shemar Jean-Charles, Applachian St.
  • Percentage of cover snaps in zone coverage: 69.0%
  • Passer rating allowed in zone coverage: 42.2
  • Class: Redshirt Senior
  • Height: 5-foot-11
  • Weight: 180 pounds

Shemar Jean-Charles led all FBS players with 16 passes defended in 2020. The majority of those (11) came in zone coverage, where Jean-Charles was targeted 36 times and allowed 12 catches for 127 yards, one touchdown, and one interception. He’ll likely be selected in the latter half of Day 3.

Greg Newsome, Northwestern
  • Percentage of cover snaps in zone coverage: 76.7%
  • Passer rating allowed in zone coverage: 48.5
  • Class: Junior
  • Height: 6-foot-1
  • Weight: 190 pounds

A likely first-round prospect who may have a chance to fall to the Jets at No. 23, Greg Newsome was one of the most productive cornerbacks in all of college football this past season, doing most of his work in zone coverage. When in zone, Newsome allowed nine catches on 23 targets for 76 yards, a minuscule average of 3.3 yards per target.

Tre Brown, Oklahoma
  • Percentage of cover snaps in zone coverage: 59.9%
  • Passer rating allowed in zone coverage: 21.0
  • Class: Senior
  • Height: 5-foot-10
  • Weight: 188 pounds

Pegged as a late-Day 3 prospect, Tre Brown had great zone coverage numbers in 2020. When dropping into zone, he allowed 13 of 28 targets to be completed for 133 yards, no touchdowns, and three interceptions.

While he carries a small frame, Brown played his entire Sooners career on the outside with almost no experience in the slot, so it will be interesting to see whether his future NFL team tries to move him inside despite the lack of experience or if they try to see if he can maintain his success on the outside despite his lack of size.

Asante Samuel Jr., Florida St.
  • Percentage of cover snaps in zone coverage: 63.7%
  • Passer rating allowed in zone coverage: 51.4
  • Class: Junior
  • Height: 5-foot-10
  • Weight: 184 pounds

Asante Samuel Jr. could be an option for the Jets in the second or third round. In zone coverage this past season, Samuel allowed 13 of 21 targets to be completed for 108 yards, one touchdown, and three interceptions.

Who are some of your favorite scheme fits for the Jets at cornerback?

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