Quarterbacks tend to move the needle when it comes to discussing the NFL, particularly when it comes to the NFL draft. While last year was somewhat of an exception to this rule, given that Kenny Pickett was the only quarterback to come off the board in the first round — and the first two rounds at that — the 2023 NFL Draft is shaping up to be a return to this norm. Three quarterbacks (C.J. Stroud, Anthony Richardson, and Bryce Young) are expected to come off the board within the first five selections, with Will Levis likely joining them inside the top ten.
But while the passers might shape the first five picks in the draft, cornerbacks could shape the entire first round. According to NFLMockDraftDatabase, six cornerbacks are consistently placed in the first round of mock drafts right now, and while mock drafts are just one data point, Mel Kiper Jr. of ESPN recently called this cornerback class one of the deepest in the draft:
Need a corner? ESPN Senior Draft analyst @MelKiperESPN calls that position the “deepest in the draft, by far” and projects that as many as 35-40 CBs from the 2023 class can play in the NFL.
CB is arguably the Patriots’ No. 1 need.
— Mike Reiss (@MikeReiss) March 22, 2023
The cornerback sitting at the top of that list for many? Christian Gonzalez from Oregon.
An “[e]xplosive outside cornerback possessing a rare blend of physical and athletic traits” is how Lance Zierlein of NFL.com describes Gonzalez, comparing him to Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. “His testing numbers could send his draft stock skyrocketing, but the ingredients are already present to become a feared CB1 if he plays to his gifts,” Zierlein continues.
We will get to those testing numbers in a moment.
Zierlein is not alone. In his draft guide for The Ringer, Danny Kelly has Gonzalez atop his cornerback board, and among the top ten players in the draft. Kelly describes Gonzalez as a “big, long-levered corner with lockdown coverage skills; he’s a swaggy defender who sticks to receivers with incredible balance and body control.” In making the case why he can rise during the draft process, Kelly concludes with this: “Gonzalez combines size, coverage chops, and ascending ball skills at corner; he has the upside to develop into a lockdown defender.”
The Draft Network also has Gonzalez in their top ten overall, and atop their cornerback board. “Gonzalez is a long and lean corner with outstanding overall athleticism,” they write in their detailed profile of the Oregon CB. “He offers excellent size with the height and length to match up against opposing teams’ No. 1 receivers on the boundary. Gonzalez is a cover corner who flashes the ability to lock down his side of the field.”
His performance at the Combine starts to round out the picture. According to Kent Lee Platte, the creator of the Relative Athletic Score, Gonzalez’s testing in Indianapolis placed him on the elite tier of prospects:
Turning to those glowing evaluations, it does not take long when studying Gonzalez to find examples of him doing everything you want from a top cornerback prospect.
Take this play against UCLA, with Gonzalez at the top of the screen. Watch as he matches the vertical route perfectly, before showing off that explosiveness at the end of the play, skying above the field to break up the throw:
On this play against Stanford, Gonzalez is at the bottom of the screen. He’ll face a back-shoulder throw, and watch as he displays that patience in his press technique, before showing off the athleticism — and the length — to break up this throw:
Gonzalez is a versatile cornerback, and while the previous two plays show him in man coverage situations, he is adept at playing zone as well. He is at the bottom of the screen here against Colorado, and watch as he reads out this vertical/wheel route combination, breaking on the wheel route to make the interception:
Not only does Gonzalez read this perfectly, peeling off the vertical route to break on the wheel route, but you see those testing drills from Indianapolis show up on the field with this interception. If you’ve ever wondered what the Combine means for a prospect, here you see Gonzalez’s explosiveness and change-of-direction skills at work, putting him in position for the turnover.
Often when studying a prospect, you have the proverbial “put the pen down moment.” (Although, to use modern parlance, it is probably more of a “close the Google Sheet” moment).
Now it is time to talk about that moment I had when watching Gonzalez, and why he is at the top of my CB list along with everyone else.
But first, some schematic background — and if you want to just skip ahead a few paragraphs to get to the play, I understand — to set the stage. In Cover 2, a two-deep safety coverage, the outside cornerbacks are traditionally responsible for the flats while the safeties split the field in half deep:
(Huge shout-out to my pal David Archibald for this great look at Cover 2 from back in our InsidethePylon days).
Now, one of the soft spots in Cover 2 is deep along the sidelines, away from where the safeties are aligned, and beyond the cornerbacks’ responsibilities in the flat. This is often termed the “turkey hole,” and you might hear analysts talk about quarterbacks throwing the “hole shot.” Send the outside receiver deep, and hit him before that safety can rotate over from the hashmarks.
In response to that, defenses started having the outside cornerback “sink” and get depth in response to a vertical release from the outside receiver. The cornerback is still responsible for the flat, but will sink against a vertical release to constrict that throwing lane, and give the safety help against a vertical route from the outside WR. If the QB wants to still make that throw, it now is much tougher.
Of course, offenses did not sit still. Their response? Send the slot receiver into the flat on a quick out route. Generally speaking, this is a “go/flat” combination, sometimes termed Ohio in playbooks … and yes, Madden. Now, if the cornerback gets depth against a vertical release from the outside receiver, the QB can simply throw to the slot receiver in the flat and hope that he not only makes the catch before the CB peels off the vertical route, but then makes that player miss after the reception.
You know where this is likely going, and defenses of course adjusted. This led to the advent of trap coverage, sometimes called Palms, or 2-Trap, or other coverage terms. The cornerback will still drop and get depth against a vertical release from the outside receiver, but will read the release of the inside receiver. If that slot WR breaks outside quickly, the CB will peel off and “trap” that WR.
For an example of what that looks like, watch Xavien Howard at the bottom of the screen here against Mac Jones and the New England Patriots at the end of the 2021 season:
The Patriots run the go/flat combination, with Nelson Agholor running the vertical route along the sideline while Jakobi Meyers runs the out route from the slot. Howard initially sinks in response to Agholor’s release, as the Miami Dolphins are in Cover 2, but he keeps his eyes on Meyers in the slot. When the WR breaks out, he traps the route, and Jones takes the bait.
Now what can Jones do differently here? He can quickly reset and throw the vertical route, as Agholor is open. But this happens very fast, and is an example of how playing quarterback is very, very hard.
Let’s make it harder.
Because on this example, Howard is backpedaling, and showing Jones a zone coverage drop. What if the CB shows the quarterback a man-coverage turn, by turning his back to the quarterback and sprinting away from him like he is covering the outside receiver?
Well, that nefarious bit of defensive scheme is called 5 Cougar in some systems, including Nick Saban’s. At the link you can find an incredible breakdown of all of Nick Saban’s coverages from Cameron Soran, which is worth a bookmark if you are at all interested in defensive coverage schemes.
In 5 Cougar, the cornerback executes a man-coverage turn, peeling around and turning his back to the cornerback while running with the vertical release of the outside receiver. However, the cornerback keeps his eyes inside, looking over his inside shoulder to read the release of the slot receiver. If that receiver breaks to the flat quickly, the CB traps that route.
The hope? That you bait the quarterback into thinking you are sticking on the vertical route.
Why might it work? Put yourself in the QB’s shoes for a moment. When you see that man coverage turn from the cornerback, and the back of his jersey running away from you, everything you have seen tells you that he is covering that receiver, and will not break back to the slot WR. Even if you know that 5 Cougar is an option, that is a tough ask of the CB, to quickly stop on a dime, change directions, and impact a throw to the flat. You would have to be not only an incredible athlete, but have great feel for the position, to impact a throw to the flat in that scenario.
By now you can probably see where this is going …
Watch Gonzalez at the bottom of the screen here:
Gonzalez executes that man-coverage turn, matching the vertical release of the outside receiver. But he gets his eyes inside to the tight end, and when he releases to the flat, Gonzalez peels off the vertical to trap the throw. Dorian Thompson-Robinson looks to the tight end, but Gonzalez arrives at the same time as the football, breaking up the play.
This was, for me, the “close the Google Sheet” moment.