Tale of the tape: Peterson vs. Harris

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You hear it all the time: The NFL is becoming more and more a passing league and cornerbacks are more important than they’ve ever been. Even nickel cornerbacks, formerly the forgotten men at a pejorative position, are now rated highly in importance and dissected on film to discern how best to use their abilities. And that makes the 2011 NFL draft class of cornerbacks a very interesting group. Not only are there three potentially elite cover men at the top of the positional list, there’s one player – LSU’s Patrick Peterson – who may very well be the best overall player in the class.

Beneath those elite three (Peterson, Prince Amukamara and Jimmy Smith), there’s a second level of pass defenders with the potential to eventually become top-line starters. This group is led by Miami’s Brandon Harris, whose athletic potential may be a step ahead of his game tape. How much difference is there between the first and second tier in this cornerback group? The answer could literally solve a multi-million dollar question.

Patrick Peterson, LSU

Photo Peterson

Height: 6-0
Weight: 219
40 time: 4.31
10-yard split: 1.49
20-yard split: 2.44
Shuttle: 4.07
3-cone: 6.58
Vertical: 38”
225-pound bench press: 15 reps
Broad jump: 10-foot-6
Games 38
Tackles: 129
Interceptions: 7
Passes defensed: 22
Forced fumbles: 1

Brandon Harris, Miami

Photo Harris

Height: 5-10
Weight: 191
40 time: 4.46
10-yard split: 1.53
20-yard split: 2.50
Shuttle: 4.12
3-cone: 6.77
Vertical: 35 ½”
225-pound bench press: 13 reps
Broad jump: 9-foot-5
Games 38
Tackles: 130
Interceptions: 4
Passes defensed: 26
Forced fumbles: 4

Diagnosing the action: Will occasionally bite on play-action and double moves, but Peterson already possesses a rare ability to stick with quick receivers even as he’s reading the quarterback. Doesn’t waste moves; he’s streamlined in coverage and can come out of nowhere to make a play.

Diagnosing the action: Impressive ability to read quarterbacks and receiver routes; Harris is rarely placed out of position by play-action and he’s not prone to being faked out of his assignment. Schematically predisposed to hang back and cover; may be more aggressive by nature than he was asked to be in Miami’s defense. Good at reading run and willing to come down in run support.

Ball skills: Comes after the ball like a quality receiver would – Peterson can shoot his body into tight windows and he’s always looking to take the ball away.

Ball skills: Needs coaching here. Passes defensed numbers are impressive, but he could have a lot more picks if he is cured of a curious predilection for batting the ball away when he has catchable interceptions in front of him.

Man coverage: Physical when playing press. Trails even the quickest receivers very well; can shadow option and other underneath routes. Good backpedal and surprising overall speed for a player his size. Gains inside position on deeper sideline routes. Flips his hips quickly and gets up to speed in the seam. Plays jump balls with the notion to bring the ball in whereas other defenders are content to bat the ball away.

Man coverage: Very agile player with elite short-area quickness; trails well on slants and posts and comes back down the ladder on digs and comebacks. Doesn’t come out of his stance too early when backpedaling, and is very good at turning his hips to run intermediate to deep. Not a great height corner, but times his jumps well enough to get to some air-balls.

Zone coverage: Better coverage in man than in zone; Peterson doesn’t always maintain spacing on short zones and can float out of position at times. Very quick to bail and help when the ball isn’t thrown his way. Flaws are coachable, though, as he has the physical ability to improve.

Zone coverage: A better man than zone corner. Decent in spacing concepts, but his tendency to hang back and wait for action to start can have quarterbacks setting him up deep for underneath stuff.

Recovery speed: Tremendous ability to close on the ball even when beaten in space; Peterson is a natural route-jumper. Impressive ability to contort his body to bat away balls other cornerbacks wouldn’t reach. Reads quarterbacks well, and this helps him drive to the ball in short areas.

Recovery speed: Perhaps his best trait at this time. Harris’ ability to trail and jump routes is helped by his route recognition and quickness to turn and run. Tremendous ability to close and cover on angular routes in which the receiver gains initial separation. Has an innate sense of timing; knows when to jump routes and when to hang back.

Against the run: Decent run tackler who is willing to drive to the ballcarrier. More able to contribute on tackles than he is likely to knock the heads off of running backs.

Against the run: Plays the run well for his size; willing to come down off coverage and make a stop. Definitely not a physical tackler; has a tendency to drag and will often hang on to wait for help.

Intangibles: Outstanding return man, though the NFL’s new rules regarding kick coverage might hurt his draft stock in some war rooms. Cheerfully confident (though not overtly boastful) player who can back up everything he says. Highly intelligent player. Has three cousins in the NFL: cornerback Bryant McFadden(notes), and receivers Santana and Sinorice Moss(notes).

Intangibles: Still needs some overall technique work, but Harris is a guy who buys in and does his best. Highly accountable person. Natural leader. Has potential as a return man in the right system. Asked teammates to dedicate their seasons to ex-coach Randy Shannon and hold themselves accountable for any disappointments.

Conclusion: There’s never been a cornerback drafted first overall in the history of the NFL, but as the league presents a passing game more and more every season, this will eventually happen. Peterson may not be the one to break that glass ceiling, but there’s a prevailing argument that he’s the best player in his draft class. Whoever gets him will add a versatile lockdown corner with serious improvement potential to their roster, and this makes Peterson perhaps the safest (and potentially most valuable) pick in 2011.

Conclusion: Harris may be the best of the second-tier cornerbacks in this draft class. Ideally, he’d be a great late-first-round bargain for a team playing a lot of man or off-man coverage where he could use his quickness to establish himself as a playmaker. While he may struggle in coverage against taller and more physical receivers in the NFL, Harris could start his career as a promising second or nickel corner and develop into a true No. 1 coverage option..

Comparison: Asante Samuel(notes), Philadelphia Eagles.

Comparison: Brent Grimes(notes), Atlanta Falcons.

Doug Farrar is a writer for Yahoo’s Shutdown Corner blog, and a senior writer for Football Outsiders.