Now that Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner broke out big in his rookie season for the New York Jets, and Tariq Woolen came out of nowhere to ball out in his rookie campaign for the Seattle Seahawks, the NFL — copycat league that it is — will be all over the next big, aggressive cornerback with speed and movement skills who can come in and make a professional defense better.
Fortunately for coaches and evaluators at this level, there are some interesting prospects in the 2023 draft class who might be able to match what Gardner and Woolen did in 2022. Penn State’s Joey Porter Jr., with an unofficial pre-combine 6-foot-2, 198-pound frame, has showed all those qualities, and he’s big and salty enough to make receivers think twice about their varied approaches. Georgia’s Kelee Ringo, despite a few lapses in coverage in 2022, will have NFL teams looking at his 6-foot-2, 220-pound frame, and thinking, well, there’s the kind of raw-clay prospect on whom we can take a chance.
But among all the draftable cornerbacks in this upcoming class, Illinois’ Devin Witherspoon might be the best of the bunch, and certainly the most intriguing. He fits the suit at 6-foot-0 and 180 pounds, and in the 2022 season, Witherspoon’s metrics were absolutely insane.
Witherspoon’s movement skills — his ability to change direction quickly in short spaces to get and stay sticky with smaller, more angular receivers — is indeed unusual for a player of his height. Most longer, lankier cornerbacks can be bedeviled by receivers and routes that force them to dance step-to-step. Which makes sense — when your body has longer moving parts, it’s going to take an extra millisecond for everything to get going in the same direction.
Now, what you do expect of any bigger cornerback is the ability to shut down any kind of boundary routes. On this interception against Northwestern in Week 11 from outside left, Witherspoon clamped down on receiver Calvin Johnson Jr. (no relation to Megatron), and came away with the ball.
But again, it’s Witherspoon’s short-area quickness that sets him apart among cornerbacks of his size. On this pass deflection against Michigan in Week 12, watch how Witherspoon matches receiver Ronnie Bell through his short ship route from the slot, and then closes in a hurry for the breakup.
Here’s a deflection against Purdue in Week 11 in which Witherspoon stays well in phase over the top of this slant-flat crosser. I have no idea what his arm length measurements will be at the combine, but based on multiple deflections where he’s reaching over to break up the ball, I’m suspecting he’ll top out at (or near the top of) his position.
And finally, if you want a cornerback who can read a screen or swing pass from outside, and then crash down with evil intentions… well ask Indiana running back Shaun Shivers how this play worked out for him.
We will next see Witherspoon at the 2023 Reese’s Senior Bowl, and he’s ready for that challenge.
“I’m looking forward to playing alongside every single player in attendance,” he said in late December, via Justin Melo of the Draft Network. “I’ve been paying attention to who’s accepted their invite and what not. It looks like we’re going to have a terrific group in attendance. All of those guys are great football players. They’re all here for a reason.
“I’m excited to compete against them. I’m honored to be here. I’m looking forward to balling out with them. I’m going to get their perspective on the game, too. I’m here to learn.”