As NFL receivers get bigger and faster, and more of them are put on the field in creative formations, the importance of the shutdown cornerback (that always-endangered species) might be more important than ever. The Defensive Player of the Year award was won by Charles Woodson(notes), with fellow cornerback Darrelle Revis(notes) finishing second in voting.
This draft class presents two players with extensive experience in man coverage, and several below them who operated primarily in zone coverage shells against spread offenses. Of course, the best can play both, and that's what Joe Haden and Kyle Wilson have in common. Who comes out on top in our tale of the tape?:
Joe Haden, Florida
Kyle Wilson, Boise State
Pros: Eyes receivers out of their breaks and moves seamlessly with his first step. Has excellent recovery speed to jump routes, and dive quickness to pick off or deflect a ball at the end of his reach. Keeps good balance on deep routes when slowing up or stopping to fight for the ball; his passes defensed numbers should be tremendous even at the next level because of this. Great hitter and drag-down tackler for his size, and he has no problem reading the run at the line and going after running backs if necessary. Reads and reacts to quick routes out of the slot, and has outstanding short-area agility to make even quick options routes a problem for opposing offenses. Can follow press coverage though routes, but also has a feel for his place in zones. Transitions well when he needs to flip his hips and cover a receiver downfield. For all his speed, he doesn't tend to bite on play fakes, which speaks to his outstanding body control.
Pros: Diagnoses the action well and puts himself in position to succeed in different coverage situations. Great range and mid- to deep-field speed; ability to shoot over and cover the middle when already playing deep out of off coverage. Outstanding straight-line speed pays off in and out of coverage; he's very sudden on a corner blitz, and his special teams return ability will add to his draft stock. Might be the best press cornerback in this class because of his super-quick hip turn and ability to adjust and get to full speed on deep routes. Smooth backpedal in zone coverage, adjusts quickly to the ball. Closes quickly on underneath routes, to the point that he's more prone than most corners to start a tackle when the receiver's still in the air. Outstanding recovery speed on curls and comeback routes. As a return man, looks to make the big play from the start; is able to spot and exploit gaps and run around and past outside defenders.
Cons: Unimpressive combine workout numbers had some dropping his stock, though the smart football guys just went back to the tape. Benefited from a great pass rush, which he may not see with his NFL team due to his likely high draft position.
Cons: Not an effective tackler – he's more likely to hold a guy up and wait for help than go for a takedown. Receivers can get by him for after-catch yards because of this. Comes up quickly in run support but is just as prone to whiff when he gets there. Questions about the quality of his competition were basically put to rest at the Senior Bowl, but small-school bias (no matter how misinformed in this case) might push him down a few spots.
Conclusion: He doesn't have the demonic trail speed of Revis, or the versatility of Woodson, or the superhero instincts of Nnamdi Asomugha(notes), but Haden possesses the kind of skill set that most NFL cornerbacks would kill for. He's a tweener in the best sense of the word – a player conversant in man and zone coverage, who covers with deep speed and tackles like a small safety. In a league where the passing game is ever more important, Haden's abilities should have him going top ten in the draft, and his new team relying on him heavily right away.
Conclusion: Haden is the most well-rounded pure cornerback in this class, but Wilson may have equal pro potential. With his deep speed and quick closing ability, Wilson can become what every great team needs – a pure range cornerback with shutdown potential. His value should be inflated by the relative lack of elite tight-cover corners in the NFL. It's far too early to put Wilson in Revis' class, but he does have a similar ability to trail speed receivers around the field.
Doug Farrar is a regular contributor to Yahoo! Sports' Shutdown Corner