When evaluating cornerbacks, people tend to get tunnel vision. Who’s the biggest? Who’s the fastest? Who can turn an interception into a touchdown with the most bravado? With the advent of a Super Bowl winning defense in Seattle built on a bruising secondary stocked with Redwoods for corners, it seems as though the entire football watching world has become obsessed with finding the next Richard Sherman rather than finding a defender who fits their team. I think the necessary question when looking at the big, long, fast defensive backs that are gaining traction in this copycat league of ours should not be “is he another Sherman?”, but rather “would Richard Sherman even be successful on my team in the first place?”.
Take the San Diego Chargers, for instance. One could argue that Tom Telesco needs a true stud number one corner just as badly as he needs a stud left tackle or right guard. Would a cornerback like Richard Sherman, perhaps the best prototypical press corner to come around in quite some time, work in San Diego? Absolutely – if the Chargers were a primarily press coverage team, which they are not. Unlike Seattle, which loves putting their corners on the line of scrimmage to beat up receivers off the snap, San Diego prefers to keep their defensive backs backed off in a 7X1 alignment (seven yards off, one yard inside). The Seahawks only back their corners off when playing zone, whereas the Chargers have them off roughly seventy percent of the time. This adds yet another extra layer of disguise to the defense for quarterbacks to figure out; if being seven yards off from a receiver does not tip off man versus zone coverage, then it makes it that much harder to decipher exotic blitz packages and zone drops. If the tall, long-striding Sherman were forced into handling man coverage duties from a 7X1 alignment, then shiftier, more fluid receivers would be able to take him to the woodshed on any given snap simply because he is not biomechanically built to handle that kind of role. Again, Richard Sherman is easily the best press corner in the NFL today, but that does not mean that he would be as successful on every other team in the league.
At the end of the day, finding talent for your football team is about knowing who you are, what you do, and building to that identity. If your team likes to jam receivers at the line with gargantuan corners and then bail out of press alignments into three deep zones, then by all means go after Nebraska’s Stanley Jean-Baptiste and call it a day – you’ve got your Sherman. If your team needs a smart, quick-footed, versatile defensive back who can play outside against the big boys or kick inside to the slot whenever necessary, well then you better go get yourself a Brandon Flowers clone. Enter Vanderbilt’s Andre Hal.
I had Hal pegged as a first rounder during the season because of his exemplary technique and intangibles, but his stock took a bit of a hit after the combine where he measured in slightly smaller, slower, and less explosive than expected. It is feasible that we could see Hal tumble down to the second or even third round while more physically imposing prospects fly off the board, but one never quite can tell what all thirty two NFL teams are thinking at any given moment. Morris Claiborne, Stephon Gilmore, and Dre Kirkpatrick all went in the first round of the 2012 draft, but the best corner produced by that class at this point is easily Brandon Boykin, who was a fourth rounder. The aforementioned Sherman was a fifth rounder and has become one of the most prolific defenders to come out of a disgustingly loaded 2011 class. Alterraun Verner is the second best corner of the 2010 crop and he too was a day three pick. Lardarius Webb and Keenan Lewis, the two best corners of the 2009 class, were both late third rounders. Scouts like size, scouts like speed, and scouts like big programs, but lost in the shuffle is what truly matters when projecting cornerbacks for the NFL – technique and scheme fit.
What makes Hal so appetizing as a prospect, at least based on my own evaluation, is his impeccable footwork, eye discipline, and hand placement. It becomes more and more apparent just how much Hal has drilled himself into technical precision the more I watch his tape. His pedal is low and smooth, his hands are always settled in the right position whether in press of off, and he has a knack for reading quarterbacks without getting fooled by good route runners. In short, Andre Hal can play some damn good football.
If I have learned one thing during my time studying the game, it is that feet, hips, and eyes are everything to a corner. Andre Hal, despite not being as fast as Bradley Roby or as big as Stanley Jean-Baptiste, may very well end up being one of the top defenders to come out of this class simply because he is master of the skills and fundamentals that constitute a good football player. Let’s dive into the tape, shall we?
In the life of an “off corner”, the first three steps after the snap of the ball are the difference between being an All-Pro and a bust. Generally in the first three steps of his backpedal, or “pedal”, the corner should be keeping his eyes on the quarterback, not on his receiver. Not only does this help the corner read his run/pass keys, but it lets him read the drop of the quarterback to help him gauge the distance and timing of a throw. If he sees the quarterback do a three step drop, then he knows that his receiver’s route is short and he can start breaking on the direction of the route based on where he sees the receiver move in his peripheral vision. If the quarterback takes more than a three step drop, then the corner immediately switches his eyes back to the receiver and prepares to play a deeper route. Understanding three step, five step, and seven step drop tendencies of certain offenses based on down, distance, and clock will also help corners better anticipate routes, which is why film study and football IQ are so important for every defensive back in the NFL.
A perfect example of Andre Hal’s eye discipline came this past season against Aaron Murray and the Georgia Bulldogs on a third and long. Hal was playing off-man in a 7X1 alignment. Take a look at Hal’s excellent technique right before and at the beginning of this play; his pedal is quick, his hips are low, his shoulders are perfectly in line with his knees, and his eyes are on the quarterback.
Hal sees Murray take a quick drop and try to hit an out route for a first down. Because he also had his man in his peripheral vision, Hal knew exactly where to go. The former Commodore plants his right foot into the ground and drives toward the sideline in one step while reading the throw.
Pay particular attention to Hal’s angle here. While reading the ball he does not go for the undercut too early and stays on a trajectory towards the first down marker. Too many corners have been caught taking a bad angle on a three yard pass only to get burned for thirty, and Andre Hal does not want to be one of them. Worst case scenario, Hal will still be in position to make the tackle if the receiver flattens his route like he is supposed to (spoiler alert: he does not).
Hal makes incidental contact with the receiver while reading the ball and gets called for a questionable pass interference penalty, but his fundamentals and football smarts are evident. Perfect footwork, perfect eyes, and a nifty closing burst got him to the point of the catch faster than the receiver. Being penalized for having too good of technique is unfortunate, but that is the nature of modern football I suppose. Let’s take a look at this play in real time.
Eye discipline and footwork work hand in hand to stop the underneath passing game that always looks so palatable against seven yard cushions. These two skills must be relentlessly drilled into any defensive back who wants to make it in the NFL until both of them are darn near biomechanically linked. It is not enough to read and then react; at the breakneck speed of professional football, corners have to read and react simultaneously. There is no room for error, and no room for thinking. With enough practice – and by “enough” I mean “insane numbers of hours” – one can develop their muscle memory to be unbelievably quick. Andre Hal’s ability to read, plant, and contain underneath passes is the greatest indicator of just how much he has drilled himself to perfection. The following two plays are the only passes that fellow highly regarded NFL prospect Donte Moncrief was allowed to catch with Hal in man coverage in an entire game. They collectively went for four yards.
Being able to properly read quarterbacks is also essential to successful zone coverage. Hal’s quick footedness and great closing burst lend themselves well to being a great zone corner. Houston found that out the hard way when testing Hal late in the fourth quarter of the Compass Bowl, where Hal was able to seal the game with a clutch interception and return to the one yard line.
I saw only one snap in six games where Hal lost his eye discipline, and he paid dearly for it.
This huge gain came one snap after Vanderbilt quarterback Patton Robinette threw an interception, and just two snaps after Hal gave up a touchdown to Markeith Ambles by not getting his head around fast enough to play a well-thrown fade (below).
In short, Hal was angry. He wanted revenge, took a risk in an effort to redeem himself, and got burned. It was a rookie mistake by someone who never, ever makes rookie mistakes. Here Hal is before the snap, eyeing the quarterback as he should be.
Just after the snap, however, Hal snaps his head to the receiver in an effort to play the route rather than play the quarterback. By not reading the drop of the quarterback in the first three steps of his pedal, Hal has opened himself up to getting jerked in any direction the receiver wants.
Ambles makes a quick move inside, and Hal inevitably bites.
By the time Hal does look at the quarterback to make a play on the ball, he realizes his fatal mistake.
Again, that was the only time in six games where Hal compromised his own eye discipline. Other top corners, such as Ohio State’s Bradley Roby, exhibited poor eye discipline as many as three times in one game. To be that mistake free in such a large sample size is extremely impressive. Technical and mental discipline translate to professional success more often than pure athleticism, which is part of the reason why I think Hal will be a great corner in the NFL. You might not be able to teach speed, but even the fastest guys in the league will not last long if they have poor technique or football IQ.
Like eye discipline for an off corner, hand placement is paramount to the success of a defensive back when pressing at the line of scrimmage. Not only must a corner know when and where to jam a receiver off the snap, but they must also know where to put their hands after the first five yards of a route to ensure success down field. Hal, as with everything else in his game, is very polished with his hands after settling into a route. While not as long as Justin Gilbert or as physical as Darqueze Dennard, Hal can handle playing close to the line of scrimmage in a pinch just fine thanks to his excellent hand placement.
I have six rules for pressing a receiver at the line:
1 – Always have your hands up before the snap. Even hooking them into your jersey pre-snap to keep them near your face is more ideal than having them hang low. The higher your hands, the faster you can flash them into the chest of a receiver.
2 – If the receiver is a yard or two off the line of scrimmage, do not go for an immediate jam. Simply mirror the release and only take a shot at disrupting the route if they give you an opening within the first five yards.
3 – When jamming at the line, always wall off an inside release. Make them go through you if they want to work inside. If they are forced outside, squeeze them into the sideline to make the throw as hard as possible on the quarterback. Never let the receiver dictate the stem. Either they get stoned going inside, or they get squeezed outside. There is no in between.
4 – Just like a pass rusher, one arm is longer than two. It is much easier to impact the torso of a receiver by extending one arm and shoulder than trying to get both hands into his body.
5 – Only attack half a man. Again, just like a pass rusher, aim for the inside of the shoulder or the arm pit. Jamming the center of a receiver gives him two directions to choose from when disengaging. Pick the direction that you do not want the receiver to go, which is generally inside, and attack that arm pit with the same arm (inside). If they insist on continuing to work in that direction then you have already done your job and disrupted the timing of the route. If they are releasing to the outside, then it is much easier biomechanically to swivel to your off hand side and mirror the route towards the sideline.
6 – Once settled into the route, slide your hand closest to the receiver into position on his back just under his closest shoulder. Ideally your hand should be just under the shoulder blade and close to the spine. Hand placement in the middle of a route is critical, and having a hand in this spot will allow you to “feel” when the receiver motors down to get into a cut. Instead of listening or seeing a comeback develop and waiting for the brain to process that information while potentially giving up yards, feeling the route helps effector neurons fire and react faster. If you feel the route, you can stop the route. Giving up that physical connection to the receiver cannot happen under any circumstances, and that goes double when facing crafty route runners.
A great example of hand placement allowing Andre Hal to feel the route came in the third quarter against Georgia. Hal was able to feel the receiver motor down, use his arm as leverage against the cut, and motor down himself. No separation, no completion.
This third quarter snap against Ole Miss is another excellent example of Hal’s ability to play close to the line of scrimmage without being the most physical corner in the world. His man is backed a yard off the line of scrimmage, so rather than sell out to get a jam he simply mirrors the release, squeezes him into the sideline, and gets his hand in position to feel any sudden cuts. The fact that this is a run play makes the coverage semi-irrelevant, but if this were a pass play the receiver would have had zero shot at making a play.
Another underrated aspect to Hal’s game is that he understands how to get away with “veteran tugs”. Every corner in the NFL is grabby; that is just the nature of the sport. However, Hal understands where the line of “enforceable holding” is and always seems to stay just inside the safe zone. A corner’s use of their hands to slingshot themselves from “out of position” to “in position” is one of the hardest tricks to master for defensive backs both young and old, and it is even more difficult to develop that skill within the rules of the modern NFL. Hal, at the ripe age of 21, has already developed a keen sixth sense that even some older professional corners still do not possess – when to let go.
Hal rarely made mistakes with his hands, but like with any other young corner those missteps did happen from time to time. I only spotted two egregious errors in the six tapes I watched; one of them was a near disaster, the other was a complete disaster.
This snap against Shaq Roland could have been a huge gain were it not for pure effort from Hal to make up for his mistake and break up the pass.
Take notice of how early Hal shoots his hand out to make contact with Roland’s inside shoulder. There is simply too much distance for Hal to reach and Roland is able to easily neutralize and accelerate past Hal down field. Because Hal wasted so much movement while whiffing on his attempted jam, he could not accelerate nearly as fast as Roland and had to play catch up for twenty yards on his way to the ball. No corner at any level can afford to miss on a jam against a receiver like Shaq Roland when they are already slightly compromising speed to make contact in the first place, but missing against a receiver like Mike Evans is practically asking for something catastrophic to happen.
For the record, Andre Hal only gave up two catches all game to Mike Evans while in man coverage. That 43 yard bomb just happened to be one of them. However, Hal would get his revenge late in the first half by winning on a jump ball against Evans and tipping it to fellow Commodore Kenny Ladler for a clutch interception. Not many college corners can say they went toe to toe with Mike Evans and came out in a draw.
Footwork and Hips
No corner can succeed without great footwork and fluid hips. The more flexible one’s hips, the further they can open their body while in transition. The further they can open their body during transitions, the fewer steps they have to take to get back into full stride. The fewer steps a corner has to take to get back into stride, the faster they can recover and shut down a pass thrown their way. As stressed over and over by every defensive back coach in the game, a tight-hipped corner is a big play waiting to happen. Andre Hal might not have 4.3 speed, but his hips and feet are so good that it almost does not even matter. Observe Hal’s effortless transition as he unhinges his entire body and swings outside to obstruct a wheel route. It is hard to get any better than this.
Even with what some would call only average speed, the fact that Hal never wastes any movement in his transitions means he can constantly keep himself in a good position against the best the SEC has to offer.
One of the things I love most about Andre Hal’s tape is how apparent it is that he understands the game. Recognizing tendencies and acting on them is one of the hardest skills to develop in a young corner, but Hal has already flashed that ability at a high level. Take the Houston game, which I believe was Hal’s “worst” tape of the season, as an example. One of UH’s bread and butter plays against off man coverage is hitting a slant off play action. With the linebackers getting sucked up to play the run fake and no quarterback drop to read a quick throw, the targeted off corner is generally hung out to dry without any way to stop a reception. As long as the receiver runs a good route and does not telegraph his cut, this is a fairly high percentage throw. Take a look at Markeith Ambles’ subtle outside jab at the top of his route to freeze Hal and open up the inside move. There really is not a lot Hal can do to stop this play from a schematic standpoint, unfortunately. All he can do is mentally store the completion and save it for later use.
Soon after the completion on the slant, Ambles again beats Hal for a quick 6 yard in cut. This time, however, the blame lies solely with Hal when he gets taken by Ambles’ outside jab yet again.
My gut tells me that Hal caught Ambles’ sudden outside jab in his peripheral vision and, because Ambles was lined up all the way at the numbers, thought he was running a fade to the sideline. Fades require a lot of space towards the sideline to allow the quarterback to drop the ball “in the bucket” before the receiver gets out of bounds, so it was a reasonable assumption to think that Ambles could have been working his way outside to make a play on a fade. Later on in the quarter Ambles once again jabs outside to fake a fade and cuts inside, but this time Hal is ready.
Hal had seen this exact play at the start of the quarter, and after being beaten twice by the same outside jab was prepared to see that again as well. However, Ambles makes one critical mistake by jabbing outside too early. When running a red zone fade the receiver should not start working outside until he hits the goal line (yellow line) in order to keep himself from getting squeezed to the sideline too early and leaving his quarterback no room to drop the football into the corner.
Ambles instead jabs five yards before the goal line (blue arrow), which tips off Hal to the inevitable inside cut.
As soon as Ambles shakes to the outside, Hal immediately plants and closes down inside. He drops a potential interception, but I love the fact that Hal was able to beat Ambles to the ball by seeing and acting on route tendencies. That tells me that not only is Hal smart, but he knows how to use that football intellect to make an impact on a football game.
An All-SEC selection for the past two seasons, Hal frustrated quarterbacks all year on his way to leading the conference with 18 pass deflections in 2013. In the five regular season games that I have charted, the only receiver to have any semblance of success against Hal was Texas A&M’s Mike Evans, who caught two passes for 53 yards and a touchdown. Most of those yards – 43 to be exact – came on the previously shown long touchdown. In fact, Evans’ 53 yards with Hal in man coverage were more than Hal allowed to Georgia (one catch for 11 yards), Ole Miss (two catches for 4 yards), South Carolina (one catch for 16 yards), and Tennessee (one catch for 13 yards) combined.
If I had two gripes about Hal, they would be his penchant for poor tackling and his frustrating ball skills. Part of the reason why I think Hal might struggle to get playing time outside early in his career and could start out in the slot is his horrible tendency to get run the hell over or flat out miss tackles. At least two or three times a game I would see ball carriers break free from a Hal tackle to get entirely preventable extra yardage.
As mentioned previously, Hal’s ball skills are also somewhat concerning to me. While Hal did lead the SEC in passes defensed, several of those deflections should have been interceptions. It is frustrating to see Hal have such a great ability to get himself in position to create turnovers with his quickness, technique, and intelligence, only to see him flub the actual process of catching the football. Hal often seemed content to rake the arm of a receiver or swat the ball away and go for a guaranteed pass break up rather than attack the ball and create possessions for his offense. While I am by no means upset that Hal was able to stop so many passes thrown his way, I would like to see his obvious gifts turn into first downs for his own team rather than second downs for the opposition.
Though he has his flaws, Andre Hal could be one of the few rookies to immediately step in and make an impact in 2014. Light on his feet, loose in the hips, and more polished than most corners coming out of college, it would not shock me at all to see Hal and not Justin Gilbert or Bradley Roby getting a big second contract in a few years. No matter the differences between physical talent, the NFL will always have room for good football players.