The world of an NFL cornerback is turbulent. Rarely does one cornerback remain in the top tier of play for more than two or three seasons at the very most. Jalen Ramsey is the only CB from this generation that can claim close to that level of play for a sustained period. However, Pat Surtain II has all the physical tools to sustain an elite level of play for an extended period.
Marlon Humphrey, Jaire Alexander, Marshon Lattimore, and others have all been outstanding competitors at the position over the past few seasons, but each has had their low points as well. Even Ramsey isn’t unflappable. It’s impossible to do so when NFL rules disallow most of the physicality necessary to consistently cover at an elite level.
The 6-foot-2, 208-pound Surtain is one of the most athletic testers ever at the position, although he didn’t do any agility testing. And his athleticism is only part of the equation that makes him unique.
Pat Surtain II is the perfect modern cornerback
Think of Surtain this way. What if a quarterback prospect had perfect mechanics, was an instant processor, was built like Justin Herbert, and was a 99th-percentile athlete? They’d be seen as the best QB prospect of all time.
It is what makes Surtain the perfect modern cornerback. He has the size, speed, agility, and, most importantly, intelligence to play in any coverage at an elite level.
Surtain’s tape at Alabama was boring. Alabama’s match-based Cover 3 scheme left much to be desired for some evaluators, who wanted to see Surtain pressed more vertically and in press coverage more often. There were even concerns about Surtain’s long speed before the NFL Combine.
And now, as an NFL player, those prior concerns make a lot more sense.
He never really had to step on the gas. The control Surtain played with in college has remained at the next level. The Denver Broncos CB legitimately looks like he’s playing the game at 0.5x speed, even against the 1% of the 1% at the NFL level. Surtain’s mental aptitude is genuinely unbelievable.
Pat Surtain II in press man
Surtain is at the top of the screen in the above video. His ability to remain in phase at all times is extraordinary. He’s patient at the line of scrimmage and works to get to the hip pocket by the time they get to the sticks. That way he can continue to carry vertically or better stop and mirror the comeback route.
That’s the most notable part of Surtain’s game from a physical perspective. He didn’t do any agility testing, but it doesn’t matter how he would have done in them. Surtain has some of the most disciplined eyes in the game, even just 19 games into his NFL career. And even at prototypical cornerback height, his stop/start is effortless.
It doesn’t matter how good of a route runner a receiver is if he can’t threaten his opponent vertically. Surtain doesn’t look fast on the field because he doesn’t have to. Brandon Aiyuk doesn’t have the speed to threaten him downfield, so Surtain can sit and play the in-breaking route because he already has outside leverage on the receiver and deep safety help in center field.
Surtain playing zone from depth
Press man is sexy. It’s a mano a mano — your best versus their best. But nothing is more impressive than watching a CB playing zone, especially zone match, at a high level.
Incredibly, even DK Metcalf doesn’t get Surtain on his heels. The patience, trust in his own athleticism, and recognition of releases and route depths keep him draped on Metcalf on this out route.
Surtain plays as the boundary cornerback in Denver’s defensive scheme, but against Seattle, they deployed him over Metcalf and to the field more often. He’s not usually forced to think as much into the boundary as formation strengths are more often to the field.
However, Surtain is more on an island to the boundary as well. But when the strength of the formation is to his side, it’s amazing to watch him work in the Broncos’ quarters-based coverage scheme. His ability to see through the No. 1 receiver to the No. 2 and through to the quarterback is special. He effortlessly passes off routes and picks up responsibility coming into his zone.
Avoiding negative reps
Every catch against Surtain this season has been in front of him. Even on reps that he isn’t targeted, he doesn’t falter. Surtain would be a perfect soldier. Right place, right time, right uniform. He’s never off.
I’ve spent the past 700 words talking about what is most impressive about Surtain, but his ability to avoid negative reps might actually be the most impressive part of his game. Even the receptions against him are made difficult by his presence.
“Revis Island” is only possible on a few teams at this point. Only the high-man-coverage-use teams could facilitate that. Even then, Darrelle Revis played in a different era. Surtain’s consistency and elite ability might end up being the closest thing to a shut-down corner in the league as we can get given the current state of the game.
And unlike cornerbacks who rely more on athleticism, Surtain’s mental prowess could give him the chance to remain elite for longer. He’s not a gambler, so he won’t turn the ball over as often as J.C. Jackson, Trevon Diggs, or Xavien Howard. But if he keeps up the pace he’s on, Surtain will be an All-Pro in his second NFL season, and he’ll have an argument as the best cornerback in the game by the end of 2022.