The Dallas Cowboys, by nearly every imaginable metric, have a bottom-10 defense in the NFL. In mock drafts far and wide, people have the Cowboys going cornerback with their tenth overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. Who best fits the Cowboys’ defense: Alabama’s Patrick Surtain, Virginia Tech’s Caleb Farley, or South Carolina’s Jaycee Horn?
The draft class sets up nicely for the Cowboys to get help at a position of need and great importance. Trevon Diggs is a promising young cornerback, but his high-variance game fits a CB2 role best. The Cowboys need an alpha opposite Diggs. Luckily, they’ll most likely have options when it’s their turn to pick.
Cowboys’ Scheme: Out with the new, in with the old
The Cowboys made a hilarious attempt at the modernization of their defense in 2020. In a challenging and slashed offseason, implementing a pattern-matching system with two high safeties was always bound for failure. The scheme’s intricacies take a ton of live reps with teammates to get timing and depth correct. There must be continuity between teammates to pass routes off and pick others up. With little offseason work and a litany of injuries in the secondary, things went predictably poor.
The only one of the top prospects that played in a system reminiscent of the more complex two-high scheme playing off the ball was Caleb Farley. Patrick Surtain played in a difficult defensive scheme as well, but one with more pattern-matching coverages near the line of scrimmage. Jaycee Horn is a fan favorite because he got to hang out at the line, play press man, and punch receivers in the mouth.
Going back to Cover 3
Dan Quinn runs a traditionally one-high safety system of “country” Cover 3 in the back end. That means there are three deep and four underneath defenders in coverage. Every coverage technique requires mental processing and trigger.
However, there is a difference in the type of defender that flourishes in these opposing coverage schemes. In a pattern-matching scheme, the process is rules-based, and the decisions made by defenders are more analytically-based. Meanwhile, in a spot-drop Cover 3 defense, the cornerback’s vision goes to the quarterback, and they break based on instincts and the intentions of the quarterback.
Dallas clambered for more nuance in defensive coverage. Swift and definitive failure brought the Cowboys back down to Earth by the gravity that is poor defensive personnel. Yet, Cover 3 doesn’t have to be so simple that it’s susceptible to four verticals down in and down out.
However, due to the coverage’s spotty nature, the defense must get home rushing only four. If they do not, it doesn’t matter if Deion Sanders, Ed Reed, and Darrelle Revis are back there. There’s simply too much space for the defense to attack. This is important to note as they begin to play, and guys are running deep crossing routes in open space and getting the ball after four seconds in the pocket.
Caleb Farley vs. Patrick Surtain vs. Jaycee Horn: Who fits best?
Each player fits the traditional archetype of a Cover 3 cornerback from a body-type standpoint. Overall long speed and agility aren’t quite at a premium in this scheme, so even if you have questions about that with Patrick Surtain, it doesn’t hurt him as much as it would in a quarters-based scheme. Additionally, Surtain proved against Ohio State that he could hang with fast receivers running downfield routes.
The Cowboys are in a good place because each of these cornerbacks is a fit for their defense. The best thing about Cover 3 is the simplicity of it. It allows defenders to think less, react faster, sharpen technique, and theoretically defend the run better.
Playing with instinct
When I think of instinctual play, the name that pops into mind is Virginia Tech’s Caleb Farley. He is only two years into the position, but his ability to trigger underneath and find the football defending vertically is outstanding. His fluidity and explosiveness at 6-foot-2 and over 200 pounds is drool-worthy.
He’s still improving the finer details of the position. He is only two years into it (as was Diggs), but what he’s shown during his two years in school far outshines that of Diggs. His time as a quarterback in high school shows his understanding of complementary route concepts and natural breakpoints. This ability allows him to drive into passing lanes to get his hands on passes and be a general menace to receivers at the catch point.
Playing with intelligence
After Quinn gave up some defensive control in Miami, it was more nuanced in pre-snap looks and post-snap coverages. It’s unknown whether that was a decision he made, one Raheem Morris made, or a combination of both. However, if Quinn does “modernize” his Cover 3 system for the Cowboys’ defense, there is no better fit than Patrick Surtain playing opposite of Diggs.
Surtain is one of the most intelligent cornerbacks I’ve studied. His mental trigger is instantaneous, despite the massive defensive playbook of Alabama’s pattern-matching Rip/Liz Cover 3. However, in a purely spot-based deep 1/3 scheme, there are a few warts. In particular, Surtain struggles to locate the football at times. This can manifest as overrunning back-shoulder throws and missing out on defending over-the-shoulder passes.
Playing with physicality
This is another plus of Quinn’s defensive scheme. With secondary defenders playing from depth, it means they’re detached from receivers and largely triggering downhill to the catch point outside of defending go routes. That means defenders have a full head of steam when making tackles. That is something South Carolina’s Jaycee Horn revels in.
The other plus is that with Cover 3 comes its man-coverage brethren: Cover 1. Horn was born to play press-man Cover 1. He’s a bully. And although he is a bit grabby, holding in transition is a lot more understandable than getting toasted deep. He’s not the loosest of athletes in transition, but he’s not tight. Additionally, his explosiveness allows him to mirror and match laterally without recently receiving an oil change in the hips.
Choose your fighter
These are three different cornerbacks who all do what they do at a high level. Caleb Farley tore his ACL in 2017 and then played through back problems in 2019 and did not play in 2020. There is an inherent risk in drafting 2020 opt-outs, especially one that went through back surgery and hasn’t played since. Drafting Patrick Surtain feels safe, but then Dallas lacks a twitched-up athlete on the outside to attempt to cover the Tyreek Hills of the world.
There’s a common misconception that Diggs is not fast. That is not the case. He is not overly shifty or fluid. If Quinn’s defense doesn’t have cornerbacks travel with matchups, it doesn’t matter because offensive coordinators will just find the mismatches anyway. But if he plans to have his CB1 travel, passing on Surtain might be the better move. Horn might be penalized a lot early in his career, but he has everything necessary in his toolbox to be a great cornerback at the next level.
Although there is no definitive answer, I believe the order should look like this:
- Caleb Farley
- Jaycee Horn
- Patrick Surtain II
I think the Cowboys are in good shape no matter how things go in Cleveland (or Zoom) on April 29, 2021.
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