In 2020, the slot cornerback is more valuable than ever in football, at any level. With more offense spreading defenses out, more good cornerbacks are needed on the inside to deal with the dangerous weapons that offenses are deploying nowadays. Nickel is the new base, and that means slot cornerbacks can go high come April. Plenty of teams will need one after 2020 as well. So, in the 2021 NFL Draft, who are the best nickel cornerbacks?
The top nickel cornerbacks in the 2021 NFL Draft
Shaun Wade, Ohio State
Shaun Wade is the most high profile name that most fans will recognize on this list, and for a good reason. The physical, feisty Wade has a versatile skillset from the slot and will try his hand at playing on the boundary this season. However, his mirroring skills, footwork, and quickness give him a special kind of coverage ability from the slot that a lot of other guys do not have.
There is a distinctive style to Wade’s game. He is smooth as butter through his movements. Everything on his physical makeup is in coordination with each other, and it is beautiful. His discipline and fluidity make Wade stand out from the pack right away upon the first watch.
Maybe even more importantly, Wade is a scheme-versatile player. He has the quicks and smarts to work in match zones and cause disruption underneath. Wade has the physical and length to work with press coverage and even deal with big slots that would otherwise be massive problems, what Wade can function as is the neutralizer to those mismatches with his physicality. Wade is even a functional blitzer and tackler from the nickel spot.
The key for Wade this season is showing off more identifiable ball skills. For a top prospect, he lacks a little bit of the high-end splash plays on this front that you would expect, and that should be the area he strives to improve.
Elijah Molden, Washington
This young man is crisp. Elijah Molden is an under the radar name that not nearly enough people talk about for how impressive his 2019 tape was in retrospect. The athletic traits Molden has at his disposal are fantastic. Natural lateral quickness, good long speed, oily hips, and fleet footwork are the keys to his play style and elite mirroring ability.
However, Molden goes beyond just those tools. His excellent football IQ allows him to function in zone coverage with ease. Unlike Wade, Molden makes a lot of plays at the catch point and has fantastic ball skills that will make teams excited to draft him.
The big elephant for Molden will be his size. That is why he is playing the slot, but it can still be an issue. He does not have great length and so press coverage to a degree is an issue. However, functional strength is also an area of concern, as he needs to add some more muscle to fill out his frame. If he can do that, Molden should be a quality nickel cornerback in the league.
Jack Jones, Arizona State
Size is the biggest detractor of them all, once again. Jack Jones has all the tools to be a good boundary cornerback but lacks the size to do it. He is a smaller cornerback, and he will likely have to be pushed inside to do it, but the great news is that his skill set will thrive on the inside just as it will on the outside.
Jones has fantastic feet. His matching ability is superb. Jones is a rare cornerback that trusts his technique and feet more than his hands. There is not a lot of contact from Jones before the catch point, and he instead has a fantastic eye and trigger discipline before he makes plays.
The biggest boon for Jones’ stock is going to be those natural traits. His feet, quickness, fluidity, and speed are all there. After all, he has pedigree on his side since he was a former five-star recruit out of high school. That is not a surprise that those traits are there overall.
There are areas for him to improve, especially as a tackler. However, Jones is a ballhawk who is a sticky man coverage cornerback. In the NFL, those are always going to have great value, and he is no exception.
Kary Vincent, LSU
Vincent is someone that finds himself among the top nickel cornerbacks in the 2021 NFL Draft because of his elite ball skills. Vincent is a guy that loves to be aggressive and get those balls. He will make splash plays and change the complexion game with how he consistently makes plays on the ball.
Even beyond just his ball-hawking skills, however, Vincent is a ridiculously talented player. His elite feet, speed, fluidity, and explosiveness give him a unique combination to take advantage of those ball-hawking skills and be a sticky man coverage cornerback. Vincent is an aggressive football player as well that loves to compete and get physical.
The biggest issue is his trigger discipline. I love that he plays with a ton of aggressiveness wanting to make those splash plays, but it gets him into a lot of trouble when he fails to stay square. Double moves can get him reeling, and some of the better route runners in the NCAA like Jerry Jeudy gave Vincent some fits.
Still, however, it should not be underestimated how those natural tools allow Vincent to blossom into more than a serviceable nickel cornerback. His projection is a starter in the NFL with his skillset.
Deommodore Lenoir, Oregon
Perhaps the most disrespected of the bunch listed here, Lenoir is just solid. He is a guy that comes onto the field for every play, hustles, competes, and does his job as well as he can. Lenoir’s ability to maintain his leverage and stay in phase is awe-inspiring for a cornerback.
His ability to match so effortlessly comes down to his quickness and hips, which are both very good. Lenoir is smooth and turns directions with ease, even if he gets beat. He showcases good long speed and can make up ground with his speed and the fluidity on speed turns. Lenoir is also a standout tackler and will provide a lot of value in the run support area for teams.
If there is something to harp Lenoir on about, it would be his eye discipline. At times, he gets caught napping and bites on routes that he should not. I think there is room for improvement there and in his overall processing, which is both decent, but they could get better. Improving those takes his game from reliable to excellent. It will be the key to unlocking his ceiling.