We have covered this year's rookie draft class and with rookie camp starting Friday you will hear more and more how each player is doing. As we wait for the Chargers to get back on the field, I'd like to take a look back at last year's rookie class, starting today, with Jason Verrett. Like the rest of Verrett's fellow classmates, he needs to stay healthy. Which could have contributed to San Diego's 3rd round pick. 230 snaps just isn't going to cut it for your 1st round pick. So I went back and watched those snaps and if you asked me to come up with one word to describe Verrett I'd have a hard time narrowing it down. After about 15 seconds, I had it.
Not elite, yet, but advanced. Verrett did some things in coverage in under six full games that 5-year veterans still can't do. From day 1 things you are taught like not falling for head fakes at the line of scrimmage and staying patient, to progressive things such as pinning the wide receiver to the sideline or recognizing the flight of the ball early in coverage so you can make a play on the pass. Let's look at some numbers. Because how many completions a cornerback gives up in relation to how many times he was targeted never, ever, paints the full picture, let's look at this from a better point of view.
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The 1st two rows of the table have whether Verrett was lined up in press or off coverage and if he followed the receiver to the slot. Then it goes on to show what routes he was successful against. The next two rows show you the amount of snaps Verrett had man principles, as well as his targets as completions. This row is where the meat of the information is, though. A Shutdown coverage is where the receiver has to make a spectacular catch, or the corner completely took the route away. In position and blown are pretty self-explanatory. A blown coverage for me is if the corner simply cannot make a play on the ball. The fact that Verrett was able to break up as many passes as he allowed to be completed is outstanding. This is where Verrett's advanced skill set comes into play. You could tell after one game that Verrett played the ball in the air and the quarterback better than most veterans at the position.
Watch this poetry in slow motion. Verrett has his eyes on the QB, which allows him to recognize the flight of the ball earlier enough for him to make a play on the pass. He also maintains a good enough relationship to where, to steal a basketball term, he can "see ball see man." He uses his left arm to be sure he's aware of where the receiver is while also staying on top of him while continuing to play the ball in the air. Simple, yet brilliant. This is a past that other defensive backs who are no longer on the team give up.
What the numbers say is that Verrett had a success rate of 85%. That is on the doorstep of being elite. He's getting beat three times a game and allowing just over a reception a game. The scary thing is that he can still improve substantially. Verrett was not without fault.
Nuance of the NFL
Most rookies are consistent with how they struggle. It wasn't the speed of the game for Verrett, whose only blown coverage on a vertical route came where he fell for a halfback pass. He didn't miss a tackle, and we'll debunk the lack of physicality myths in a bit, so that wasn't the issue. Where Verrett found himself in trouble was when receivers were able to sell as if they were going in a certain direction at the top of the route, only to break the opposite way. Some of these were "hat tip" routes where you can't do much but tip your cap and go on to the next play. But of Verrett's 15 blown coverages 8 came at specific instances where the receiver would give him a nice jab step and leave him behind.
Twice versus the Bills, here is a good example against fellow rookie Sammy Watkins.
That was not a great route by Watkins, but his speed was able to create separation. Verrett will get better at recognizing when receivers are going to start to break off their route. Usually, he can get by because he's faster than his opponent. Like the above, that won't always be the case, and he'll need to react just a half count quicker.
Against the Jets, who surprisingly Verrett had his most blown coverages against, with 5. They ran several double moves, and their routes had impressive nuance to them. There was an in route where Verrett actually fell after falling for a head fake. It wasn't a bad game by any means, but just showed that the rookie still has some room to grow before we get ahead of ourselves in anointing him. I actually thought Verrett was more engaged when he was in press man. In off coverage, there were times he would get caught peeking into the backfield for too long and get himself in trouble. Which leads me to my next point.
Debunking a Dumb Delusion
On the surface, 5'10, 178 pound Verrett is better suited in off coverage and isn't scheme versatile. He's likely too small to hold up in press coverage against bigger receivers and will lose the physical battle at the catch point.
This couldn't be further from the truth.
Verrett isn't a bad player by any means in off coverage. I would say his success rate of 81% is above average. That's not where he excels or where you can maximize his skill set, however. Though it's a small sample size of 40 coverages, Verrett was only beaten three times when lined up in press coverage. THREE! This is where you watch Verrett and get excited about the future. This is where his patience, ability to change directions effortlessly, and explode out of his breaks make me think that the team has themselves a top 10 corner.
One of the most difficult things to do in this league is stay on top of the receiver like this from press coverage. To the top of the screen, in a matter of 2 steps Verrett is able to recover, reestablish his position, and disrupt the timing of the route. Not flashy, but mighty impressive.
The next example should be a gimme completion for the offense. It's a sprint out to the short side of the field on a quick hitting curl route. Verrett thinks otherwise.
Those two steps coming out of his break show you the kind of explosiveness Verrett has. But the technique to drive the correct shoulder and "rake" through the receivers arm to force an incompletion is more of the advanced technique he showed.
One of the most encouraging things I saw about Verrett in coverage is that even on completions he gave up, he was right in position to make a play. Hell, there were times where he mistimed playing the ball, and that led to a reception. Happened a couple times in Denver as well as earlier in the season. Against the Raiders, this was the one completion he allowed.
Verrett is refreshing. Verrett gets it. If you're allowing catches like the above vine when you're making the receiver work all the way to the ground for a completion, it's hard to get mad at that. Verrett seems more locked in when he is in press alignment so I'm hoping we see more of that next year. I haven't even mentioned how he is a willing tackler and didn't miss any tackles this year.
For Verrett, it's simple. He has to stay on the field. The talent he possesses doesn't matter if he's constantly getting nicked up or missing games. The Chargers can't afford for that to happen if they want to stay competitive, either. In my mind, Verrett could be the best corner on the team by mid season, and that's no slight to Brandon Flowers. Verrett really showed that much as a rookie and will only continue to recognize certain routes and study players to know their tendencies. The Chargers have a potentially great player here. He just needs to stay on the field. General manager Tom Telesco knew there would be this risk investing in Verrett. I would've made the same investment in a talent like this. As a football fan, Verrett is the type of player you want to see on the field.