The success of the Seattle Seahawks is supposed to usher in a new era where teams focus on finding taller, rangier cornerbacks who can run. Obviously everyone wants to replicate what Richard Sherman can do, but of course Sherman’s height isn’t really what makes him a special player.
Even though taller cornerbacks will be given more credence and consideration during the draft process, there is still a place for the ‘shorter‘ cornerback in today’s NFL.
One of the shorter cornerbacks in this year’s draft class is Virginia Tech’s Kyle Fuller. Fuller is a 22-year-old senior who is listed at 6’0″ and 194 pounds before the combine. Fuller had two interceptions and 10 pass deflections in the first seven games of his senior season before surgery for a core muscle injury sidelined him.
Fuller isn’t a transcendent talent, but he does appear to be a player who could flourish in the right situation.
At Virginia Tech during his senior season, he showed off potential as an off-man cornerback who could be an effective press-man cornerback when given safety help over the top. He shares many traits with Chicago Bears cornerback Tim Jennings as both players are very aggressive when attacking the ball in the air and also very impressive run defenders.
When the ball is in front of Fuller, he shows off the acceleration and awareness to beat receivers to their spots.
On this play the receiver runs an out route at the first down marker. Fuller doesn’t jump the route, he reacts to the receivers movements very quickly. He doesn’t get to the ball, but his coverage is so good that the only way the ball can get past him is if it is thrown too high for the receiver. The receiver grabs it out of the air, but he is already over the sideline and in the air.
On this play later in the game, Fuller jumps the route as he reads the receiver entering his break. Fuller is moving forward before the receiver has even turned and he would likely have intercepted the pass if it wasn’t high and over the sideline again.
Jumping routes at any level is a dangerous game. You have to be able to minimise the risk while trying to maximise the reward.
When Fuller’s footwork and technique is good, he is able to stick with receivers down the sideline and even be aggressive enough to jump routes further down the field. On this play he stays on his toes and keeps his body in a position that allows him to cover any potential out route at the first down marker before turning down the sideline.
Once the receiver turns backwards, Fuller is very quick to establish position and look back for the football. He would have had an interception if the receiver hadn’t made an aggressive play on the ball.
That is an example of a play when Fuller’s footwork and technique was good. Unfortunately, there were a number of plays that suggested he needs to develop more consistency with his footwork also.
Fuller doesn’t need to be less aggressive. He isn’t constantly jumping routes for the sake of jumping routes. He simply needs to be quicker and more disciplined with his positioning. He makes himself too susceptible to double moves because of how he approaches them rather than his decision making.
Janoris Jenkins came to mind when watching Fuller. Not because they are similar, but because they are different.
Jenkins has had major issues with his aggressiveness and decision making in the NFL. Fuller doesn’t appear to have those traits, but he doesn’t play with the same consistent technique and quickness as Jenkins. That’s not to say that Fuller is a bad athlete, he appears to be a decent athlete, but his best fit in the NFL right now would be in a scheme that can give him safety help over the top or allow him to play a lot of off-man and zone coverage.
That doesn’t sound too promising, does it? Don’t get hung up on it.
Plenty of teams in the league could get the most out of Fuller. Teams like the Chicago Bears, Pittsburgh Steelers and San Francisco 49ers play the kind of defense that would accommodate Fuller’s strengths and soften the impact of his weaknesses.
The upside for those teams is they are getting a cornerback with the potential to jump routes and make plays on the ball, but they are also getting an outstanding run defender and a smaller defensive back who plays physical coverage without losing his discipline.
Fuller’s ability to track the ball in the air and his aggressiveness to go and get it should allow him to be effective against bigger receivers and tight ends in the NFL.
In college, he lined up all over the field and made plays against a variety of different receivers.
Fuller’s coverage inside was good, but it’s his run defense and all-around physicality that will allow him to succeed on the inside at the next level. Even if he is not a Richard Sherman type of cornerback, Fuller promises to be a very good player on the next level if he lands in the right spot.
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