The pass-happy nature of the NFL has led scouts and coaches to search high and low for shutdown corners.
The value of having a cover corner with extraordinary cover skills, particularly in press coverage, allows a defense to snuff out some of the high-percentage passes that have made franchise quarterbacks nearly impossible to defend in the pro game. Thus, it's not a surprise that each of the five cornerbacks selected in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft displayed exceptional press-man skills during their collegiate careers.
Looking ahead to the 2015 class, the spotlight is squarely on Oregon's Ifo Ekpre-Olomu after his dominant two-year run in the Pac-12. The 5-foot-10, 195-pound senior has tallied seven picks and 22 pass breakups during that span, while routinely suffocating elite receivers on the perimeter with a tenacious playing style that's ideally suited for the pro game. When I spoke to NFL scouts about the All-American cornerback, I couldn't find an evaluator who didn't rave about his toughness, instincts and intangibles. Thus, I was intrigued to take a peek at the Ducks' star to see if his game lived up to the hype that is brewing out West.
Here's what I discovered when I popped in the tape of his play against Oregon State, Washington, Washington State and Arizona:
The cornerback position in the NFL should be reserved for elite athletes due to the challenges of defending a variety of diminutive speedsters and big-bodied pass-catchers on the perimeter. Top cover corners are quick enough to shadow jitterbugs at the line of scrimmage, but also possess the size and leaping ability to challenge the basketball-like playmakers that are currently dominating the NFL landscape.
Ekpre-Olomu certainly displays the movement skills and agility to cover top receivers at the next level. He routinely runs stride for stride with speedsters on the perimeter, while also exhibiting the agility and quickness to stay close on breaks. His balance, body control and short-area quickness make him an ideal candidate to play outside or inside in any scheme.
If I had to point out a potential concern about Ekpre-Olomu, I would cite his size (5-10, 195) as a factor that could affect his final grade. Although his listed dimensions are certainly enough to keep him in consideration as an elite defender, Ekpre-Olomu's value could dip significantly if he measures in at 5-9. Teams are reluctant to place small corners on the outside due to the challenges of defending big-bodied receivers like Brandon Marshall, Andre Johnson, Calvin Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald and others in jump-ball situations. Thus, Ekpre-Olomu's final grade and evaluation could hinge on his measurements at the NFL Scouting Combine, despite his impressive athletic attributes.
The elite corners in the NFL have the ability to blanket receivers in coverage with little assistance from safeties and linebackers. They are able to consistently win one-on-one matchups on the perimeter, while also exhibiting the skills to cover shifty players in the slot.
Ekpre-Olomu certainly fits the bill as a No. 1 corner based on his spectacular play as a junior. He's a superb pass defender capable of locking down receivers utilizing a variety of techniques (bump-and-run, bail and "off"). He displays exceptional footwork and eye discipline in coverage, yet is an aggressive defender with a knack for making plays on the ball. I believe he is one of the best "bump-and-run" corners I've seen in the college game.
He shows tremendous patience at the line of scrimmage, but aggressively knocks receivers off their routes at the line of scrimmage with strong jams. Ekpre-Olomu's ultra-aggressive physical style wears receivers out over the course of the game, resulting in few big plays against the Oregon star in the fourth quarter. As much as I loved Ekpre-Olomu's physicality and toughness in "bump-and-run" coverage, it was his hustle and finish that stood out in my mind. He simply refuses to give up on the play and forces receivers to earn their receptions when aligned on his side.
Looking at Ekpre-Olomu executing bail and "off" techniques, I don't have any doubts about his ability to play in a versatile defensive scheme at the next level. He possesses the quickness and agility to play in space using a traditional back-pedal, yet is athletic enough to also use a side-shuffle maneuver (bail technique) at the snap on zone dogs. With few cover corners capable of using a wide array of techniques on the perimeter, Ekpre-Olomu is a scheme-friendly defender that NFL defensive coordinators will covet in next year's draft.
"It's all about the ball" is one of the mantras that Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll loves to throw around on the practice field to encourage his defenders to focus on creating turnovers at every opportunity. Based on my experience working with or playing for defensive-minded head coaches (John Fox and Marty Schottenheimer), the ability to create turnovers is a premium skill that separates the great ones from the rest of the pack. Ekpre-Olomu is a playmaker with exceptional instincts, awareness and ball skills. He has a knack for getting around the ball, as evidenced by his seven interceptions and 22 pass breakups over the past two seasons.
Some cover corners generate gaudy production with reckless gambles in coverage, but Ekpre-Olomu is a calculated risk taker with a feel for sorting through routes on the perimeter. He has a keen understanding of pattern reading, which allows him to anticipate the intended receiver and make a play on the ball. Against Oregon State, Ekpre-Olomu registered an interception and pass breakup by deciphering a route concept quickly and stepping in front of the designated receiver at the last moment. These are the kinds of plays that Ekpre-Olomu has routinely delivered throughout his career, which suggests he should enter the NFL with a keen understanding of pattern reading and ball hawking on the perimeter.
The changing nature of the NFL passing game makes it imperative for cornerbacks to be solid tacklers on the perimeter. Offensive coordinators are increasingly using an assortment of bubble screens and quick passes to get the ball into the hands of shifty receivers in space. With cornerbacks forced to make more one-on-one tackles in space, elite cover corners must be able to get players down with solid wrap-up hits.
After watching Ekpre-Olomu the past two seasons, I'm convinced he's the best perimeter tackler in college football. He routinely delivers big hits on runners in the open field, yet he rarely misses an open-field tackle despite his aggression. Ekpre-Olomu does a terrific job of attacking runners at the knees, resulting in minimal yardage after he makes contact in the open field. Given the importance of having secure tacklers on the perimeter to field an elite defense, Ekpre-Olomu's tackling prowess will make him a hot commodity in defensive meeting rooms around the league.
It's uncommon to evaluate a player who lives up to the substantial hype that surrounds his name, but Ekpre-Olomu is as good as advertised as a shutdown corner. He is one of the most polished cover corners that I've evaluated since I started evaluating prospects 14 years ago. Ekpre-Olomu is a better technician than Patrick Peterson and Joe Haden were as collegians; he displays a cerebral playing style that reminds me of Darrelle Revis on the perimeter. Now, I know that is certainly high praise based on how Revis dominated the league prior to his knee injury in 2012, but the combination of instincts, awareness and physicality exhibited by the Oregon star makes me believe he will be a dynamite player at the next level.