It goes without saying that drafting is an inexact science. Despite spending countless hours poring over tape, conducting interviews and scrutinizing workouts, scouts often are unable to definitively project a prospect's pro potential.
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Conventional wisdom suggests that top picks should deliver better performance and production than late-round selections, but history provides a host of examples that blow up that notion. From sixth-round pick Tom Brady emerging as arguably the best quarterback in NFL history to seventh-round pick Marques Colston blossoming into one of the league's leading receivers, the annals are replete with unheralded players ascending to the ranks of the elite at their respective positions.
The challenges of scouting are highlighted by the unfolding careers of two cornerbacks selected in the 2011 NFL Draft: Patrick Peterson and Richard Sherman. While most scouts expected Peterson, taken fifth overall by the Arizona Cardinals, to emerge as one of the top players in the NFL, few thought that Sherman, a fifth-round pick by the Seattle Seahawks, would become more than a spot player. However, to this point in their brief careers, both players have earned either Pro Bowl honors or All-Pro recognition, and both are regarded by scouts as two of the best at the position.
Given the tremendous success each player has enjoyed in the NFL, I wondered which guy scouts would prefer -- based solely on their performance on the field -- in a "re-do" of the 2011 draft. So I popped in the tape to have a look. Here's how Peterson and Sherman compare:
To be considered a premier cover corner in the NFL, a defender must be able to check elite receivers in man coverage without receiving much help from a safety. Defensive coordinators will routinely task their top cornerback with covering the opponent's top receiver, in order to limit the receiver's touches while allowing the rest of the defense to focus on the team's other weapons.
Peterson has quickly developed into one of the top corners in the game, relying on his remarkable combination of size, speed and athleticism to blanket receivers on the edge. He excels in press coverage, though he prefers to "shadow and run" rather than maul receivers at the line of scrimmage. Given Peterson's superior physical dimensions, it might be easier for him if he were to attack receivers with his hands and play with more physicality at the line, but he is such a gifted athlete that he is able to consistently win with a finesse approach.
In the video clip above, from the Cardinals' Week 15 win over the Detroit Lions, Peterson is matched up with Calvin Johnson in man coverage. He mirrors Johnson's release at the line before jumping into hip-pocket position down the field. By pressing Johnson near the sideline, Peterson makes it impossible for quarterback Matthew Stafford to squeeze in a throw, resulting in an easy pick for the Pro Bowler.
Sherman is a junkyard dog on the perimeter who plays with a tenacity and fervor that irks receivers. Still, his game is far more polished than most observers recognize. Sherman displays a tremendous feel for hash-split concepts and route recognition, allowing him to shrink the field with aggressive bump-and-run tactics. Additionally, Sherman is a sound technician, adept at winning at the line of scrimmage with a variety of tactics that disrupt the receiver's release.
In the video clip above, from the Seahawks' Week 4 loss to the St. Louis Rams, Sherman shows off his craftiness, patiently pressing the receiver at the line before whipping his head around to locate the ball for an interception. Sherman's flawless execution illustrates why he is one of the game's top corners.
The myth of the shutdown corner has perpetuated the notion that elite corners excel only in man coverage. However, the NFL's top corners must also shine in zone coverage, which demands that excellent footwork and movement skills are combined with superb instincts, awareness and recognition.
Peterson, who aggressively jumps routes and displays remarkable ball skills, has shown signs of being an impact player in zone. Although his technique and footwork can be shoddy at times, his athleticism, body control and competitiveness routinely put him in the position to make something happen when the ball arrives. If he continues to master the nuances of playing in space, he will surpass others at the position and become the premier cover corner in the NFL.
Sherman's loquacious personality has kept some observers from appreciating his impressive game, particularly in zone coverage. The third-year pro has shown outstanding instincts, awareness and recognition, and he frequently makes plays on throws slightly out of his zone, thanks to his ability to read and diagnose routes.
In the video clip to the right, from Seattle's Week 17 win over the Rams, Sherman's anticipation results in a critical interception against Sam Bradford. With the Rams aligned in a trips formation to the right (Sherman's side), Sherman aligns slightly to the inside of the No. 1 receiver (outside receiver) in anticipation of a four-vertical route against the Seahawks' three-deep coverage. When Bradford hits his final step to deliver the ball to the receiver streaking down the hash, Sherman reads his eyes and makes an early break on the throw for a game-clinching interception.
Sherman routinely delivered plays like that throughout the 2012 season as a zone defender, helping the Seahawks' defense ascend to the ranks of the elite.
Thanks to the proliferation of the passing game in the NFL, it is imperative to have defenders in the secondary who can deliver takeaways.
Peterson is one of the top playmakers in the NFL. He finished 2012 with seven interceptions and 16 breakups. Those numbers would be exceptional for any defender, but they are particularly so for a cornerback who played with his back to the quarterback on most downs, thanks to the Cardinals' preference for man coverage.
In the video clip to the right, from the Cardinals' Week 12 loss to the Rams, Peterson's superb ball skills enable him to make amends for poor technique at the line of scrimmage. After being beaten on an inside move, Peterson quickly races to the receiver's inside hip to snag an unlikely interception in the end zone. Only a defender with superior ball skills and instincts could turn a negative start into a positive finish in a split-second.
Sherman also displays impressive ball skills as a cover corner. He aggressively attacks the ball in the air, and his experience as a receiver (Sherman started at that position for two seasons at Stanford before switching to cornerback as a redshirt junior) is reflected in his soft hands. In a game that is routinely decided by turnovers, the fact that Sherman rarely drops a potential pick is significant. Considering that Sherman has recorded 12 interceptions, 41 pass breakups and four forced fumbles in his career, it is easy to see why he has entered the conversation as one of the best cover corners in the NFL.
While tackling is not viewed as a priority by most cornerbacks, elite defenders understand the importance of being a factor against the run. Peterson, however, is best described as a reluctant tackler on the perimeter. He will throw his body around and make contact with runners on the corner, but he isn't the aggressive tackler that his impressive physical dimensions would suggest.
Sherman is an impactful hitter on the edges. Although he prefers to hit big runners at the knees, there is no questioning the toughness or physicality he shows on tape. Sherman appears to relish the opportunity to make hits on unsuspecting runners and receivers in space. Additionally, he shows a willingness to hit ball carriers squarely, despite his slender frame.
Tackling is considered a lost art in pro football. The fact that Sherman is a willing tackler makes him a welcome asset in the back end.
Elite cornerbacks prompt offensive coordinators and quarterbacks to think carefully before throwing balls in their direction. The fear of giving up a game-changing interception essentially takes one side of the field out of play, shrinking everything in the defense's favor.
Peterson is not a shutdown corner at this point, but he certainly makes enough plays on the ball to make quarterbacks leery of going near him. He has totaled nine interceptions and 29 breakups in two seasons, while also showing explosive return skills with the ball in his hands. However, those impressive flashes aren't enough to overshadow Peterson's struggles against the likes of Calvin Johnson, Brandon Marshall, Stevie Johnson and Michael Crabtree. The third-year pro surrendered a handful of plays to each of the aforementioned playmakers, failing to discourage opponents from working his side.
While Sherman doesn't strike fear in the hearts of opponents with his athleticism or speed, his fundamentally sound game makes him a tough matchup on the perimeter. He forces receivers to work for every reception; the toll of battling with an aggressive defender over four quarters eventually wears down opponents. In addition, Sherman is a threat to make plays on the ball in both man or zone coverage, thanks to his astute instincts and football IQ. Given Sherman's versatile game and his ability to make an impact in any coverage scheme, there is no doubt he is the scariest defender to target in the Seahawks' secondary.
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The placement of Patrick Peterson and Richard Sherman on NFL Network's "The Top 100 Players of 2013" fueled my desire to conduct a study of the talented playmakers. While their peers within the NFL apparently view Peterson (No. 33), as the more impressive player, I believe the film shows Sherman (No. 50) is currently far superior.
The talkative cover corner displays better cover skills, instincts and awareness on tape, and those traits have resulted in remarkable production over the past two seasons. Although Peterson has produced his fair share of splash plays, he is a Pro Bowl-caliber return man still learning the nuances of the cornerback position. In time, Peterson might rank as the best at the position, but as of right now, Sherman wears that crown.