The NFL's evolution into a pass-happy league has prompted general managers, scouts and head coaches to view cornerback as one of the marquee positions in the game. Teams invest heavily in cornerbacks who can shut down half of the field, as one can see in the amount of money standout corners command on the free-agency market. Of course, the draft is a more cost-efficient option when it comes to adding such talent -- and evaluators are surely scanning the 2015 class for a dynamic corner with the physical tools, intangibles and skills to be a "lockdown" player at the next level.
So it's no surprise that teams are taking a long, hard look at Michigan State's Trae Waynes with the idea that he could be the next great playmaker on the island. The 6-foot, 186-pound Waynes was an All-Big 10 performer in 2014, tallying three interceptions and eight pass breakups on the season. The standout production comes on the heels of a solid sophomore season during which he played the "field" corner spot opposite Darqueze Dennard on the Spartans' top-ranked defense in 2013.
On the field, Waynes exhibits outstanding qualities as a bump-and-run corner. He is aggressive and tenacious at the line of scrimmage, yet he also plays with discipline and patience throughout the route. Waynes consistently maintains ideal leverage on receivers up the field; he uses his superb body positioning to force quarterbacks to fit the ball into tight windows. While his sticky playing style will need to be tweaked to meet NFL standards (Waynes routinely bumped and grabbed receivers beyond 5 yards at Michigan State), he is a smooth, fluid athlete capable of shadowing receivers with his quickness and agility down the field. In fact, he displays outstanding mirror skills when using "motor" technique (soft pedal in press coverage), allowing him to maintain hip-pocket positioning without using his hands at the line of scrimmage. Waynes is also a willing tackler capable of delivering big shots off the corner on "cat" (cornerback) blitzes or making solid tackles on running backs and receivers in space.
If I had to cite possible concerns about Waynes' game, I would point to his questionable ball skills and inexperience with zone technique. The Spartans primarily put their corners in man coverage utilizing "bump-and-run" technique, forcing defenders to play with their backs to the quarterback. As a result, Waynes rarely saw the ball leaving the quarterback's hands, leading to more breakups than interceptions due to his late reactions. In addition, the emphasis on press coverage led to fewer repetitions in zone, which limited his exposure to backpedaling and utilizing "off" technique. While he has shown the ability to break-and-drive and execute various turns and transitions in workouts, he has limited game reps utilizing these techniques, meaning he could face a slower transition in a scheme that features various coverage concepts and principles.
Waynes put on an impressive show in front of representatives from 28 teams at at Michigan State's pro day, including three head coaches (Chip Kelly, Mike Tomlin and Mike Zimmer). Waynes' movement skills and fluidity in drills suggest he could play in a system that utilizes more than bump-and-run tactics. In fact, he was so smooth that evaluators now consider him a top-15 talent and a lock to be the first corner off the board.
Overall, Waynes is an outstanding defensive back with all the tools coaches covet in "bump-and-run" corners. He is confident, athletic and tough on the perimeter. He exhibits solid technical skills and has thrived in one-on-one coverage against top-notch receivers. Waynes will need some time to adjust to a scheme that requires corners to utilize a backpedal and various techniques, but the Michigan State product is such an explosive athlete and standout press-man corner that he will entice coaches to bank on his upside and potential as a pro.
Here are five potential NFL fits for Waynes:
Minnesota Vikings (No. 11 overall)
Coach Mike Zimmer wants to build a powerhouse defense capable of slowing the explosive offenses in the NFC North. Given the pass-happy nature of the teams within the division, Zimmer would be wise to complement the emerging Xavier Rhodes on the perimeter with another long, rangy corner. Not only does Waynes possess the length and athleticism to match up with the big-bodied receivers in the division, he is a technically sound "bump-and-run" specialist with the toughness and grit needed to challenge pass catchers at the line of scrimmage on an every down basis. Zimmer wants to play aggressive, hard-nosed football, and teaming Waynes with Rhodes would give the Vikings the ammunition needed to play press-coverage behind various blitz schemes.
New Orleans Saints (No. 13, No. 31)
Having watched the Saints' defense slump in 2014, general manager Mickey Loomis and head coach Sean Payton are intent on rebuilding the unit by improving personnel at every level. From the pass rush to the back end, New Orleans needs more gritty players with explosive athleticism and playmaking skills in order to become an elite defense. To that end, the team signed Brandon Browner to form a rugged 1-2 cornerback tandem with Keenan Lewis. Still, the veteran Browner is strictly a short-term solution, based on his age (30) and athletic limitations. Thus, the Saints could target Waynes as the No. 1 corner of the future and place him immediately at the nickel position, which would enable him to grow into the "lockdown" role. Plus, if Waynes were to outshine the veteran during training camp, he could assume starting duties at the beginning of the season, giving coordinator Rob Ryan the flexibility to deploy his corners based on matchups (for example, pitting size against size or speed against speed) to maximize the talent of his lineup.
Miami Dolphins (No. 14)
The Dolphins are on the cusp of having a premier defense, but they still need a standout corner to complement Brent Grimes on the perimeter. Yes, they signed Brice McCain, but the team should consider targeting an ultra-athletic press corner like Waynes to provide coordinator Kevin Coyle with the flexibility to play tight coverage behind aggressive blitzes at the point of attack. Waynes certainly has a ton of experience playing one-on-one coverage on the outside as the "boundary" corner at Michigan State. Thus, he should thrive in a defense that emphasizes man-to-man coverage on the outside. Most importantly, the addition of Waynes would give Coyle a dynamic trio of cover corners to handle the versatile aerial attacks emerging in the AFC East.
Philadelphia Eagles (No. 20)
Chip Kelly is known as an offensive guru, but he's certainly learning the Eagles must be able to play great defense to contend in the NFC. Philly added a standout corner in Byron Maxwell to man the CB1 position, but the team needs a long, rangy press corner on the opposite side to fully execute coordinator Billy Davis' aggressive schemes. Waynes -- a sticky press corner with outstanding instincts and awareness -- would be an ideal fit. He excels at re-routing receivers at the line of scrimmage; this ability routinely leads to incompletions. Most importantly, Waynes shrinks the field available to the quarterback, leading to better play from the defense. Given the importance of inducing quarterbacks to throw into the teeth of the defense, the presence of multiple press-man corners could help the Eagles improve dramatically in 2015.
Pittsburgh Steelers (No. 22)
The Steelers' defense is undergoing a transformation under new defensive coordinator Keith Butler. Although the scheme will remain largely intact, Pittsburgh must upgrade a secondary that will need to replace outgoing veteran free agent Ike Taylor. Waynes is an ideal candidate to step into the role as a dynamic bump-and-run corner with the grit and toughness that has been a hallmark of Steelers defenders. Most importantly, Waynes is an athletic cover corner with the speed, athleticism and agility to match fast receivers on the perimeter. Pittsburgh hasn't drafted a cornerback in the first round since 1997 (Chad Scott), but the fact that the defense ranked 27th in passing yards allowed should prompt coach Mike Tomlin and Co. to invest a top pick in Waynes and shore up the weakest part of a promising unit.