In this four-part series, I'm using my context-based data models to evaluate some of the top draft prospects at four key positions -- pass rusher, quarterback, cornerback and wide receiver -- while providing a pro comparison and ideal team fit for each.
The goal for the comps: showing some of the strengths, weaknesses and unknown résumé aspects for each prospect, while offering a perspective to approximate how team analytics departments might view the player's potential NFL impact.
The goal for the team fits: maximizing the draftee's 2022 win share, factoring in what we know about each team's personnel, coaches and strategy right now. And of course, as much as possible, I'm aiming to present realistic matches, ones that could actually come to fruition on draft day.
Today, we continue the series with the cornerbacks ...
PRO COMPARISON: Richard Sherman, free agent
Richard Sherman ... with a longer wingspan and superior straight-line speed.
Sauce stands 6-foot-2 3/4, but his wingspan is 79 3/8 inches. That wingspan is about 4.5 inches greater than his height, which is a significant difference. (Think of 2 inches as a difference that would typically get scouts excited about a prospect's "long arms.") Gardner's arm length is 33 1/2 inches. To compare, back at the 2011 NFL Scouting Combine, Sherman measured 6-foot-3 with 32-inch arms. Why so much emphasis on arms? Well, long arms can be more disruptive to wideouts from the line of scrimmage to the catch point. And if a corner is burned or out of position in terms of hip alignment, long arms can make up a fraction of a second in coverage. That sounds minimal, but it can mean the difference between a pass breakup and a catch (or penalty). Gardner posted three interceptions in each of this three seasons at Cincinnati, impressive (and strikingly consistent) ball production for a cornerback who was tested less and less as his star rose. Even more remarkable: According to Pro Football Focus, Sauce didn't give up a single touchdown pass in his college career. Over 1,000 coverage snaps and zero TDs allowed!
While Sherman ran a 4.54 40-yard dash at the combine, Gardner checked in at a swift 4.41. Furthermore, Computer Vision shows that Gardner's speed and ability to turn his hips to adjust to routes rank in the 99th percentile of all corners who are at least 6-2 in my 20-season sample. Sherman ranks in the 93rd percentile in this same metric. Antonio Cromartie -- another multi-time Pro Bowler -- also comes up as a comp for Gardner, though he only ranked in the 80th percentile in game speed when turning his hips.
TEAM FIT: New York Jets
The Jets, who hold a pair of top-10 picks (Nos. 4 and 10), just ranked 30th in passing yards allowed (259.4) and 31st in passer rating allowed (103.2) last season. Did I mention the D also ranked dead last in total yards and total points allowed? Robert Saleh needs more difference-makers on that side of the ball. Sauce definitely fits the bill. PFF's college grading goes back to 2014, and in that time span, they've recorded just 13 instances of an FBS corner allowing a sub-40 passer rating for a season. Gardner accounts for three of them. His career college passer rating allowed: a miniscule 31.8, which led the FBS from 2019 through 2021 (min. 100 targets).
PRO COMPARISON: Stephon Gilmore, Indianapolis Colts
That comp should read: Stephon Gilmore -- if I overweight Stingley's 2019 season. The LSU corner has a broad range of outcomes because his college data peaked during his true freshman season of 2019 and tapered off the past two years. In the Tigers' national championship run, Pro Football Focus credited Stingley with 17 forced incompletions -- the highest number in the Power Five that season. But injuries and inconsistency marred his past two campaigns. Team evaluators are tasked with figuring out what happened in 2020 and 2021, and what motivates/incentivizes Stingley now. These results are rare, and correlate with a boom-or-bust profile. I can't quantify a player's drive or surmise how much a lingering injury might've affected his performance, but this is how analytics staffs can help enrich the full picture of a prospect -- by flagging patterns and working to help scouts contextualize what it will take for the player to succeed.
The raw attributes are certainly there for Stingley to be an exceptional pro. According to PFF, his 39.2 completion percentage allowed in coverage was the lowest in the FBS from 2019 through 2021. However, looking at his year-over-year figures, that mark increased every season: 37 percent over 15 games in 2019, 44.8 percent over seven games 2020, 50 percent over three games in 2021. Stingley's 60.4 passer rating allowed in coverage from 2019 through 2021 ranked sixth in the FBS over that time period.
TEAM FIT: Minnesota Vikings
The Vikings' defense was a source of problems last season, as the unit gave up 391 total first downs (ranking 30th) and 4,300 passing yards (28th). So it won't surprise anyone if Minnesota uses the No. 12 overall pick on a defender. A healthy Stingley projects as a high-value corner in a press-man role on the outside -- basically the most coveted kind of cover man. Pair that with Patrick Peterson, and the Vikings' new regime would be off to a very solid start.
PRO COMPARISON: Jaire Alexander, Green Bay Packers
Since entering the NFL as the No. 18 overall pick in 2018, Alexander has established himself as one of the best pure cover corners in the league. Meanwhile, McDuffie allowed just 3.1 yards per target last season -- the lowest mark in the FBS, per Pro Football Focus. His 89.3 passer rating allowed ranked fifth. While McDuffie's a half-inch taller than Alexander, the latter's length still stands out. Alexander's wingspan is about 4.5 inches greater than his height, while McDuffie's is only 1.5 inches greater. That's within the normal range for McDuffie, but not freakish like Alexander's differential.
TEAM FIT: Buffalo Bills
My models are very high on McDuffie, specifically when it comes to the well-rounded Washington product's floor. This is important for Buffalo, considering Tre'Davious White is recovering from a torn ACL. The Bills, who hold the 25th overall pick, will need an impact starter from Day 1, giving White some time to re-acclimate.
PRO COMPARISON: Aqib Talib, retired
Computer Vision sees plenty of similarities between Booth's Clemson film and Talib's Kansas film. Among all corner prospects in my 20-season sample, both rank in the 75th percentile when it comes to change of direction, stop-start quickness and straight-line speeds in pads. According to Pro Football Focus, Booth's 70 passer rating allowed ranked seventh in the ACC last season (at least 40 targets), while his PFF coverage grade of 78.6 ranked third in the conference (min. 100 coverage snaps).
TEAM FIT: Kansas City Chiefs
The AFC West figures to be a nightmare for defenses in 2022. The Chiefs, who have a lot of question marks on that side of the ball, must specifically address the cornerback position. Kansas City holds back-to-back first-round picks at Nos. 29 and 30.
PRO COMPARISON: Xavier Rhodes, free agent
Both checking in at 6-1 1/2, Elam and Rhodes possess great height for the position. Elam played a step faster in pads at Florida than Rhodes did at Florida State, per Computer Vision, but Rhodes' arms are much longer (33 3/4 vs. 30 7/8). Elam has been a stellar player in coverage over the past three years, according to Pro Football Focus' calculations: Since 2019, he ranks second in the FBS in passer rating allowed (55.6) and fourth in completion percentage allowed (45.5).
TEAM FIT: Cincinnati Bengals
There are some questions about Elam's polish, seeing how he committed seven penalties last season. That's why I really like the pairing with Cincinnati, which holds the penultimate pick in Round 1. Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo has an excellent track record as a teacher. And having Elam play alongside guys like Mike Hilton -- who has a level of professionalism that elevates others -- will only further his development.