Honestly, I'm not sure how I came across this audio, but former NFL scout Daniel Jeremiah (also known as @MoveTheSticks) hosted a podcast back in November of 2014 in the midst of the New England Patriots run towards Super Bowl XLIX and he had some incredibly interesting insight on how head coach Bill Belichick scouts and values defensive backs in his system. The key information starts at 26:45 of the podcast.
Jeremiah served as a scout for the Ravens, Browns, and Eagles before joining the NFL Network and he's a treasure trove of great information. The podcast covers a presentation he watched during his time with the Browns.
"If you ask people around the NFL," Jeremiah said, "Or even in college football, they would say kind of the two names of people that understand defensive back play as well as anybody in football, period, big surprise: Belichick and [Alabama head coach Nick Saban], they were together for a long time."
A scout with the Browns, who had spent time with both Belichick and Saban, shared a presentation about what to look for in cornerbacks and safeties back in 2007 or 2008. Here's the transcript of Jeremiah's notes, along with my thoughts.
"What makes a good corner?"
"A good corner is productive versus the pass. Defending the pass is the lifeline of a corner's game. A good corner will always be within arms length of the receiver and that's a phrase we use in phase, when you're scouting you say the corner is always in phase, so he's always in position.
"Has to have the confidence to play on an island...and forget a mistake. Cannot go under the tank. The average corners will go under the tank. All good corners are selfish and cocky. These are the exact words from my notes: Being a turd is not always a bad thing at this position. There are no great humble corners. If they are too nice, they will get beat.
"You need a fire, you need to be focused, and be able to concentrate. Need to have the right mental outlook on every snap. You cannot get bored. Four balls will determine the outcome of the game. You can't have lapses there."
That last sentence makes me think of Malcolm Butler versus Odell Beckham Jr., when Butler smothered the receiver and stomped away from every play like a robot, and then Devin McCourty. Butler is a nice guy, but he absolutely savages receivers. McCourty is a really nice guy and he lacks the same sort of fire on the field that Butler provides.
When Belichick wants a corner to be within arms length, you have to think of 2nd round pick Cyrus Jones. Cyrus was lauded for his ability to stick in the hip of his receivers. One NFL executive also noted that "He thinks everyone is always disrespecting him- from media to the other team," and says that passion fuels Cyrus' fire.
Also, the idea of "four balls will determine the outcome of the game" is so true. There will always be a handful of plays that tip the game for one team, or the other.
The importance of instincts and tackling
"Need to have excellent [athletic ability] and instincts. Must have good ball skills down field. Must be able to locate the ball down field. If you run fast and can't finish, watch out. If they do not have instincts, they won't get them later.
"So if you're watching a guy on tape in college and he runs like crazy, but he's got no instincts, don't draft him and hope that he's miraculously going to get some instincts, or that you're going to teach him that. Doesn't happen. Always take guys that make plays with instincts and ability.
"Should be a solid tackler, not a killer, but gets guys on the ground. Should play a physical game with the wide out; can't let a wide out get comfortable. Wide outs hate getting pushed off their route- you can get in their head."
"A good barometer for corners: how often does he get his hands on the ball? Bat downs, tips, INTs. So in college, you take their best two seasons, you add up their numbers of picks and numbers of pass break ups and you rank the top 15 guys...you'll get a sense of who has the best ball skills in the draft."
There's no question that Cyrus has great athletic ability, and it's also important to note the key difference in instincts and polish. Cyrus still needs polish, but he definitely has instincts from his time as a wide receiver. He understands coverages and can contort his body in the air to make plays on the football.
The undrafted player that fits this mold is cornerback Jonathan Jones. Jonathan was noted as the 3rd best tackling cornerback in the SEC, by Pro Football Focus, showing that smaller corners can still be effective at bringing down the ball carrier.
But most importantly, Jonathan racked up 32 passes defended over the past two seasons, the second highest total in all of college football.
This echoes the drafting of Logan Ryan in 2013, after Ryan led college football with 37 passes defended over his final two seasons. That's instinct that pays off. The Patriots also added Rashaan Melvin at cornerback last season, who had the 7th most passes defended over his final two seasons.
Small corners can still play
"Small corners with exceptional skills can still play in the NFL; they're just as good as the big guys around. Aaron Glenn, Tyrone Poole, Darrell Green, DeAngelo Hall were some of the guys he mentioned. Small corners with only good skill sets get beat. So if you're undersized and you don't show up on the ball chart: buyer beware.
"Third corners are starters nowadays- this is ten years ago, you knew where this was going. If a corner doesn't start for you, but is excellent on [special teams], there is still a lot of value there."
The Patriots have certainly added their fair share of undersized cornerbacks to the roster. The four new cornerbacks are all under 5'10: Cyrus Jones and Cre'Von LeBlanc are 5'9 7/8. Jonathan Jones is 5'9 1/8. V'Angelo Bentley is 5'8 1/4. They join the 5'9 3/4 Malcolm Butler in the secondary.
All four cornerbacks will be expected to contribute on special teams, but they are all lauded for their toughness, footwork, and ball skills. As more and more teams look at add 6'0 or taller defensive backs, viable starters will be available late in the draft and in free agency.
Bill Belichick's 7 most important attributes for cornerbacks
2. Foot Quickness
4. Acceleration/Catch-up Speed
5. Solid tackler
6. Confidence/Mental Toughness
7. Ball Skills
"Dropped interceptions are killers," Jeremiah adds.
When you watch cornerbacks this offseason, keep your eye out for whichever players flash the above seven skills. Ball skills are how Logan Ryan made his name on the roster. Acceleration and confidence are Malcolm Butler's calling cards. Cyrus Jones could have the foot quickness. Jonathan Jones could be a solid tackler. Cre'Von LeBlanc might have the foot quickness.
It will be fun to watch the cornerbacks through the same lens as Bill Belichick.
Jeremiah also shared some thoughts on the safety position.
What does Belichick look for in a safety?
"Production versus the run and pass, can't afford to mess up. You can dominate from this position; [Rodney Harrison] and Ed Reed dominate games.
"You have to be a smart player. Takes great angles. Not fooled by play action. You cannot win with a dumb safety. They have to make all the calls, they help the corners and linebackers.
"Have to be a tough player. There are no good soft safeties. You lose with dumb guys and soft guys."
That's a pretty serious claim, and it's true (looking at Brandon Meriweather). Devin McCourty takes great angles most of the time and he's one of the smartest players on the team. Patrick Chung is extremely tough and dominates at the line of scrimmage.
What about box safeties?
"Must have good coverage skills as a safety. Should be able to open is hips, turn and run. Need him to be able to cover backs and tight ends. A safety that is just average versus the pass, must be exceptional in the run game. Box safeties aren't worth taking anymore."
Jeremiah was a scout with the Browns from 2007-08, which was likely when this presentation took place, and it's crazy to see how much the league has changed over the past ten seasons. "Box safeties" are en vogue at this point in time, with players like Chung, Deone Bucannon, and Mark Barron seeing increasing utility on the field.
Back in 2007, receiving running backs weren't as prevalent as they are in today's football. From 2005 through 2007, just five backs accumulated more than 1,000 receiving yards (and Patriots Hall of Famer Kevin Faulk had 999). Over the past three seasons, 13 backs have surpassed that total.
The same applies to tight ends; from 2005-07, eight tight ends accumulated 1,700 or more receiving yards. 16 tight ends have hit that total over the past three seasons- double the amount.
Although perhaps Belichick was clairvoyant and was saying that safeties can't purely remain in the box anymore; they have to be able to cover. A better phrasing might be "safeties have to be able to cover like a cornerback in the open field, and play like a linebacker in the box." No pressure.
Special teams are crucial
"Safety must be a part of the special teams. Very important to look at the background of prospects on special teams at the safety position. So when you're scouting a safety, you want to look and see if he's ever covered a kick before in college, and if he has you need to watch that tape and see how he did."
No surprises here. Belichick carries a ton of safeties on the roster due to their size, speed, strength, and ability to take great angles.
If you want to make the Patriots roster, show that you can play special teams. Simple as that.