Grit and intelligence. These are the two words that spring to mind when I think about what separates a Patriot player from another NFL team. They may not be the most talented. They may not be the most athletic. What they can’t do has often been more important than what they can do. But over the course of a game and a season they can outsmart and outwork you and that’s how they win.
Keion Crossen has grit. At Western Carolina there was no indoor facility. You practiced in the rain. You practiced in the snow. According to Crossen in a DraftWire interview it was, "No big deal."
Crossen’s work ethic is what has separated him as a player and it has his entire tenure playing football, "I’m just that guy who has a special amount of work ethic. A person who works hard can be less talented, but his work ethic will put him over the top."
A lot of players know how to talk the talk when it comes to having a work ethic but Crossen has shown, at least so far, he is willing to walk the walk. While the vast majority of players are off enjoying their last days of their freedom before the long grind regular season, Crossen has remained in Foxborough to study and practice.
Crossen has intelligence. Here is an off the cuff quote from Crossen when asked how a 5’10 CB can cover a 6’5 WR in the aforementioned Draft Wire interview.
"With a 6-foot-5 receiver, you have to understand that they’re lengthy. Depending on the speed dynamic of the receiver, normally if he’s tall, he’s not gonna be as fast. He may have a longer stride. If I can reach into your stride pattern which means me getting my hands on you at the top of your route, I can do that in college. In the NFL, you can’t really touch them after five yards. Once I get my hands on you, I can dictate the route. That gets you out of your zone. My main thing is to keep my eyes on your hips. With any receiver, he could be 6-foot-5 or 5-foot-10 as you said, if your eyes are not on his hips or on the right place, they can control you now. That’s what I can’t allow to happen.
The main thing for covering that 6-foot-5 receiver is to control the route from start to finish. The next thing would be to make sure that you’re staying close enough to his hip pocket so that if you get a jump ball, you can go high point it. You don’t wanna be high pointing the ball from an arm’s length away from him. You wanna play aggressive with taller receivers. I’ve noticed that most tall receivers don’t like aggressive corners that get up in their personal space. To recap, the main three things are to be aggressive at the top of the route, staying in the hip pocket and making sure that you high point the ball at all times.
For a 5-foot-10 receiver, they’re normally a little quicker. You’re dealing with a faster guy who’s quick laterally. You also wanna get your hands on him. You also wanna make sure you’re staying in the hip pocket with this type of receiver. You’re not gonna find yourself in many jump ball situations. It’s more about the quick game with them. The quarterback wants to get them the ball as quickly as possible. They might run a quick out route. These guys can get the offense in a rhythm. With this type of receiver, I’m not as obligated to play the jump ball with them. We’re about the same height and I can keep up with them. Don’t get me wrong, I’m always gonna high point the football regardless of their height. That’s when your vertical jump comes into play. With these guys, it’s about making sure you’re staying square with them. You have to break on their route a little faster because you can expect some quick slants and some quick gains.
That’s the difference. Some receivers are fast, some are a little slower, some run crisper routes than others. It’s always a little something that differentiates them.You can play them all about the same though. You need to stay aggressive and stay in their hip pocket. If you do all those things, you won’t really have a problem with the majority of receivers."
When is the last time you heard a pro player, nevermind a 7th round rookie, give such an articulate response to a fairly mundane question? Now I’m not suggesting Crossen is some kind of savant. He’s not talking something especially complex. But there aren’t a load of NFL players who will have such a detailed answer sizzlingly at the end of their tongue.
Crossen has constantly been overlooked due to what he didn’t have. He received little interests from colleges because he weighed a paltry 140 pounds coming out of high school. Given his physical limitations it’s little wonder who one of his chief professional idols in football was.
"I love reading Tom Brady’s draft profile. He had all these negative things said about him. He was too small, he didn’t have a strong arm. There’s always something."
So what about Crossen did teams overlook? Beyond his capable play, Crossen is an elite athlete. And I do not use the word elite lightly. Here is a rundown of where Crossen would have placed at the NFL combine relative to other CB’s.
40 yard dash: 1st (1!)
Vertical: 2nd (!)
3 Cone: 3rd
60 Yard Shuffle: 2nd all time (!)
That’s about an impressive combine as it comes. Denzel Ward, who was taken 4th overall and dominated the combine, posted similar scores. For a team that has been sorely lacking in athleticism, pairing Crossen with the teams arguably most athletic defender in Gilmore seems like a promising idea.
Of course athleticism isn’t everything. As Crossen acknowledged, "I just know football, period. Being athletic can only serve as your foundation. Your character and football IQ is what puts you over the top. Those are the attributes that I have."
I couldn’t have said it better myself. Crossen really does look like the perfect draft pick. So it’s a shame he won’t make the active roster.
But why? If has the grit, the intelligence and the athleticism why won’t he make the team? Well to quote an old saying you can’t coach size. And that’s his biggest problem. He is too small. This is one of the most frustrating elements about football and about life. No matter how great you are there are limitations placed on you, not by yourself, but by God himself.
Crossen is officially listed at 5’10 but his NFL Draft profile and Draft Scout profile has him listed at 5’9. I don’t know which is right but I do know 5’9 would place him the 1% percentile for NFL CB height. At 5’11 many questioned whether Ward would be the 1st CB off the board despite his dominant combine performance and beautiful tape against elite competition. Ward despite having his height questioned is potentially still two inches taller than Crossen. I loved Crossen’s answer on how a 5’10 cornerback covers a 6’5 receiver but there is really only one answer.
You need look no further than Super Bowl 49. In four years of NFL play Chris Matthews has produced a grand total of 176 receiving yards and 1 TD during the regular season. Yet he absolutely dominated the 5’10 Kyle Arrington to the extent that the game’s announcer glibly yelled, "Chris Matthews! We’re watching a star be born!" A star that was resoundly smothered as soon as the larger 6’4 Brandon Browner took over responsibility for him.
And it’s not just Crossen height that is the problem. It’s his size and strength. He’s 178, 5 pounds less than Denzel Ward, and only pumped 13 on the bench. That’s below average. There is a reason the Chicago Bears were willing to spend two 2nd round picks on Anthony Miller. First, he was arguably the best route runner in the draft. Second, his 22 bench reps placed him 2nd overall in the draft. You didn’t press Anthony Miller. He was too strong.
Crossen was a 7th round pick because he was a small, short, and weak CB. And the 7th round is probably where he deserved to go.
Probably. But not guaranteed. For every mountainous Julio Jones, Mike Evans, or Michael Thomas there is an Antonio Brown, Brandin Cooks or TY Hilton. If John Dorsey was a GM in the NFC South and had to play Mike Evans, Michael Thomas and Julio Jones twice every year, he wasn’t going to draft Denzel Ward. But he doesn’t. He plays in the AFC North where the Browns have to play the league's best WR, the 5’10 Antonio Brown.
Imagine this possibility. However unlikely. Crossen is able to pack on some muscle weight and improve his strength. He’s now far closer to the 183 pound and 16 bench press Denzel Ward than his current 178 pound and 13 bench press. He does this without significant harm to his elite athleticism. He continues to grow as a voracious worker and student of the game. He develops well as a player. He benefits from a great vertical leap that allows him to compensate for the lack of height. The Patriots are playing in the SB against the Rams. Crossen is given responsibility for Brandin Cooks. Cooks, who despite consistently producing at a pro bowl level, consistently sees his production plummet when facing a CB that can match his speed and endurance. Crossen shuts him down for the game.
Doesn’t that have a lot of value? Isn’t that worth a spot on the roster? I would argue that it would be worth quite a bit.
The chances that Crossen makes the roster are very slim. It’s much more likely that his lack of size, strength, and skill will outweigh his intelligence, ethic and athleticism. But there is a chance, however slight, he may just be the perfect Patriot.