A prototype build, growth as an isolation-corner, and a family lineage in the game. Could 2021 NFL Draft prospect Patrick Surtain II be Alabama’s best cornerback product to date?
According to Stephen M. Smith of tdalabamamag.com, the three best cornerback products from the University of Alabama to date have been Dre Kirkpatrick, Dee Milliner, and Baltimore’s rising star Marlon Humphrey. With a combined 14 seasons and 109 starts, the three have totaled 20 interceptions, 124 pass defenses, and 501 tackles.
At 6-foot-2 and weighing in at just over 200 pounds, Surtain has a size comparable to modern secondary stars such as Jalen Ramsey. This is the modern prototype for NFL corners, being able to cover players from Tyreek Hill to Travis Kelce with their unique blend of speed, fluid hips, and physicality.
Nick Saban and his Alabama defense have used a unique defensive scheme built around the balanced athleticism of these recruits throughout the years, as explained by Don Kausler Jr in 2012 with his piece “Alabama Defense 101.”
In short, the 3-4 base Alabama defense uses a specialized sub-package with roles to be filled by dynamic secondary players who can contribute in the box and/or from the slot. The nickel corner will be called the “star” position (replaces strong outside linebacker) and the dime corner is called the “money” position (replaces weak inside linebacker).
This concept was first introduced by Bill Belichick when he was the defensive coordinator of the Cleveland Browns. The NFL has since continued its move towards a faster and more dynamic style of play, and players who can fill such versatile positions can instantly improve a defense (ex: Jamal Adams, Kam Chancellor, etc).
As previously mentioned, Alabama has not been well known for producing shutdown-corners for the NFL despite numerous safety products breaking through, including HaHa Clinton-Dix, Eddie Jackson, Landon Collins, and most recently Xavier McKinney.
Surtain may be the first corner showing the physical profile and technical ability to keep up with NFL receivers at the next level. Even at his elite size, Surtain has a projected 4.5 forty-time and fluid hips that make him look more like a receiver’s shadow than a cover-corner, time and time again outdoing opponents on their own routes.
Even more impressive than his physical attributes to keep up with receivers is Surtain’s ability to use his hands at the point of the catch. Surtain has a unique combination of traits that have not only been achieved via his athleticism but also through years of practice on the technique that is beyond his years.
Surtain sparks comparisons to wide receivers with his ability to track balls over the shoulder and high point the ball downfield. Surtain looks coordinated and collected running downfield and turning back to locate the ball, and when one-on-one, he uses his frame to block out receivers and manipulates angles to the ball in his favor.
Surtain is a man-corner with the ability to both press at the line of scrimmage and play downhill from a five or 10-yard cushion. There were no problems when he just had to trail his man, but when dropping into a deep third zone, late reactions and/or lack of confidence (fear of getting burnt deep) keep him from achieving his full potential in coverage with disguised coverage looks to give him easy chances to showcase his ball skills.
Additionally, on a number of deep pass defenses through the 2018 and 2019 seasons, Surtain allowed receivers to gain a step on him downfield. He was able to break up these receptions with his athleticism at the college level, but receivers and quarterbacks in the NFL will never let this slide.
Even with his elite positional size, Surtain does lack the mentality to fully utilize it. When in press coverage, rather than bumping receivers to disrupt timing and initial break patterns, Surtain has a tendency to use a trail-technique regardless of route. Although his hands are more than capable enough of breaking up passes as the collegiate level, NFL receivers will be much craftier to block out and create additional separation.
Again on the note of physicality, Surtain has shown to be an inconsistent tackler at best with bright spots suggesting he could be serviceable as a ‘star’ run defender. On a number of plays, there was no problem getting within reach of ball carriers, but the issue arises when committing to the tackle. Surtain has a tendency to ‘pull his punches.’
Player Comparison: Jason McCourty, New England Patriots
Another man-to-man corner with more than sufficient physical traits, McCourty has become the number two corner to Stephon Gilmore in New England and can hold his own against the second and third options of an opposing passing offense. According to Pro Football Focus, McCourty ranked as the ninth-best corner in the NFL, only allowing ten first-down receptions and not a single touchdown through the 2019 campaign.
Even though he may not be the most physical of corners, his trail-technique is capable of keeping up with much of the NFL’s receiving weapons from both outside the hashes and inside the slot.