(Featured image via CBSSports from GettyImages)
At every level of football, there is an underlying belief that “speed kills.” That concept has a fair amount of truth to it. Oregon has turned that idea into a powerhouse football program and the SEC has been notoriously known for having their players have “SEC speed”- a heightened amount of pure north/south speed. While speed is a key component for success at most positions, speed is more of a maximizer than a trait that stands alone and makes a player great.
Time and time again, the NFL takes players extremely high because of speed. If the 2013 wide receiver class that had Tavon Austin, who was traded up for, and Cordarelle Patterson is not a testament to that, I don’t know what it is. Even more recently, the Cleveland Browns selected Oklahoma State cornerback Justin Gilbert with the 9th overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft. Gilbert was a fine prospect, make no mistake, but for him to have gone 9th overall in such a stacked cornerback class was questionable, to say the least. Gilbert’s 40-yard dash time itself, an impressive 4.35 seconds, was not too far ahead of some of his top tier peers (Brad Roby ran a 4.39, Jason Verrett ran a 4.38), but Gilbert was significantly larger than both of them at 6’0″, 202 pounds. This combination of size and speed lead many to believe that Gilbert had a ticket to stardom, but his lack of technique and physicality resulted in a roller coaster of a rookie season, and may ultimately restrict him from being one of the better cornerbacks in the league.
Trae Waynes shows physicality, but he is terribly underwhelming in the department of change of direction and short area quickness. Not being able to flip your hips and snap right back onto the opposing receiver is the kiss of death for cornerbacks, especially against much more refined NFL route runners who will force you to be quicker than they are. Waynes is still a respectable prospect, but he will be drafted far too early because of his size (6’0″, 186 pounds) and speed (4.31 seconds), a la Gilbert.
There are a number of reasons to be turned off by Waynes, but speed is not one of them. His 4.31 second time at the combine was no surprise. On film, Waynes could run in a straight line with anyone. His natural speed allowed him to thrive as a press-man corner at Michigan State because his speed alone could make up for other mistakes on deep routes. The ability to jam and reroute receivers the line was a factor to this as well, but there were plenty of cases where Waynes ran step for step with receivers sprinting down the field.
In this play vs Penn State, Waynes was in a Cover 3 look, typical of Pat Narduzzi’s defense. He immediately took off down the field and did not allow the receiver to get behind him or gain the inside leverage on him, forcing the throw to have been back-shoulder if the quarterback wanted a remote shot at completing the pass.
Here, vs Oregon, Waynes was in man coverage. The receiver made a slightly angled inside move, but Waynes was able to get a hand on him to slow his break down, then ran right with the receiver and put himself in prime position to make a play on the ball, had he needed to.
If Waynes has a way to play the game at his pace, whether it be through getting a slight jump or redirecting a route, he can keep up with any receiver. Once he slows the receiver down or gets his head start [remember that a cornerback is mentally one step behind the receiver, so having to do either of these things is no slight, it is normal], his speed is superior to that of the receiver’s 95% of the time. The counterargument against this ability is that NFL receivers understand how to fight back, whether it be knowing how to work Waynes’ body against him or more masterfully running routes to keep Waynes guessing and force him to not have any advantage. Once that happens, Waynes is going to have to turn to his short area athleticism, which he does not have.
At the NFL Combine, Waynes ran the 20-yard shuttle in 4.39 seconds and ran the 3-cone drill in 7.06 seconds. To put that into perspective, those numbers were in the 7th and 20th percentiles, respectively, among cornerbacks in the MockDraftable data base. Disgusting. Both of these drills are meant to display change of direction, burst and, especially the 3-cone, acceleration, and Waynes came up short. For a player at a position that requires the body to be as quick as the mind, Waynes is not a sudden athlete by any means. Of course, this is not just an assumption based solely off his Combine numbers. This lack of short area athleticism shows up plenty on film.
Though Waynes is a cornerback and not a free safety, this play is reminiscent of the old man version of Ed Reed. Reed got to the point where he played incredibly slow in everything he did and could not get to landmarks that were relatively close to him, and that is how Waynes can be at times. Here, Waynes was in position to make a bee line for this catch point, but when he had to turn his hips and fire off in another direction, he couldn’t do it with any sort of urgency and the ball landed safely in the receiver’s hands.
Exhibit B of Waynes’ lack of quickness comes vs Baylor. Waynes was not slow in reacting to this play, but he put himself in a poor position from the snap and then his athleticism failed him. There was no inside help for Waynes on the play, meaning he should have kept himself inside the receiver and forced the receiver to have beaten him with a boundary route. Instead, Waynes played off with no intention to get physical with the receiver. Though Waynes began his path to the catch point just as the receiver did, the receiver fired out of his break much quicker than Waynes could handle, partly due to a false step by Waynes at the top of the receiver’s route. The window for error on this throw was huge because of Waynes, but Bryce Petty still missed the throw because he is awful.
To backtrack a bit, it must be acknowledged that while Waynes is a poor athlete unless running in a straight line, he does a good job of minimizing how often he is forced to break on the ball without an advantage. Namely, Waynes is a physical player that can use himself to minimize the explosion of opposing receivers. It is likely to work less often in the NFL than it did in college, especially with him being 186 pounds, but nonetheless, it is a valuable skill.
Waynes’ most valuable skill is likely his physicality, especially when forcing players to the boundary. On this play, Waynes jams the receiver as soon as he tries to make his way down the field. Waynes jolts the receiver, slows his acceleration and forces him to the sideline so that he has less room to work with. Textbook press play.
Now, flipping the direction of the route, Waynes stalls a slant here vs Ohio State. Waynes sees the Buckeye make his move inside, so he reaches out to halt him as much as he can and help himself gain ground on the receiver. Due to Waynes being able to negate any acceleration out of the receiver’s break, the receiver is not able to get open.
When and if Waynes can get to a catch point is an interesting debate because of his speed and physicality vs lack of fluidity and quickness, but his ability to find and play the ball at the catch point is sub-par. A lot of times, Waynes is generally unaware of his surroundings and is only concerned with the receiver in front of him, not necessarily where the ball is. On top of losing out on a number of interceptions, Waynes has been notorious for pass interference penalties because he clearly plays the receiver instead of the ball.
This tendency to play according to the receiver instead of the ball is Waynes’ way of countering his inability to locate the ball well. Near the side line and down the field, Waynes struggles to get his head around in time to find the ball and make a proper play on it. Instead, he battles through the receiver as they try to come down with the ball. While this may work at times, it can more easily lead to penalties and gives the receiver a much better shot at the ball initially.
Waynes gets awfully lucky on this play. The receiver earns the inside leverage just as he gets to the catch point and Waynes overruns the play. The receiver can not quite hang onto the ball and, though still technically in the receiver’s hand, the ball lands right in Waynes’ hands. This should have been a touchdown, but a lack of ball skills from the receiver allows Waynes to come away more prosperous than he should have.
Trae Waynes, for a handful of reasons, is not the top 20 prospect that many have made him out to be. Many of his supporters, and even myself at one point, likened him to Jimmy Smith, but Smith is a much more fluid and explosive athlete than Waynes is. Smith may have taken a while to become the player that he has, but his “weaknesses” early on were centered around his inability to use his body, which was coachable. Waynes’ lack of short area athleticism is not going to be improved much, if at all.
The “Justin Gilbert treatment” has been cast upon Waynes in that his speed and size is somehow believed to be able to make up for his other handful of issues. Waynes is a solid late 3rd round or 4th round prospect, but his lackluster fluidity and quickness are worrisome. In a Cover 3 that allows him to press and work the boundary often, Waynes may prove to be a solid No.2 cornerback, but in any man-heavy scheme that forces Waynes to change direction often, he will falter. Much more so than the other ‘top’ cornerbacks, Waynes is certainly a “buyer beware” product.