The scheduled start of NFL training camps is now less than three weeks away. As we approach perhaps the most controversial and talked about beginning to an NFL season of all time, I've been grading each Jaguars' position group.
So far, we've made it through: Tight End, Offensive Tackle, Defensive Tackle, Safety, Defensive End
Today, I'll be diving DEEEEP into the Jaguars' cornerback room. With Jalen Ramsey and AJ Bouye no longer in Duval, there are plenty of new faces here.
The Jaguars will — on the vast majority of plays — deploy two outside cornerbacks and a nickel corner.
DJ Hayden is the only player who is currently locked into a role. He'll be the team's starting nickel entering 2020. He's been excellent in that position for the Jaguars over the last two seasons. Hayden brings plenty of physicality, both as a run defender and cover man. And his ability to blitz has helped the team out in many tight spots. Hayden is now 30 years old, and despite his stellar play for the Big Cats, injuries are a concern. He's only played in 14 of 32 total games since arriving in Jacksonville. But make no mistake about it: when DJ Hayden is on the field, he's one of the top nickel corners in the NFL.
The Jaguars are hoping CJ Henderson will earn one of the outside starting cornerback roles from the jump. There's certainly no lack of talent for Henderson, who was the ninth overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. The young corner has all the traits necessary to become a quality starter from day one. How quickly does the transition from the SEC to the NFL take place for Henderson? Will his supreme athletic ability and notable work ethic be enough in a shortened offseason?
Then there's the other starting outside role — Tre Herndon and Rashaan Melvin are expected to compete to play opposite CJ Henderson.
As a second year player, Herndon was forced into the Jaguars' starting lineup in 2019 due to Jalen Ramsey's "back injury" and subsequent departure from the team. He started 14 games, and while he got picked on early, many opposing QBs struggled against the fiery young cover man. He allowed the sixth-lowest reception percentage of all cornerbacks in the NFL last season (minimum 150 coverage snaps). He also led the team in interceptions (3) and passed defended (13).
Melvin comes over from Detroit. After a solid two year run with Indianapolis, he's spent his last two seasons on the move, signing with Oakland in '18, Detroit in '19, and now Jacksonville. There's little questioning Melvin's ability to play smart football and give full effort against the run. While Melvin may not be the most skilled cover guy in the game, he's far from the bottom of the barrel.
The Jaguars acquired a bevy of young depth at the cornerback position this offseason.
Josiah Scott was drafted in the fourth round out of Michigan State. The diminutive cornerback competed on the outside and in the slot for the Spartans, but his lack of length will likely relegate him to nickel corner duties in the NFL. He's a playmaker, and should he have to fill in for DJ Hayden, there probably won't be much of a drop-off. In fact, as Hayden enters the final year of his contract with the Jaguars, it wouldn't be a surprise to see Scott lock down the job in both the short and long-term, should Hayden miss time.
Luq Barqoo, Kobe Williams, and Amari Henderson will all compete for a roster spot as undrafted free agents. Each young player enjoyed success in college, and it's easy to understand why the Jaguars had interest in the group of cornerbacks after the draft.
Parry Nickerson and Brandon Watson return to the Jaguars' cornerback room for another go-round. Watson enjoyed plenty of success in training camp for the Jaguars in 2019 and got some valuable in-game experience. The Jaguars sniped Nickerson from Seattle's practice squad during October of last season. He spent his first year in the NFL with the Jets before the Seahawks traded for him. Dave Caldwell and the coaching staff have spoken highly of him throughout the offseason.
For the Jaguars' cornerback room to achieve its maximum potential in 2020, CJ Henderson will need to develop quickly and minimize the costly hiccups along the way — much easier said than done for a young rookie with a lack of practice time. While Rashaan Melvin is somewhat of a steady eddy on the outside, the best scenario for the Jaguars is Tre Herndon winning the job and developing further in his third season in the league. Hayden and Scott are locked and loaded at nickel. They should be in line for a solid 2020 campaign.
Still, there are plenty of question marks when it comes to the Jaguars' outside cornerbacks. Henderson should be a standout down the road, but will he be an asset or a liability as a rookie? Will Tre Herndon continue to develop, or will the former undrafted free agent fall back down to earth? Is Rashaan Melvin capable of being a quality cover man at this point in his career?
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