Throughout the offseason, both Matt Rhule and Scott Fitterer have made no secret of wanting to add another cornerback to pair with Donte Jackson and, while they did sign Rashaan Melvin to a one-year deal in free agency, this is likely to be towards the top of the Panthers’ to-do list entering the draft.
While there are certainly other directions the Panthers could go in at the very top of the draft, taking a cornerback either with the eighth pick or following a trade down should absolutely be on the cards. If they do go in this direction, then one player who they could target is Alabama’s Patrick Surtain II, who is in the conversation to be the top cornerback taken.
With that in mind, we have taken a look at the tape to see what he does well, if there are some areas he could improve upon, and if he is a prospect the Panthers should target early in the first round.
Surtain certainly matches the physical profile that the Panthers seem to look for in corners, measuring in at 6’2 and 208lbs with 32.5″ arms. While he isn’t the fastest cornerback in the class, the 4.42 forty hard dash from his pro day certainly meets the speed threshold the Panthers have at the position, which backs up what can be seen on tape in terms of his ability to run vertically with receivers (please note, Surtain wears #2):
Part of the season why the Panthers like longer corners is because of how this can help in press coverage and, while the Panthers don’t play their corners at the line on every play, being able to effectively press at the line is a useful skill for any defensive back to have. On tape, certain uses his long arms well to drive receivers off their line, pressing them into the boundary and disrupting the timing of their routes:
And while it isn’t a regular feature of his game, he also shows an ability to work receivers off the field entirely at times:
Importantly, he is not reliant on winning with his hands, and so can look to disrupt routes knowing that he can always fall back on his balance and agility to transition to run vertically with receivers:
Though very occasionally he can get caught slightly flat-footed at the line:
Surtain’s game is not based around his ability in press, but he is still a good press coverage corner and has the potential to be more aggressive in this regard should teams want to use him in that way in the NFL.
Where he can get into trouble at times is that he can sometimes open his hips a little early, allowing receivers to cross his face and switch leverage, creating a window where he is off-balance that can then be exploited to generate separation:
However, this is not a persistent feature of his game and, ultimately, he did a good enough job of recovering when it did happen that it is unlikely to be a significant weakness that teams can expose.
In off coverage, he has a really smooth a quick backpedal, allowing him to drop vertically at speed while maintaining balance and control:
And does a good job of transitioning vertically from his backpedal with limited wasted motion:
At the head of routes in man coverage, he does a nice job of opening his hips to transition laterally while maintaining stride with receivers:
While maintaining his balance to allow him to react to breaks back against the motion without loss of control:
And as seen earlier, he does a good job of contesting at the catch point:
Overall, Surtain is a very fluid athlete who is able to run with receivers through routes and who shows the footwork and movement skills to prevent separation at the head of routes.
The only real caveat to his ability in man coverage is that he can struggle for quickness at times, and he isn’t always the best at driving on routes underneath from off coverage:
While more technical, quicker route runners have a chance at creating separation inside through multiple changes in direction:
How impactful this will be will likely depend a lot on matchups and he is likely to have some struggles if asked to cover smaller, quicker receivers in consistent man coverage.
For the Panthers, this shouldn’t be a huge issue, as not only does the NFC feature quite a lot of larger, more physical receivers who Surtain is very well suited to matching up again, but also with Donte Jackson as their other starting corner they should be able to avoid matching Surtain up against those receivers.
Of course, while the Panthers would ideally hope to play more of a mixture of man and zone coverages moving forwards, they are still going to play a lot of zone coverage. As in man coverage, Surtain shows a really smooth backpedal and vertical transition in zone coverage:
And certainly has the ball skills to capitalize on opportunities to generate interceptions:
And while this wasn’t probed a huge amount during his time at Alabama, there are also indications of encouraging anticipation and discipline on tape. While this play appears to be man coverage, after initially appearing to pass the receiver over the safety he then shows the awareness to recognize the routes working back outside and takes it away:
This understanding and ability to see the bigger picture should be particularly useful in deep zone (which the Panthers do a lot of with their corners), where offenses will try to scheme receivers open in exactly this way.
Alabama played quite a lot of man coverage still last season, and teams were frankly unwilling to throw the ball anywhere near Surtain a lot of the time, but it is hard to see the flashes he shows in zone coverage and not be excited about his potential impact as a cornerback in a scheme like the Panthers:
Surtain might only have had four interceptions during his time in Carolina but, in 2020 at least, it is hard to find times where he had a chance to make a play on the ball and didn’t come down with it.
As a pure coverage player, Surtain does have some vulnerabilities, he can get beaten for quickness at times and he isn’t completely proven in terms of his ability to be anticipatory in zone coverage, but he is very, very good.
He has the ability to match up well against all but a very few receivers in man coverage and shows all the traits to be a very impactful defender in zone coverage, especially in cover 3. Given what the Panthers look to do defensively, it is hard to draw up a better fit from a coverage perspective than Surtain.
Of course, corners do have to make some plays against the run at times as well, and this is another thing Surtain does well. He uses his hands well to keep his frame free against blocks and disengages effectively:
And does a good job of maintaining leverage and working into his gap in a disciplined fashion:
And while he isn’t going to be mistaken for a linebacker, he is one of the very best tacklers in this or any other cornerback class:
Though he does very occasionally get caught with a slightly poor base:
Overall though, Surtain is a very good run defender and should be a genuine asset in that regard at the NFL level.
Surtain is a good run defender, a good man coverage player and shows all the indications of being a good zone coverage player. There are players who have higher absolute ceilings in the 2021 cornerback class, but Surtain is both the most pro ready and has a high enough ceiling to be one of the very best cornerbacks in the NFL. Given that he is also an ideal fit for what the Panthers look for in the position, it is hard to see how he won’t be the top cornerback on their board.
Whether the Panthers draft a cornerback in the first round is ultimately not going to be just about how good the cornerbacks on offer are, but as long as Surtain is on the board by the time the Panthers pick then he should absolutely be part of the conversation.
(Top photo via University of Alabama Athletics)