Prince Amukamara, CB, Nebraska
6’1″, 205 lbs.
Amukamara came into the season as the top ranked senior prospect by National, and followed up his breakout junior season with a strong senior campaign that saw him named an All American and Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year. The honors were well earned and Amukamara went wire to wire as the top ranked senior in my mind. He also finished the year consistently ranked among the top two or three defensive backs in the nation, and as such, is likely to be an early first round pick.
Amukamara’s development under Bo Pelini from a playmaking high school running back to premier cornerback has been remarkable. Nebraska clearly has excellent defensive backs coaching, but Amukamara deserves some credit for his transformation from years one and two, to years three and four. In the process, Amukamara became one of the players I’ve enjoyed watching and analyzing the most the past season. He’s a terrific football player. His game has a fundamental excellence to it that excites the purist in me. In a post Deion Sanders NFL, watching a throwback like Amukamara can be a lot of fun.
What makes Amukamara so special? Fortunately, you’ll be able to see for yourself. Youtube users AloAloysius and MARI0clp have been industrious enough to make several excellent full game cutups of Amukamara from the past two years. Here they are in chronological order:
vs. Baylor (2009): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bHf3K8wBULw&feature=related
vs. Texas (2009): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=leX0rYpk9wc&feature=related
vs. Kansas St. (2010): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KtzZIm_Sqyw
vs. Justin Blackmon / Oklahoma St. (2010): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zVeWn3bwWTg&feature=related
vs. Texas A&M (2010): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qT1qkuy9KyI
Wow. Five games worth of cutups give an interesting snapshot of Amukamara as a player. It’s usually very difficult to follow a corner on broadcast footage. So right off the bat, the fact that Amukamara flashes enough to give the draftniks plenty of plays to document and discuss is a good sign of his playmaking ability.
Let’s start our examination of him by talking about his build and natural abilties. Amukamara is a well muscled athlete who’s thick at the joints and possesses slightly above average height for the position. His strength level is good for the position and he holds his own playing with all but the biggest and strongest receivers. There isn’t a ton of room on his narrow-shouldered frame to add bulk, and I think that 6’1 listing is misleading and he’s probably closer to 5’11 without cleats on. But, for the most part, he’s already got NFL size and shouldn’t have to work too hard to shape his body down the road.
Amukamara is an extremely agile and balanced athlete, even by cornerback standards, and has no trouble whatsoever flipping his hips or breaking down in space. He maintains his balance and bend well in his backpedal and he looks flexible with coordinated feet and great body lean when he turns. You’ll see other draftniks and scouts consistently question his straight line speed, but I really don’t see what the big deal is. Amukamara is an exceptionally quick player. He’s got no gear down time when he changes speeds and directions. He can burst out of breaks and control spacing between him and an offensive player as needed with his explosive first few steps. Most of all, his closing speed is outstanding. I don’t think his recovery speed is a problem area like some do, and he’s only going to look slower compared to a truly remarkable athlete like Patrick Peterson.
Besides, scouts and draftniks will probably question the long speed of any corner who doesn’t time at four seconds flat in his 40 yard dash. Some will even go so far as to foolishly relegate the prospect to playing safety in the NFL in their projections. Wes Bunting has already done so in a column that I don’t think is going to hold up well for posterity. Scouts raised similar concerns about the speed of both Leon Hall and Darrelle Revis in 2007. Both were thought to lack an elite top gear and both drew the same kind of talk about moving to free safety. Both also quickly became among the five best corners in the entire league. This is from nfldraftscout.com’s analysis of Darrelle Revis in 2007:
Revis might not have the blazing speed to handle the quicker NFL receivers on deep routes, but has the hard-hitting ability to play in the nickel package. He could be more effective as a safety due to his range and natural hands.
Has good timed speed, but lacks explosion coming out of his breaks and needs to mirror the receiver closer rather than allow a big cushion in order to prevent the receiver from getting behind him on deep routes… Might be a better fit for free safety due to his range and preference for playing the ball rather than operating in man coverage… He is a solid zone coverage defender, but with his field vision and natural hands (along with a lack of blazing speed) he could be a better fit at free safety down the road.
Bringing up Revis and Hall was strategic on my part, because they are two of the three NFL players that I wanted to use as a comparison to Amukamara. The third is our own Deangelo Hall. I see a little bit of each of those outstanding corners in Amukamara, and they’re a window into why he’s such a highly regarded prospect. He’s got the same physically aggressive mentality as Revis and is a similar athlete with a similar build. Like Revis, he’s a playmaker with excellent ball skills and is a threat on the return because of his skill in maneuvering in space (picked up from his background as a RB). Like Leon Hall, he reads the field well in zone coverage and is a terrific open field tackler who can make plays in run support. And like Deangelo Hall, he excels playing off zone coverage, reading the QB, and aggressively hawking for the ball. There are some important differences between him and each of those other players, generally speaking. He’s not as fast as Deangelo is and he’s a much stronger and more skillful tackler. But he’s also not nearly as skilled in press coverage as Revis and Leon Hall were coming out, so in that aspect, he shares Deangelo’s aversion that style of play. That’s why I wanted to discuss Amukamara as a mishmash of all three.
So what can we determine specifically from those videos? First, it’s clear that Amukamara’s coaches are comfortable leaving him on an island. It’s also clear that they are creative in how they use him. In each video Amukamara regularly varies his coverage from playing tight and giving a large cushion. He blitzes occasionally, and is relied upon to play a prominent role in run support. Though Amukamara is most comfortable playing off man and zone coverages, he has a fair competence in walking up and playing press. His hand usage is inconsistent on the jam and that, coupled with his tendency to get caught looking in the backfield, are the source of most of his problems in this area. You’ll notice this happened to him twice in the matchup versus Justin Blackmon and in both instances Amukamara gave up big plays. The first comes at the 0:42 mark in the video, the second comes at 1:58. On the first play Amukamara was a little slow off the line and wasn’t able to get a hand on Blackmon before he had to turn and run with him down the field. On the second he eyeballed the quarterback a little too long and Blackmon slipped him almost immediately. Amukamara struggles a bit with powerful receivers like Blackmon and sometimes he’ll have trouble disengaging and stay blocked for a while. You’ll notice this happen on the play at 1:02 in the same video. Amukamara kept himself in position to shed and make the tackle, but not before the runner got the first down. Blackmon is a handful though, and he’s a savvy route runner that knows how and when to go for the kill. Three bad plays against Blackmon isn’t enough for me to drop Amukamara like others have been doing.
Those are about the only negative things I have from watching those videos though. The rest is overwhelmingly positive. First, I love how Amukamara contests everything that comes his way. He’s an aggressive player who goes for the ball and not the hit and he shows off his impressive closing speed when he decides to break on a pass or runner. His interception in the Baylor game was a spectacular example of his click and close ability as well as his hands and body control on the catch. Take a look at his impressive breakups at 1:43 and 1:56 in the Kansas State game to get a sense of how stifling Amukamara can be. He had 24 passes broken up the past two seasons! Some may not be familiar with the stat, but that’s an elite total as they come with about the same frequency as sacks for top college passrushers. For context with the other top corners in college football, Patrick Peterson has had 19 over the same span; Jimmy Smith has 11; Aaron Williams has 11; Janoris Jenkins has 14; Jayron Hosley has 10; Dre Kirkpatrick has 7 (but only started this season). Only Brandon Harris and Cliff Harris have managed to match Amukamara’s PBU production the past two years, as they each had 25.
Another thing that jumps out from these videos is that Amukamara is a spectacular open field tackler for a cornerback. The Kansas State and Texas A&M videos are basically long highlight reels of him making timely one on one stops and touchdown saving tackles. He can cut tackle with violence and he does a good job attacking the runner’s hip and impeding forward progress. He wraps up and and is difficult to slip, impressive since he’s not really among the most powerful cornerbacks in the game. He diagnoses run very quickly and always seems to be around the ball. Amukamara’s greatest strength in my mind, is his prodigious feel for the game. Like Mark Ingram at the RB position, Amukamara is easily one of the most instinctive players in this class. He understands spacing and timing, sees the entire field extremely well, reads his keys at an elite speed, and shows excellent anticipation of route development. That, along with that closing burst, is why he’s been able to rake in so many deflections. His efficiency as a corner is impressive when you consider that, up until about three seasons ago, Amukamara was a running back. He’s still got quite a bit of upside left to his game.
What he entails for the Redskins
I’ve been effusive in my praise for Amukamara, but one might raise a valid and simple objection to drafting him if he’s sitting on the board at ten. Do the Redskins even need a cornerback? Can they afford to draft one with such a preciously high pick? Deangelo Hall is coming off a Probowl season, is only 27 years old, was recently named a team captain, and has several years remaining on his contract. He’s clearly solidified himself as our top corner and his starting position is secure for the long term. The other starting spot is currently occupied by Carlos Rogers. Carlos… is a different matter. He’s a 30 year old free agent whose future with the team is uncertain. Behind those two there is some depth and young talent. Phil Buchanon is actually a pretty solid nickel player and solidifies that position and contributes on special teams. Kevin Barnes was excellent in the limited action he saw at the end of the season. He might have starting potential as either the second starting cornerback or as the starting free safety.
So our roster need at cornerback boils down to whether or not the front office decides to extend Carlos as well as where Kevin Barnes settles. We could extend Carlos and Barnes takes over the nickel position and have absolutely no need to acquire another corner for the near future. Or Carlos could walk and Barnes could prove unworthy of starting for the long term (or move to free safety) in which case we’d have a huge need for acquiring a starting caliber corner.
Personally, I wouldn’t let Carlos Rogers stop me from drafting Amukamara. I’m not a huge fan of Carlos and I’d probably let him go regardless and give Barnes his job even if I didn’t draft a viable replacement early on. In making a comparison between Amukamara and Hall, I also implicitly demonstrated that Amukamara is a good fit specifically in our scheme. Haslett tends to varies his coverages quite a bit, so Amukamara’s versatility makes him much more valuable to us than the corners who are more one coverage ponies like Brandon Harris and Jimmy Smith. If there is one make or break feature of our scheme, it’s that a corner has to be able to play both off zone and off man coverage at a high level in order to star. The ability to press is devalued, and that’s why Deangelo went from being a cap casualty in Oakland back to being a playmaking Probowler once Haslett arrived. So, as was the case with Deangelo, Amukamara’s relative weakness in press coverage would be minimized and his strength playing far off the line would be emphasized.
Here is the bottom line on Amukamara; he is certainly one of the ten best prospects in this class; he’s an exceptional fit in our defense; cornerback is a money position that’s typically drafted high; and we’ll likely have a strong need at the position next season. Given all that, Amukamara provides excellent value for us at ten and I wouldn’t hesitate to select him if Blaine Gabbert and the best defensive linemen were already off the board. So in short, I’d be very enthusiastic about an Amukamara selection in the first round, and I think he’d give our defense a special set of corners like the New York Jets currently possess.