Monson: Ramsey's versatility makes him a top NFL prospect
With the 2016 draft season underway, Sam Monson will open up his Analysis Notebook once again to share an in-depth evaluation of one top prospect each week. This week, we’ll explore the strengths, weaknesses and bottom-line scouting report for Florida cornerback Jalen Ramsey.
Jalen Ramsey is one of the top prospects in the 2016 NFL draft, in large part for his versatile skill set. Ramsey is built like a big safety but has the athleticism to play corner, and has done both for the Seminoles over the past two years.
In 2014 Ramsey was primarily a safety that would cover the slot. In the ACC title game against Georgia Tech, he was employed as a cornerback out wide. It wasn’t the first time he had done that for the Seminoles, but it was the most he did it that season and the sign of what his 2015 season would look like.
This year he has been almost exclusively lined up at corner on the perimeter, and hasn’t even spent much time in the slot. Between the two seasons we have a picture of a player who can line up all across the defense and be deployed any way a defense wants, which is a hugely attractive proposition to any NFL team.
Ramsey finished as our highest-graded draft-eligible corner this season, and while much of that is down to his play against the run (he was the highest-graded corner in the run game by some margin), his coverage grade was additionally excellent — good for sixth in our rankings.
Ramsey was thrown at 67 times, allowing 37 of them to be caught (55.2 percent) for 315 yards (8.5 per reception). He allowed just one touchdown catch all season, and though he didn’t tally any picks, he did break up four passes.
What he does well
Ramsey is incredibly strong. At times playing corner he would press a guy clean off the field like he was a gunner in the 1980s, and that shows up with his play against the run, where he would regularly just toss receivers aside and make the tackle.
On this play against Clemson, the option is run in Ramsey’s direction and after mirroring his receiver off the line, as soon as he reads the run he tosses him aside to make the big stop. This is Ramsey’s single biggest strength and it is a trait that works when he is aligned as a strong safety in the box as well, not just working against wide receivers. In the play below from the same game, he is about to take on the lead block of a much bigger player and beat it to the inside to make the stop.
Ramsey has the ability to run deep with anybody. He was targeted on go routes 17 times this season, and allowed just four of them to be caught. On deep corner routes he was perfect on two targets. For a big body he has the outright speed and strength to maintain good position against receivers deep down the field. In the same way Richard Sherman is best against deep routes down the sideline, this is probably also Ramsey’s strength. Sherman may not run a 4.3 forty time, but he has the size and strength to maintain contact down the field and never allow the difference in track speed to become a factor.
Early in the season against UCF is a perfect example. Ramsey never allows the receiver to get position off the line and is able to stay in phase with him all the way down the field until the ball arrives. In a track meet Ramsey may be second-best in this footrace, but he has the skills to create enough contact to level the playing field and give him the opportunity to make a play on the ball, boxing out the receiver to do so.
This is high-level stuff and proves that he can play corner, rather than just masquerade as a safety. The level of wide out competition in the NFL is certainly stiffer, but there is a place for a player that can do things like this without any obvious weakness in his game.
Where he struggles
In all honesty there isn’t much to dislike about Ramsey’s game. Even things that occasionally present themselves have not been exploited with any kind of regularity by college offenses, so it is an exercise more in projecting potential problems against improved competition than highlighting anything that has been a significant issue already.
The two areas of concern to me are his short area quickness and change of direction skills. He is built to run down the field with receivers, but I’m less convinced he can stick with them in tight quarters underneath if he doesn’t get hands on them. As I mentioned, this is not something that he has been exposed by in college, but you do see flashes of it every now and again. Against Miami in the slot he was shaken completely on a whip route that broke back outside, and in the NFL when you are dealing with receivers like Antonio Brown the ability to mirror in small areas becomes far tougher.
The only other area that occasionally looks concerning is his ability to find the ball when it is in the air, both while maintaining his coverage position and then actually making the catch when it arrives. His hands look questionable, but for a cornerback I put that more in the nice-to-have category than a real deal-breaker. A corner’s primary job is to prevent his man from catching the ball — not to necessarily catch it himself.
Where Ramsey can struggle occasionally is in timing his turn to look for the ball and successfully locating it without getting out of control physically and losing position to the receiver. The biggest play he gave up all season came against Miami and featured this exact problem. What looks like a push off at first glance by the receiver was in fact barely any contact — Ramsey got too high and out of control physically when he turned to find the ball. He couldn’t adjust the same way the receiver did and ended up overshooting the play, only making it worse by failing to make the tackle after the catch.
The bottom line
The tape and the numbers love Jalen Ramsey, and he is undoubtedly one of the stars of this draft class. There will be debate as to what position he should play at the next level. While I think he may be a far more natural safety in the NFL, it is worth pointing out that there isn’t really anything to suggest he can’t play corner, other perhaps the weaknesses he flashes could be amplified at the next level.
He strikes me as an Eric Berry type — a player that could play safety or corner in college — who can cover RBs and TEs out wide in the NFL, but would struggle lining up against Antonio Brown or Julio Jones on an island. His work against the run and versatility to cover big bodies one-on-one makes him an elite safety prospect and a moveable chess piece on defense, something that is hugely valuable in today’s NFL.