After quarterback, the hardest position to play right away and succeed in the NFL is cornerback. The job of a corner is already hard enough when you have the athleticism, the length, the footwork, the technique, the football IQ, and the confidence all rolling in your favor. Now take all that and up the level of competition from big fish in college football to straight sharks in the NFL and try to picture a world where you don’t feel like bait in the water.
For most cornerbacks, that is how it goes. But not for Jacksonville Jaguars rookie cornerback C.J. Henderson in his first game as a pro.
Henderson, who was the second cornerback selected in the 2020 NFL Draft at No. 9 overall, came into a situation where the national narrative was that the Jaguars’ once proud and dominant defense of three years ago was dead and gone, and the place he was entering was just a shell of what remained. For most, that would be discouraging. For Henderson, it was clearly a challenge he was ready for.
In the Jaguars’ season-opening win over the Indianapolis Colts in Week 1, Henderson recorded five tackles, three passes defended, and an interception. He also played in 62 of the total defensive snaps, which was 84%.
Henderson’s performance was a catalyst for why the Jaguars were able to hold off the heavily favored Colts. His assignments of T.Y. Hilton, Parris Campbell, Zach Pascal, and Michael Pittman Jr. presented tough tasks of size, quickness, and long speed. But Henderson was clearly up for the challenge for all three, and that’s why he was the only rookie who was named to Pro Football Focus’ Team of the Week.
Here’s what it looked like.
In the play above, at the bottom of the screen, Henderson (No. 23) was lined up in true man coverage at the line of scrimmage against one of the top speed and deep threat players in the game in Hilton. Hilton has been a tough task for any cornerback, let alone a rookie. But Henderson did not seem rattled or lacking in confidence at all, despite the pedigree of the player he was staring at pre-snap.
Henderson is a top-tier athlete himself. His 4.39 40-yard dash, 37.5-inch vertical jump, 127-inch broad jump, and 20 reps on the bench press (at 204 pounds!) were all above the 75th percentile for the position. So were his measurables at 6-foot-1 and 204 pounds.
Henderson’s fluid movements were on display above, as he was able to get from square stance, the shuffle, and into full stride all while not letting the speedy Hilton get out of arm’s length. Even when Hilton put his foot in the ground to cut, Henderson was right there to mirror the move and stay with him.
That’s the kind of athlete we’re talking about here.
Here’s another example, and instead of just playing well in coverage, Henderson upgraded the result and used his athleticism to make a play.
At the top of the screen, Henderson was once again lined up with Hilton in man coverage. Hilton used his acceleration to eat up the distance between him and the defender, and once he reached a spot, stuck his foot in the ground for a quick comeback route at the sideline.
For as close as Henderson was able to stay with Hilton during his strides, this play really should have worked; the throw was on time, in rhythm, and in the right spot. It looked like it was going to be one of those plays where you just hat tip to good execution and move on.
But once Henderson realized Hilton had turned for the comeback route, watch how fast he put his foot in the ground to get his hand in there at the catch point to break up the pass. That is elite level recognition and quickness to make that play.
As far as being an athlete, Henderson showed he will not be overwhelmed in this league, and he did it against one of the best tests to that.
Now let’s talk about some reps where Henderson can go back to the tape and get even better next time.
Henderson was once again at the top of your screen against Hilton in the clip above. The Jaguars were in a Cover 3 shell, meaning the deep parts of the field were divided into thirds between the two outside cornerbacks and the one deep safety. You can tell this is Cover 3 with Henderson in zone coverage and not man coverage like before because at the snap Henderson has his eyes on the quarterback, not on the man.
Henderson was playing his outside third with outside leverage at the snap. This means that he began the play aligned with the wide receiver’s outside shoulder, and turned his hips inside. The point of this kind of technique/leverage is to use the sideline as an extra defender. Knowing that you have help in the middle—with linebackers in hook/curl zones and the safety in the deep middle zone—the objective with outside leverage is to not let the receiver get between you and the sideline as you shuffle and retreat, not only keeping them in front of you, but also forcing them to go inside instead of straight up the sideline. The idea is that if they try to get behind you, you just squeeze that space between you and the sideline smaller and smaller as you retreat (getting your butt closer and closer to the sideline) to where, even if they get the ball thrown their way, there’s no room to make the catch in bounds.
That’s the goal, but that didn’t happen. In the play above, Hilton was able to attack Henderson’s blind spot (his back, where he obviously can’t see). In doing so, Henderson lost track of Hilton and was not able to stay with him as he ran a quick out after the first down.
As a cornerback, you can’t let receivers get into your blind spots when you’re playing Cover 3 or quarters. That’s the whole point of the leverage.
That first play above was an example of Henderson failing to keep the receiver between him and the sideline when in Cover 3, and above we have an example when in quarters.
Henderson was once again at the top of your screen in the clip above. He was once again in off zone coverage and once again using outside leverage at the snap over the wide receiver’s outside shoulder to try to funnel them inside where he had help. But Hilton was once again able to attack Henderson’s blind spot and got him all turned around.
The ball didn’t end up getting thrown his way, but Henderson still failed to stay with his man because he couldn’t protect his blind spot. He needs to get more comfortable and natural with squeezing that sideline when receivers try to get behind him.
Normally, you might see cornerbacks averse to squeezing the sideline because they don’t have the athleticism to stick their foot in the ground and keep up with a potential skinny post route over the middle. But that’s not the case with Henderson. He can absolutely close that gap, not allow receivers to get in his blind spot, and also keep up for routes over the middle.
The last clip I wanted to show was Henderson’s interception.
The reason I wanted to save it for last is because I wanted to show how impactful and game-changing Henderson can be when his eyes are free.
With a player who is of Henderson’s size and athletic profile, the allurement of drafting him is certainly the potential to play press-man coverage on the outside. Henderson has the mold of a defensive back who can line up straight across from almost any receiver in this league, look them in the eye, and cover them. But though Henderson had those man coverage responsibilities and thrived in Week 1, his biggest impact came when he was allowed to look at the quarterback.
Henderson was actually in man coverage in the clip above. The Jaguars were in Cover 2 man with two deep safeties and the rest of the coverage players locked in on a singular assignment. Henderson was lined up across from Michael Pittman Jr. at the top of the screen.
Henderson stayed stride-for-stride with Pittman Jr. as he broke up the sideline, but after Pittman reached the first down marker, Henderson almost passed him off to the deep safety. The reason for this is because he saw Hilton aligned as the inside receiver to that side of the field and thought it might be a vertical 9-route from Pittman combined with an out from Hilton to get the first down. In theory, this route combo would have cleared Henderson’s coverage at the sideline and required the Jaguars’ slot defender to stay with Hilton. Knowing his guy had inside leverage on Hilton, that space was going to be open.
So what did Henderson do? He went rogue, fooled everyone, made the best football play, and got the takeaway.
That interception probably shouldn’t have even happened, but it did because of Henderson’s high football IQ. It’s a risky play by him, and now that it’s on tape, he may get burned for approaches like that in the future as he takes his lumps throughout his rookie year. However, as we’ve shown in this little study, the size, the athleticism, and the confidence are all there for Henderson.
I’m not stamping him as a top corner in the game yet. But I am saying that, from Sunday’s tape, the list of things that stand in the way of Henderson being a top cornerback in the league is not long.