There’s just something about defensive backs. Players need to have intrinsic qualities to be successful at one of the toughest positions in football. Forget about the numbers for a second; it’s challenging to do so especially leading up to the NFL draft when players are prodded and lauded for their height, weight, wingspan, vertical jump, and 40-yard dash time. But when once that superficial (albeit necessary) layer is slowly peeled back, something else is revealed: a mentality all defensive backs share.
No, it’s not a secret; it’s often noticeable, and it’s certainly unique. It’s almost necessary when players face the best opposing athletes at the highest level. Defensive backs, really, are more athletic than the wide receivers they’re covering; DBs are just at a disadvantage because they don’t know the particular route that will either leave them in their tracks or make for a game-altering play. Sure, it takes a little bit of cockiness. Maybe a little bit of pettiness. It’s most definitely born from having a varying-sized chip on their shoulder. If defensive backs are going to be the last line of defense in the pass-happy NFL with quarterbacks like Patrick Mahomes and Russell Wilson slinging the ball, these oft-misunderstood qualities—that are more often than not rudely reported on by large swaths of NFL media—are necessary. They have created an intriguing duality in Northwestern cornerback Greg Newsome II.
One of the first things you’ll notice about Newsome isn’t his 6-foot and 192-pound frame or his long reach, it’s an infectious smile. As he spoke with media virtually, due to COVID-19 restrictions, there were glimpses of his fun-loving and deeply humble personality. The God-fearing player from Chicago who used to envision himself as a basketball star is a little over a month away from reaching the pinnacle of every young athlete’s dream. The self-described nicest, sweetest guy will turn into a competitor quicker than one could put on a uniform.
“I flip a switch. I’m a competitor, so I hate to lose,” Newsome said following Northwestern’s Pro Day on Tuesday. “That’s the reason I play so hard; just playing with that chip on my shoulder, I was slept on. I still think I am, in this draft, and even during the season and in college football. Every single down, every single practice I’m going to play with that chip on my shoulder and just remember where I came from. Even being recruited as a high schooler, I think I was still slept on; I always have that in the back of my mind.”
Most people, at different degrees and proximities to the NFL, will focus heavily on Newsome’s numbers. They certainly are impressive. Before Newsome clocked an unofficial 4.38-second 40-yard dash Tuesday, he was unbeatable deep down the field. Newsome was targeted on seven passes of 20-or-more air yards last season and didn’t give up a single catch, as Touchdown Wire’s Doug Farrar noted. Even at 10-plus yards, his numbers are still striking: Newsome was targeted 15 times, allowed one reception, and no touchdowns while securing one interception. It led Newsome to point out the not-so-secret secret.
“There’s really no secrets; it’s just a mentality. I’m a very confident player,” Newsome said. “If I eliminate those deep routes, I don’t think a team’s going to beat us. I don’t really know if there’s a secret; you’ve just got to go out there, be confident, and be a dog out there.”
No traditional NFL Scouting Combine? No high-profile national stage? No one widely projecting him to be a first-round draft pick? No problem. When peeling back the individual layers of Newsome’s story even further, you’ll see there was no attention from the more prestigious Power 5 football schools. This still isn’t a problem; it’s simply motivation.
Newsome has always felt like he’s been under-the-radar, waiting to show everyone the fruits of his determination and commitment to the work. And here we are, stunned after Newsome (unofficially) recorded what was initially reported as a 4.31 40-yard dash time. “He just flew,” an unnamed source told The Draft Network’s Jordan Reid. But similar to the not-so-secret mentality, this wasn’t really a surprise. Newsome had top speed and was recently training with EXOS, in Phoenix, in an effort to bulk up and not lose that necessary speed; the plan worked. Newsome was able to put on enough weight without compromising his speed. If Newsome was slowly rising into Round 1 conversation, he’s firmly entrenched in it now. He’s now widely projected to go to a DB-needy team in the 20s.
“They are going to get the best corner in the country. I’m biased, but there’s no doubt in my mind that’s who he is,” Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald said Tuesday morning, prior to the day’s events. “I know they’ll be a lot of attention put on his 40[-yard dash time] today; I know he’s prepared for it well, but put that tape on. As a corner, you’ve got to have a great, great, great demeanor about you. You gotta have a high level of compete; you’ve got to have the hips and the feet and the top-end speed. But you’ve got to be able to be out there on the edge and be fearless, and that’s Greg Newsome. And he’s physical; I call him a unicorn.”
Can he hit, run, and cover? Yes, yes, and yes. In his first and only Pro Day, Newsome checked all the boxes; if one has been paying attention, he’s been doing that throughout his career. While he has just one collegiate interception, he totaled 71 tackles and 20 passes defended in 17 career games. He never played a full collegiate season and will face looming durability concerns at the next level, but he’s pro-ready; teams just need to roll the tape.
“Greg’s got the tape like Rashawn [Slater] to back it up at the elite level,” Fitzpatrick added.
Newsome will keep climbing—he remembers all too well how it feels to fall—whether it’s up draft boards or up NFL ranks against the stealthiest receivers teams can deploy.
“I remember where I came from and I remember just a season ago the feeling that we felt not having a great season, just keeping that in the back of my mind and knowing that things can turn the wrong way very quickly,” he said. “[I’m] just living in the moment and enjoying it all.”