For a vast majority of the top collegiate football talent, the season is just hitting the most difficult stretch of games. With teams deep into conference play, there are championship berths and a potential playoff seed on the line for team achievement, and individual glory in the long term.
One player that will be unable to help his team anymore is Marcus Peters, who was a star cornerback for the Washington Huskies until this week. He was dismissed from the Huskies squad for getting into another argument with the coaching staff, according to Kevin Gemmell of ESPN.com.
Now without team responsibilities, Peters has a jump-start on his journey to the NFL draft. The junior was already considered a lock to enter the draft before this latest bump in the road, per Tony Pauline of Draft Insider.
We won’t get into the incident because there simply isn’t enough information to make an educated guess on who is in the right or wrong. But what is evident is the talent that Peters displayed throughout his time at Washington.
To see how well Peters projects to the NFL, I watched every single snap of the Huskies until Week 10, when Peters participated against the Colorado Buffaloes. Gathering so much data and charting his play could make a stronger statement about Peters’ talents.
With scarce quality cornerback play in the NFL, there is no better time to enter the league as a defensive back prospect than now. Teams must consider taking an elite talent as high as the top five because a potential lockdown cornerback is only truncated in value by quarterback and pass-rusher, maybe left tackle.
Let’s dive into why Marcus Peters could be the best overall prospect in the 2015 NFL draft, should he officially declare.
Listed at 6’0”, 190 pounds, Peters has an ideal size for any scheme. His arm length should measure impressively, as he was often asked to jam receivers in press coverage off the line of scrimmage. He excelled in this assignment, even against bigger, longer receivers.
Arm length for a cornerback is crucial for success. Not only does length allow cornerbacks to make an impact as the ball is snapped, but also helps corners challenge receivers at the catch point. A well-timed leap or full extension of the arm can be the difference between a touchdown and an interception.
More importantly than what Peters looks like in shorts is how well he uses his size. Peters often lines up on the boundary, meaning he’s on the short side of the field (if the ball is on the left hash mark, Peters is covering the receiver closest to the sideline). This puts immense pressure on Peters to disrupt the receiver quickly, or else a quick-hitting route with yards-after-the-catch potential is easy to complete.
Peters is excellent in this regard, often pushing his receiver out of bounds with his impressive strength and length. By using his arms at full extension, he’s able to recover if the receiver breaks free of his contact, or gets five yards down the field.
To complement his length, Peters shows very good vertical leap ability. His timing on when he leaves his feet certainly helps, but when he does the standing vertical jump test at the NFL combine, expect one of the highest marks of the entire class. His powerful drive is from his legs and staying balanced throughout coverage.
Physically, the most valuable gift a defensive back can have is hip fluidity and ankle flexion. Being able to turn and run with a faster receiver is a must for outside cornerbacks in the NFL because competition levels are insanely high.
Peters demonstrates his hip fluidity routinely when he breaks on short routes such as slants, or when he’s running downfield in man coverage. He doesn’t lose any ground on receivers when he transitions, a clear indicator that he’s a fluid mover. His matchup against Stanford wide receiver Ty Montgomery epitomized this, as Montgomery is one of the fastest straight-line runners in the country.
Although Peters doesn’t have sub-4.4 speed by the eye test, he should run quite well for his size. At the 3:16 mark in the video below, we can see Peters chasing down Montgomery from behind on a kick return, proving he has more than enough speed to be a quality NFL cornerback.
Changing directions quickly is also vital for successful coverage. That’s where ankle flexion comes in. Not only do the hips need to sink so the corner can explode back to the ball, the ankles have to be able to handle such a violent motion and support the acceleration. A sequence of backpedal to planting to exploding toward the ball is lightning quick, and athletes who have elite traits are best equipped to consistently execute.
Some cornerbacks are great in coverage, but aren’t the type of player who offenses purposely avoid because they don’t make the offense pay for targeting them. To be a playmaker, it takes special ball awareness. It’s innate, and must come naturally.
Confidence and understanding of the defense can help a cornerback stay focused on the receiver and the ball at the same time, but the anticipation of when the ball is arriving and where the trajectory ends takes special mental prowess.
With Peters, it does not take long to notice his elite ball awareness. He’s notched 11 career interceptions and 35 defensed passes in his career, which is incredible for a cornerback that has played only 34 games. On the film, it’s eye-opening to see him break toward the ball even before the pass has left the quarterback’s hand.
To see a play like the one above just once in a film session is noteworthy, but this happened three times in eight games in 2014. Peters reads a quarterback's eyes simultaneously with his assigned man, which allows him to instinctively break on the ball and force incompletions.
The term “ball skills” is a little different than ball awareness, but it is still referring to how well a player acts on the arriving pass. Peters again excels in this area, looking like a receiver as he high-points passes.
He uses his physical gifts and strength to box receivers out and play the ball, taking it like it is his own. Sometimes this leads to penalties (he had four defensive pass interference calls this season), but that is the risk of forcing a turnover. His ability to rip passes out of the air is reminiscent of the most dominant NFL receivers, let alone a cornerback.
Without the ability to stay close to the receiver in coverage, a cornerback is worth very little. If ball skills and awareness are advanced skills for cornerbacks, coverage ability should be basic. But not all cornerbacks are able to sustain such a high level of coverage as Peters does.
To see how a player performs in coverage, I had to develop a measure more effective than what is currently available in traditional box scores. Looking at the opposing players’ statistics do not tell the entire truth, as the quarterback could’ve thrown a bad pass, or the receiver may have finished the play by making an otherworldly action on the ball.
By creating a measure called “burn percentage,” we are able to see how many times a cornerback is actually beaten in coverage, regardless of whether they are targeted or the pass in complete. You can read more about how it is scored on my original blog post.
Below, we can see the benchmarks created for burn percentage based on studying the 2013 and 2014 cornerback draft classes.
Burn Percentage Benchmarks
Classification Benchmark No. of Qualifying Players in 2013
Elite <20% 4
Above Average 20-30% 10
Average or Worse 30%+ N/A
Only three cornerbacks lost on less than 20 percent of qualifying snaps in the last three years, and they are Desmond Trufant, Kyle Fuller and Bradley Roby. Each were first-round picks and playing quite well in the NFL.
By staying within one yard of the receiver at the point of release or as the ball arrives, the cornerback has effectively challenged the pass enough to earn a “win.” This is subjective, but meant to be graded the same no matter the player or situation.
In the chart below, look at how Peters performed in 2014.
Marcus Peters Coverage Productivity
Total Qualifying Snaps Left CB Qualifying Snaps Right CB Qualifying Snaps Wins Losses Total Burn %
71 38 33 38 9 12.6
In 71 qualifying snaps where Peters could’ve been targeted in the play, he earned a win on 38 snaps, and lost just nine times. The remaining snaps that were not graded mean that he was in position to make a play on the ball, but was not targeted. In essence, he was not penalized for the quarterback refusing to throw the ball into good coverage.
This equals out to a 12.6 burn percentage, which is five percentage points better than the previous best for this study by Kyle Fuller in 2013. That’s a tremendous accomplishment, especially when the quality of opponents is factored in.
The most talented individual Peters faced was Arizona State receiver Jaelen Strong. Strong was targeted six times while Peters was in coverage, and won just three times. He recorded the only touchdown allowed directly by Peters this season.
Peters did well that game, however, limiting Strong to just 36 yards, per my own charting. Their matchup was a major indicator that his style of play will translate to Sundays, where he will be facing similar players every week.
Peters also played extremely well against Colorado standout receiver Nelson Spruce. Although he has 90 receptions and 999 yards on the season, Peters limited Spruce to two catches and 28 yards, via my own charting. The Buffaloes receiver wins with excellent route running and quickness, but Peters swallowed his routes with ease.
Washington often employed Cover 3 schemes to emphasize their pass rush and limit big plays from its opponents. Peters fits into this, but it is not his optimal scheme. He’s excellent in press, as mentioned above, due to his technique when landing his punch on receivers.
Using his strong frame and length, he is able to control the receiver at the line, placing his hands inside the chest and driving the opponent. Sure, his hands will at times be swatted down, but even forcing that can disrupt the offense for the split second needed to finish a sack or create pressure.
Peters has the physical traits and profile of a standout, press corner in Cover 1 or 3, where everyone is playing man and the cornerback has little help on their island. Cover 3 assigns a deep zone to be responsible for, and limits the cornerback to just defending the sideline. Again, Peters was stuck in Cover 3 often because of the other talent in the secondary, which is young and subpar, but not for a lack of physical gifts or talent.
He did not log a single snap in the slot this season, instead seeing a majority of snaps at the left cornerback spot, which is the strong side of the offense. As a good run defender, he was trusted to be on the short side of the field and take on running backs quite often. He rarely backed down and always gave great effort.
His scheme versatility means that any team could easily justify taking him. Like many other areas, this is where ball awareness can only help his argument to play for any NFL team. Even in a scheme that downplays cornerbacks like a Tampa 2, having those ball skills and anticipation ability will be valuable.
Many players are great athletes, but technique shows dedication to the craft and the want to be the best player on the field.
The area that really shows technique as a cornerback is when defending comeback routes and quick slants. To change direction suddenly and keep proper balance is incredibly difficult, but Peters does this with great consistency. He keeps his feet squared with his shoulders, which means his movement is under control and his body isn’t flailing all over.
Reducing the amount of moving parts is key, as it saves energy and valuable time in pursuit. Foot speed and placement are the main ingredients for doing such; lead feet will allow receivers to have a field day on double moves and quick-cutting routes.
Peters displays great control of his body for games at a time. Like any player, he had a few moments where he was not properly balanced in his stance, but those are few and far between, meaning those moments do not define his talents and technique refinement.
Since he plays so much on the outside and in Cover 3, he has to be able to pin receivers to the sideline to minimize the landing zone if the receiver does bring in the ball. Peters is tremendous at quickly getting the receiver glued to the sideline, which gives the quarterback even less room for error to test Peters’ coverage downfield.
This also goes back into his ability to box out receivers and play the ball like an offensive player. He gains inside positioning and the only way to steal the ball away is to go up and over his frame. As you may see, it’s very hard to beat a big, physical corner with great technique and ball skills.
It’s difficult to find many weaknesses in Peters’ game because he’s such a standout athlete with great technique in key areas.
His on-field persona is certainly easy to see when watching his games. He’s similar to Dez Bryant, in that he clearly loves to play and is extremely passionate. Sometimes, like against Eastern Washington, he gets too emotional. He was benched after drawing a penalty for taunting a receiver.
His competitiveness is somewhat of a positive and negative, but he needs more awareness as to when to scale it back and not hurt his team. This isn’t a major negative, as many players are immature in college and will develop as young adults in the NFL.
There are brief moments where Peters locks onto the quarterback’s eyes too long and doesn't pay attention to the receivers’ routes. This happened three times against Hawaii, and also when he allowed Strong to score a touchdown.
Of course, when playing the ball as much as Peters tends to do, this will happen. Forcing a turnover is extremely valuable for a defense, so the risk/reward should be considered worth it.
He’s prone to drawing defensive pass interference calls with his style of play. Although some of the penalties he’s drawn should be considered borderline, he will give pause to a referee’s mind, even if he’s playing the ball and not just desperately hitting the receiver.
Evaluating Marcus Peters from an on-field-talent standpoint was an absolute treat for someone who extensively covered the defensive back class for Bleacher Report last year, as I did. He’s a rare player entering the NFL with his combination of size, speed, technique and ball skills.
Why he was dismissed from the program will be something NFL teams will have to dig in to, but from a football standpoint, Peters is one of the few elite cornerback prospects in the last decade. He’s a potential Pro Bowl-type talent who can force an offense to change their game plan just for his ability to force turnovers.
He compares favorably to NFL cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and former Husky Desmond Trufant because of his ability to play in any scheme and cover any route variation. His value for his play could prove to be worthy of a top-five selection in May.
If a team is willing to invest in developing Marcus Peters the person, don’t be surprised if they’re rewarded with an elite cornerback talent in short time.
All stats used are from Sports-Reference.com.
Ian Wharton is a Miami Dolphins Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report, contributor for Optimum Scouting, and analyst for FinDepth.