One of the biggest prizes in this year's free-agent class is a player you have probably rarely seen, someone you only know by his reputation and a highlight or two.
Alterraun Verner is one of the five best players in the 2014 NFL free-agent class. The Titans cornerback is often named in the same breath as Darrelle Revis and Richard Sherman as one of the best in the NFL, and at 25 years old, he's considered a blue-chip building block for a championship caliber defense. Of the free agents likely to hit the market -- as opposed to already-franchised Jimmy Graham and likely-to-re-sign players like Browns center Alex Mack -- Verner is on an elite tier with Chiefs tackle Brandon Albert, Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett and one or two others.
But how much Alterraun Verner have you really watched? You saw isolated camera angles on Revis Island in every Jets game from 2009 through 2011, and the Jets were on television a lot in those seasons. Sherman made this year's playoffs his personal highlight reel. But how often do you sit down to a Titans game and focus on the cornerback play? Unless you are an AFC South diehard, the only honest answer is "never."
I had not watched much Verner film either. Let's face it, there is only so much Ryan Fitzpatrick a human can take, so Titans tape kept getting shuffled to the back of my to-do list as the Titans fell further from contention. The game charters at Football Outsiders and Pro Football Focus agreed that Verner was awesome, as did the Internet Expert Collective. What are the chances all three could be off base? Verner joined Jurrell Casey and Chris Johnson as the only Titans I had to have an opinion about; there was Seahawks film to grind.
Verner will not be on the Titans much longer. He is a free agent, the Titans cap situation is tight and both Verner and his agent know that there are suitors on the open market ready to splurge and rescue the young All-Pro from a small-market team in a perpetual rebuilding cycle. Unless the Titans slap the franchise tag on Verner (they appear reluctant to do it), he will become the talk of early March and the centerpiece of some team's offseason shopping spree.
And you and I have barely seen him play.
It's time to make up for that. I watched four full Verner games on all-22 film, combed the Football Outsiders database and dug into my archives to find the real Alterraun Verner. Here is everything you need to know about the best young cornerback east of the Cascade Mountains.
Introduction. The Titans drafted Verner out of UCLA in the fourth round of the 2010 draft. He was a three-year starter at right cornerback for the Bruins. In 2008, he led the nation with 20 passes defensed -- 18 breakups and two interceptions. Opponents avoided him as a senior, and while he intercepted five passes, he broke up just four others. He set a UCLA record with four career interception return touchdowns. A former track-and-field runner, he was one of the stars of the 2010 combine.
Pro Football Weekly's 2010 draft guide praised Verner's ball skills, loose hips, willingness to support the run, durability and leadership characteristics. But Verner was under 5-foot-11 and weighed 189 pounds, and he had a habit of biting on pump fakes and letting receivers get behind him. "Short, squatty, short-area zone corner who does not 'wow' you athletically but is experienced, possesses natural ball skills, and has been very productive," wrote draft expert Nolan Nawrocki.*
*2010 was just before Nolan Nawrocki split into two people: Good Nolan who provides relatively reliable scouting reports of rank-and-file players, and Evil Nolan who trolls the Internet with inflammatory, racially loaded third-hand attacks on the personalities of major prospects. Therefore, scouting reports of 2010 prospects by Nawrocki can generally be accepted without first subjecting them to biological quarantine.
In his GM Jr. draft annual, Sports on Earth contributor Russ Lande ranked Verner 20th among cornerbacks and suggested that he would be a fifth-round pick. "He is a technically sound cornerback with good foot quicks and smooth athleticism to be productive on passes in front of him, but his lack of explosiveness and top-end speed will keep him from being effective in tight man coverage at the next level." Lande praised Verner's instinctiveness and ability to react to passes but was concerned about his deficiencies in run support. We will focus in just a few paragraphs on how those strengths and weaknesses are still part of Verner's game, four years later.
Verner joined a Titans team that had on-and-off Pro-Bowler Cortland Finnegan at one cornerback position and chaos everywhere else. After veteran acquisition Rod Hood tore his ACL in 2010 minicamp, Jason McCourty and Ryan Mouton, two second-year defenders, were expected to be the second and third cornerbacks. Reports out of Titans training camp barely mentioned Verner, as McCourty-versus-Mouton was one of those preseason "battles to watch." But McCourty and Verner each beat Mouton, and when McCourty suffered an early-season injury, Verner replaced him as the starter opposite Finnegan, intercepting three passes while defensing 11.
McCourty took back the starting job in 2011, though Verner saw regular action in every game as a nickel defender. Verner began generating buzz among analytics and all-22 charting circles. In 2011, he was targeted 51 times and defensed 10 of the passes, a remarkable percentage. The average pass to Verner's receivers netted just 5.4 yards, the fifth-lowest figure in the NFL. (All stats courtesy Football Outsiders.) Finnegan left in 2012, and while Verner's advanced statistics dropped when he moved into the starting lineup, they were better than McCourty's and very solid for a team with a weak overall defense.
Verner attracted attention in 2013 with four interceptions in the Titans' first four games, including a pick-six against the Texans. The Titans went 3-1 in those games, and it was not yet clear that the Texans would spend the year handing out pick-sixes like Halloween candy, so Verner briefly appeared on the national radar as a "storyline" player. But Verner intercepted just one more pass in 2013, and the Titans lingered among the Dolphins-Ravens shoegaze wild card barely hopefuls for the second half of the season. Verner made the Pro Bowl, but he made few highlight reels or headlines.
Were opponents avoiding Verner on purpose? Were my friends and frenemies in the analytics field on to something, or did they jump on a bandwagon in September and roll with it to a stop in December? The only way to find out is to go digging through the film ourselves.
On-Field Overview. Verner played right cornerback almost exclusively in 2012 and 2013. This is a small but significant matter. The Titans line up their cornerbacks by sides about 95 percent of the time, according to Football Outsiders, and Verner usually appears only on the left side of the defensive formation when the offense uses twins receivers on their right and only a tight end on their left. McCourty has developed into a capable starter opposite Verner, so Titans coaches saw no reason to make the corners switch sides to exploit or avoid mismatches. Still, it is important to note that if T.Y. Hilton is on the offensive right and the Colts motion fullback Stanley Havili out as a flanker on the offensive left, Verner will probably cover Havili.
Verner also rarely plays press coverage. Through four games, I do not recall seeing him jam a receiver at the line, though he sometimes makes contact early in the route and rides the receiver downfield. The Titans work to allow Verner to cover in space as often as possible. If two receivers are stacked on the offensive left, Verner aligns about nine yards deep, with Coty Sensabaugh or another defender at the line of scrimmage. Typically, Verner handles deep routes or over-the-middle routes in this arrangement, while the nickel defender handles the flat and is the first line of run defense. When a force defender is needed on the right side (the defensive back who lines up outside the tight end and forces the running back to stay inside), the Titans usually slip a safety into the role, with Verner as the deep defender.
We will see in a moment how these alignments and strategic decisions complement Verner's style of play. For now, it is important to get a feel for the shape of his game. Verner is not Richard Sherman, hammering receivers as they come off the line. Instead, he plays in space, adjusting to the receiver's release and the route combination, and using a mixture of quickness, awareness and excellent reaction time to keep receivers from getting open and make quarterbacks leery to throw to his side of the field.
One last note before continuing: Verner frequently uses what is called the bail technique when dropping into coverage. There are dozens of examples of it on film, but here was a handy one from the Week 16 game against the Jaguars. Verner is No. 20 at the very top of the screen on this routine little pass play:
See how he dropped, with his stance wide and his butt to the sideline at about a 45 degree angle, a full second before the snap? That's bail technique. Verner wants to be ready to run deep with his receiver, and he wants to be able to see the whole field and read route combinations. He's willing to sacrifice the ability to press his receiver, and to be out of ideal position to cover an inside route, in order to get into bail technique position. It is the kind of thing a cornerback will often do when dropping into a Cover-3 zone: He knows he has to get deep, has help both over the middle and underneath, and wants to see which receivers are going where. But Verner also uses it in man-to-man coverage, often.
What Verner Does Well: Let's start with the basics. Verner is incredibly quick, even by the standards of NFL cornerbacks. He also has excellent anticipation and awareness: He knows where the receivers and quarterback are going. The combination of quickness and anticipation can clearly be seen on this interception against the Jets:
Verner uses bail technique against Stephen Hill, giving the huge receiver a free inside release. Hill is running a skinny post, so Verner should theoretically be out of position when Hill makes his break. But Verner stays stride-for-stride with Hill and undercuts his route. Geno Smith's pass is underthrown, but it is telling that Verner makes a much quicker break on the ball than Hill does.
Verner's Jets film is a hoot. He appears to know the Jets playbook better than Smith or any of the receivers. In the next GIF, Verner trades paint with Santonio Holmes all the way down the field. When Holmes appears to get separation at the end, it's an optical illusion: Verner is the one making the play on a Smith pass up the seam. Luckily for Smith, he overthrows everyone and everything.
OK, so the Jets stink. Carson Palmer and Michael Floyd of the Cardinals are a little better. The next GIF shows Floyd in off coverage, bumping Floyd slightly a few yards off the line, then positioning himself to nearly intercept a pass. Note that Verner does not lose any transition quickness during the bump: He pivots his hips and glides downfield with his body between Palmer and Floyd and his eyes on Palmer. That's hip fluidity at work. Verner can snap his hips when changing direction and can adjust his body suddenly. That quick-snap ability to change direction drives his entire game. He can play off receivers or use bail technique consistently because he can swivel and drive toward passes that are in front of him or inside of him.
Despite the frequent use of bail technique and off coverage, Verner does not give up that many short passes in front of him. When in man coverage, he anticipates crossing routes very well and becomes very sticky to his receiver. He closes quickly on passes in front of him, so the five-yard hitch is no guarantee when Verner is 1- yards off the ball. In the Jets, Cardinals and Colts games, I saw only three completed passes to receivers who were Verner's man-to-man or obvious zone responsibility. All of them were passes under 15 yards. That's exceptional.
In zone coverage, Verner is very active and aware, and he is a little bit of a gambler. Remember earlier in this article, when the Colts motioned fullback Stanley Havili out as a left flanker so Verner would cover him? It really happened, and Verner smelled a rat. Here is a diagram of the play:
The Titans are running a Tampa-2 style zone defense in the red zone, and Verner is wary that the Colts plan to beat it by sending tight end Weslye Saunders (47) into the corner of the end zone while Coby Fleener occupies the safeties with a post route. It's the proper thing to worry about: Havili is not much a receiving threat, and he appears to be hanging around the left flat just so Verner will have to babysit him.
When Luck begins looking toward the end zone, Verner says "screw this" and begins racing back for the corner, only to plant and turn back when Luck begins scrambling left and dumps the ball to Havili. Verner did not abandon a responsibility (a linebacker had fanned over to deal with Havili) so much as take a calculated risk based on the situation and route concept. Havili gained nine yards, and some coaches may prefer that Verner hold his level on a play like this. But I like Verner's awareness of what is going on behind him.
This whole section has been an elaborate, paid-by-the-word way of saying that, yes, Verner can cover. He is effective using a variety of man and zone cover techniques. Opponents began avoiding him last season, though it was not easy: McCourty also had a very good year, Sensabaugh has become a fine nickel (he may be the reason the Titans feel comfortable letting Verner walk) and an excellent interior pass rush kept Titans opponents from getting too cute. With Tennessee's strict left-and-right cornerback configuration, it was easy for opponents to move their Larry Fitzgerald types to the opposite side of the field or to the slot, but altering your game plan to avoid one defender has its own consequences.
What Verner Does Poorly. Verner is not much of a run defender. He made just 18 tackles on running plays last year, and his average tackle occurred 6.8 yards downfield. Part of this is schematic: McCourty made just nine tackles on runs, and as mentioned earlier, the Titans preferred to use Bernard Pollard or Michael Griffin in the force-defender role or other positions where defensive backs have heavy run responsibilities. But personnel dictates scheme, and Verner often gets tangled with blockers, will lunge at a running back's feet and is strictly a drag-down tackler in the open field.
Verner's reliance on bail technique leaves him vulnerable to quarterback-receiver combinations who have precision timing when connecting on routes directed toward the middle of the field. Cue Peyton Manning and Eric Decker. Manning hit Decker on several short passes against Verner using his usual "throw the ball before the receiver even thinks about making his cut" routine. Decker then used a double-move perfectly designed to exploit Verner's coverage style to score a 24-yard fourth-quarter touchdown. Decker cut inside twice on the route: a subtle move at first to gain position on Verner, then a skinny post between Verner and the safety. When a cornerback rarely presses and uses bail technique often, he leaves himself vulnerable to precision route adjustments.
Manning and his receivers can do this sort of thing against most defenses, of course, and Verner also broke up several passes in the Broncos game. But Manning exposed some of the give-and-take that comes with a cornerback opening up to the outside on every play.
The biggest limitations to Verner's game are the ones already mentioned. He played almost exclusively right cornerback last year. He rarely jams and redirects at the line of scrimmage. He relies heavily on a particular coverage technique. To self-consciously spout a bit of scouting babble, Verner is not "scheme transcendent." We know how good he can be in the role the Titans asked him to play. It is not clear how good he will be in a role some other team asks him to play. At cornerback, that can be a serious issue.
Summary. The Buccaneers traded a first-round pick and change to acquire Darrelle Revis last year, then gave Revis a six-year contracted with a reported $96-million value. Revis had a fine but unspectacular season for the Buccaneers; fans and observers noted that Revis, an elite man-to-man cover corner before his ACL injury in 2012, was playing a lot of zone in Greg Schiano's defense. Schiano is gone, but a sour taste from the Revis acquisition lingers: Lovie Smith prefers Cover-2 defensive concepts, and rumors are flying that Revis is available for the right price.
Nnamdi Asomugha was the biggest prize in the Eagles' 2011 Dream Team treasure haul: a two-time All-Pro with prototypical size, and a cornerback so notorious among opposing quarterbacks that he rarely appeared on stat sheets, because his receivers never came anywhere near the ball. The 6-foot-3 Asomugha was most successful as a press-coverage man-to-man corner, but the Eagles spent most of 2011 experimenting with what appeared to be three or four different defensive philosophies at the same time. Asomugha looked lost in zone coverage, then developed bad habits when given back man-to-man responsibilities. By 2012, he was an overpaid bust with what looked like a flagging interest in playing his position. Last year, he could not stick as a 49ers nickel defender.
Asomugha was 30 when the Eagles acquired him, while Revis was coming off a major injury last year. Verner is young and healthy. But the difficulties Revis and Asomugha encounter when changing schemes demonstrates just how difficult it is to separate players from their systems, even at cornerback, a position that appears superficially to be all about isolated one-on-one matchups. If a technically flawless defender like Revis or size-athleticism-experience monster like Asomugha can suddenly tail off when asked to do something slightly different, what happens to a smaller, less gifted, less experienced player whose game revolves around some highly-tailored parameters?
That's the Verner issue: If his next employer asks him to line up on the left side, press his receivers and knife in to defend the run, they are almost certain to be disappointed. Teams with those expectations probably won't pursue Verner, though coach-to-scout-to-general-manager miscommunications happen all the time. (The 2011 Eagles were a good example.) Even if a coach's changes are minor, it could have a major impact on a player whose skillset is rather clearly defined.
The good news for Verner is that he is unlikely to come with Revis-Asomugha-sized expectations, because his reputation is not at their level. A slightly more modest contract, and a little less name recognition, will keep fans from expecting Deion Sanders or Ronnie Lott to appear on the field and provide non-stop highlights. In the correct scheme, Verner should continue to provide Pro Bowl-caliber cornerback play.
Verner will have plenty of suitors, as befits a young star at a critical position. He will make a team very happy, so long as that team's expectations are manageable. No one cornerback is an instant solution to a problematic pass defense, but in the right environment and scheme, Verner can be a major part of a solution.
The smart teams know what to expect. And now, so do you and I.