Minkah Fitzpatrick has the versatility. Josh Jackson has the big takeaway numbers. Denzel Ward has the flashy speed. But the best pure cornerback in the 2018 NFL draft just might be Louisville’s Jaire Alexander.
Alexander, who turns 21 this week, is projected as a second-round pick despite showing first-round ability. After seeing time in a reserve role in 12 games as a freshman, Alexander burst on the scene with a second-team all-Atlantic Coast Conference sophomore season. That year, Alexander put up a stat line that included 39 tackles, five interceptions, nine pass breakups, and a forced fumble. Alexander, named a preseason All-American corner, was poised to repeat that performance as a junior but suffered a knee injury on a punt return in the season opener. After missing a month with that injury, Alexander then missed two more games with a broken hand. However, even in a mostly lost season, Alexander didn’t miss a beat when he was able to get on the field. Pro Football Focus ranked Alexander as the top cornerback statistically with a nation’s leading 17.7 passer rating allowed. In 148 coverage snaps, Alexander allowed just five receptions for 43 yards, while making plays on six of those passes with an interception and five pass breakups.
Alexander plays with the aggressiveness and swagger that has been missing from the Bears’ secondary since Charles Tillman was in his prime. In a league full of diva wide receivers and trash talking cornerbacks, Alexander fits right in as he’s never afraid to let his opponent know when he shuts them down.
Jaire Alexander is such a troll and I love it. pic.twitter.com/KfDuwHivcQ
— The Mick Nartin™ (@themicknartin) February 2, 2018
Listed at 5’11”, 192 pounds, Alexander has adequate size to play both outside and in the slot. While not having elite size, Alexander plays much bigger than his height suggests and doesn’t appear to be overmatched against big receivers (as shown above). Alexander also displays the speed and agility to run with speed receivers. On October 1, 2016, Alexander put all these skills on display in a top-five showdown against rival Clemson. Versus the eventual national champion Tigers, Alexander intercepted passes thrown to 6’5” Mike Williams, speedster Deon Cain, and forced a fumble on tight end Jordan Leggett. Both picks came off of the 2017 12th overall pick, Deshaun Watson.
Here, Alexander takes advantage of a pair of top picks from the 2017 draft. He baits Watson into throwing to what looks like an open receiver, but Alexander closes quickly to undercut the slant and take the ball away from the 7th overall pick, Williams. The throw is behind the receiver, but Alexander is in position to run through and make a play on the ball even if thrown perfectly.
One of the telltale signs of a cornerback with good footwork and ball skills is his ability to return kicks, punts in particular. Alexander was his team’s primary punt returner as a freshman and in his big sophomore year. He was removed from punt returns this year only after his injury in the opener because of his value to the Cardinals’ defense. Here’s an example of what he can do with the ball in his hands.
Jaire Alexander : 2 punt returns for 130 yards (69-yard punt return for a TD. 1st in his career) pic.twitter.com/oQ1lowfiGd
— Lee Harvey (@MusikFan4Life) September 17, 2016
Alexander is at his best in off-man coverage when he can keep one eye on the quarterback. This makes him susceptible to pump fakes and double moves, but he has the recovery speed to make up for any minor missteps. In man coverage, Alexander likes to play underneath the receiver and bait the quarterback into throwing in his direction so he can undercut the route and make a play on the ball.
In zone coverage, Alexander shows great instincts and understanding of route concepts. Below he leaves his receiver to pick off an overthrown pass. The play is designed to hit the receiver in the zone behind the linebacker and in front of the safety. But in this case, Alexander realizes he has safety help and reacts quickly to close what the quarterback thinks should be an open window. He even shows off a toe-tap, further demonstrating his elite ball skills.
While Alexander doesn’t necessarily shy away from contact, tackling is certainly not his strong suit. He can shed blocks of receivers and attack the ball carrier. However, more often than not, he looks to dive and throw a shoulder instead of wrapping up for a secure tackle.
NFL Comp: Chris Harris.
Alexander’s ability to do everything well is why he gets such a lofty comparison. Alexander can line up outside across from a number one receiver. He can run all over the field with the smaller, shiftier slot receivers. He can play man coverage on tough tight ends and not be overwhelmed by the inevitable size disadvantage. He has experience in press coverage, off man and zone with varying degrees of success in each.
In Chicago, Alexander could play any role defensive coordinator Vic Fangio would ask of him. The Bears top three cornerbacks are potential free agents this offseason. Adding Alexander could allow the team to upgrade the position with a guy that can help an already good defensive unit improve in their weakest aspect, generating turnovers. Alexander is a top ten talent, who thanks to injury questions and lack of elite size could be had on the second day of the draft. The Bears are in a great position where they could potentially get the top non-quarterback offensive player with the eighth overall pick and shore up their defensive backfield by taking the best cornerback in the draft in the second.