The Arizona Cardinals have made two selections through the first two days of the NFL Draft, and both players come with significant risk factors.
On Thursday, the Cardinals made Ole Miss product Robert Nkemdiche their first round choice with the 29th overall pick, and on Friday, the team turned to Texas A&M cornerback Brandon Williams late in the third round of the draft.
Nkemdiche's risk factors have as much to do with his off the field history as they do with his on the field performance, but Williams risk factors are almost exclusively related to development as a cornerback.
The Cardinals drafted the 5-foot-11 cornerback with the 92nd overall pick despite Williams having just one season of experience playing the position at the collegiate level. Williams began his college career as a running back, as the former 5-star recruit signed with the Oklahoma Sooners out of high school.
After transferring to Texas A&M, Williams continued to play in the backfield, but ultimately switched positions prior to his final collegiate season. Though Williams' production at the college level doesn't stack up with most of his counterparts in the 2016 draft class because of inexperience, he was a leader and team captain for the Aggies.
Entering this year's draft, general manager Steve Keim had selected 23 players out of the college ranks during his tenure, and 17 of those players were team captains in college. While Nkemdiche wasn't necessarily regarded as a team leader, Williams managed to earn a title as team captain despite receiving a relatively small amount of playing time prior to his senior season.
The selection of Williams shows once again that the Cardinals are banking on the culture the team has established within its organization to help the prospect develop into an NFL-caliber corner.
- Unlike Nkemdiche who grew up as a defensive lineman, Williams is relatively new to the cornerback position so there isn't as much film to grade him on. With that being said, Williams' speed jumps out right away. We watched quite a bit of Texas A&M against Alabama in reviewing Williams' play and he possesses a great burst when changing direction. Williams' speed is his most important asset, and it's probably the number one reason he climbed draft boards and was taken ahead of cornerbacks who have more of a natural feel for the position.
- Williams' ability to sink his hips and accelerate out of a backpedal is another great asset, because this is technical aspect of playing cornerback that doesn't come naturally to some players who might be more instinctive and do a better job dissecting plays. Williams is often late to react to what's going on around him and sometimes appears overwhelmed, but he was able to neutralize some of the slow reaction times with quick bursts that allowed him to make up a yard or two on a receiver in coverage.
- A test of a player's raw potential as a cornerback is whether or not they have the athleticism and frame to keep up with receivers on vertical routes, and Williams was born with the size and speed to do this. However, slant routes and comeback routes clearly troubled him against Alabama's Calvin Ridley, and Williams' reaction times were consistently late. If Ridley were catching passes from an NFL quarterback, Williams would have been burned on a number of occasions. Fortunately for Williams, he wasn't exposed as much because the timing between quarterback and receivers was off a bit for Alabama's offense.
- Williams really struggled against the run last season and does not have a technical approach to cutting off outside rushing lanes. Williams consistently overran his lane as a secondary contain player and allowed backs to cut underneath him and run for big gains. On a number of plays, Williams didn't demonstrate the footwork and technique necessary to approach the line of scrimmage that would have allowed him to make a tackle because he was out of position and running too upright. This makes Williams an easy target for lead blockers looking to seal the edge, and Williams often ended up on his back as a result.
- Williams is a project in terms of his feel for the game, and this could slow his development and neutralize his speed. The Cardinals defensive scheme is demanding on its defensive backs because the team blitzes more frequently than most NFL teams and cornerbacks are playing more variations of coverage than they ever have before. This learning curve challenges players who still need to learn the finer points of playing defensive back, and it's difficult to put a timetable on how quickly Williams will be able to adjust. As players navigate the development process, they are sometimes so caught up in learning and making the right play that they aren't moving at full speed, and that's going to be a key factor in Williams' progression. If he maintains his speed and athleticism while picking up the scheme and coaching points, Williams has a really high ceiling. Nevertheless, it may take Williams a lot longer to reach his ceiling because he's so new to the position.
- Picking Williams is another example of the Cardinals' front office demonstrating immense confidence in its coaching staff. Williams has natural abilities like his burst when he changes direction, but based on his film, he looks like a two-to-three year project. If he pans out, it's a testament to Williams' character and the Cardinals' instruction, but right now, this does not look like a pick made with the immediate future in mind.
Williams admitted after Friday's draft that he did not anticipate being selected this early in the draft. However, the Cardinals have put a premium on finding elite athletes and college team captains in recent years, and Williams certainly fits the bill.