Every year, I look at the Raiders new additions, both through free agency and the draft, and break down what I see are the strengths and weaknesses of each player.
This year, I am starting with recent addition, CB Tarell Brown, who jumped the bay from San Francisco to Oakland on a 1 year, $3.5 million dollar fully-guaranteed deal earlier this week.
Brown was considered one of the best defensive backs in 2012 but wasn’t as strong in 2013. He started out the season decently but suffered a rib injury and wasn’t re-inserted as a starter after healing.
I watched three San Francisco games from 2013 to get an idea of how Brown plays the game. The three games were week 3 vs. Indianapolis, week 4 at St. Louis, and week 10 vs. Carolina.
The tape shows that Brown is solid, if unspectacular, force at right corner. He doesn’t make many silly mistakes and he has the athleticism to match up against most outside receivers but he isn’t dominating even marginal receivers.
First, we’ll go over how Brown was used in the 49ers scheme. He lined up exclusively at right corner, the same side the Raiders used DJ Hayden last year.
In the three games I watched, Brown played every snap at right cornerback. He was durable and consistent. The only time he broke away from playing on the right side was shadowing his receiver to the left in man coverage.
He played some but not all special teams. Specifically, he was an up-man on punts – he tried to block one of the gunners from getting to the punt returner – and he was an edge rusher on field goal defense – he tried to get up the field to block the field goal or prevent a fake on the right side.
Brown isn’t a large cornerback – he stands only 5’10”, 193. That puts him right in line with DJ Hayden, who is the same weight and an inch taller. Both corner struggle a bit with taller, physical receivers.
Brown showcases good mechanics. He has quick feet and fluid hips. He gets into his backpedal easily and can maintain a backpedal with good speed for a good distance before he has to open his hips, turn and run.
Brown can line up opposite a receiver and stay with that receiver through-out the route. He has adequate speed to cover most receivers one on one. He did struggle to stay up with Tavon Austin of the Rams, but Austin is one of the fastest receivers in the NFL, so there isn’t any surprise in that.
Brown has average closing speed, at best, which means that if he isn’t close to the receiver when the ball is thrown, he likely won’t be there to break it up by the time the ball gets there.
He tends to prefer playing over the top of the receivers and will sacrifice underneath receptions to make sure the receiver doesn’t get past him. This strategy works perfectly for what the Raiders will ask of him, which is to cover the deep option, first, in Tarver’s bend but-don’t-break-style defense.
The fact that he sacrifices underneath routes is not a criticism, just an observation. For all defenses, it’s preferred to keep the ball in front of them.
Brown shows very good understanding of what is asked for him. It’s typically clear from how he lines up, what kind of coverage he is going to run, which is text-book form for that position.
If the cornerback is expecting help over the top from a safety, the corner will usually line up with his hips open to the quarterback and his back facing the sideline a bit. He lines up slightly outside the receiver. This allows him to drive the receiver more to the inside of the field, where the safety is helping over top. The cornerback is less concerned about giving up the deep route because he has the safety help and he will be running underneath the receiver to try to pick off the deep ball.
If the cornerback is in single-man coverage, he will typically like up square to the receiver and slightly inside. This will allow him to redirect the receiver outside of the numbers and towards the sideline. The cornerback can then use the sideline to help defend the receiver, putting the receiver between his body and the sideline and trying to force the receiver closer to the side to limit the space with which to work.
Brown was consistent with these techniques but every once in a while he would line up one way and then switch it pre-snap. This is an 8 year veteran who knows how quarterbacks and receivers read defenses and will, at times, attempt to disguise his coverage so as to lure the quarterback into an errant throw.
Brown lacks ideal instincts and timing, but does well enough with what he has in this regard. In the first game I watched, when the 49ers played the Colts, he was targeted four times in the game. The first three targets all resulted in pass interference flags because he would hit the receiver either right when the ball arrived or a fraction earlier. None of them were clear pass interferences but all of them were right in the gray area where the official must make a judgement call. In this case, all three times, Brown was flagged.
However, in other games he was able to get pass deflections off of these close-calls. In other games, the officials felt that he was arriving right at the moment the ball reached the receiver and making a legal tackle.
So, depending on the officiating crew, Brown may or may not get flagged a lot for PI. It’s certainly possible that a particularly tough crew would flag him a number of times, like the crew working the Indianapolis/San Francisco game week three in 2013.
Brown is a good tackler who tries to wrap up and who hits low to bring down the receiver or ball carrier. In the three games I watched him, only once did I see him get to a ball carrier or receiver and allow that player to get past him and that one time was when DeAngelo Williams of the Panthers had already run up through the middle of the line, untouched, and then cut outside. Williams is a load to handle, anyway, and he had a full head of steam by the time he came into Brown’s area and Brown was unable to bring him down. I have a hard time finding much fault for Brown in this, although it was a missed tackle that went for a TD.
Otherwise, however, Brown either was able to deflect passes or hold the receivers to no yards after the catch. This speaks to him being a solid cornerback who understands what is being asked of him on the outside.
Brown had no interceptions in 2013 and, in general, is not a ball-hawk cornerback. He doesn’t take a lot of risks in putting himself underneath the receiver – again, he likes to be overtop to limit the big play.
He also lacks the burst to be able to undercut a route suddenly so that he can pick off a ball in flight. Typically, his strategy is to make sure he’s right on his man so he can break up the pass before it gets to the receiver.
Brown isn’t the most physical receiver and big, strong outside receivers or tight ends who line up outside and get the best of him in contested ball situations.
Still, he looks like a good gamble for the one year contract. The Raiders are not over-paying him and he is a similar player to DJ Hayden and can help Hayden learn what it takes to be a successful cornerback in the NFL.
Because Brown has manned the right side of the field over his career, my guess is that Brown stays on the right side and the Raiders move Hayden to the left, where they hope to have an above average starting tandem in 2014.
Here are two examples to show what the tape showed.
In the first, Brown is lined up on the right defensive side and he's backed off the ball a bit:
Brown has no safety help over the top so his top priority is to make sure the receiver doesn't get into the end zone on a TD. This is why he's backed off the line of scrimmage so far. When the ball is snapped, Brown goes further back by dropping into a back pedal:
Because Brown is so concerned about making sure he isn't beat deep for a TD, he lets the underneath route go free. The receiver stops and turns for the ball, and Brown is left scrambling to cover:
Brown cannot get back to the receiver in time and instead can only stop the receiver from getting any yards after the catch. The result of the catch is still a first down:
Here is an example of the solid coverage that Brown can provide, however. In this example, he is, again, lined up on the right side of the defense:
At the snap, Brown goes into his backpedal and keeps the receiver in front of him:
As Brown turns his hips, the receiver breaks inside. The receiver is heading slightly inwards and is then going to turn and cross the field:
Brown has good enough speed and fluidity of motion that he's able to get turned, recover the gap, and close on the receiver. The ball is in the air at this time (arrow):
When the ball arrives, Brown is close enough to make a play on it. He bats this ball down for an incomplete pass:
Brown will not be lock-down cornerback but he does the right things to maximize his talent and plays smart on every play. The Raiders signed him for only 1 year at $3.5 million so they haven't locked themself into a contract they regret if Brown regresses on the other side of the Bay.
On the other hand, if he performs well, Brown could be a very good find for the Silver and Black. He looks to be much more solid than either Tracy Porter or Mike Jenkins from a year ago and much much more solid than Ron Bartell and Shawntae Spencer from 2012.