Playing defense in the NFL is more than just athletic ability and scheme, it's also about attitude. The best defenses in the NFL over the last few years have had identities as tough, physical units that have swagger and players that assert themselves at every level of the field. Players like Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor, JJ Watt and Josh Norman are great players who amplify their skill set by carrying themselves with confidence and playing every snap at one million miles an hour. Needless to say, you want guys on your team who play like that.
It is a rarity to find cornerbacks who not only can hit, but love doing it. Marlon Humphrey plays every snap like its his last and brings the hit to offensive players like they said something rude about his family before the game.
It would be a bad idea to bring up the bloodline of Humphrey considering his dad, Bobby, is the all time leading rusher at Alabama and played in the NFL for the Broncos. Marlon Humphrey was raised on football and it shows in the way he plays. He is anything but a finesse player and he truly looks to bring the hit at any opportunity he can get.
Humphrey is a downhill player, a rare characterization for a cornerback, but a trait teams will love. Having the type of physicality Humphrey brings on the outside really limits an offenses ability to run to the outside and run a screen game. Also, receivers will probably make business decisions when trying to secure catches with Humphrey beading down on them.
At 6'0", 197 pounds with 32 inch arms, not only is Humphrey the prototypical size for NFL cornerbacks, but he is also a gifted athlete. His speed is evident when he is coming to make a tackle since he looks like he is shot out of a cannon, but he also shows impressive fluidity and closing speed in coverage.
This is an incredibly athletic play from Humphrey and sums up his strengths as a coverage defender. He is at his best when he can read the quarterback and use his athleticism to flow to the football. Alabama ran a lot of zone coverage that worked to Humphrey's strength because not only did it allow him to read the quarterback, it made it easier for him to come downhill to make plays in coverage and against the run.
Humphrey is an exciting, physical and athletic player, so it is easy to see why many people think so highly of him. However, he is still a bit of a project. In man coverage, a lot of technical flaws are exposed. For instance, he has a tendency to get over-aggressive when pressing at the line. While he has a lot of snaps where he will dominate a receiver with his natural strength, his propensity to lunge and give up leverage at the line can also lead to an easy release for quicker receivers.
Humphrey depends heavily on his athleticism in coverage instead of consistent footwork, something that will work in college but will give him issues against more refined and athletic players in the NFL. Humphrey, in general, is a weak man cover cornerback which is supported by the fact that he gave up four touchdowns this season in man coverage but none in zone (his two interceptions were in zone coverage). Humphrey does not do a good job getting his head turned around in man coverage and gives up receptions where he easily could have won the match up if he played the ball better.
So, Humphrey is raw in a big part of playing cornerback, but that is not to say he cannot do it. Humphrey will not turn 21 until this summer so his cerebral play as a zone and run defender is very encouraging for such an athletic player. However, Humphrey's skill set translates incredibly well to the NFL as a safety whereas he will need to endure a steeper learning curve at cornerback.
NFL Comparison: In the spirit of optimism, Marlon Humphrey could see a similar career path as Devin McCourty. McCourty came into the NFL as a similarly sized and athletic cornerback but after a few seasons made the switch to free safety where he has been one of the best in the league. The eventual crossroad that McCourty got to was deciding between being a solid cornerback or a top tier safety. For Humphrey, while giving him a shot at cornerback is certainly logical, it would not be surprising to see him make that switch in the future given the strengths in his game.
Humphrey is a very exciting player who is flashy, physical and athletic. It is hard not to love a player who is so willing to knock offensive players on their asses. It is also easy to see that Humphrey has a lot of learning to do at the position. For the Eagles, Humphrey would fit well into their off coverage philosophy and he certainly would fit the attitude that Jim Schwartz wants on defense. However, in such a deep cornerback class, it is easy to get picky about different aspects of each player given the competition they have in this draft. Humphrey has top 40 talent but his rawness still keeps him out of that top tier of cornerback prospect. It will be exciting to see him grow in the NFL, however, because he certainly has the tools to be a successful NFL player at cornerback or safety if he is able to improve.