Ahead of the 2021 NFL Draft, I dedicated the majority of my efforts profiling mid-round cornerback prospects for the Pittsburgh Steelers, 11 prospects in total, and operating under the assumption that the Steelers would ultimately choose a corner at some point in the draft. Needless to say, I found myself shocked as the team exited the draft in the absence of a cornerback selection, rather opting to roll the dice on high profile undrafted free agents in Duke’s Mark Gilbert and Michigan State’s Shakur Brown.
While Shakur Brown was able to put together an impressive COVID-shortened 2020 season as a junior, compiling 25 tackles, five interceptions, and four pass deflections in just seven games of action, the vast majority of his work came in zone coverage assignments as part of a Spartan’s scheme which relied heavily on Cover 3. Thus, in Pittsburgh’s scheme which relies on man free coverage at some of the highest rates in the league, Shakur Brown will need to display the ability to perform at a high level in man coverage from both slot and boundary alignments. For this project, I have isolated my analysis to include only Shakur Brown’s man coverage reps, which provided encouraging, albeit limited, tape as we look toward projecting his potential role on the 2021 roster.
Shakur Brown Man Coverage in the Slot
While his alignment was generally dictated based on the opposing offense’s personnel and thus changed with every weekly matchup, much of Shakur Brown’s best work from college came in his work as a slot defender. A natural playmaker when operating in underneath zone assignments, Brown also displayed the versatility to function at a high level in his man coverage assignments from the slot, deploying a variety of techniques. Below, aligned as the slot defender to the field against Michigan, Brown plays catch technique at five-yard depth, giving no ground before efficiently opening laterally to stay in phase with the slant route, putting himself in position to play the pocket had the ball not been batted down at the line of scrimmage.
In his work out of the slot, Brown consistently displayed great proficiency in protecting the sticks on possession downs and understanding where opposing offenses were likely to attack him. Working in the slot to a trips set on third down against the Wolverines, Brown shows great patience, matching the receivers tempo with a patient shuffle technique before breaking downhill efficiently and arriving to secure the tackle well short of the sticks.
While a rarity for collegiate cornerbacks, Brown enters the NFL with plenty of work pressing slot receivers, a skill which is necessary in a Pittsburgh defense which relies heavily on man coverage assignments in its sub packages. Below, against the 10th-ranked Indiana Hoosiers, Brown aligns in press man coverage with inside leverage against the slot receiver, forcing the receiver to widen his path off the snap with patient footwork before opening, squeezing the receiver to the sideline, and turning to locate the ball to secure the early interception. Note how the receiver begins the rep splitting the numbers and hashes before ending the rep well outside of the numbers, as an effective squeeze from Brown had limited the quarterback’s room to operate along the sideline, helping produce the turnover.
If Shakur Brown intends to make the Pittsburgh roster in 2021, it all starts with his ability to impress the coaching staff with his slot work in camp, as there is still a glaring hole at the slot position. Given his ability to play effective man coverage out of a variety of alignments, to go along with impressive tape in his work as a blitzer, Brown might be considered an early favorite to secure sub-package snaps working on the inside in the teams Nickel and Dime packages, helping solve the puzzle of replacing free agent departure Mike Hilton.
Shakur Brown Man Coverage on the Boundary
Although he will likely cut his teeth in the slot, Brown’s extensive work on the boundary produced some intriguing tape to suggest that despite his lack of long speed, with a 4.65 40 time which is true to his play speed, that he may be able to provide inside/outside versatility at the next level. While he can struggle at times to carry speedy receivers vertically, Brown stays patient in press coverage with smooth footwork and a disruptive punch to move receivers off their path at the line of scrimmage. Aligned to the boundary on the rep below against Iowa, Brown hops to outside leverage at the snap, disrupting the receiver with a violent off hand jam to force him inside of his intended path before transitioning to stay in phase and carry the route vertically.
Later in the same game on a third down, Brown once again aligns in press coverage to the boundary, this time taking inside leverage before squeezing the receiver to the sideline with a strong off hand jam, throttling down at the top of the route, and diving to breakup the low pass on the stop route. Once again, note how Brown’s ability to force the receiver off his landmark with patient footwork and physicality affects the throwing window.
In the red zone, Brown has a great understanding of how to use the shortened field to his advantage, often opting to intentionally play from trail technique and dare quarterbacks to make tight window throws understanding that there is limited room to attack his leverage vertically. Aligned to the boundary against Illinois, Brown misses a left hand jam at the snap, compromising his inside leverage, but quickly replaced with a right hand jam, assumes trail technique with his eyes in the backfield and high points the underthrown football at the goal line to secure a crucial red zone turnover. Whereas many young cornerbacks would panic with the ball in the air when pursuing from out of phase, Brown’s poise and ball skills consistently standout in these situations.
Simply put, some players possess a natural playmaking instinct at the cornerback position, always displaying a nose for the football. Below against Northwestern, Shakur Brown locks up a comeback on the boundary before flipping his eyes into the backfield once in phase, following the quarterback’s eyes to come off his man and melt toward an oncoming crossing route, and undercutting the route to secure an acrobatic interception. While he had already fulfilled his responsibilities on the rep, any natural playmaker understands the importance of punishing quarterbacks for errant, off-balance throws, as takeaway opportunities are often rare, and must be converted at all costs.
Overall, I found myself thoroughly impressed with Brown’s man coverage work on the boundary, causing me to believe that his potential inside/outside versatility will make him tough to keep off the 2021 Pittsburgh roster. Despite his small stature, Brown is a confident and physical player who challenges receivers at the line of scrimmage with patient footwork and physical off hand jams to dictate receivers route paths to his advantage. At the catch point, Brown possesses natural ball skills, and consistently gets his head around to convert errant throws into takeaways.
While the lack of long speed is certainly evident on tape, and likely will limit Brown’s ability to match up against burners at the next level, his patience, physicality, and above average quickness allow him to be effective out of both off and press coverage alignments. While it’s early to call my shot, I must say, I would be genuinely shocked if Shakur Brown doesn’t impress in his 2021 camp reps, and moreover, compete for immediate playing time in a sub-package role. Moreover, I would be remiss if not to mention that his zone coverage tape, a far more lengthy sample size than his man converge tape, allowed his natural playmaking instincts and ball skills to shine even brighter.