With the regular season just around the corner, we’re going to take a look at some more of the Jets’ offseason acquisitions, continuing today with Nate Hairston, who the Jets agreed to send a 2020 sixth round pick to the Colts for in a trade announced on Wednesday.
Hairston is a 25-year old cornerback who was a fifth round pick out of Temple in 2017. He has started 11 games in two seasons, both with the Indianapolis Colts. Hairston has 65 tackles, two sacks and one interception in his career so far.
After a redshirt year, Hairston began his college career as a wide receiver, catching 20 passes for 150 yards in his first two seasons. He made a good start to his sophomore year, leading the team with seven catches in the season opener, but didn’t play much after that.
In 2016, Hairston converted to cornerback and recorded 11 tackles and a pass defensed in a reserve role.
However, in 2017, he emerged as a starter out of camp and posted 27 tackles, three passes defensed and two interceptions. He was considered a developmental prospect, but his stock rose with a good week at the East-West Shrine Game and he was considered a possible late round pick.
The Colts drafted Hairston in the fifth round and he competed for a role with them in camp, seeing a lot of action as their nickelback during the season. He started four games and ended the season with 36 tackles, five passes defensed, two sacks and an interception.
He began the 2018 season as a starter but was benched halfway through the season and didn’t play much in the second half. He ended the season with 29 tackles and just one pass defensed.
Hairston was on the bubble with the Colts in camp this year, so the cornerback-needy Jets were prepared to part with a late pick in 2020 to acquire him.
Now let’s take a look at what Hairston brings to the table, divided into categories.
Hairston has average size, length and athletic ability pretty much across the board. He ran a 4.52 in the 40-yard dash at the scouting combine. His three cone drill was slightly above average, perhaps indicating better than usual agility for someone who isn’t a smaller player.
Tellingly, Hairston played mostly in the slot in his pretty solid rookie year, but was on the outside last year as he struggled.
However, that may actually be less of a factor than the defensive scheme changes the team made prior to the 2018 season.
In both roles, he was employed both in off-coverage and press coverage up at the line.
We’ll start here because the book on Hairston is that he’s decent in man coverage but struggles in zone. Of course, the problem with that was that the Colts went to more of a zone-based scheme last season, which explains some of his struggles.
For once, the book on him is pretty accurate, as on the majority of plays where he gets beaten seem to be a case of him making some kind of mistake in terms of his positioning or taking a false step and being unable to recover, rather than the receiver out-physicalling him, or gaining separation by running a route he can’t stay with.
Let’s work our way backwards from the game where Hairston made his final start of 2018. He was benched after this play and played less than 10 defensive snaps in the second half of the season.
A few weeks prior to that, he made a similar mistake on a play against the Jets where they faked a receiver screen and Chris Herndon bluffed a block then leaked down the field for an easy touchdown.
All told, there are quite a few examples of Hairston dropping into zone coverage and either passing his man off too early or being too late to react to someone coming over into his area of the field.
Still, it’s not just in space that he has issues. On this play, the offense operates out of a bunch formation and you can see the defensive backs trying to communicate with one another before the snap. Hairston goes with the initial movement of the wrong player and by the time he reacts, it’s too late.
It’s at this point that we need to remind ourselves that he’s a converted receiver who is relatively new to the position. Perhaps that means he could improve this aspect of his game. In the short term, though, he should mainly be employed in such a way as to hopefully not be exposed to too many situations where he has to read and react and can just focus on a man cover assignment.
Hairston does seem to fare better when given more man coverage assignments. His completion percentage allowed increased from 64 percent to almost 80 percent when the Colts moved to their zone-based scheme and he also allowed three more yards per catch.
Here’s an example of what he can do on a man coverage assignment from a preseason game; Blanket coverage in the red zone, leading to an interception.
He is generally physical and competitive in coverage and displays good burst in closing. When he entered the NFL he brought with him a reputation as someone who doesn’t get beaten deep with the longest completion he surrendered at Temple being just 31 yards. He’s carried that into the NFL as well.
As a further sign of his struggles last season, Hairston only broke up one pass in his seven starts. However, he had shown some pretty good ball skills in his rookie year.
One thing that’s apparent is that he has extremely active hands, often fighting to pry the ball loose from the receiver all the way to the ground. His history as a wide receiver also gives him a natural ability to go after the ball on contested catches.
However, getting his head turned and locating the football on deep passes may be an area he needs to work at.
Hairston is a very physical cornerback, who plays it close to the vest in terms of how much contact he makes without drawing a flag.
So far, he’s stayed just on the right side of that line, as he’s only been flagged once for pass interference and twice for holding. However, there were at least a couple of defensive highlights that could easily have drawn a flag.
Bear in mind also that any cornerback who in the past was physical but just about able to get away with it might find they become a potential liability now that coaches can challenge pass interference penalties.
As noted, Hairston has played some press coverage, but his technique needs some work. This play actually ended with his only regular season interception at the NFL level, but you can see clearly how he whiffs on the jam to allow a clean inside release and then gets doubly lucky when the receiver slips and the ball rebounds to him.
Hairston seems to be a solid tackler, who will break down in the open field, can close on the ball at speed and wraps up securely.
He’s only missed a few tackles at the NFL level, but this one was particularly costly because it led to a 50-yard gain.
He is yet to force a fumble in preseason, regular season or postseason action and didn’t in college either. However, with his active hands, this might be something he is capable of having some success with.
Hairston shows some willingness to get involved in run support and also showed some growth in that area, as he contributed more in 2018 despite playing fewer snaps. You’d also usually expect an outside corner to be involved in fewer running plays than a slot cornerback.
His tackling ability and physicality come in handy in this role and he’s shown some good promise on plays like this.
Hairston didn’t really blitz much last season, but blitzed from the slot a few times a game in his rookie year and had some decent success generating pressure, including a couple of sacks.
Again his ability to close and make secure tackles are ideal for this role.
Hairston was a good special teamer in college. He had played on most units, including as a gunner, and had five special teams tackles in his senior year alone and then another one in the East-West game. He also created some pressure coming off the edge on a couple of field goals and fielded one kickoff, which he returned 12 yards.
At the NFL level, he saw plenty of action but didn’t contribute much until they made him a primary gunner at the end of last year. He had three tackles and two missed tackles in that role over the course of the last two regular season games and the two postseason games that followed.
Hairston admits that the move to cornerback also required an attitude change from him in order to be successful. He had been suspended for three games for missing class by Matt Rhule during his sophomore year.
Since then, he’s shown a good attitude and work ethic and has been praised for his all-out effort, which is evident on this play.
Hairston has had a few injuries, but nothing serious, as he’s only missed five games in two years. He missed one game with a quad injury and another two with a concussion in 2017 and one each with a hamstring injury and an ankle injury in 2018. Reports also indicated he had a groin issue, but that appears to be inaccurate.
As a freshman in college, Hairston also missed about a month with an ankle injury, but that’s his most serious injury to date.
As noted, Hairston is clearly better suited to man coverage assignments. The Jets should have good familiarity with what he can do because new assistant general manager Rex Hogan was with the Colts when they drafted him.
He was in camp with recent Jets’ addition Derrick Kindred this summer, so that might be someone who can help him to get used to Gregg Williams’ scheme. He’s also been teammates with the likes of Arthur Maulet, Henry Anderson and Tarell Basham.
The addition of Hairston is another depth move for the Jets rather than an immediate solution to their potential need to upgrade their starters. However, he’s still a young player who may not have maxed out his potential yet.
Some of Hairston’s film is very encouraging and he could potentially thrive in the right kind of role. His ability to play the slot is also a bonus. However, there are still some signs of rawness. Hopefully, the Jets can continue to coach him up and he’ll continue to grow.
The Jets wouldn’t have used a draft pick on a player that isn’t going to be on the final roster, so you can ink him into the final 53 regardless of whether or not he plays on Thursday night. For now, though, he might be the fourth or fifth cornerback, which will hopefully afford the Jets some time to get him up to speed before they actually need to use him in meaningful action.