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2020 NFL Draft Prospect Cornerback C.J. Henderson

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Speed, quickness and confidence

Florida v Missouri Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

When C. J. Henderson was in high school he was a dominant player as a running back on offense and as a cornerback on defense. Playing at Miami Columbus High School he was a highly recruited player. He had 17 offers to Division I programs. As a running back alone he was in a league by himself. As a junior he had 100 rushing attempts for 932 yards and 12 TDs. That is 9.3 yards a carry playing against some of the best schools in the state of Florida where football is like a religion.

He would have had more scholarship offers, but many assumed he would attend the University of Miami, a school that was close to home and dear to his heart. He committed to the U of M about 18 months before he would attend his first college class. His father Chris Henderson Sr. said it was a soft commitment, “He really wanted to commit and I told him it’s okay, just let it be known he still wants to look. But that’s where he wants to be,”

C. J. (which stands for Chris Jr.) knew all the college recruiters on a first name basis. You would think with as much fanfare he was getting it would go to his head. His high school coach Chris Merritt had seen it all before, “These kids are told they’re the best things since peanut butter by every college in the country, and the ego grows, but not C.J. he never developed an ego.”

C. J. Henderson is a quiet kid. He never changed at Florida either. Safety Nick Washington said, “He’s a quiet guy, an outlier but his game speaks for itself.”

Remembering back when he first coached C. J. coach Merritt laughed when he said, “For two years I didn’t know he had a voice.” Yet he still dominated on the field; quietly by letting his play do his talking. “He’s a top one-percent type of athlete I could’ve put him at guard. He still would’ve been the best athlete on the field.”

C.J. did something that no freshman had ever done at the University of Florida. It was something Vernon Hargreaves, Joe Haden, and Lito Sheppard never did. He returned an INT for a pick six as in consecutive games .

Looking back coach Merritt saw the same kid he always knew. “He’s not your flashy, arrogant type of guy,” Merritt said. “Even when you saw those two pick-6s, there wasn’t a whole lot of celebration. He stopped, gave the ball to the referee and went back to the sideline. That’s just the way he is.”

Henderson finished his college career with 92 tackles (65 solo), 6 interceptions, 22 pass breakups, 4.0 sacks and 7.0 tackles for loss in 34 games. He did all that rather quietly.

C. J. has the size, speed, and oily hips you need as a lockdown corner in the NFL. His height gives him the long speed that allows him to cover any receiver down the field. He has good length that he uses to his advantage with some unique coverages. He is strong enough to play great press coverage, but he can also play off man or zone. He is very sedate. He doesn’t get rattled. He also plays with a smoothness you can see.

Here he is against Bryan Edwards, the best receiver on South Carolina, in straight man to man coverage. Edwards is a load at about 6’ 3” and 210 lbs with good speed and great length.

Henderson is playing over the inside shoulder of Edwards in an attempt to coax him into an outside release. By doing so Edwards has one direction to go with Henderson staying between him and the QB. The pass must go over Henderson if it is intended for Edwards. If Henderson allows an inside release then his receiver would cross his face and have a myriad of directions to take him in a trail (catch up) position.

Edwards takes the bait. He releases outside. Then Henderson starts to squeeze him closer to the sideline which gives the QB less room to fit his pass into. When Edwards turns to look for the ball Henderson does as well. Now he is in perfect position to make a play on the ball. In the end it’s an incomplete pass.

The following year against the same team and the same player Henderson is in a match up zone coverage with the Gators protecting a slim lead.

Henderson gives Edwards a little push at the beginning of the sequence then lets him go as he settles into his coverage. He is watching the RB to see whether he will venture into the area but also the QB’s eyes which will take him to the ball. This is a heads up play as he jumps in front for the INT. You can see he is the least excited player on the field. It’s just like the way he plays, quiet yet confident.

This next play Henderson is in off man coverage against Tavin Richardson, a tall (6’ 3” 207 lbs) receiver from Kentucky. Knowing your opponent is a key to good coverage, and Henderson knows he is faster than Richardson. So even though he is in off coverage he doesn’t have to turn to run when the Richardson comes off the line fast like he is running a deep route.

When Richardson runs the 8 yard curl pattern, Henderson is right in position. Watch the quick feet, the rapid change of direction, and the good length to put his hand in there to break up the pass. If the QB is just a split second late with the ball Henderson gets both hands around, and he is running the opposite way with the INT.

This next clip is against Emanuel Hall of Missouri who is tall (6’ 3”) with blazing speed. Henderson is a confident kid who can come out slowly, reading the play against a big speedy guy and a QB in Drew Lock who has a Howitzer for an arm.

Once Henderson realizes this is no curl pattern he gets on his horse to remain with the receiver but he also maintains the ability to see the QB as he is running. This ball is high, which is a good thing for Missouri because if the ball is a foot lower this is a possible INT for Henderson. That good length came in handy again which is why it is so important for DBs. A team like the Seahawks will not draft a corner with arms less than 32” or 32.5” arms. It’s that important.

This next clip again shows the importance of knowing your opponent. Henderson is in straight man to man with WR Nate Brown who is 6’ 3 210 lbs. Brown is a big strong kid, but Henderson knows he is quicker and more agile than his opponent. Henderson makes a mistake by not putting his hands on the receiver then by allowing him to cross his face.

Henderson has the quick feet and the great change of direction ability to stay in the hip pocket of the receiver on the dig route without touching him. This is all speed, quickness, and length.

Henderson also is a very stealthy blitzer. He will not give away his intentions before the snap which is the key to that corner blitz (that and speed).

All 4 of Henderson’s sacks and about half of his tackles for loss came on successful corner blitzes. You can why. Henderson lines up as he always does in man coverage so there is no hint that he is coming on the blitz. He doesn’t even take a peek at the QB. e just lines up then takes off at the snap. Nicely done.

This next clip is just a heads up play by Henderson as he knows where he is on the field and uses that knowledge to make sure the pass is incomplete.

Henderson is going up against another big receiver in Auburn’s Seth Williams who is 6’ 3” 210 lbs. Like before, Henderson pushes the receiver closer and closer to the sideline. This time the throw is high and caught by the receiver. Henderson uses the sideline. He doesn’t jump for a ball he can’t reach, which would himself out of the play. He just allows the receiver to jump for the ball then just pushes him out of bounds while he is still in the air.

On this next clip the Gator’s have their collective backs to the goal line with Henderson playing off coverage against Jeff Thomas of Miami. Henderson is playing off Thomas’s inside shoulder not wanting him to cross his face even though he has help inside.

Thomas starts to go outside then back inside to widen out the route and give himself more room. It’s a nice route. The two players collide in the end zone which makes it look like Thomas is pushing off. Yet Henderson hangs tough. He is right on the coverage. He even gets his hands inside Thomas’ hands which knocks the ball to the ground. It’s just a great effort by both players with Henderson winning this round.

These last two clips are against LSU with with Henderson going toe to toe with Joe Burrow while he is covering Justin Jefferson. This first play from 2018 is an outside release by Jefferson with Henderson running stride for stride with him.

There is mild contact with some aggressive hand fighting but all legal stuff. Again that good length of Henderson is the saving grace as he gets just a little more than a fingernail on the ball. It’s just enough to deflect ts the ball so that Jefferson can’t make the catch. It was a hard fought play that even got the normally stoic Henderson to show a little emotion.

This last play is from 2019 down in Baton Rouge with Henderson matched up with Ja’Marr Chase in Death Valley. This is a similar play. but Henderson is lined up shading Chase’s outside shoulder pushing him inside. Henderson must have expected help to be lined up like that, but there was no help to be found.

Like before it was a close battle with Henderson coming out ahead by virtue of his length. It takes a lot of confidence to line up against these two prolific receivers with little to no help and make the play. This was a great game, but Florida just didn’t make enough plays on offense to get the win.

Henderson has some of the best skills of any corner in this Draft even though he had a much better year in 2018 than he did in 2019.

He hurt an ankle against Tennessee-Martin and did not return to the lineup for nearly a month. He did break up 11 passes in 2019 but had no INTs when he had 6 in the two years prior. He is not the most willing tackler especially against some of the sturdier RBs when they come around the edge. His tackling as a whole lacks any technical acuity as he doesn’t wrap up and is a less than willing participant even when he is in the line of fire. This could pull him off some teams’ boards. He will need a secondary coach who is a task master and could also use a room with a strong leader, a peer like a Jamal Adams.

If Henderson had a stronger 2019 he would be a sure top 10 pick in the upcoming Draft, but the ankle injury and some reckless play led to uneven results. He has some superior traits that you can’t teach such as impressive length and speed. He needs to stay focused while using better technique rather than relying on his vast physical gifts. He has played in numerous schemes. He can dominate in any of them if he plays with intensity and desire. Henderson has Pro Bowl ability if he applies himself.

He, like all these hopefuls, needs to develop more as a pro if he expects to become a great player.

This is a player who might be available somewhere in the late first round depending on how the rest of the process goes. In a trade down situation he remains a possibility for the Jets depending on whom is available. Quite frankly I don’t see Henderson making it by Baltimore at #28 because he is their type of player, confident with speed and skill.

That is what I think.

What do you think?