Akayleb Evans can be a very good NFL cornerback. That’s not as spicy of a take as it seems for a fourth-round corner. I “can be” an astronaut, but the path to my going for a space walk is nearly impossible. So, what’s the path to Evans becoming a genuine NFL starting cornerback? That’s the central question in anyone’s draft analysis.
Evans spent most of his career at Tulsa before transferring to Missouri as a graduate in 2021. He also owns a pet rabbit, which is vital information.
The first thing anyone can look up about Evans is his prototypical size. He’s 6’2″ and close to 200 lbs. If you could dream up a corner in a lab, he’d be around that size with a 1.54 second 10-split and a broad jump over 10’. If you can do that at 197 lbs., you’ll check every team’s athletic thresholds.
On its own, this does not make anyone a good prospect. But it’s a box to check before moving on to the tape. So let’s see how this size and length play out on the field.
The first thing that popped out to me when watching every Evans game I could get my hands on was his variety of techniques from a press alignment. Press coverage is a true battleground between the receiver and cornerback in football. There is no cushion. there is often a window before a safety can come to help you. It’s just you and your opponent. You’re exposed to every release trick that receiver has, and he is exposed to every trick you have to jam him.
So watching Evans and seeing all of the different ways that he can win in this situation is very exciting. He didn’t come up against the highest level of competition at Tulsa and Missouri. But if you watch closely and focus on Evans instead of his opponent, you can see that he has a very diverse toolbox.
Evans played off coverage sometimes, but he often didn’t need to at Tulsa. He played a lot of cover 2, meaning he had a flat responsibility. Anything deep would become the safety’s job, so Evans could play with no regard for the deep play or double move. That helps to be more aggressive in press and allowed him to hone a number of techniques. At Mizzou, his efficacy from press didn’t diminish much, at least not in the games that I watched. Mizzou played more straight man-to-man coverage, which tested Evans’ skills more. He passed the tests.
What we’ve discussed so far is already enough of a résumé to make for an enticing draft prospect. A good-sized corner with adequate, if not exciting athleticism and polished technique from press is a great fit for the Minnesota Vikings’ defense.
Footwork is one of the most difficult parts of cornerback play. A sufficiently bursty receiver can get separation by kicking into an extra gear right as a cornerback has to transition from a backpedal to a full-on sprint. When in that sprint, a corner is often called “in phase.” Their ability to get in and out of phase smoothly is one of the major things that separates the men from the boys.
Watch Evans, top of the screen, in this particular rep. Watch his hips flip forward and backward without losing any speed. Look at how each step has its purpose with no wasted motion. And at the top of the receiver’s route, watch Evans slam on the brakes and close down. If you were the quarterback, think about where the best throwing window is in this route, and notice that there’s never a good one.
It’s very rare to find a misstep in Evans’ tape. It’s very clean coverage an exciting amount of the time. So why’d this kid fall to the fourth round? There are two major issues that simply must be fixed before Evans can be trusted on an NFL field. They’re bad enough, as they are, to be dealbreakers. But that doesn’t doom Evans forever. They’re just hurdles to clear.
First off, we have to talk about Evans’ grabbing habit. A lot of young corners come into the NFL with hand discipline issues. College referees call defensive holding much looser than NFL referees do, so youngsters have to adapt. But Evans’ grabbing problem is more debilitating than your average rookie’s.
Watch the below compilation, and think like a referee. Would you call Evans for holding on any of these plays? Half of them? All of them?
This is way too frequent on Evans’ tape. It is omnipresent enough that, as a coach, I wouldn’t feel comfortable putting Evans on the field until I’ve exhausted at least two other options. If this isn’t fixed, it will place Evans squarely at the bottom of the depth chart. That’s not acceptable for a fourth-round pick, so we have to see if it’s fixable.
I have some good news!
Coaches have been working grabby hands out of young corners since the dawn of time. This isn’t uncharted territory. And with Evans, it’s a fixable issue. When a corner grabs his receiver, it’s something of a crutch. If you can’t cover straight up, you’ll get your hands on the man and hope you don’t get caught. In college, you get away with this so much that it can become a woven-in aspect of your game. If you can’t cover without grabbing, then fixing your grabbing issue might expose other underlying flaws that need to be fixed themselves, protracting your development arc.
Re-watch the above compilation and ask yourself if Evans needed to grab on any of those reps. That’s a subjective and speculative question, but to me, it looks like he had proper positioning throughout most if not all of them. That means it’s just a matter of breaking the grabby habit. That’s a much easier task than with corners that need to grab to survive.
Further, there are plenty of good coverage reps where Evans doesn’t have to grab at all. Here’s a sampling, some of which we have already gone over. I wouldn’t call any of these for holding by NFL standards (some contact is allowed).
The seeds are there. He just needs to be consistent about it. Whether or not Evans can do that will probably decide if he is a successful NFL player or not. Only time will tell.
There is one other issue that may hold Evans back from getting into the corner rotation. It’s more subtle than his grabbing issue, and some coaches might not even mind it that much. But it did lead to some explosive plays at his expense, so let’s talk about run awareness.
Evans is not a bad run defender. He gets bullied around by bigger players, which is to be expected at a size disadvantage, but he can shed blocks well enough and generally knows where he is supposed to be in the run fit. He’s a good enough tackler for a cornerback. This wouldn’t even make the breakdown if it weren’t for one simple, recurring issue. Evans gets tunnel vision.
Most cornerbacks are told to play the pass first unless the alignment places them in the box or otherwise requires them to be a part of the run puzzle. But on the outside, your responsibility is coverage until run plays are declared fully. Don’t ever bite on run action, even if it means you are late to actual runs. Lateness is usually fine, but Evans is extraordinarily late. He covers his assigned man well downfield, several seconds after the ball is handed off and the play is declared. At times, it even causes him to abandon his run responsibilities.
To clarify, let me break down that last one.
Run defense will always be a tertiary thing for cornerbacks. His coverage ability is the most important thing here. But this is a flaw to exploit, and that makes him difficult to trust. Say I put Evans as the fourth outside corner. Say one of Patrick Peterson, Andrew Booth, or Cam Dantzler gets injured, and another is fatigued from consecutive deep routes in man coverage. Can you really put Evans in as he is right now?
Were I an offensive coordinator, and I saw Evans trot onto the field, I’d tell my receivers to start running faux post routes on every run play. It’s like a free elimination of a potential tackler. And that’s not a difficult exploit to set up. Just put a receiver alone on Evans, run a toss to that side, and tell the receiver to fake a route. That’ll give you an outside run with no force player, which is a reliable way to generate explosive gains. No defense wants to let the run game be that effective.
This is not a difficult fix, either. Evans just needs to learn to read what he sees in his periphery a bit. He needs to see his teammates all fitting the run, or that nobody else is in coverage, and get his head turned. I wouldn’t want to distract him from coverage on actual plays. Just be able to notice when the offense is luring him out of his responsibility.
If Evans can fix this and his grabbing issue, he might have a higher ceiling than some of the corners that went in the first round. That is a tall order in a player’s rookie season, though. As Evans acclimates to the heightened intensity of the NFL, an entirely new verbiage system, and mightily increased level of competition, there might not be time to iron out these kinks. If they can’t, he might have to sit on the bench. But if he can, look out.