Vikings

What Jeff Gladney Brings to Mike Zimmer's Defense

Photo Credit: Kevin Jairaj (USA Today Sports)

The Minnesota Vikings lost all three of their starting cornerbacks this offseason, after Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander combined for a passer rating allowed of 111.6 in 2019 — easily one of the worst marks in the league.

So it was no surprise when the Vikings drafted Jeff Gladney in the first round of the 2020 NFL Draft. Gladney surrendered a passer rating allowed of just 59.5 over the last two years — one of the best marks in the draft class, all while shadowing opposing teams’ No. 1 receivers. As a four-year starter at TCU, he’s battle-tested and ready to start. As both a sticky man corner and a sharp-witted zone corner, he has the versatility to thrive in Mike Zimmer diverse coverages. And as a physical freak with good athletic testing, great mental makeup and elite footwork and fluidity, he has all the tools and upside to develop into a Pro Bowler down the road.

Here’s what Gladney brings to Mike Zimmer’s defense:


Shutdown Coverage

Gladney spent the last couple years at TCU shadowing opposing teams’ best receivers. When TCU played Oklahoma in 2019, CeeDee Lamb was held to just two catches for 16 yards — neither against Gladney, who only played in the second half due to a suspension. When Gladney shadowed West Virginia’s leading receiver in 2019, he gave up zero catches on five targets, with three pass breakups. When Gladney shadowed Hakeem Butler in 2018, Gladney held Butler to just two catches for 14 yards:

While shadowing 6’6″ Collin Johnson, Gladney came away with three pass breakups:

While shadowing Denzel Mims, Gladney forced four pass breakups:

So despite matching up against some of the best receivers in college football week-in and week-out, Gladney was lockdown. In fact, Gladney led the entire FBS in forced contested catches over the last two years and also posted the second-most pass breakups over that span. His completion percentage allowed over the past two years of just 41.5% is third-best in the FBS, and when you eliminate underneath throws, his completion percentage allowed on passes of 10 or more yards downfield was just 24.4% — second-best in the FBS.

Gladney takes every catch allowed personally. Just look at how frustrated he is after giving up a two-yard catch on first down:

It’s a simple short hitch; Gladney recognizes it, plants and drives on the ball, plays through the receiver’s hands and tries his darndest to claw the ball out. When the receiver manages to hang on anyway, Gladney slams the ground in frustration.

That’s a Mike Zimmer cornerback.


‘Every single trait’

After day one of the draft, Rick Spielman noted that “Zim’s pretty particular about corners” and the physical traits he demands, but then stressed that “Gladney fit every single trait we were looking for from a physical standpoint.”

If you only knew Gladney’s combine testing, you’d think he was a merely good athlete:

But a few caveats apply here: first, many teams straight-up threw out the 3-cone results from this year’s combine due to unusual circumstances leading to wonky results.

Second, while Gladney might be on the shorter side for an outside cornerback, his above-average length and 75¼” wingspan more than make up for it — which is why Gladney was able to go toe-to-toe with 6’4″ Denzel Mims, 6’5″ Hakeem Butler and 6’6″ Collin Johnson.

Third, and most importantly, Gladney ran the combine drills while suffering from a knee injury that required surgery in March. Gladney’s athletic testing when fully healthy is on another level. He ran a 4.34 40-yard dash (95th percentile among cornerbacks) at TCU the year before, and his game tape shows that same elite speed. Gladney can squat 620 pounds, bench 400 pounds and clean 400 pounds, so while his frame may be limited, he’s 191 pounds of pure muscle.

But even more exciting than Gladney’s testing numbers are his physical traits. Gladney has maybe the best hips and feet of the draft class. Just take a second to admire his piston-like footwork out of his soft press backpedal to mirror Collin Johnson downfield for this deep pass breakup:

(It’s also worth noting on this rep how well Gladney manages to stay on top of Collin Johnson with his speed and arm bars and press him to the sideline — not an easy task against a WR nearly a foot taller than you!)

Gladney’s hip fluidity might be best highlighted by his speed turns, which together with his blazing straight-line speed enable him to stick to receivers downfield like glue:

When you combine elite foot quickness and swiveling hips with 4.34 speed, you get a receiver who sticks to receivers like a horsefly in July — which is how Gladney forced tight coverage on 80% of targets 10-plus yards downfield, sixth-best in the FBS and nearly 20% above the FBS average. Add on top of that Gladney’s length, feistiness and ability to break on the ball and it’s no wonder how Gladney broke up the second-most passes of any FBS defender over the last two years.


Impressive football IQ

So Gladney’s physical traits and track record show an NFL-starting-caliber man-coverage corner, but equally exciting is Gladney’s potential as a zone-match and zone corner. Take this play against Texas:

Texas is running a smash concept designed to send Collin Johnson underneath on a quick hitch and Devin Duvernay over the top on a corner route in order to put Gladney in conflict. Gladney responds by splitting the receivers, and then right as the QB finishes his drop, Gladney takes one step up to bait the QB into throwing the corner route, then immediately sprints upfield where Gladney’s long arms break up the pass. That one play shows Gladney knows how to bait a throw and cover two receivers at once while also showing Gladney has the burst and length to close on the ball in zone.

And speaking of burst on the ball, this play from Gladney is equally impressive:

On third-and-3, Gladney is supposed to be blocked out of the picture here, but he’s able to cover both receivers on this play, jamming the outside WR and reading the quarterback to see the quick out. But what makes the play special is the burst Gladney has to break on the ball that is thrown to the other side of the WR for the third down stop — that’s that “my ball” mentality that will endear Gladney to Zimmer.

This next play showcases Gladney’s situational awareness and intelligence. It’s third-and-long, and so Baylor runs a hi-lo concept hoping to create space for a corner route over Gladney’s head:

Typically cornerbacks would play this route combination by dividing both routes, but Gladney smartly cheats up to take away the corner route and force the checkdown underneath. Gladney then closes on the back for the third-down stop.

One last note on Gladney’s football intelligence — he snuffs screens out in the blink of an eye:

You can see on tape Gladney does his homework, and once he knows where a play is going, there’s little hesitation as he snuffs plays out. That immediacy and feistiness show equally in Gladney’s run defense and screen defense, where he loves to lay the boom — perhaps a bit too much sometimes, he was ejected for this hit:


Where GLadney Could Struggle

With all Gladney’s experience and well-rounded skillset, he doesn’t have many glaring weaknesses. That said, he does have some holes to his game, and Zimmer did note that “he needs some technique work.”

The biggest knock on Gladney is his size. While Gladney is only 5’10⅛” tall, that’s not too much of a concern given his above-average length and wingspan, and given that he had no trouble shutting down Butler or notching seven pass breakups between shadowing Mims and Johnson. The bigger issue is bulk — Gladney weighed in at only 191 pounds at the combine (and even that might be a stretch as smaller players often try to add last-second water weight, et cetera, to alleviate weight concerns — TCU listed Gladney at 183 pounds). So while Gladney might be sticky as a gnat in coverage, like a gnat he’s also easily shoved aside and moved around:

That lack of oomph is most evident at the tops of routes — you can see Mims tossing Gladney like a ragdoll above — but equally concerning is Gladney’s lack of play strength during the stems of routes. Gladney is a much faster player than Collin Johnson, but Johnson’s play strength advantage allows him to force himself past Gladney, whose arm bar does nothing to stymie the route. Gladney quickly finds himself stacked and then gets boxed out and cast aside at the catch point.

And the reason that lack of play strength is Gladney’s biggest knock is it’s not easily fixable: At 5’10” and with Gladney’s powerlifting numbers, his strength and frame are likely close to maxed out. Refining the technique will only get you so far when you’re a welterweight up against heavyweights.

Gladney does mitigate the concerns with just how feisty and physical he is: on this play, he does a good job pressing the receiver so far to the boundary that the WR gets flagged for going out of bounds, this play shows he was capable of staying on top of Collin Johnson’s fade route with lightning quick footwork, and this play shows Gladney shutting Johnson down on an end zone fade with pure physicality through a hard jam. But it’s likely his struggles against bigger, more physical receivers will continue at the NFL level, and he’ll be forced to try to win more with finesse than strength.

Gladney also can be too giving of inside releases. He’s easily burned on slant routes, including this overtime touchdown to Mims:

It’s a recurring problem:

The issue is often a result of poor press technique by Gladney. Gladney posted an elite coverage grade of 90.4 over the last two years, sixth-best in the FBS, but from press coverage that grade dropped down to 75.0, just a little above average for college corners. While Gladney has the upside to be very effective in press given his foot quickness, length and bulldog mentality, he often gets caught hesitating, with his feet out of position or off-balance, preventing him from bursting on the ball. When he sticks to his technique and trusts his eyes, he’s capable of jawdropping plays, but it’s something Zimmer will need to coach up.

A couple other minor technical issues seem to recur on Gladney’s tape: first, he’s a tic too grabby. He usually does a great job using contact to feel out and redirect routes, but there are times when it leads to unnecessary penalties. On this play, Gladney commits pass interference on fourth-and-1 to extend West Virginia’s game-winning drive:

Gladney committed five pass interference or holding penalties in 2019, which isn’t atrocious but is still something that will need to be cleaned up.

The other issue that can pop up is Gladney sometimes allows himself to be stacked on vertical routes, leaving himself boxed out and unable to reposition himself:

Gladney is sometimes late to turn his hips, and even with his elite recovery speed, by the time he’s stacked, good receivers will box him out of the catch point (Mims does a particularly nice job with this above, drawing a costly pass interference penalty).

There are a few other criticisms worth mentioning: while he’s a very willing tackler, he doesn’t always keep his head up, leading to the occasional whiff when he doesn’t see the tackle through to the ground. He relies too much on his recovery speed and will need to better anticipate routes coming. Between the meniscus injury his senior year and an ACL tear in high school, there is some reinjury risk with his knees. He’s also on the older side and will turn 24 in December, and while age does not seem to have any impact on a player’s upside or development, it does in a way limit their long-term value as Gladney will turn 28 by the end of his five-year contract if the Vikings pick up his fifth-year option.


Day-One Impact Cornerback

After four years of shutting down the best receivers in college football, Gladney is ready to start in the NFL, even in a defense as complicated and demanding as Zimmer’s. His elite speed, footwork and hip fluidity empower him to blanket receivers up and down and across the field. Combine that with his burst, length and feisty “my ball” mentality, and Gladney is equipped to contest every kind of pass and route.

If he can clean up his press technique and route recognition, he has shutdown corner potential. Will he get there? Maybe, maybe not, but I wouldn’t bet against a cornerback with his skillset and tools under Zimmer’s tutelage.

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Photo Credit: Kevin Jairaj (USA Today Sports)

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