The Dallas Cowboys final pick in the 2014 NFL Draft could end up being one of their best picks, as former Oregon Ducks cornerback Terrance Mitchell isn’t some irrelevant flier. In fact, there are some who believe Mitchell was more valuable on the Oregon defense than current corner Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, who is a first-round lock in the 2015 NFL Draft and would have been a first-rounder had he declared this year. Ekpre-Olomu has better tools and playmaking ability, but Mitchell’s ability to track down wide receivers allowed him to excel when left on an island.
But with Mitchell, the issue is whether or not his skill-set translates well to the NFL. Although there is a demand for bigger, physical corners, Mitchell could lack the requisite physical tools to be an above-average starter in this league. Not only does he have below-average deep speed, but his ball skills and footwork have also been criticized.
The Cowboys desperately need better play in their secondary, and getting a significant impact out of Mitchell would be huge. Mitchell undoubtedly has a chip on his shoulder after slipping past where he thought he should have been picked, but it’s time to take a look at what the tape says about him.
As always, huge thanks to Draft Breakdown for the film on Mitchell.
Let’s start with a look at his run defense. For someone who is 5’11”, 192 pounds and plays very physical press coverage, Mitchell sure lacks the ability to set the edge in run defense. Against the Texas Longhorns, Mitchell was consistently dominated by No. 1 receiver Mike Davis…in the running game, and the play below showcases some surprising timidness. He’s not nearly as non-existent as Justin Gilbert in run D, but you’d like to see someone with his size set the tone in run defense.
The following play is also not a positive one for Mitchell, who gets lit up by Davis in the passing game, and he’s lucky the ball was overthrown, otherwise it would have been a touchdown. Mitchell tries to jam Davis, but he ends up getting beat by pure speed; the receiver doesn’t really even pull a cut. That’s a problem, and Mitchell doesn’t have the long speed to be trusted in single coverage against a deep threat in the NFL.
I’m playing “armchair coach” here, but it’s concerning that Mitchell didn’t bother to take inside leverage against a receiver with a huge speed advantage when in single coverage. He knew the Ducks were blitzing and wouldn’t have adequate support over the top, and yet Mitchell took an errant half-step towards the sideline and “pressed” the wrong way, allowing Davis to take the inside.
That lack of speed and lack of understanding of leverages is concerning, and it creates the perfect storm when combined with the Ducks playcall; he escaped damage there, but it would have been his only touchdown allowed in pass coverage all season. He was almost beat on another deep pass to Davis later on in the game, but the current Oakland Raiders wideout committed a ghastly drop.
Of course, Mitchell’s biggest asset is his physicality, and here’s a textbook example of his Brandon Browner-esque ability to hound wide receivers. It’s difficult to defend a quick cut inside in single-coverage in a short-yardage situation, but this is exactly what Mitchell does on this play. He jams the receiver and seems to be beaten, but Mitchell drapes himself all over the receiver and forces the incomplete pass by being physical. That’s the only way you can defend that type of pass, especially since Mitchell, who is better at defending the sideline, forces the receiver to move inside by using his hands.
Of the tape available (Texas, Utah, Washington State), Mitchell’s best game came against the Cougars, and he looked a lot more physical in this one than in the bowl game. He had a crunching hit on a screen pass, the play above, a nice tackle on a subsequent screen, and the pick-six.
The interception was a straightforward deflected the ball that went right into his hands, but it was impressive to watch him to cut almost the whole Cougars offense before going in for the score. His agility on that pick six is a reminder that Mitchell’s game is based on success in the short and intermediate games, because that accentuates his press skills and mitigates his physical limitations when it comes to speed (4.63 forty).
While Mitchell doesn’t have great ball skills or instincts to make him a ball-hawk player (most of his picks were “sitters”), I’d say that he’s at least adequate in both categories. Against the Utah Utes, Mitchell had a couple of passes defended, including one where he was falsely called for a pass interference. The one below, though, is a textbook bait, and it involves several important steps.
First off, Mitchell is as good as any cornerback in this class at switching off on receivers and beating clearing routes (the intersecting routes from the slot and outside guys), because he was presented with this several times in this game and in his college career as a whole. Once he sees the receiver is cutting inside (right at him), he pauses, gives the quarterback the impression that the receiver is open, and jumps the route.
He probably should have held on for the interception, but his ability to recognize the route, sit, and time the jump deserves plenty of praise. Had this been another drag route, Mitchell still would have been in a position to be right with the receiver.
Coming into the draft, Terrance Mitchell was one of my favorite cornerbacks, and I had him ticketed as one of the draft’s biggest sleepers. But after taking a closer look at his tape, I realized why he took a tumble on draft day, and it’s because the concerns about how his game translates are legitimate. He can excel in press coverage, but he could be burn prone in the NFL due to his lack of speed, subpar footwork (he isn’t fluid when he back-pedals and most of what he does is with his hands), and inflated interception totals.
That said, his ball skills are present in tight, press coverage (he’s able to cut underneath and stick his hand to break up passes), and his physical play makes him a good fit for how the cornerback position is evolving. He has plenty of experience in different coverages, though it’s ideal to put him in man coverage with safety help. Mitchell’s run defense and tackling are two major weaknesses, though, but the good thing is he isn’t a reckless tackler. Rather, he is a timid one, which is the lesser of two evils despite the fact that this leads to some free yardage.
If the Cowboys can help develop Mitchell’s technique, then he could become a quality cornerback in this league and start down the road. I’m not expecting big things from him as a rookie, but it’s clear to me that he was severely undervalued on draft day. I would have taken him in the fifth round, as opposed to helping him plummet to the seventh. I’m sure the Cowboys are glad he fell, and I think he’ll work his way into becoming the team’s dime corner by the time the season is over.
As long as they provide enough cover for him and limit his role to what he’s comfortable, then he should have a serviceable first season. He should eventually develop into a solid player, but he isn’t a player with a particularly high ceiling. The key for him is developing his technique (since he lacks athleticism), but he is already a dangerous player within 15 yards of the passing game due to his quickness.
Some say Mitchell should move to free safety, but that doesn’t make much sense to me. He lacks the instincts, ball skills, and tackling to play safety, whereas his quickness and physicality make him valuable as a corner. There’s a reason why most people say he was under-drafted, but Ekpre-Olomu’s vastly better tools and technique make him the significantly better prospect when comparing the two. I think Mitchell could make an impact playing the slot, and that’s where I see him featuring most prominently as a rookie No. 4 corner in dime packages.