CJ Henderson’s athletic prowess and aggressive style of play could help him become the best cornerback in this draft, but unless he makes major adjustments to key aspects of his game, Henderson’s pro career could derail quickly. The University of Florida superstar has ideal speed, size, and strength, measuring in at 6’1”, 204 lbs with a 4.39 40-yard dash and 20 reps on the bench press. His 40 time ranked second and his bench press fifth among cornerbacks in 2020. He also showed high-end leaping ability with a 37.5” vertical and a 10’7” broad jump. Henderson is a tremendous athlete, but his tactical skills need honing.
College players who rely heavily on their natural athleticism have a tendency to become lazy at the next level, just look at Johnny Manziel. Consequently, Henderson is not going to come into the league and be the next Darius Slay, a common pro comparison, on day one of OTAs. He could certainly get to that level, but he has a long way to go before stardom.
Henderson will likely get burned like your finger on a sizzling plate of fajitas if he can’t make some major adjustments. However, he does have some coverage skills that will transfer to the NFL without the need for fine-tuning, the first of which is his ability to make plays on the ball.
Henderson’s most enticing trait is his ball skills. If the ball is in the air and Henderson is anywhere close to it, you better believe that’ll be a contested catch. He is extremely physical, almost belligerent, with receivers when the ball arrives. This did get him a few penalties last season, but it also forced several incompletions. All things considered, the good outweighs the bad with respect to Henderson’s dynamic play style.
On a related note, thank goodness for Youtube. I found a video of every target CJ Henderson had in 2019, his best and most healthy season, and I’m dropping that video below and twice more throughout the article because every play that I refer to in this piece is in this clip. In the first play I want to highlight, Henderson is lined up against the best receiver in college football, Ja’Marr Chase of LSU (4:50 timestamp).
In this play, Chase is running a double-move to the end zone and Henderson covers it perfectly. You can see Henderson adjust his feet to keep up with Chase as soon as he makes his cut. When the ball is thrown Henderson is in great position to make a play. Seeing that the ball is slightly under-thrown, he guides Chase forward with his hand on the receiver’s back. Finally, Henderson leaps up and knocks the ball away for an incompletion.
Henderson doesn’t get greedy and go for an interception, but shows elite discipline while also displaying his innate speed, tracking, and leaping abilities. He runs stride-for-stride with the best wideout in college football and breaks up a pass thrown to him by the best quarterback in college football. It doesn’t get more big-time than that. Did he get absolutely torched for two touchdowns by Chase later in this very game? Yes. That said, this play’s purpose was simply to flaunt Henderson’s pristine ball skills.
Closing on Routes
Closing on a route happens when the corner must come back to the ball and try to break up the pass or at least make a tackle while giving up minimal yards after the catch. We already know that Henderson has wheels from Apollo’s chariot based on his 40-yard dash time, and that translates to his closing speed on display at timestamp 9:04.
Henderson is defending against a 10-yard curl route, and the defense is in zone coverage, so his job is to cover anyone in the flat/curl area on his side of the field. He keeps his target in front of him, and when the quarterback cocks back to throw, Henderson bursts forward and breaks up the pass with his inside leverage on the receiver as well as his explosive pursuit of the football.
This ball is extremely well-thrown. It is low and away on a curl where only the receiver can get it. Henderson does an absolutely perfect job coming back to this ball. He closes in on the receiver and pushes him toward the sideline with his body while trying to disrupt the pass with his arms. This play showcases how his aggressive technique serves him well against bigger receivers as well as more accurate quarterbacks. If Henderson had been behind or further away from the ball he might have been called for pass interference, but since he was within arm’s length of the football, he could get physical with the receiver without drawing a flag.
I don’t need a play to explain this one. CJ Henderson could be the next Charles Woodson-esque shutdown man coverage corner in the NFL. His physicality and footwork complement his athleticism perfectly. Henderson can go stride-for-stride with almost any wide receiver in the league. For reference, only four wideouts in this draft class had a better 40-yard dash time than him. There is no telling how successful Henderson could be at the next level, he just needs to keep his eyes on his receiver… which brings us to our weaknesses.
If you read my Isaiah Simmons report, don’t expect the same generosity. Henderson showed flashes of being an elite corner in college, but he also revealed a capacity for letting up big plays with mental mistakes.
Henderson’s first flaw is his occasional inattention to receivers. He relies too heavily on reading the quarterback rather than covering his routes. It’s not a bad thing to read the quarterback’s eyes as a corner, it can be a great tool, but a corner’s first priority is always to stick to their man or zone like the Stickum on Jerry Rice’s gloves (no disrespect to the GOAT, but we all know it’s true). Let’s go to the timestamp 3:32 against Auburn.
The Gators are in man coverage with one high safety and one linebacker in the underneath zone. Henderson lets Auburn receiver Seth Williams blow right by him because his eyes were in the backfield watching the quarterback. Henderson could have had Williams covered like a bedsheet on this play because Williams isn’t known for his speed.
However, since he’s watching the backfield and not his receiver, he bites on the play-action fake, which is completely useless as an outside corner playing 10-yards deep, and comes up in coverage. He doesn’t even look at Williams until he is cutting back to the middle of the field on a post and Henderson’s negligence results in a huge gain for Auburn.
Henderson needs to stick to his assignments. If he keeps the play in front of him he can read the quarterback extremely well and make great plays on the ball because of it. He can’t be looking to jump routes on every snap because he just doesn’t have that kind of awareness yet.
This man cannot tackle. Henderson has a horrible mindset and technique when it comes to wrapping up. His strength, build, and quickness are that of an elite tackler at the cornerback position, but he is far from one. It looks like Henderson simply doesn’t want to make tackles. It just seems like a chore that comes with the job; a sideshow to the real act of covering receivers.
He doesn’t wrap up on the bottom, he hits receivers high and expects them to topple over, and he takes cheap angles. I don’t know if Henderson doesn’t know how to tackle or just doesn’t want to, but either way, he will get benched if he can’t make a simple open-field tackle. I want to point out two tackles in the LSU game that he missed. The first is at timestamp 4:41 and the second is at 5:49 in the video above.
On the first tackle, Henderson tries to take Ja’Marr Chase down by his upper half. He wraps around the shoulder, but not very well, so Chase is merely thrown backward before regaining his balance and going for a nice gain. Henderson needs to commit to this tackle. If he thinks that one measly upper body hit with an uncommitted wrap is going to take down an All-SEC wideout, he is terribly mistaken. The only way to put Chase on the ground is to attack his hips and lower half and make the tackle or at least hold him in one spot until help arrives.
On the next play, Henderson goes for the lower body, but just completely whiffs on the tackle. His angle is atrocious. He tries to get in front of Chase, who is moving toward the sideline, but Chase cuts back, catching Henderson in a tough spot and Chase breaks a feeble arm tackle with ease. Henderson’s angle needs to eliminate the cut back lane. Go at Chase diagonally or from a 90 degree angle and push him out of bounds or make an aggressive tackle on the sideline. If Henderson brings the fire and physicality he has in coverage to his tackling, he will do just fine in the NFL. Otherwise, break out the ankle tape because they will get snatched weekly.
Henderson doesn’t look comfortable playing off coverage. Physicality is his ally, and when he’s forced to sit back and wait, his technique suffers. One example of this is at 11:25 against Florida State.
The outside receiver runs a simple post pattern and he is wide open as soon as he makes the cut. In this cover 0 man scheme there is no safety help over the top, meaning Henderson will want to keep his receiver directly in front of him at all times to avoid getting beat over the top. It looks like Henderson is expecting a go route on this play because as soon as the receiver makes his cut, Henderson is still going up field, creating massive distance between him and his wideout.
The outside receiver runs a simple post pattern and is wide open as soon as he makes the cut. In this cover zero man scheme there is no safety help over the top, meaning Henderson will want to keep his receiver directly in front of him at all times to avoid getting beat deep. It looks like Henderson is expecting a go route on this play because as soon as the receiver makes his cut, Henderson is still going up field, creating massive distance between him and his wideout.
Henderson also gives the receiver inside leverage on this play because he is afraid to get turned around. I understand why he would want to play it safe in soft coverage, but Henderson has remarkable physical gifts and he needs to use them to keep his receiver in front rather than pussyfooting around and trying to anticipate the route. Henderson needs to trust his innate athletic ability more and stop trying to overcompensate with big, preemptive plays.
Prospect Grade: 8.5/10
Henderson is not a top-15 player. He’s a top-10 athlete with top-5 speed, but better college athletes than him have failed in the big leagues. Jeff Okudah is leaps and bounds ahead of Henderson because he could handle being thrust into a CB1 role on a competitive team, while Henderson could not. If I were a General Manager, I would view him as a project pick with huge upside.
Henderson reminds me a lot of Marcus Peters. At 6’0” and 194 lbs, Peters has a similar body type to Henderson. Peters isn’t as fast as the latter, but they are both very aggressive with the ball in the air, have considerable quickness, and are dominant when closing on routes.
Unfortunately, they also both get caught jumping routes or abandoning their assignments and get beat badly because of it. Peters has great footwork in coverage, can play both man and zone effectively, and can shadow star receivers, something I feel Henderson will be doing provided he reaches his full potential.
Best Fit & Projected Draft Position
I think the San Francisco 49ers will put CJ Henderson in the best position to succeed. They need a cornerback two to play across from Richard Sherman and Henderson would be a great fit. The Niners play a lot of man coverage as well as cover three zone, and the latter would utilize his speed and ability to read the quarterback while minimizing his wandering eyes. As a bonus, he would learn from one of the best cornerbacks of all time, Richard Sherman.
Henderson could fall to the 13th slot in the draft, but I doubt the Niners would take him there. They need a talented wide receiver to pair with Deebo Samuel more than they need a second corner and they will have their pick of a very talented litter in this year’s wideout class. I think Henderson will end up with the Atlanta Falcons. However, Henderson is very popular amongst scouts and has top-10 draft stock rumors floating around, so how could he end up with the Falcons at the 16th pick?
There are rumors that Atlanta could trade up in this draft to grab a top corner or pass rusher. They are looking to trade into the top-12, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they grabbed him there, or even if he fell to them at 16. Anything could happen with Henderson on the 23rd of April, but look for the Falcons to trade up to the Jaguars’ ninth pick or the Browns’ 10th pick to draft CJ Henderson.