CJ Henderson has massive potential and could very well be the best cornerback in this draft, but he could end up as the worst corner drafted in the first two rounds. Henderson has a lot of talent but also a long way to go before stardom.
Henderson has ideal speed, size, and strength for an outside corner, measuring in at 6’1” 204 lbs with a 4.39 40-yard dash and 20 reps on the bench press at the combine, which ranked second and fifth respectively among cornerbacks in 2020. He also showed high-end leaping ability with a 37.5” vertical leap and a 10’7” broad jump. The point being, Henderson is a tremendous athlete with a rare combination of size, speed, and strength at the cornerback position, but that doesn’t mean he is NFL-ready.
To be frank, when I look at Henderson’s tape, I don’t see a top-10 prospect. I see an outstanding athlete with great natural instincts who needs a lot of refinement before he can become a great, or even good, player in the NFL. Henderson is not going to come into the league and be the next Darius Slay on Day One of OTAs. He could certainly get to that level, but he needs a lot of work and coaching before then.
Henderson will likely get burned like your finger on a steaming plate of fajitas if no adjustments are made to his game. However, he does have an abundance of skills that can transfer to the NFL if he gets good coaching, the first of which is his ability to make plays on the ball in the air.
The best thing that Henderson has going for him are his ball skills. If the ball is in the air and Henderson is nearby, you better believe that receiver is going to have a tough time making the catch. Henderson has probably the best closing speed of any corner in this draft and is extremely physical with receivers when the ball arrives. This did get him a few penalties last season, but it also forced several incompletions, but in this predicament, the good outweighs the bad.
On a related note, thank goodness for Youtube. I found a video of every target CJ Henderson had in 2019, and I’m dropping that video below. Every play that I refer to in this piece will be in this video, so when I drop a timestamp, come back here. The first play I want to highlight is one where he 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 adjusts his feet to keep up with Chase as soon as he makes his break, and he does so very well. Henderson is in a great position to make a play on this ball when it is thrown. He turns his head around to locate the ball as it approaches, and he sees that the ball is slightly underthrown, which is why he guides Chase forward with his hand on his back and makes him overrun the ball slightly. Finally, Henderson leaps up and knocks the ball away for an incompletion.
He doesn’t get greedy and go for an interception, but does his job and causes the incompletion. Henderson shows great discipline in this play while also displaying his elite speed, tracking, and leaping ability. 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 game? Yes, but Henderson still has a lot of flaws to work through and that was the best QB-WR combo in the nation last year. That play’s purpose was solely to illustrate Henderson’s pristine ball skills.
Closing on Routes
This is very similar to ball skills, but it is by no means the same. Closing on a route happens when the corner is behind the receiver when the ball is thrown and they have to come back to the ball and try to break up the pass or, at the very least, make the tackle. We already know that Henderson has great speed from his 40-yard dash time, and that translates to his closing speed. One play that shows this trait off well is at timestamp 9:04 in the video above.
Henderson does a great job causing an incompletion on this play against South Carolina. He 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 play with his inside leverage on the receiver as well as his athletic pursuit of the football.
This ball is extremely well-thrown if the receiver is talented enough to make a play coming back to the ball. It is low and away on a curl, where only the receiver can get it. The corner does an absolutely perfect job coming back to this ball. He gets inside leverage on the receiver and pushes him toward the sideline with his body while trying to disrupt the pass with his arms. This is a great play from Henderson that showcases how his aggressive technique serves him well against bigger receivers as well as more accurate quarterbacks.
I don’t need a play to explain this one. CJ Henderson could be the next shutdown man-coverage corner in the NFL. He has great speed, size, and strength, physicality, and footwork to complement these physical gifts. 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. CJ Henderson has the potential to be a great cover corner 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 has a lot of work to do. Henderson showed flashes of being a shut-down man-to-man corner in college, but he also showed the ability to let up big plays with mental mistakes.
His first flaw is his inattention to his 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 you have to stick to your man and/or zone. Let’s go with the timestamp 3:32, this one is against Auburn.
This is just an awful play by Henderson. The Gators seem to be in man coverage with one high safety and one linebacker in the underneath zone. He lets Auburn receiver Seth Williams blow right by him because his eyes were in the backfield watching the quarterback. There is no doubt that he could have had Williams covered like a bedsheet on this play, as Williams isn’t known for his speed.
But 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 drops down 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.
In both man and zone coverage, Henderson needs to stick to his assignment. At this stage in his career, he can’t get caught abandoning his receivers’ routes and trying to jump passes or help in the run; he just isn’t good enough to do that. If he keeps his reads in front of him, then he can read the quarterback extremely well and makes great plays on the ball because of it. However, what he can’t do is let his receivers get behind him when he’s reading the quarterback.
This dude can not tackle. He has a horrible mindset and technique when it comes to tackling. Henderson has great strength, a solid build, and elite quickness, so tackling shouldn’t be difficult for him. When I see him trying to make tackles, it looks like he doesn’t want to. It 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, hits receivers high, expects them to topple over, and takes horrible 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 at the next level if he can’t make a tackle in the open field. I want to point out two tackles in the LSU game that he missed on the same receiver. 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 up the field for a nice gain. Henderson needs to commit to this tackle. If he thinks one measly upper body hit with a horrible wrap is going to take down the All-SEC wideout, he is horribly mistaken. He needs to attack Chase’s hips and lower half to trip him up, make the tackle, or at least hold him in one spot until his teammate comes to help.
On the next play, Henderson goes for the lower body, but just completely whiffs on the tackle. Henderson takes a horrible angle on this play. When he closes on the route, he tries to get in front of Chase, who is moving toward the sideline, but Chase cuts back, catching Henderson in a horrible spot to make the play and breaks the arm tackle with ease. Henderson instead needs to take an angle that eliminates cutting back towards open field. He needs to go straight at Chase 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.
Henderson has a tendency to give his receivers more room than he should. Whether it be man or zone coverage, sometimes his receivers are just open for no explicable reason. One example of this is at 11:25 against Florida State.
This is a simple post pattern from the outside receiver, guarded by Henderson and as soon as the receiver makes the cut, he is wide open. Henderson isn’t looking in the backfield on this play, he just took a horrible route. He doesn’t trip or get beat or out-muscled for the football, he just loses on this route.
Instead of cutting at the same angle as the receiver and sticking to him, Henderson goes up-field to keep the route in front of him, but all that does is create more space for the receiver to run after the catch because Henderson cannot make a tackle from this angle (not that he would have made the tackle anyway but now he has no shot). The quarterback throws a dart on the receiver’s midsection and after that, he’s gone for a huge gain.
Henderson has the coverage skills to play tight man coverage on this route. I understand why he would want to give the receiver space in a Cover 0 man (no safety help), but he has insane physical gifts and needs to trust that he won’t get beat over the top if he stays locked in with the route. He needs to be sticking to this guy like their jerseys are sewn together and then be in a position to make a tackle after the catch. He has the skills, he just needs to trust himself more.
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 great quickness, and are dominant when closing on routes.
Unfortunately, they also both get caught trying to jump routes or abandoning their assignment and get beat badly because of it. Peters has great footwork in coverage, can play both man and zone effectively, and follows star receivers all over the field when in man coverage, something I feel Henderson will be doing at the next level provided he reaches his full potential.
Best Fit & Projected Draft Position
I think the team that will put CJ Henderson in the best position to succeed is the San Francisco 49ers. They need a cornerback 2 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 3 zone, which would utilize his speed and ability to read the quarterback while minimizing his “wandering eyes” problem because he would be lined up in a deep zone with the whole play in front of him. He could also learn technique and strategy from one of the best cornerbacks of all time in Richard Sherman.
Could Henderson fall to 13? Yes. Will the Niners take him there if he does? Probably not. They need a wide receiver one 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. I don’t think Henderson is a top-15 player. He’s a top-10 athlete with top-5 speed, but football isn’t just physical gifts. However, Henderson is very popular amongst scouts and has top-10 draft stock rumors floating around, so why would he end up with the Falcons?
Atlanta has been rumored to 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.