December 8, 2003: A date in which Jason Sehorn made his final NFL start, then for the St. Louis Rams on the road in Cleveland. That would be the final time a caucasian cornerback would start in a live NFL game, as Sehorn would hang up the cleats shortly after that. More than 15 years later, not only is Iowa superstar Cooper DeJean set to buck that trend, but he's even receiving CB1 hype in a pretty good 2024 draft class.
A multi-sport letter athlete in high school, DeJean decided to stay local by committing to Iowa rather than go to South Dakota State as a quarterback. Mainly serving on special teams in year one, DeJean went on to make First-Team All-Big in back-to-back seasons as a Sophmore and Junior, as well as Unanimous All-American honors in 2023, plus Big-10 defensive back and returner of the year honors.
Although a broken leg cut his season a bit short, his stock was already in a good spot, largely due to his versatility and size profile. In a league where you have some monsters on the boundary like Tee Higgins, Drake London, Mike Evans, etc., having someone who can at least hold their own against players with those frames is big. However, having an ideal size profile is only a part of the whole. How good is Cooper DeJean?
Name: Cooper DeJean
Jersey: No. 3
Weight: 207 lbs
Games Watched: vs. Ohio State and Michigan (2022), vs. Wisconsin, Penn State, and Michigan State (2023)
Major Injury History: DeJean suffered a season-ending broken Fibula in a November 2023 practice.
Man Coverage (13/15)
Given that Iowa is kind of what they are, you didn't see as many man snaps, specifically press man snaps, from DeJean in this sample size. In what was there to see, I thought DeJean not only looked great more often than not, but he has the physical tools to make it work in a more man-centric scheme at the next level. The Ohio State 2022 game was the best sample size of what he can do, with some high-leverage snaps against elite talent. Firstly, here's a long TD allowed against Julian Flemming.
The fact this ended in six is pretty rough, but from a process-over-results standpoint, he played this well, up until the PBU attempt. DeJean's play speed was consistently good, and you see him make up a ton of ground after opening things up inside against the post. Definitely would've liked to see a more conservative approach, given this was with no safety help behind him, but you take the good with the bad, especially with what came on the next series against Marvin Harrision Jr. in the red zone.
Up until this point, just about every rep where DeJean and MHJ were lined up on each other were on run plays, so it's safe to say I was excited to see this, and DeJean did not disappoint. Harrision Jr. is my outright No. 1 player in this draft, and the Iowa product did plenty more than hold serve. As impressive as this first rep is, C.J. Stroud doesn't even look Harrison's way on a fade for a microsecond. While certainly not perfect, you can see the upside to what DeJean is capable of in man coverage. Definitely would've liked to have seen him in press situations a bit more, but that's not his call sadly.
Zone Coverage (14.5/15)
I don't think it's a surprise that DeJean is as good in zone coverage as he is, since he went to Iowa. Having plenty of seasoning over the last two years, DeJean consistently displayed great awareness in zone looks (I thought he had a ton of good reps in quarters), knew when he had the opportunity to freelance and make plays, and there were simply long stretches of times where teams wouldn't touch his side of the field in zone looks. I believe that between the Penn State and Michigan State games alone, they looked DeJean's way maybe four times at most.
The only two sore spots with DeJean in zone are that he can be a bit guilty of playing too far off at times, and unfortunately, he doesn't have the elite ability to trigger downhill to make up for that. That led to a few underneath completions, mostly in cover three looks, but outside of that, you're looking at the best zone-defending cornerback in this draft.
I don't think it's a stretch to say you can't be a great zone cornerback if you don't have the instincts for it. Although we just talked about some of the good instinctual traits DeJean possesses, here's a great example of it in practice against Michigan. He reads this play the entire way, comes off his man as soon as he knows J.J. McCarthy is hitting this out route, and makes a great hit.
Ball Skills (9.25/10)
With only two full-time seasons as a corner, DeJean has some great ball production in a hair under two dozen games these last two seasons. 13 PBUs, 7 INTs, and three pick-sixes (all in 2022), and as far as picks go, they don't come more impressive than this one against Michigan State from last year.
Overthrown ball sure, but DeJean tracks this thing perfectly and gets a Sunday interception with both feet down on the way out.
While there were at max two dozen press snaps (conservative high-end estimate), I saw enough physicality out of DeJean to warrant this score. He's not a shy tackler, and there were even a few reps where he was shoving receivers out of the club downfield. You saw one example of that earlier, but he made plenty of nice run-game plays at cornerback and in the CASH spot (what Iowa calls the STAR, aka hybrid defensive back/linebacker).
Long Speed (8.75/10)
I mostly feel about DeJean as I did about Terrion Arnold in that they both have good play speed which allows them to go one-on-one with most faster guys. Is he going to win a track race with Tyreek Hill? Probably not, but he has some speed to him, which explains the return game success.
Tackling/Run Support (8.75/10)
Although I have some concerns about how he'll make out-of-frame tackles at the next level, it says a lot that DeJean was out there for Iowa in the CASH role, and frequently made some big plays when called upon. Beyond the out-of-frame issues and perhaps needing to be a tad better at working off receivers in the run game, teams should be happy with where DeJean is here.
Touched on this at the top, but DeJean was a multi-sport athlete in high school, lettering in Football, Basketball, and Baseball, while additionally winning Iowa state championships in the 100-meter dash and long jump competitions. No surprise, but he displayed some elite athleticism on the gridiron over this five-game sample size.
Change of Direction (2.5/5)
My biggest issue with DeJean is that while he's a fluid mover, he struggled a good deal exploding downhill to work against comeback routes, or just anything working back towards to LOS. Hard to say if it's more of a route recognition or footwork issue, but in any case, I could see teams taking advantage of this right away. This could go for Arnold as well, but having scouted both, it was more of an issue here.
Not to the level of someone from last year like Christain Gonzalez or Nate Wiggins from this year, but DeJean has a more than ideal frame for the cornerback position standing at 6'1 and over 205 lbs. You saw an excellent PBU earlier working on Marvin Harrison Jr., and there were some other good showcases on that front in these games. In a game where you're getting more and more tall freaks at wide receiver, having a guy like DeJean to depend on is invaluable in that regard.
While I can't say I'm the DeJean CB1 train, I can say without a shadow of a doubt he has some elite zone instincts and upside in man coverage to make himself a first-round lock in this year's draft. At the end of the day though, some teams will prefer DeJean for scheme reasons, and some teams will prefer a guy like Arnold for those same reasons (he's a quarter point off of Arnold for what it's worth). A very similar situation as a year ago with Devon Witherspoon and Christian Gonzalez, in which there's no bad option. I'd like DeJean to land with a more zone-centric defensive team, where they can move him around the chessboard as they see fit, but someone is getting themselves a good corner in April. Jason Sehorn, you may now leave your post.
Rookie Projections: Starting Outside Cornerback (preferably in a zone-heavy scheme)
Third-Year Projection: Pro-Bowl Caliber Cornerback
Final Grade (88.75/100): Mid-1st Round Talent
Main Image via