I loved watching Florida Gators cornerback Teez Tabor play college football. He stepped beside Vernon Hargreaves III as a freshman and has been shutting down opposing passing games ever since.
His three years in Gainesville, Fla., coincided with a dominating defense. The Florida Gators allowed an average QB passer rating of only 104.2 and just 180 total yards per game without a dominant pass rush or a great offense.
Tabor contributed heavily, as Gators fans have pointed out.
— Gators Football (@GatorsFB) March 15, 2017
This need to defend Tabor arose after he ran a 4.62 40-yard dash at the NFL combine. Tabor followed with times in the mid-4.7 range during his pro day. Experts proclaimed he had run himself out of the first round of the NFL draft.
Asked about his draft stock, a confident Tabor said, “Just push play,” referring to the game film. And so I did.
Florida Gators CB Jalen Tabor: Film Study
Tabor does not possess elite speed. Tennessee made that clear.
The color commentator noted that Tabor slipped. That’s what allowed the wide receiver to beat him. But Tabor is playing 1-on-1 coverage, and he didn’t jam or redirect the receiver at the line.
For someone without elite speed, Tabor will have to lean on hand technique in the NFL. Florida played a ton of man coverage in 2016, and Tabor rarely jammed his receiver.
Tabor also sometimes struggles to play with physicality. Sometimes he seems to avoid contact, particularly against larger blockers. He dives at the runners’ feet to make a tackle, or waits for his teammates to arrive.
On this first play (above), instead of charging an immediate handoff, Tabor hangs back. Safety Marcell Harris sheds a block and makes the tackle. Tabor may have been cutting off an angle, but he also seems to avoid contact.
In this second example, safety Chauncey Gardner makes an interception. Tabor enthusiastically waves to Gardner and has a real chance to spring him further. Instead, Tabor sidesteps the offensive lineman (No. 54), eliminating the chance that Gardner could cut back toward the middle of the field.
There is a lot to like about Tabor. He’s instinctive, and that allows him to make plays that other corners can’t.
On this play, he peels off of his deep responsibility to come back and break up the pass. This type of play can allow a corner to get beat deep, but Tabor rarely makes mistakes when he leaves an assignment. His instincts are some of the best you’ll see.
Watch this play against East Carolina. Tabor’s assigned man is streaking deep. Tabor reads the quarterback’s eyes and jumps the route.
Against Kentucky, Tabor the rover struck again as he jumped a wide receiver screen for an interception.
It’s unfair to call this instinct. Tabor recognized the formation, which indicates that he studies film. It also means that he trusts his film study, because if he had guessed wrong and the receiver had released, it’s possibly a long touchdown.
Jalen Tabor vs. NFL DBs: A Statistical Comparison
While the film shows Tabor’s skills, one can’t ignore his combine and pro day runs.
I looked at the top 3 cornerbacks on each NFL team’s depth chart in 2016 to see where Tabor stacks up. I took the number measured at the combine unless they only performed that test at their pro day.
Tabor is slower than the average NFL cornerback, but he isn’t the slowest. He’s faster than 3.2 percent of the 2016 starting NFL cornerbacks.
Tabor doesn’t dominate in any of the other tests, either. He measured better than 4.3 percent in the vertical jump and 28.7 percent in the broad jump. The one place he does stand out is the 20-yard shuttle, where he bests NFL corners 51.1 percent of the time.
Film reveals that Tabor can change directions fast to compensate for his lack of top-end speed. Teammate Quincy Wilson clocked a much faster 40-yard dash (better than 27.7 percent of NFL starters) and 20-yard shuttle (better than 79.8 percent of NFL starters). But Wilson doesn’t enjoy Tabor’s natural instincts.
Overall Analysis: Jalen Tabor, NFL prospect
It would have helped Tabor to run faster. But it doesn’t mean he’s doomed at the NFL level.
On his “GM Street” podcast and the Bill Simmons podcast, the Ringer’s Michael Lombardi (a former NFL general manager) talked about how teams need to treat their personnel in the passing game like a basketball team. Lombardi said teams need guards, forwards and centers. Similar receivers (all deep threats, for instance) limit your offense and make you easier to defend.
The same strategy applies to defense. You need someone with blazing speed to cover the deep threat. You need someone tall with leaping ability to combat the large receiver who boxes out and wins jump balls. And you need someone in the slot to cover the shifty receiver who always seems to be open.
Lombardi has worked closely with New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick. Perhaps no team in the NFL has had more success with shifty, versatile receivers than the New England Patriots, including Wes Welker and Julian Edelman.
They didn’t run blazing pre-draft times (though Edelman’s is pretty good). What you see is fast shuttle times, indicating that they change direction quickly without losing speed. This is the type of receiver that Tabor is going to be assigned to in the NFL, and one where his skills fit.
Tabor reminds me of former LSU Tigers defensive back Tyrann Mathieu. Mathieu was an instinctive player who just “made plays” even though he didn’t have ideal NFL measurables. Mathieu is faster in a straight line, but ran an identical 20-yard shuttle time. Mathieu also entered the league with a checkered history with marijuana, which Tabor also possesses, though not nearly as severe as Mathieu.
The Arizona Cardinals made Mathieu a third-round pick in 2013. He signed a $62.5 million contract extension in 2016.
I think early third round is about right for Tabor. He’s not Deion Sanders or Darrelle Revis. But he’ll have a chance to play early, and he’ll be able to defend NFL slot receivers. That won’t get him on SportsCenter often, but it can make him a valuable asset.
New England has a player who fits this profile likely to leave soon (Malcolm Butler) and a pair of third-round picks in this year’s draft (No. 72 and No. 96).
Butler’s instincts and film study have helped him stick. His 40-time? 4.62 seconds.