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INDIANAPOLIS — One way to win as a cornerback in football is to get into your opponent's head.
What are the receiver's tendencies? Do they know you're a step ahead of them and have them pegged?
For former Alabama Crimson Tide cornerback Trevon Diggs, he knows all about getting into the receiver's head — because he used to be one.
Diggs played receiver in high school, and he even continued to play the position throughout his freshman season in Tuscaloosa before becoming a full-time defender, so he knows all about the receiver's mindset when he lines up across from them.
"It helped me a lot," Diggs told reporters at the Scouting Combine in February about how playing receiver helps him at cornerback. "I can tell what the receiver's doing by where he's lined up. I know the whole route tree. I know how many steps it takes to get into a route. I know what foot they put up when they try to run their routes. There's little things I know that I can pick up on quicker."
Diggs arrived at Alabama without a designated position — just considered an athlete — and played offense, defense and special teams as a true freshman for Alabama in 2016. He made the transition to being a full-time defender at cornerback in 2017, and then became a full-time starter in 2018. Unfortunately, his junior season was cut short after six games when he suffered a broken foot.
Diggs rebounded in a big way in 2019 to earn Third-Team All-American and First-Team All-SEC honors after recording 37 tackles (0.5 for loss), three interceptions, two fumbles recovered and 11 pass breakups to go with six kickoff returns for 117 yards (19.5 avg.).
According to Pro Football Focus, he had the seventh-best coverage grade in the country among cornerbacks (14.8) after allowing 22 catches on 52 targets (42.3 percent), which ranked 18th, an opponent passer rating of 44.5, which ranked eighth, and allowed just one touchdown. He was also one of four players for Alabama to be named an "Outstanding Defensive Performer" on the season, which is awarded to the player with the most "points" in their system.
In his four-year career, Diggs started 19-of-46 games (was a part of five bowl games, including a national championship in 2017) and totaled 68 tackles (0.5 for loss), four interceptions, two forced fumbles, two fumbles recovered, 21 pass breakups and two touchdowns on defense along with 15 kickoff returns for 357 yards (23.8 avg.) and 31 punt returns for 284 yards (9.2 avg.) as a return specialist. As a wide receiver, he had 11 receptions for 88 yards (8.0 avg.) and one touchdown.
Diggs should eventually transition into being a solid player at the NFL level as well with his blend of size, toughness and athleticism.
He's got awesome size for a cornerback at 6'1-3/8", 205 pounds and 32-3/8" arms, which is in the 90th percentile for cornerbacks. When you combine his length with his leaping ability, it makes it difficult for quarterbacks and receivers to collaborate within his reach, just like the NFL cornerbacks that he studies.
"I like to watch Jalen Ramsey a lot. I like watching Aqib Talib. I like to watch Stephon Gilmore as well," Diggs said of the players that he likes to emulate. "Jalen Ramsey is real ball hungry. He's gonna go get the ball. I like the ball in my hands. Even though I'm on defense, I feel like that's my ball, go get it. Stephon Gilmore, he's all about great technique. He's always on someone's hip pocket. I like the way Aqib Talib plays like he is starved or something."
Diggs has experience lining up on both boundaries of the field, as well as in the slot, so none of it is foreign territory to him.
Although he did not participate in the athletic tests at the Combine, his tape shows that he has good speed to stay with receivers downfield and to recover in time to break-up passes if he's behind. He also shows good breaking speed when attacking the ball or a receiver on a comeback route.
His hips flip pretty fluidly, which allows him to stay side-by-side with the receiver in coverage. He changes direction quickly and can mirror his man, which is aided by his body's ability to react to what his eyes see suddenly.
Diggs is aggressive at playing the ball, whether it's going for it while it's in the air, or trying to make a strip on the ball-handler. The latter also happens to lead to one of his areas for growth, however, as stripping the ball can sometimes become the priority for him rather than completing the tackle itself. According to PFF, he had six missed tackles in 2019.
Another double-edged sword for Diggs is his physicality. He uses his hands well to throw receivers off of their rhythm early in the route, not allowing guys to just fly by him. He'll even gets a little handsy with them throughout the route, which may lead to defensive holding or pass interference calls in the NFL (he was called for four penalties in 2019). However, being physical is just who he is as a player.
"My comfort level? Out of ten? Ten," Diggs responded regarding how comfortable he is in press-man coverage. "I like playing press. We played press every down. There was rarely any time that we didn't play press. We were playing press, even when we were playing zone."
While it's not so much physical, Diggs also uses the boundary to his advantage, his imposing frame keeping receivers toeing the line and often unable to come down with the ball in-bounds.
All of these factors together are what endear teams to Diggs and make him a possible first-round draft pick in April.
"They say that I have good ball skills, that I'm rangy. I can run routes with receivers because I know the route tree," Diggs said of the positive feedback he's heard from NFL teams this offseason. "It's a lot of things they say are good but there's a lot of things I've gotta work on, as well. I'm ready to learn more at the position, get more reps at the position. I'm excited to learn."
Diggs also has invaluable experience over four years guarding receivers in the SEC, which resulted in the rare tough day at the office for him, but also were experiences in which to grow.
One tough day in particular was against this year's likely No. 1-overall pick, LSU quarterback Joe Burrow, and wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase last season.
"I always watch that film. That's the game I try to feed back on," Diggs said. "I take my losses as lessons. Bounce back, take that lesson and come back stronger. I finished the year strong after that game, so you just gotta take those lessons. You're not going to win every one."
Opponents in the SEC weren't the only training Diggs received, though, as Alabama has churned out some high-end receiver prospects on their own in Diggs' tenure. Some of the elite talent from his own team that he faced in practice every day were players like Robert Foster, Jerry Jeudy, Calvin Ridley, Riley Ridley, Henry Ruggs III, DeVonta Smith, ArDarius Stewart and Jaylen Waddle.
"I feel like it prepared me a bunch. I feel like I was facing great receivers every week. It was a test," Diggs said of his experiences facing elite talent in practice every day. "LSU, they have some great receivers: Ja'Marr Chase is a real good receiver. Even in practice, I got Jeudy, Ruggs, Waddle. It's a lot of competition I get to go against every day. I enjoyed it."
"It made me a great practice player. I really appreciate that. I'm glad to be in the situation that I was in. Every day was a competition," Diggs continued "Those guys are competitors: they don't like to lose. And I'm a competitor: I don't like to lose. Tua (Tagovailoa) doesn't like to throw picks, but I had to go get me a couple from him. And I got a taste of every different type of receiver: DeVonta Smith, Jaylen Waddle, Henry Ruggs, Jerry Jeudy: they've all got a different style. So I could compete against different types of receivers instead of competing with the same receiver every day."
One of the biggest feathers in Diggs' hat, though, is his brother Stefon, who has been in the NFL since 2015 with the Minnesota Vikings, and as of the publishing of this article, was reportedly set to be acquired by the Buffalo Bills.
Both brothers act as a resource for each other to improve their game, especially since they play battling positions with Trevon at corner and Stefon at receiver.
"He's like my dad, honestly," Trevon said of Stefon. "He was there for me when my father passed, so he has always taken care of me. I always ask him everything, no matter what. Two o'clock in the morning, I'm asking him questions. I called him last night, every day, about this process and how he managed it.
"He always critiques me. We don't always talk about the good things. We talk about the bad things, the things we can do to get better," Diggs continued. "He always gives me tips and little cues to work on my game. I'm blessed to have that. I don't have someone patting me on the back all the time and telling me I'm doing good. I've got someone who's telling me, 'Let's get to work.'"
As Diggs said, you get a lot out of the critiques if you listen.
While he's a physical player himself, he has room to improve when it comes to opposing receivers who are also physical. If they get tough with him, especially at the top of their route, they can get some distance from him and pick up the reception.
"It's a lot of things, like being disciplined in my technique," Diggs said of the things that teams have told him they'd like to see him work on. "That's one thing: I tend to let my athletic ability take over, so I need to stay focused and disciplined and stick to my technique. When I do that, everything will be fine."
However, a guy with his size and mentality should have no problem ironing things out.
FIT WITH THE COLTS
Diggs checks several marks for the Colts at cornerback, who are one of the few teams he rattled off from memory that he met with at the Combine.
His general blend of leaping ability, toughness and willingness to tackle are key, but his measurements and his attitude fit the bill as well.
Of the three cornerbacks that Colts general manager has drafted for the team, Diggs' height, weight, arm length and hand size (9-3/8") all match. If he would have done testing scores at the Combine, they likely also would have fell in line.
The Colts also want guys — regardless of position — that genuinely love football. They eat, sleep and breathe it. That's another check mark for Diggs.
"I feel like that stuff is second nature," Diggs said. "We talk so much football and learn so much at Alabama that just talking football became easy for me. I'll talk football all day."
While the Colts generally have a quality group of cornerbacks already, they could use some help.
While injuries played a part, the Colts' pass defense tailed off drastically in the second half of last season. They finished 22nd in passing yards per attempt allowed (7.5), 23rd in pass defense (248.9 YPG), 24th in passing touchdown allowed (29) and 26th in opponent passer rating (98.0).
Looking forward, there are some question marks among their primary cornerbacks. For example, second-year corner Marvell Tell III is still growing after making the transition from safety in college, and Quincy Wilson is facing a critical contract year.
Diggs would not only offer the Colts depth at cornerback, but he can also play special teams (including as a return specialist), has starter potential early in his career, has ball skills, athleticism, toughness and understands what makes secondaries successful as a group.
"Communication is a big factor in every game," he said. "You have to communicate, or you aren't gonna be on the same page. So that played a big factor in our games, too."
Potentially pairing Diggs with Rock Ya-Sin long term on the outside would give the Colts a very physical, talented pair of cornerbacks, with one of the NFL's best slot defenders, Kenny Moore II, on the inside.
OTHER 2020 NFL DRAFT PROSPECT PROFILES
- K.J. Hill | Wide Receiver | Ohio State
- Jerry Jeudy | Wide Receiver | Alabama
- Derrick Brown | Defensive Tackle | Auburn
- K'Lavon Chaisson | Edge Defender | LSU
- CeeDee Lamb | Wide Receiver | Oklahoma
- Tristan Wirfs | Offensive Tackle | Iowa
- Neville Gallimore | Defensive Tackle | Oklahoma
- Jeff Gladney | Cornerback | TCU
- Brandon Aiyuk | Wide Receiver | Arizona State
- Jonah Jackson | Interior Offensive Lineman | Ohio State