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Tuls | UNC senior cornerback MJ Stewart is a future nickel star

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Scouting Notes

Tuls | UNC senior cornerback MJ Stewart is a future nickel star

North Carolina senior cornerback MJ Stewart is one of the most productive players to ever suit up for the Tar Heels in the defensive backfield with six career interceptions and the third-most pass deflections in school history. With 37 game under his belt in three years, Stewart has also shown clear durability throughout his career playing both in the nickel and on the boundary for the Tar Heels.

Measuring in at 5’11, 200 lbs., he enters the 2017 season as one of the top cornerbacks in the ACC, as well as the unquestioned leader for the secondary under head coach Larry Fedora.

In today’s NFL, the nickel defense is the new base defense of the league, which means each team has three starting cornerbacks. In fact, I would be hard pressed to find any analyst who thinks the nickel cornerback position should be undervalued. This brings me back to MJ Stewart, who has both experience both inside and out, but with this analysis and scouting notes piece, I will tell you why his NFL home is in the nickel.

One of the top priorities for a nickel cornerback is the ability to mirror and stay in phase with a receiver in man coverage. ‘Sticky’ and ‘hard to shake’ are consistently found in my notes on Stewart, as he is able to play with patience and good reactionary quickness. When a receiver plants his foot to make a break in his route, the cornerback needs to have the stop/start quickness to get back on the hip pocket to close separation, and based off of the tape I saw, Stewart was rarely out of position. At the LOS, Stewart has no problem getting physical and handsy with receivers, as you can see against Miami WR Stacy Coley.

Patience is the key to a successful formula to being an effective LOS player at the cornerback position. It does not matter if you are 6’4 or 5’9, a cornerback must be a reactionary player rather than a guesser if they ever want to be relied upon. For Stewart, it was impressive to see just how calm he is in both off-man and press-man coverage. He does not take many unnecessary risks and plays with controlled aggressiveness.

There are some snaps where you wish he did have a home run mentality attacking the ball to get an interception, but at the end of the day, his forbearance allows him to negate any big plays or penalties. Staying in phase with a receiver is only one piece of the puzzle to Stewart’s game, which brings me to the next part of his game: ball skills.

For a defensive back, having ball skills means so much more than what shows up in the stat sheets. When I scout a player, the first step to judging how they play the ball in the air is eye discipline. MJ Stewart is one of the better cornerbacks in this senior class at locating the ball in front of him or with his back to it. In bump and run, he is able to read the receiver’s eyes, turn and locate when the eyes get big, and attack the ball in the air.

On this play against Bucky Hodges, Stewart is not fazed by the bigger player, sticks on the hip pocket, finds the ball and sticks with the play to cause a PBU. This play was all about timing and instincts. Say what you want, this is a trait in players where they either have it they do not have it. Because of his ability to bait quarterbacks underneath with his eyes and recovery quickness, and play the ball in either off-man or press-man coverage, he checks off all of the boxes in this facet of the game for me.

The final core requirement a nickel cornerback needs is sound run support ability. MJ Stewart’s reliability as a run defender is fascinating to watch. He consistently wraps up in the open field without many misses or lunges. One of the biggest traps defenders run into now is the stigma that you have to be an physically imposing hitter. People watch highlight tapes and want to be the guy who makes the next blockbuster tackle that trends on Twitter.

In a game scenario, that mentality is hit or miss, and at defensive back, my top priority is reliability. Reliability is paired with consistency, and to accomplish both, a defender needs to have a fundamental wrap up in their run-defense skill set, which is exactly what Stewart possesses. In addition, his competitive spirit and play strength allows him to fight off blocks when necessary. He may never be a big hitter, but he stays in his lane and does his job, especially in regards to contain and not playing hero ball by diving inside. As a blitzer, he was effective when used, and with his discipline, quickness and instincts, I think he can become a valuable piece on blitz packages as a nickel corner in the NFL.

Although MJ Stewart does not have a fatal flaw, he has a couple of minor defects to his game. For starters, he is not a great linear athlete. The jump in speed at the professional level might give Stewart trouble in keeping up with the deep threats in the NFL. In my notes, I had him listed as a 4.58 athlete, which is not a disastrous number, but for someone his size, you would hope for more speed to stay on top of receivers at the next level. He rarely gets beat because his patience, positioning and instincts do not allow him to, but in the NFL, it is a different ballgame. While his quickness will surely translate to mirror and transition laterally with some of the more agile slot receivers in the game, I worry if he will be able to consistently run vertical with some of them.

I also talked earlier about how his patience almost makes him too conservative in some instances as well. This is especially apparent in off-man and Cover 2. In off-man coverage, he is a reactionary athlete, but because he is not going to jump at every opportunity the receivers plants their foot for a move, he is not always going to be in position for big plays. While he rarely allows anything past 10 yards on the hip pocket, he seems to be hesitant with the ball in front of him, as I would wish he played with a bit more conviction at times.

There are flashes of him brilliantly sitting on a route and baiting the quarterback’s eyes for an interception, but there are several examples in Cover 2 where the opposite result occurs. In the Florida State game, he took a goof 45-degree angle to close the window, but seemed to second guess himself at the top of the path, which made him hesitate long enough for the pass to be completed. It is little things like this that drive me crazy because I know how football intelligent this guy really is on the field.

Overall, MJ Stewart is the a good mix of what today’s NFL nickel cornerback looks like. He is quicker than fast with good stop/start agility and reactionary timing, but is also able to locate and attack the ball both in front of him and with his back to it. In addition to his coverage skill set, he is arguably the most consistent open-field tackler of the senior cornerback class. Combine all of that into one, and you have a valuable starter in the nickel at the next level.

While he is not elite in one specific area of the game, I think he can be a future star because of his consistency and man coverage ability. He has the tools to even move outside at the next level to lock down either a team’s X or Z receiver. I just think with his skill set, he would translate best using his quickness and LOS skills to match up with the Jarvis Landry and Julian Edelman slot receivers of the NFL, while also being able to be used as a chess piece in the run game by a defensive coordinator on blitz packages.

Jonah Tuls

Tuls is one of the lead NFL Draft analysts for Draftbreakdown.com and has been a key contributor to several other NFL Draft sites in recent years. At Draftbreakdown, Tuls provides macro-oriented NFL Draft coverage, including comprehensive player rankings, mock drafts and big boards for the site. Tuls has worked with some of the NDT Scouting staff previously before; he worked with National Scout Jon Ledyard to form the core of USA Today’s Draft Wire site for the 2016 NFL Draft season. His work there was centered around draft reports, with additional analysis and breaking news efforts as well.

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