September 26, 2021

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Futures: Alabama CB Patrick Surtain II

7 min read
Futures: Alabama CB Patrick Surtain II

There are 50 different ways I could make this intro about Patrick Surtain II obviously being the son of former NFL cornerback Patrick Surtain. I could say how it is a rite of passage for NFL fans to see pros from their childhood have sons who go on to play in the league. Or maybe I could talk about how writing about young Surtain makes me feel old for having seen his dad play. Instead, let’s pretend I made a long-winded connection about the father and son duo and get straight into what Surtain brings as a prospect.

Surtain was a five-star recruit who instantly stepped into a starting role with the Alabama Crimson Tide. Even though he was only the No. 2 cornerback during his first two seasons, that Surtain could start right away like that at all was quite impressive, especially considering Alabama had recently come off their fantastic 2017 season in which veterans filled up their secondary. Surtain then stepped up into the leading role for the 2020 season when senior Trevon Diggs headed off for the NFL.

Three years of starting experience is a good foundation already, but Surtain also has the right frame for an alpha at the position. Surtain is listed at 6-foot-2 and 202 pounds, which is just about a perfect spot to be in as a “bigger” cornerback without sacrificing too much mobility or range of motion. It is fair to say Surtain is not a truly elite athlete, but he does still move well for his size, which is why he gets so much value out of being a smart, physical player.

With the groundwork for Surtain’s profile laid, let’s get into the tape.

Surtain (2) is to the bottom of the screen in the following clip. Georgia’s offense is running a cross-country dagger concept with switch releases from a stacked set. The “new” (after the switch) inside receiver runs a deep over route, while the outside receiver cuts behind him on a dig route.

Surtain, responsible for vertical stem of the new No. 1 (outside receiver), starts to feel the route combination out as he leverages No. 1 and keeps his eyes on No. 2. With the No. 2 bending inside for the over and No. 1 getting vertical, Surtain can feel pretty good about the dig cutting in behind the over route. It’s a common route combo. Surtain then starts to squeeze closer to No. 1 while trying to keep his hips a bit low and his feet firing, putting him in great position to cut off the receiver as soon as he breaks inside. The deep over route ends up wide open anyway, but Surtain put the dig route on lockdown with some keen awareness and technique.

That kind of timely route recognition and sound technique shows up down the field, too. In the case of Surtain, it’s almost a necessity. A common criticism for Surtain’s game is that he does not have the raw speed desired to keep up down the field, which feels exaggerated, but holds some truth in the sense that he should not be expected to run the 40 in the 4.30s or even low-4.40s range. Surtain bridges that gap with how well he avoids putting himself in a position to be beat in the first place.

Take this rep against Georgia’s Jermaine Burton (top), for example. Burton was just a freshman, but he came to Georgia as a top-100 recruit and looks to be a key cog in the Bulldogs finally opening up their passing game. As the ball is snapped, Surtain does a good job keeping his weight over his toes while matching Burton’s release with short, precise steps, making sure he is always ready to fire off and run with the receiver. The moment Burton declares an outside release, Surtain squeezes him into the boundary, gets hip-to-hip with the receiver to slow him down, then gets his head right around as Burton looks for the ball. A lack of blazing speed is much easier for a cornerback to work around when he can force receivers to play to his speed like this.


Now here are a couple clips where Surtain (to the offense’s right) does not get to bully a freshman into the sideline. Both clips are eerily similar. Surtain wants to start each by throwing up his inside hand to slow down any immediate inside release. Surtain wastes no time in recognizing the receiver is not inside immediately, though, and gathers himself to play the vertical outside release. He makes it look so easy transitioning from protecting himself inside before turning his hips to play the opposite direction. Just like in the Georgia clip, Surtain then attaches to the receiver’s inside hip and gets his head around to run “in phase” with the receiver, making it easy for him to play this ball just like a wide receiver to knock it away.

Surtain also saves himself plenty of trouble by winning right off the snap in press coverage. Much like the league’s best cornerbacks, Surtain can carefully toe the line between grilling a receiver into submission and drawing penalties. His long frame and impressive strength and body control make it easy to corral receivers without being flagrant.

This clip is against Georgia’s George Pickens (top), who will be a surefire first-round pick when he becomes eligible in 2022. Pickens is among college football’s best at working the fade ball on the sideline like this, especially as a back-shoulder catch, but Surtain gives him zero room to breathe here. Surtain again tries to protect inside release first, but rather than just turn and run like we saw in the Tennessee clips, Surtain redirects his inside hand into Pickens’ frame as soon as possible. Surtain gets to control the speed of Pickens’ route and drive him to the sideline from there, completely evaporating whatever throwing window the quarterback thought might develop.

Surtain was not just left to play on the outside all the time at Alabama, either. Depending on the personnel and/or matchup, Surtain showed instances of shadowing across the field, often to cover the No. 3 (innermost receiver) against trips formations. Playing from the slot like that requires some nifty feet and smooth hips, both of which Surtain shows off quite well for a player his size.

Notre Dame is in a 4×1 empty set here, rather than trips, but the sentiment remains the same. Surtain is playing an inside alignment over the No. 3 right inside of the left hashmark (near the “M” in “Game” in the midfield logo) and has to take that receiver across the field on a crossing route. As usual, Surtain has no issue getting a hand on his opponent and using that point of contact to run the receiver’s route for them. Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book forces a bad ball to a different receiver closer to the sideline, but even if he wanted to look back to the No. 3, Surtain had him taken away.

All of that being said about Surtain’s strength and technique, Alabama’s scheme now leaves more ambiguity about a player’s projection than before. In recent seasons, Nick Saban has turned to more two-high coverages. Sometimes that means inside bracket help from safeties, other times it means the cornerbacks are sitting low in Cover-2 or palms, but the point remains that Alabama’s cornerbacks now tend to get more safety help than they would have in, say, 2014. There’s some possibility that has to do with how Saban feels about his cornerbacks’ ability to run, which surfaced as a major issue for Diggs as a rookie with the Dallas Cowboys last season.

It’s also entirely possible that Saban is calling more of these schemes to get better help in coverage versus RPOs (run-pass options), since those two-high shells can take away the glance routes RPO teams love as well as fan out the defense to get help on the perimeter. It’s easy to use the former explanation as a means to knock Surtain, especially as fresh as Diggs’ NFL struggles are in our minds, but it’s probably not that simple and Surtain still put up plenty of quality tape.

Either way, Surtain’s ability as a pro will be contingent on how well he plays around having average speed. In the SEC, he did so exceptionally, hardly ever getting beat over the top while drawing zero penalties thanks to his phenomenal technique and positioning. Cornerbacks without makeup speed must be among the league’s elite when it comes to winning before that speed comes into question, though, and Surtain will need to prove he is in that group.

As far as Surtain’s place in this draft class, there’s no reason he should fall outside the top 20. Surtain is not a special cornerback prospect, but he is already ahead of the curve developmentally and is built to handle the NFL’s physicality on the outside. In a cornerback class that looks to taper off a bit after the first few guys, plenty of teams needing help in the middle of the first round should be eyeing Surtain.