Our post-draft Q&A series continues today with a bit of a twist. While each of the previous entries included an interview with an SB Nation writer, today’s article is breaking the mold and chatting with somebody who covers the Florida Gators beat on a daily basis for another network.
Zach Goodall, publisher for Sports Illustrated’s AllGators.com, is going to tell us everything we need to know about rookie cornerback CJ Henderson, the first-round pick of the Jacksonville Jaguars (No. 9 overall) in 2020. You may remember Zach as a former Big Cat Country writer or as a writer/editor at LockedonJaguars.com, but now he is one of the young rising stars in the college athletics beat-writing game.
Given Zach’s vast knowledge of both the Jaguars and Gators, I reached out to him to see if he would be interested in answering a few of my questions regarding Henderson. See our conversation below:
1. Henderson fills a position of need for the Jaguars at cornerback. What traits does he have to be a No. 1 cornerback in the NFL, and do you expect him to earn this role for the Jaguars right away?
Zach: I think Henderson will walk into the season as Jacksonville’s clear-cut No. 1 cornerback, and his draft position makes that the expectation. You would never expect Henderson to primarily have played running back rather than cornerback in high school, as his reactionary skills, man coverage techniques, and feel for the position seems natural when you watch him play. His frame is a bit slim which could cause some to be skeptical of his ability to press consistently, but Henderson’s athleticism, length, and mental processing give him as high a ceiling that you could find for a cornerback tasked with lining up against No. 1 wide receivers and mirroring their routes on every down.
2. Henderson is known as a tremendous coverage player, while the big knock on him is his tackling. Break this down for us — what makes Henderson so good in coverage and what makes him a poor tackler? Is the tackling something Jags fans should be concerned about, or do you expect Henderson to improve in this area?
Zach: Although Henderson (deservedly) gets hyped up for a 4.39-second 40-yard dash time, 37.5-inch vertical jump and 127-inch broad jump, he wouldn’t be the player he is if it weren’t for his processing skills. He understands routes before they break, he actively keeps his eyes on the quarterback, and pairing those skills with his athleticism allows him to make big plays. It isn’t easy for cornerbacks to undercut in-breaking routes from outside leverage, but Henderson can consistently make those types of pass breakups. As for tackling, yes it’s a concern — but it’s an overblown one. Again, he’s slim. He doesn’t possess the same strength of, say, Jalen Ramsey. But he’s been labeled as an unwilling tackler in the past and that just isn’t true. Look at the down, distance (third-down-and-two), and reaction on this play.
Another point: The Jaguars didn’t draft Henderson to fix their run defense. That’s what Al Woods, Rodney Gunter, and DaVon Hamilton are for. The Jaguars drafted Henderson to lock up opposing No. 1 wide receivers in coverage, and he’ll do that.
3. The Jaguars are clearly moving toward a culture change, and the high-character players Jacksonville selected in the 2020 NFL Draft are proof of that. What kind of leadership ability and maturity does Henderson bring to the team?
Zach: He isn’t an outspoken leader. In fact, he’s the anti-Jalen Ramsey in the sense that you might not ever hear him speak on game days. That’s not to say he’s disinterested, rather, he lets his play do the talking. He’s a team-first guy, he is one of the first guys on the practice field and always one of the last ones off, usually because he sticks behind to train with younger members of the team and give advice. That leadership style allowed Florida to get two freshmen cornerbacks in Kaiir Elam and Chester Kimbrough onto the field in the 2019 Orange Bowl, and both played very well in place of Henderson.
4. Prior to the Draft, the Jaguars were a team you had pegged for Henderson as a potential NFL fit. Some fans and pundits felt that ninth overall was a bit early for Henderson (I disagree with this, as he was a top prospect at a position of need). Were you expecting Jacksonville to pull the trigger so early, or were you surprised by this? Do you think Henderson can live up to his top-10 status?
Zach: I was recently asked if I viewed Henderson as a top-10 player in general, and I think he was on the fringe. I valued Henderson more than (Auburn’s) Derrick Brown as a prospect, yet less than (Iowa’s) Tristian Wirfs, (Alabama’s) Jedrick Wills, and (Alabama’s) Jerry Jeudy, With that being said, cornerback was inarguably Jacksonville’s biggest need entering the draft and selecting a fringe-top-10 player at the end of the top-10 is hardly bad value. Everyone loves the “best player available” idea — but when you can pair one of the top BPAs with a glaring need, a small reach is more than okay.
5. Henderson doesn’t seem to want to be compared to Jalen Ramsey. From a playing standpoint, is there another NFL cornerback you would compare Henderson’s game to (and why), or is Ramsey still the best comparison?
Zach: I wouldn’t compare him to Ramsey at all, from a playing or leadership perspective. The two have extremely different personalities from my experiences covering both of them in person, and Ramsey was a far more physically dominating cornerback whereas Henderson is technique-driven and will out-athlete almost anyone. Ramsey tested on par or better than Henderson, but the two use their athleticism differently.
I’ve seen a lot of comparisons that are solid, such as Marcus Peters and Greedy Williams, but I think Darius Slay — as a prospect — makes a lot of sense because it’s all about tools. Slay came out at 6-foot-even, 192 pounds, running a 4.37 (40-yard dash) while jumping 35.5 inches vertically and 124 inches broad. Slay had better tackling technique coming out of Mississippi State, but needed to get physically stronger in that department at the time. There weren’t many questions about his coverage ability other than press, though, and the same can be said about Henderson. It should also be noted that Slay and Henderson both played for Dan Mullen.
6. Anything else we should know about Henderson?
Zach: There’s a running joke around the UF beat and even the team itself about how hard it is to get Henderson to smile. If you think Henderson doesn’t want to be in Jacksonville based on his reaction video that was turned into a meme, you just don’t know the guy. He’s quiet and unemotional — he lets his work do the talking.
Don’t get it twisted, I’m excited as ever & ready to get to work !!!! #DUUUVAL— CJ Henderson (@HendersonChris_) April 24, 2020
A huge thank you to Zach for taking the time to provide such insightful and detailed analysis on Jacksonville’s new cornerback. Be sure to follow him on Twitter for more Gators and Jaguars analysis, and of course, follow AllGators as well.