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What makes Jaycee Horn the best cornerback in the 2021 NFL Draft

It would be tough to find a better option at No. 12 than South Carolina’s star cornerback

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 14 South Carolina at Ole Miss Photo by Michael Wade/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The 49ers have retained a good portion of their unrestricted free agents during free agency. — the notable players, at least. By doing so, they’ve done a great job to position themselves to select the best player available with the No. 12 selection in this upcoming NFL Draft.

Re-signing three potential starters in the secondary might cross cornerback off the list in the first round, but Jason Verrett and K’Waun Williams are both signed to one-year deals. The best teams always plan ahead. In this scenario, a prospect the caliber of Jaycee Horn shouldn’t prevent San Francisco from selecting the star cornerback.

Horn had his pro day on Wednesday, where he tested like a world-class athlete across the board:

Before his pro day, I felt like Horn was the No. 1 cornerback in the class for several reasons, namely Horn having the fewest weaknesses. He’s an easy projection.

To me, Horn is in a tier by himself at cornerback and is one of the seven best players in the NFL Draft. The measurables and testing are there for Horn, as evidenced above. His production is undeniable.

Per Sports Info Solutions, Horn allowed nine completions on 29 targets for 130 yards. That’s a completion percentage of 31% on 4.5 yards per target in the top conference in college football. That’ll do. Factor in Horn breaking up eight passes and intercepting two throws, and there’s plenty to like on the surface.

Those numbers are eye-popping, but just because he tests well and has impressive stats doesn’t mean it translates to the NFL. We see great athletes test well and fail to pan out every year.

So, let’s see what Horn, the player, looks like where it counts: on the field.

Preferred press corner

Per SIS, 50% of Horn’s snaps came in press coverage. He allowed 1.5 yards per snap in man coverage, which is third among all draft-eligible cornerbacks. No cornerback had more “coverage total points” per game in man coverage than Horn this season. Again, statistically, he was superb.

On the field, that didn’t change.

Against Texas A&M, Horn lined up in press coverage against the tight end in the slot, each perimeter wide receiver, and even a wideout in a condensed split. The play below is what it looks like to have top-tier movement skills. Horn is lined up across from the receiver to the top of the screen:

Too often, even in the NFL, cornerbacks run parallel with receivers and don’t put themselves in a position to make a play. Before the wideout above crossed the center, Horn had already undercut his route. That’s special.

The top cornerbacks at every level know that if you cannot get to the “low shoulder” of the receiver, then you won’t make a play. Horn does this routinely.

Horn’s 4.39 40-yard dash flashes when he’s tasked with chasing receivers down across the field, but it’s his patience at the line of scrimmage that stands out. There is no panic in Horn’s game. Horn had zero issues turning and running with speedy receivers, nor did he bail too early when the smaller, quicker, and shifter receivers danced with him at the line.

South Carolina used Horn as a matchup cornerback on third downs. That included lining up in the slot against a tight end against the Aggies and a smaller shifter Elijah Moore against the Rebels.

Here’s Horn in the slot lined up against the No. 3 receiver, Moore, to the bottom of the screen. Moore closes the ground between him and Horn, gives him a head fake, but Horn doesn’t budge:

Notice how Horn’s weight doesn’t shift, and his shoulders stay square. You’ll hear people praise other cornerbacks in this class for being a technician. Horn should be mentioned with those cornerbacks.

There are a handful of techniques you can use at the line of scrimmage. Horn, surprisingly, is at his best when he can use his reactive athleticism and technique, as opposed to his length and physicality.

Tremendous transitions

Horn allowed 18.6 yards per game during the 2020 season. You don’t have that type of success without putting yourself in a position to make plays on the ball. Before we get to Horn’s ball skills, we have to focus on what got him there. For a guy who weighs 205 pounds, Horn’s transition skills are second to none.

I mentioned weight distribution above. There are no false steps when Horn comes out of his break. When you see cornerbacks struggle to change directions, it’s generally due to having too much weight on their back foot. This isn’t an issue for Horn, as you can see below to the bottom of the screen:

That’s against a future Heisman trophy winner. Horn shows off smooth transition skills, closing speed, and a perfectly timed “peanut punch” to jar the ball loose. The finish isn’t possible without Horn’s break.

You end up allowing 18 yards a game because — with proper technique and elite closing speed — you get in and out of your breaks within a blink of an eye. Horn’s transition in this play below to the bottom of the screen is mind-blowing, and the definition of efficient:

Horn is in a position to contest a speed out to the boundary from off coverage. He makes it look regular, but that’s unique in every sense.

Will being ‘grabby’ get in the way?

The biggest gripe when discussing Horn is that he’s too handsy down the field. The former Gamecock was flagged for five penalties this past season on 466 snaps. Honestly, I never felt that being too grabby would be an issue for Horn at the next level.

In ‘19, he was flagged for a penalty against Jerry Jeudy that was a joke. On the play below against Elijah Moore, Horn was penalized. How in the world is this a flag?

Horn is looking back at the ball, and their feet get tangled. That’s not something we have to worry about.

When I see Horn get his hands on a receiver, it’s to gain leverage. It also tells me he’s in a position, usually when he’s on top of the receiver, to put his hands on the wideout. I’ll take the guy who is aggressive every single day of the week.

Competitive Alpha

You can’t name a successful cornerback in the NFL who doesn’t think they’re the most talented person on the planet. It’s how they're wired. To excel at the position, that’s the only mindset to have. Horn believes he’s the best defensive player in the draft:

Horn competes on every snap. That’s why South Carolina used him all over their defense. There were plays where Horn was used at the line of scrimmage to set the edge against the run. In the next series, the Gamecocks would use Horn in the middle of the field as a safety. Why? Because you know you’ll get premium effort from a top-tier athlete each play.

Against Alabama in 2019, Horn could be seen trash-talking and in the face of Jerry Jeudy at the bottom of the screen:

This was the norm. Horn is the alpha-dog that transforms your defense. There’s no way to quantify an “alpha.” You just know one when you see him. You can see the alpha in Horn in each game.

Here he is tossing Kyle Pitts to the ground like you toss your keys on the counter when you get home:

It all comes together on the play below, as Horn runs through a blocker to help make a stop at the line of scrimmage against Auburn:

You’re not finding another cornerback in this draft with Horn’s type competitive nature.

Ball skills aplenty

Finding the ball when it’s in the air is one of the most difficult things a cornerback is tasked with during a play. You must simultaneously track the flight of the ball in the air while having the spatial awareness to locate your man. All of this while having to turn and run while you’re off balance.

Horn’s athleticism shows up when the ball is in the air once more as his body control and calmness are on full display. He has no issue twisting and turning, whether that in zone coverage when reading the quarterbacks eyes:

It’s tough not to appreciate Horn’s mid-play communication above.

Too often, from press-man, I’ve seen Horn run the route for the receiver. Watch the slot receiver to the top of the screen:

Horn’s initial jam throws the receiver off his path, and, from there, the route is over. He should be kicking himself for not hauling that interception in.

Remember how I mentioned getting to the wideouts ‘low’ shoulder? Horn does it, unlike any other cornerback I’ve seen:

Again, closing speed helps, but the awareness to position yourself to the correct shoulder of the receiver went a long way in college, and it’ll only help Horn in the NFL. Everything is effortless, which is promising.

Where are his faults?

I’ve seen people criticize Horn’s tackling or being too grabby in coverage. We already covered the latter. Horn gave up a touchdown on a wheel route from the No. 3 receiver, where another wideout picked him off. Pitts caught a contested pass on him. In 2019, Horn bit on a double move which led to a touchdown against Vanderbilt.

Against Auburn — despite forcing eight incompletions, breaking up four passes, including one that led to an interception, and having an interception — Seth Williams “mossed” Horn down the field. Horn also gave up a touchdown on a play near the goal line where he was late after passing off a route.

Back to the tackling, which I believe is overblown. Horn missed three tackles all season, per Sports Info Solutions. One came were a “peanut punch” failed him. The other two tackle attempts went awry after Horn put his head down. “You can’t hit what you can’t see” was the case.

I point to Horn’s usage as a blitzer as evidence that tackling won’t be a problem in the NFL. He can close in a hurry, is physical, and when he wants to get somewhere, he does. Here’s Horn beating two blockers, the left tackle and the running back, en route to hitting the quarterback:

The Vols and the Aggie games highlight Horn’s willingness against the run.

For me, Horn’s faults at the college level aren’t sustainable; thus, they won’t cause him any setbacks in the NFL. His confidence is palpable. The traits are on display in each drive, and his competitiveness sticks out like a sore thumb.

There aren’t ten better players in this draft than Horn, who has spent this offseason training with some guy named Jalen Ramsey. Knowing Horn is ready to play right away and has the ceiling to be a superstar, there won’t be many, if any, better options at No. 12.