On Monday, the Jets signed free agent cornerback Aaron Berry to a two-year contract, having worked out Berry and three other cornerbacks last week (including Darrin Walls, who went onto the practice squad). Jets fans might not know too much about Berry, so I’ve been looking at game footage in detail to investigate what he could bring to the table.
Berry was a free agent, so assuming he received a standard deal with little or no guaranteed money, there is no requirement to keep him on the team for any length of time if he isn’t working out. He was released by the Detroit Lions in preseason after getting arrested twice in one month on gun charges. While I won’t be dedicating any time to that aspect of his character, it’s apparent he has some baggage. However, he might have some talent too, so if he’s now on the straight and narrow, then it’s plausible the Jets might have found themselves a bargain. Berry was suspended for the first three weeks of the season, so only became available last week. However, it may take him some time to get into NFL shape, or at least into enough of a rhythm to contribute on gamedays at the NFL level.
After the jump, I look in detail at footage from Berry’s first two seasons in the league to evaluate some of his strengths and weaknesses.
Who is Aaron Berry?
Berry went to college at Pittsburgh and went undrafted following some injury concerns. He spent preseason in 2010 with the Detroit Lions and impressed so much that he ended up in the starting lineup (as a third corner) on opening day, although he would suffer a shoulder injury that day and miss the rest of the season. In 2011, he played a pretty big role with the Lions, starting three games and receiving significant reps in most of the others. Berry isn’t big – listed at 5-11, 180 – but certainly has better size than Isaiah Trufant. He actually measured just 5-9 and three-eighths at his Pro Day, where he did post good numbers, including a 4.47 forty, 36-inch vertical, broad jump of over 10 feet and a sub-four second short shuttle.
Bassett asked Ty Schalter from Lions in Winter for some insight on twitter and Ty shared this:
Very physical outside man coverage guy. Isn’t all-world, inconsistent downfield, but much better than people realize … I often compared him to Cortland Finnegan before CF became everyone’s new favorite Best Corner Ever last week (?!?)
Some pretty lofty praise there, so it does sound like he has some promise to at least be serviceable.
The first thing to note about Ty’s comments is that he calls Berry an “outside man cover guy”. Sure, enough, in 2011, he only played nine snaps (out of 478) in the slot. However, the Jets might need someone who can play in the slot, because when they go to a nickel package, they have preferred to use Wilson in that role, rather than Ellis Lankster, so they may not see Lankster as a slot option. The good news is that all of Berry’s 2010 reps were in the slot. Having said that, he only played half of one game, so it’s not like he has a ton of experience there.
Let’s look at his numbers from his career so far:
40 tackles (39 solo)
Two missed tackles
Coverage numbers: 35-for-56, 442 yards, one TD, one INT and six passes defensed
Completion percentage: 62.5%
Yards per attempt: 7.9
QB rating: 85.6
One special teams tackle
Four penalties (one holding, one neutral zone, one interference, one offsides on a kickoff)
As noted, Berry started the first game, but suffered a season ending shoulder injury during it. He was on the field for 26 snaps:
Week 1 – at Chicago
- On the very first play of his career, he lined up in the slot and came up to trip Matt Forte in the hole for a short gain, showing some run stopping ability.
– Later in the first quarter, on 3rd and 20, he intercepted a pass and returned it into Bears territory. This was an unconventional play, as he lined up opposite the slot receiver, but just dropped off into a zone and a throw across the middle was tipped into the air and then batted right to him by another defender. He showed some quickness on the return.
– On the first play of the second quarter, he made another good play against the run. Again he came across from the slot to stuff a run up the middle.
– Later on in the second quarter, he was targeted on a throw down the seam to Devin Aromashodu that went for a 21-yard gain. He again dropped off into what seemed like zone coverage and Aromashodu made the catch in behind him as the safeties were backed off too far, so that may not have been his fault.
– Finally, a few plays later, he was taken out of the play by a pulling lineman on a screen pass.
Week 1 – at Tampa Bay
- In kick coverage midway through the first quarter, he took a step too far to the inside, creating a seam, although he did show good speed to hustle back and get the angle on the return man, who was stopped at about the 30.
– Into the second quarter, he lined up on the outside, but the Bucs motioned the receivers and bunched them together in an effort to confuse the Lions on 3rd down. Berry backed off and Preston Parker ran a corner pattern and got a step for 18 yards on an accurately delivered pass to the sideline.
– Late in the half, with the Bucs needing to go 80 yards in 1:16, his man came back for the ball and made a diving catch downfield for 14. Berry made a rookie mistake here, allowing the receiver to roll out of bounds before he touched him.
– He made up for it with nine seconds left and the Bucs at the 13 yard line, breaking up a pass in the end zone, forcing them to settle for a field goal. However, this was a terrible missed call by the officials as he never looked back for the ball and drove his shoulder into the receiver’s chest well before the ball arrived.
– Into the fourth quarter, he made an aggressive play to come and tackle the receiver in the flat, but missed the tackle and allowed him to pick up the first down.
– A few plays later, he gave up another 13 yard catch on an out pattern. He was 10 yards off his man at the snap and gave him far too much cushion.
– Two plays later, he was playing press coverage at the line, got contact to slow him and drove him out towards the sideline, staying with him stride for stride as the pass never had a chance of being completed. That was excellent, physical coverage, although the receiver once again was appealing for a flag.
– With 1:40 to go, the Bucs – down 14 – had 4th and three at the five. Berry was in single coverage on his man, backed off to the goal line at the snap and the Bucs targeted him for a touchdown, on an inside route to the back of the end zone. Again, Berry didn’t do a good job of getting his head turned around. Overall, he was victimized eight times for 77 yards on ten targets.
– The Bucs did get the ball back, but were forced to attempt a crazy multi-lateral play in the final seconds. Berry himself iced the win by falling on a wayward toss at his 42.
Week 2 – v Kansas City
- Early in the second quarter, he came off the edge as the Chiefs ran a draw play on 3rd and six. Although he missed the tackle, it forced the runner inside and he came up a yard shy.
– On the next drive, he made a great read on 3rd and three and came off his man to prevent Dexter McCluster from getting outside on a screen pass, then closed well to tackle him for a one yard loss as he tried to turn upfield.
– In the second half, there was one play where Dwayne Bowe beat him for a first down on 3rd and 8. Berry had help to the inside, so was playing outside technique and Bowe ran a good route with a sharp inside cut to get Berry on his back.
In Week 3, Berry only played 15 snaps and was targeted once (an incompletion). He did not play in week 4.
Week 5 – v Chicago
- In the fourth quarter, Berry was a bit over-aggressive with his jam in press coverage and was called for a hold, negating a sack.
– Two plays later, he gave too much cushion to Johnny Knox, who cut off his route downfield and made a sideline catch for 13.
– Later on the same drive, Matt Forte lined up out wide and made a diving catch on a similar route. This time Berry closed on the ball a bit better, but it was still just out of his reach.
– A few more plays later, he broke well on the ball as Dane Sanzenbacher cut his route to the inside and broke up the pass superbly. Chicago, down 11, had to settle for a field goal.
– In the last minute with Detroit once again up by 11, he backed right off his man to give up an easy seven yard catch, but closed quickly to push his man out of bounds.
In Week 6, against the 49ers, he played 21 snaps and was again just targeted once, on an incompletion. This was on a throw to the pylon where Michael Crabtree was ruled to have come down out of bounds. Berry was in press coverage and was again pretty physical down the field and could have been called for pass interference because he had two hands on the receiver as the ball was in the air, although Crabtree kind of pushed him off at the same time. After a review, the play stood, but Berry was perhaps lucky that it wasn’t a touchdown or a penalty.
Week 7 – v Atlanta
- On an early 3rd and two, he jumped a route on a quick throw to the inside and almost picked the ball off. As he jumped in front of Harry Douglas, there was contact before the ball arrived, but on this occasion, Berry was driving on the ball and probably entitled to that space.
– Later in the first, he gave up a first down to Roddy White on 3rd and 12, as he gave him too much of a cushion and wasn’t able to close fast enough with White catching the ball in stride and diving beyond the marker.
– Into the fourth quarter, the Falcons had 4th and two and the Lions – down by four – may have expected the Falcons to try and draw them offside and then call a timeout, but they snapped the ball and White lost Berry on the outside. However, Berry recovered well and when White made a jumping catch, he forced him out of bounds before he could get both feet down. Unfortunately, this good play was negated by a penalty.
– With four minutes to go, the Falcons still led by seven and Berry read an attempted bubble screen superbly to avoid the block, close on the receiver and make the tackle at the line of scrimmage. Detroit got the ball back, but their comeback bid fell short.
Week 8 – at Denver
- This was the game in the middle of Tim Tebow’s run, where the Broncos got blown out. Obviously with the Broncos running the ball a lot, Berry wasn’t tested much but did have a play in the second quarter where he confidently sat on the receivers route and easily jumped the route to break up a pass.
– In the third quarter, he did have one play where Eddie Royal beat him for a would-be first down, but he dropped the pass as Berry put him under close pressure.
Week 10 – at Chicago
- After the bye week, Berry was beaten by Earl Bennett for a first down on 3rd and 12. This was a zone coverage and he was too far off down the middle.
– At the end of the second quarter, he made a good play on special teams, bringing the return man down short of the 20.
– He was targeted one other time for a short gain of seven.
Week 12 – v Green Bay
- After missing out in week 11, Berry started his only three games of the season over the next few weeks
– Aaron Rodgers went after Berry on the first play, for 15 yards to Jordy Nelson, who once again came back for the ball with Berry playing too far off.
– In the third quarter, on a dump off to the flat, Berry came up from the secondary to make the tackle, but overpursued and got beaten to the outside for a 14-yard gain.
– Entering the fourth, Greg Jennings beat him downfield for a 31-yard gain. Berry lined up a couple of yards off the line and ran alongside him instead of trying to make a jam. He ran stride for stride, but never looked back for the ball and Jennings was able to make an easy jumping catch on a timing pattern.
– Lined up at left corner for a change, Berry jammed Randall Cobb at the line and stayed with him as he ran down the sideline and Rodgers threw him a low pass at the goal line. Cobb dropped the pass. Berry was right with Cobb, but again had his hands all over him as the ball arrived. The good news was that this time he did get his head turned round eventually, but that was only because Rodgers delayed the initial throw.
– With 11 seconds to go, the Lions tried an onside kick, but Berry was flagged for being offside.
Week 13 – at New Orleans
- Early on in the game, Brees targeted Berry with the same downfield curl route that he’d been playing too far off on a lot of the time. On this play, he had inside safety support, so was playing outside technique. The receiver came back to the ball, but Berry timed his hit from behind to break up the pass.
– On the first play of the second quarter, Berry gave up his longest pass of the regular season, a 38-yarder. As with the Rodgers completion to Jennings, Brees lofted the throw downfield and Robert Meachem ran under it. Berry slowed him momentarily with a jam at the line and was right with him in tight coverage, but once again didn’t get his head turned around and this enabled Meachem to get enough separation by leaning into him as the ball was about to arrive.
– He made a good play in run support a few plays later, avoiding a block from the wide receiver who lined up close to the left side of the line and assisting on a tackle for a one-yard gain.
– On the next play, he was targeted for an 18-yard catch to Marques Colston. However, this was a zone coverage and he wasn’t really out of position because there was a receiver on his outside, so that may have been someone else’s fault.
– Late in the half, Colston gained 13 more. This was another curl route downfield with Berry playing off, although it again looked like a zone coverage and he perhaps should have had better help from the inside.
– Late in the game, with Detroit trailing by 14, he gave up another first down to Meachem who ran an out route with Berry playing off him at left cornerback. Over these two games, his only full-length starts in the NFL, he gave up nine catches on 14 targets, for 161 yards.
Week 14 – v Minnesota
- In this game, Berry injured his arm pretty early on, missing the rest of the regular season.
– In the first quarter, he was lined up on the outside and should have had an interception when Christian Ponder overthrew the receiver in the slot, but he dropped it on a diving attempt.
– Early in the second quarter, Berry’s injury occurred. He actually made a great play, tripping Percy Harvin up for no gain with an arm tackle as he tried to bounced outside.
Wild Card – at New Orleans
- Berry’s return to the line-up for this big game saw him heavily involved.
– On a play in the second quarter, he was a bit over-eager at the snap and called for a neutral zone infraction. On the next play, he was beaten by Colston for a 22-yard gain. Colston got behind him, but this again looked like a zone coverage.
– Later on, on the same drive, Meachem beat him for a nine yard catch out at the sideline on 2nd and 10. This was absolutely perfect blanket coverage from Berry, who even got a hand on the pass, but somehow Meachem still caught it with his feet inbounds.
– The Saints drive continued, as they looked to tie the score before halftime. However, they had to settle for a field goal. Berry made another key play, batting a pass away as Brees scrambled and tried to loft the ball to Jimmy Graham at the back of the end zone. However, the replay showed that he should probably have intercepted it.
– In the third quarter, he made a great play against the run, as he wasn’t fooled on an end around to Darren Sproles and pulled him down in the backfield.
– Early in the fourth, he made another good play against the run, coming off the edge unblocked and combining with a teammate to stop Pierre Thomas in the hole for two.
– On third and two later on the same drive, Jimmy Graham lined up on the left and Brees threw a quick pass to him. Graham pushed off (no call) and reached back for the ball, but Berry stood his ground and knocked the ball out of Graham’s hands as he tried to secure the catch.
– A few plays later, Berry dropped another possible interception. He seemed to have pretty good coverage downfield on Colston, but Brees underthrew it badly under pressure and Berry reacted fastest. However, his diving attempt saw the ball go right through his hands.
– The drive ended with a 17-yard touchdown run by Sproles. Berry was easily blocked downfield by Devery Henderson and didn’t seem to make much of an effort to get off the block at the five yard line.
– With just under four minutes to go, Meachem – who you’ll recall beat him for a 38-yard gain in the regular season – beat him for 41, setting up the clinching touchdown. Berry, on the left side again, was in pretty tight coverage and made the tackle at the goal line, but Meachem comfortably made the catch with Berry, playing outside technique, on his back. Berry looked like he was expecting help on the inside, but Brees froze the safety with a pump fake.
– On the Saints last possession, they ran a pump and go, Berry was called for pass interference, surprisingly for the first time in his NFL career. He had his hands all over the receiver downfield, but that had been the case on several other plays over the course of the season.
Conclusions: Berry definitely lives up to the billing of a physical corner. He seemed pretty comfortable on the big stage of playing in a postseason game and wasn’t really picked on or embarrassed badly even on the big plays he gave up over the course of his two seasons in the league. It’s not difficult to draw some very straightforward conclusions about his strengths and weaknesses based on the footage:
- The first thing that stood out was a negative and that’s the fact that there were several plays where he just didn’t get his head turned around. That’s a criticism that’s justifiably been thrown at Kyle Wilson since he’s been in the league. In Berry’s defense, he actually seemed to improve in this area over the course of the 2011 season, so we’ll have to wait and see if that’s something he’ll continue to struggle with at times.
– Berry is very physical, almost to the point of being too physical. There were several plays where the pass was incomplete and the receiver wanted a flag and certainly a couple where I’d expect a flag to be thrown more often than not. Physicality is a good thing, but I’d be worried that he could become a bit of a penalty machine if given significant playing time, even though he was lucky not to have been hit with too many penalties so far in his career.
– There were several plays where Berry gave up too much of a cushion. Obviously it’s good that receivers aren’t getting behind him and maybe in some cases it was by design, or he was a victim of his teammate not giving him help at the right time, but that’s something that elite quarterbacks will always be able to exploit at this level.
– He did give up some catches in zone coverage, but on the whole I’d say that his positioning was generally good. It’s always difficult to attribute blame when a receiver finds a gap in a zone, but I didn’t see any obvious missed assignments from him.
– Berry showed a willingness to help out in run support, making a couple of nice plays. He only missed two tackles, which is a sign that he’s a pretty sure tackler, and wasn’t taken out of many plays by blockers.
– On special teams, Berry didn’t make much of an impact with only one positive play and one where he made up for his initial mistake with good hustle standing out. With his athletic ability, you’d think he could contribute well in this area, but maybe his build isn’t ideal.
– In terms of ball skills, Berry seems to have pretty good timing and closing speed and when he gets there, he did break up or deflect some passes. However, based on his NFL career so far, he can’t catch, as he has dropped several possible interceptions. He did pick off one pass, but it was abnormally easy.
– Berry’s physical play translated well to him playing press coverage. In this week’s BGA, I noted how Antonio Cromartie finally seems to be heeding his coaches’ advice to play more physically at the line and get his hands on his opponents. Berry does a good job of this, usually slowing his man at least temporarily at the jam. He was penalized once, but I don’t think I ever saw him give up a completely clean release.
– One nitpick I have about Kyle Wilson is that he has a tendency to celebrate incomplete passes, even when he was beaten and got a bit lucky. Berry’s demeanor is somewhat similar to this at times. He did also seem really frustrated when he gave up a first down in zone coverage, so at least he seems passionate, which might be something this team needs.
– Obviously, given his lack of size and the number of games he’s missed so far, durability may also be a concern.
– Finally, I noted that even when giving up receptions, Berry was usually in pretty tight coverage. His numbers for yards after the catch confirm this. In 2011, he was third in the entire NFL, giving up just 2.0 yards per catch. As a point of reference, Cromartie was 5th with 2.7. Only Keenan Lewis and William Middleton did better, but neither played as much as or gave up as many catches as Berry.
In watching this footage, I was trying not to fall into the trap of comparing him with Darrelle Revis, which would only ever make him look inadequate. Instead I was trying to make a direct comparison with what we saw from Wilson on Sunday. On the basis of his performance last year, there’s no reason why Berry shouldn’t be able to push Wilson for time, as long as he (a) gets his head screwed on, (b) gets in shape and (c) learns the playbook. While I still have reservations about him avoiding getting flagged all the time on key plays, this is a move that should have a lot of upside for the Jets. Let’s hope he is ready to make the most of this opportunity.