Bent, TheJetsBlog.comYesterday, the Jets announced that they had claimed cornerback Leon McFadden off waivers from the Cleveland Browns. Jets fans may not know too much about McFadden, so I’ve been reviewing game footage to assess what he brings to the table.
The 23-year old McFadden is 5 foot 10, 190 pounds, and was drafted by the Browns in the 3rd round of last year’s draft. He played in all 16 games last year, although only really saw significant action on defense towards the end of the year when the Browns had some injury concerns.
After the jump, I look in detail at footage from last year and from this year’s preseason to evaluate some of his strengths and weaknesses.
Who is Leon McFadden?
McFadden played at San Diego State, where he intercepted eight passes and broke up 39 in a four-year career. Although he was a former high school track athlete, his combine numbers were nothing special (including a 4.50 forty). However, he was still drafted early in the third round by the Browns.
In preseason last year, he had some struggles in coverage, giving up 10 catches on 14 targets. However, he showed some promise on special teams and made it onto the active roster where that was his role for most of the season. Entering week 12, he had only played five snaps on defense, but the Browns were dealing with a lot of injury issues and therefore had to call on him to play as a backup safety over the next two games, where he played a total of 41 snaps. Over the last four games, he moved back to cornerback, starting two games and seeing plenty of action in the other two, including a win over the Patriots.
Entering camp this year, he was expected to earn a role with the team and saw plenty of action in preseason, but struggled with the new emphasis on defensive holding and illegal contact, racking up eight penalties over the four games. At the same time, however, his raw coverage numbers were very good, as he only gave up seven catches on 20 targets.
Despite the Browns dealing with plenty of injury issues, he was unable to make it through final cuts, with former Jet Aaron Berry being one of the guys selected ahead of him. He joins a Jets team dealing with plenty of injuries of their own.
Since that high penalty count is plainly the most concerning issue here, I’m going to focus more closely on the footage from this preseason with the increased emphasis in place.
Week 1 – at Detroit
In this game, McFadden played in the second half and had two tackles. He gave up two catches for 13 yards on his only two targets. These comprised an easy first down on a slant route where he was playing too far off and a play where he closed on the receiver in the flat and knocked him out of bounds for a short gain. Prior to that second play, though, he had been called for three penalties in quick succession. Those three plays were a pass breakup, an interception and another incompletion and he’d have been praised for making some good plays if he got away with the level of contact. Were these penalties though? And would they have been penalties under the old interpretation of the rules? We’ll come back to this issue later on.
Week 2 – at Washington
In this game, McFadden saw action throughout, had two tackles and did not allow a catch on five targets. He also broke up a pass. Those are impressive numbers, but he still had his struggles. He was hit with an illegal contact penalty on the outside and then called for a hold on an incomplete fade pass to the end zone (which initially looked harsh but then the replay showed that he clearly grabbed the receiver’s jersey). There was also a play where – perhaps affected by the calls going against him – he allowed a completely clean outside release and was burned over the top, but the pass was overthrown and fell incomplete. Later on in the game, he made two good plays in coverage anticipating the break well on one incompletion and breaking up a pass at the pylon on another.
Week 3 – v St Louis
McFadden started this game, albeit more by default than as a reward for playing well. He again had two tackles and gave up three catches for 80 yards on seven targets. On two of these completions, he was actually in pretty good position but one was threaded through traffic and the other was essentially a jump ball to a much bigger receiver for 36 on 3rd and 25. Once again, there was a play where he gave up a clean release and got beaten by a step over the top but the ball was incomplete. He was actually flagged for illegal contact on that one, but they picked it up. That did seem to be correct, although he did seem to try and fail to grab the receiver to slow him up further downfield. He couldn’t remain penalty free though, as he was called for illegal contact when he couldn’t resist putting his hands on his man after allowing an inside release. He was in good position on a couple of incomplete passes to the end zone later on in the game, although on one there seemed to be some contact as the ball arrived and on the other he was late looking back for the ball.
Week 4 – v Chicago
McFadden started again here and gave up two catches for 49 yards on six targets. He had one tackle. He was called for pass interference early on a play where he was beaten deep then recovered as the ball was underthrown but made contact just before the ball got there. He also had one more penalty for illegal contact as the receiver pretty much just ran into him before breaking back to the ball. I find it hard to see how any cornerback can cover a player in that situation without making contact, but by the letter of the law I guess it was correct. The two catches he gave up were a back shoulder throw where he was in pretty good position but didn’t look round in time to be able to contest the high throw and a play where he showed poor anticipation on a curl route. Later in the game he really started to flash, breaking up three passes and in good position on a fourth that was overthrown.
Here’s my observations from watching the footage on McFadden, including footage from last season, divided into categories:
McFadden has plenty of experience in the slot and on both sides of the field. He was covering a wide selection of players, including some bigger names like Rob Gronkowski, Antonio Brown and Reggie Wayne (who he played press coverage against to break up a pass last preseason). As noted, McFadden was also employed as an emergency safety and held his own, which is useful experience. He was employed both in press and off-coverage, but seemed to prefer and be more adapt at press.
In regular season action in 2013, McFadden gave up 15 completions in 22 targets and had just two penalties. That’s without the current emphasis on contact, though. He did give up a few long plays (40 being the longest) but no touchdowns. There was one time when he was really exploited and that was down the stretch in the win over New England. With Cleveland up 26-14 and time winding down, McFadden was matched up with Julian Edelman in the slot. Tom Brady hit Edelman down the seam on an inside release for 23 and the next play was practically an instant replay for 19 more. Three plays later, Edelman this time broke to the outside and was able to get out of bounds. McFadden was then called for a pass interference penalty on a throw to the end zone to put the ball down to the one yard line. The announcers felt this was a horrible call because the contact as the ball arrived was incidental, but he did make contact just before that. All-in-all they picked on him for 77 yards on the drive.
One thing I noticed was that early on in his short career, McFadden was too far off his man quite often when playing in off-coverage. However, that’s something which he seemed to improve on a lot, breaking on a few balls and being a lot tighter even on those plays when the pass was completed. Interestingly, in the late season loss to the Jets, he gave up four completions on throws where the receiver stopped and came back to the ball and on each occasion he was all over the receiver’s back as they made the throw. That was at a point in the season where Geno Smith had finally seemed to master the timing on such throws, having been perpetually a beat late for most of the year. Had McFadden faced Smith in the same situation a month earlier, that might have been two pass breakups and a couple of interceptions.
McFadden obviously likes press coverage but learning to play within the rules is what will make or break him.
McFadden’s measurables are not great. According to the awesome mockdraftable.com, the only areas where his combine numbers were better than average for his position were arm length and the three cone drill. His closing speed is not bad, but I do have a concern over his straight line speed because he was struggling to close the gap whenever a receiver got a step on him over the top.
This is obviously a big part of McFadden’s game and the new emphasis is a massive adjustment for him. As noted, he had a bunch of penalties and there were several other plays where he got away with contact that could easily have also been called on him. Looking back to 2013, he only had two penalties, both defensive pass interference. One of these was the disputed call against New England noted above. The other saw him read a double move and stay stride for stride with his man on a back shoulder throw, but he didn’t get his head turned around in time, so when the receiver came back to contest the throw there was automatically contact and an easy call. Getting his head turned around is something he can improve upon too.
As you’ll note from the recap of the games above, there was a pattern of McFadden settling down late in games and making a bunch of good physical plays on the ball. However, this is a major concern because rather than being a sign of McFadden getting into a rhythm once he’s comfortable I think it has more to do with the lower standard of opponent late in games and also the fact that officials were not calling things as tight down the stretch. That would mean that his grades and numbers against NFL-level opposition were much worse than his overall numbers would suggest and also that he probably would have had even more penalties had those plays been made earlier on in games.
There have been some suggestions that the officials were calling this super-tight in preseason and that they will relax the rules once the season gets underway. Aside from being a pretty stupid way to prepare teams for the new rules and to ensure a level of consistency among officiating crews, this could mean that a guy like McFadden will make more plays that will no longer be negated by a flag. However, can you really take that chance? If anything, there were just as many plays that he did get away with which also could have been flagged.
McFadden stands out on special teams, where he is productive in kick coverage, does a solid job in the vice role and operates as a blocker on the kick return units. LeQuan Lewis made a couple of nice special teams plays in preseason, but McFadden seems to be an upgrade. Seeing how much McFadden has been struggling at corner, I wonder if that’s all this move is about. Could the addition McFadden be no more than a short term special teams addition who can fill in outside, in the slot or even at safety in an emergency? Lewis does not have much experience in the slot, so maybe they just wanted better special team contributions and versatility from their fifth corner.
McFadden did make a couple of plays against the run. As you’d expect from a physical player, he isn’t afraid to stick his nose in there on a running play and he came up and stopped a few runs near the line of scrimmage. However, he was blocked out of a few plays at the second level and there was one cutback run where he seemed to switch off because the runner was going the other way and then found himself easily blocked out of the play on the back side.
McFadden seems to be a pretty solid form tackler. He shows good technique to break down in the open field and keep in front of his man, especially on special teams. I wouldn’t describe him as a big hitter based on what I saw, but he did level one guy on a short pass after a series of penalties that probably had a little extra juice behind it because he was frustrated. The only tackles he tended to miss were desperation efforts where he had to dive after someone. He had 13 tackles for a loss in college.
McFadden blitzed eight times last season and was credited with a half sack as he came unblocked out of the slot. The quarterback actually slipped off his tackle, while another blitzer came off the other edge to finish him off.
McFadden is obviously a pretty good playmaker based on his college numbers and just from the examples here. On the interception that was negated by a flag, he wrestled the ball away from the receiver on the outside. He just needs to improve his timing and avoid making contact, especially with the current emphasis in place.
There were ups and downs in this area. He anticipated breaks well at times and not so well at others and he could have been better at avoiding blocks in the open. I will say that there were a few occasions where teams tried to confuse the coverage by bunching receivers and he usually coped with that quite well. On one play he initially covered Antonio Brown well, only to then lose him once the play was kept alive. He should at least have some level of scheme familiarity because he’s been learning the Mike Pettine defense that was inherited from Rex Ryan.
McFadden has Kyle Wilson’s patented celebrate-and-then-realize-you’ve-been-flagged move pretty much down pat. I felt sorry for him on some of those calls and I guess he did pretty well to keep relatively calm while obviously frustrated.
I’m unaware of any injury issues for McFadden, who played 51 games in college and all 16 games last year without ever being on the injury list.
McFadden had his moments, but let’s be honest, he really struggled in coverage this preseason and wasn’t much to write home about last year either. While we don’t know how officials will call the games, McFadden has a habit of grabbing jersey or putting his hands on receivers downfield and I don’t think you’re ever going to coach that out of him overnight.
As you may have noticed above, I pretty much already reached the conclusion that McFadden was brought here as no more than cover. He seems to offer better special teams production and more versatility than Lewis, who only plays on the outside. For a fifth cornerback that likely won’t receive any defensive reps unless there are more injuries, maybe that does make him more useful than Lewis in the short term.
If that’s the case, then that’s encouraging news because it suggests the Jets feel pretty good about the chances of Antonio Allen and Dee Milliner being back in the line-up early in the season (and also about the other cornerbacks on the roster being able to fill in until that time).
However, if that’s not the case and they actually brought this guy in hoping for him to be an immediate contributor with a healthy amount of upside, I fear it might be something of a misfire. Still, there’s over a week until opening day; plenty of time to make another move if needed.
Unless the Jets make any more signings between now and opening day, I’ll be back on Sunday morning to preview the season opener!