Due to the COVID-19 pandemic sweeping the globe, the 2020 NFL Draft is one unlike any other. But former Florida cornerback CJ Henderson gave it a touch of familiarity.
The Jacksonville Jaguars selected Henderson with the 9th pick to continue a long tradition of Gator defensive backs hearing their names called early in the NFL Draft. The selection makes Henderson the fifth Florida defensive back to be taken in the first round since 2010, after Joe Haden (2010, #5 to Cleveland), Matt Elam (2013, #32 to Baltimore), Vernon Hargreaves III (2016, #11 to Tampa Bay) and Keanu Neal (2016, #17 to Atlanta). Henderson also becomes the ninth Gator defensive back taken in the first round since 1970.
In addition, CJ Henderson just became the 53rd first round Draft pick to ever come out of Florida, as well as the Gators’ 350th overall selection. Florida has now had 18 players hear their names called in the first round since 2007, which is good for the third most in the country during that span.
Henderson has more than earned the right to be the next such statistic. The ex-Columbus (Miami) cornerback came in and earned a starting spot as a true freshman right away, recording a pick six in each of Florida’s first two games in 2017 before teams stopped throwing in his direction so frequently. Various injuries kept him off the field for at least one game in each of his three years in Gainesville, but he still finished his career with six interceptions and 20 PBU’s, including one that saved the day in the 2019 season opener against Miami. He also became adept at charging the backfield on corner blitzes, in which role he picked up a pair of forced fumbles, a quartet of sacks and eight total TFL’s.
Stats, though, don’t usually tell the full story for cornerbacks, and that’s certainly true for Henderson- perhaps the best cover cornerback in college football last year. On the overwhelming majority of pass plays, opposing quarterbacks chose to throw the ball in a direction that he was not located. That means that either Henderson had his receiver or designed area locked down, or the QB was well aware of his skill set and simply didn’t want to take a chance against him.
That skill set, by the way, includes blazing speed, tremendous instincts and ball skills, ideal size, and top-flight agility. For those who previously weren’t aware, he put all of that on display at this past winter’s combine: he clocked in at 4.39 seconds in the 40 yard dash, posted a 37.5 inch vertical leap, recorded 20 reps on the bench press and 127 inches on the broad jump.
Henderson is more than capable of translating those incredible physical traits into impressive game film, too. He’s absolutely phenomenal in man coverage situations due to his incredible athleticism- perhaps one of the best to ever come through Florida- but it shouldn’t be forgotten that he’s is more than adequate in zone, too. He rarely needed safety help in college and should make a seamless transition to the pros- if for no other reason than his hustle.
If there’s a weakness in his game, it’s his tackling. There’s no question that he’s able to make tackles in the open field, because he’s done it enough times to demonstrate that he knows what he’s doing. It’s just that, well, he sometimes doesn’t do it, a frustrating part of his film that likely kept him out of the top five of the draft. There are plays on his tape where he’ll display picture perfect technique and others where he looks like he’d rather be somewhere else- but that can be explained by the various injuries he’s suffered. And for many (although certainly not all) top tier cornerback prospects, tackling issues in college tend to quickly disappear in the pros.
You can watch his highlights below, in this twitter thread (for those who don’t use twitter, open the tweet below to expand it, and you’ll see ensuing highlights beneath).
All in all, Henderson is an off-the-charts talent with a sky high ceiling. As long as he stays healthy, it’s completely realistic to envision Pro Bowls and All-Pro selections in his future.
So congratulations, Jacksonville. In CJ Henderson, you got a great one.