The Big 12 conference isn’t exactly the cradle of cornerbacks. It’s a spread-’em-out, pass-happy league that uses DBs for target practice. The Big 12 has sent a lot of quarterbacks and wide receivers and pass-protecting offensive linemen to the NFL but not many cornerbacks recently.
In the last four years, 117 corners have been selected in the NFL draft. Just seven came from Big 12 schools.
Only one was taken earlier than the fourth round – TCU’s Jeff Gladney, who was drafted by the Vikings in the first round in 2020.
This is not to suggest that Zech McPhearson, the Texas Tech corner the Eagles selected in the fourth round of last month’s draft, can’t develop into a solid NFL corner. I mean, people tell me you can get some really good sushi at ShopRite.
“Nobody thinks Big 12 corners are NFL-type players,” NFL Network analyst Brian Baldinger said after the draft. “But I think this kid’s got something to him. I like him. He’s got good size (5-foot-11, 191 pounds). He’s got good ball instincts. Can he start opposite Darius Slay? I mean, he’s going to get a chance.”
That chance starts this weekend at the Eagles’ rookie minicamp. McPhearson was the only corner the Eagles drafted, so he’ll be afforded a lot of one-on-one time with defensive backs coach Dennard Wilson and assistant secondary coach D.K. McDonald.
“Going into this week, I’m just hoping to get my feet wet and showcase my skill set, and hopefully take it from there,” McPhearson told reporters earlier this week.
The Eagles went into the offseason clearly needing to upgrade the cornerback position. Slay was inconsistent in his first season with the Eagles after signing a three-year, $50 million free-agent contract.
Avonte Maddox has size and durability issues. He’s played well at times, particularly inside, but has missed 13 games in his first three seasons.
After those two, you mostly have a bunch of faces in the practice-squad crowd such as Michael Jacquet, Craig James, and Kevon Seymour. So, yeah, McPhearson definitely is going to get a chance to play this summer, and probably beyond.
While his Big 12 pedigree might not impress a lot of people, McPhearson believes he benefited from playing in the offense-first conference.
The Baltimore native transferred to Texas Tech in 2019 after spending two years on the bench at Penn State. He earned his degree in labor and employment relations and was able to play right away for the Red Raiders.
“The Big 10 obviously wasn’t as much of a pass-heavy conference as the Big 12,” McPhearson said. “It was a totally different game in the Big 12. You’re facing an Air Raid offense every week.
“Going against some of the top receivers and the top quarterbacks in the country, it has definitely prepared me for this level. Every week you’re going against a [good] guy.
“That’s what you want at corner. You want to be going against somebody that’s going to be bringing a challenge to the table. It was a real good experience being down at Tech for two seasons and being able to do that.”
In McPhearson’s first season at Tech, he faced an Oklahoma offense that featured one of his new Eagles teammates, Jalen Hurts, and a guy he probably will have to cover this season, Cowboys wide receiver CeeDee Lamb.
Hurts completed 17-of-24 passes for 415 yards and three touchdowns in a 55-16 Oklahoma win. Lamb had seven catches for 185 yards and three TDs.
Eagles general manager Howie Roseman has been criticized for not taking a cornerback earlier in the draft. He passed on one in the second round in favor of Alabama offensive lineman Landon Dickerson, who, despite a checkered injury history, has been called “a potential difference-maker” by Roseman.
They took a rain check on a corner again in the third round in favor of defensive lineman Milton Williams.
“Listen, we’re always going to start with the line of scrimmage when we’re building this football team,” Roseman said. “Right or wrong, as long as I’m here, that’s going to be the priority.
“If we have an offensive or defensive lineman sticking out on our [draft] board, and they’re the highest [rated] guy, I promise you we’re going to take them.”
Roseman said the Eagles thought about trading up into the bottom of the third round to get McPhearson when there was a cornerback run that saw five go in the last seven picks of the round.
“We wanted to get him because of the player he was, not because he was a corner and we needed a corner,” the Eagles GM said.
The Eagles decided not to trade up, but McPhearson still was on the board when the Eagles went on the clock 18 picks into Round 4. He was the 17th corner taken. If he can play, that fact will be irrelevant.
McPhearson had four interceptions at Texas Tech last year and was a first-team all-conference selection by the coaches. He excelled in zone coverage, which the Eagles are expected to play a lot of under new defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon.
Gannon was hired in late January, but nearly four months later, still hasn’t been made available to the media.
“I can’t dive into details, but we’re going to be doing a combination of different stuff,” McPhearson said. “Me, I’m pretty versatile. I’ve done it all throughout my college career. Whatever it may be, I’m ready to get out there and do it.”
McPhearson also was an outstanding special teams player at Tech and should be able to have an immediate impact there even if he ends up being slow to develop as an NFL corner.
He blocked two extra points at Tech and returned a blocked field goal for a touchdown.
“Field-goal block, my coach at Tech [Keith Patterson] instilled in me that a lot of people take off field-goal block as a free play,” he said. “But that’s when you can really change the game.
“I took a lot of pride in field-goal block, and special teams in general. Especially being a DB. Being able to be versatile on special teams and helping out where you can. It’s just a part of the game I value really highly.”
McPhearson comes from an athletic family. His father was a cornerback at Boston College and had a cup of coffee with the New England Patriots. His mother played in the full-contact National Women’s Football League.
He’s got two brothers who played minor league baseball, another one who was drafted by the New York Giants, another who played at New Mexico and another who was a walk-on running back at Penn State. Oh, and his sister was a soccer standout.
McPhearson was an outstanding high school baseball player and went to Penn State to play both sports but ended up playing only football.
“They were paying for my scholarship,” he said. “So I put all my eggs into the basket for football.”
How good could he have been if he had focused on baseball?
“The ceiling was real high for me,” he said. “It was tough giving it up.”
His NFL ceiling is still to be determined.