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Film Room: Marvell Tell III emerges as a player with Pierre Desir out

Tell has played admirably the past two weeks with Desir out due to injury

Indianapolis Colts v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images

The Indianapolis Colts had a pretty major hole at cornerback heading into the Denver game as starting corner Pierre Desir was not healthy enough to play. While most assumed that former second round pick Quincy Wilson would start in his place, the Colts surprised everyone by giving that job to rookie fifth rounder Marvell Tell III. Tell, a safety in his four years at USC, hadn’t played corner in a meaningful game since high school and was then thrown into action against an NFL offense. The result was better than anyone could have expected.

The rookie corner played admirably against the Broncos and as a result, he was rewarded with yet another start the following week against the Pittsburgh Steelers as Desir was still unable to play due to injury. He again played well as he had a few key pass deflections and forced a big fumble late in the game. In today’s film room, we will be looking at this young cornerback convert’s game through these two weeks and see just how well he has played while filling in as the starting cornerback.

Length and Athleticism on Display

Before jumping into the film, let’s talk about why the Colts’ identified Tell as a good fit at cornerback. He was a high recruit out of high school as a corner originally but played all of his college ball exclusively at safety for USC, where he had a fairly productive career. At the combine though, his length and measureables made him an intriguing fit at corner. Standing at 6’2” with 33” arms, he fits the NFL need for lengthy corners. Add in that he had some of the best vertical (42”) and broad (136”) jump scores in NFL Combine history for defensive backs and he made for an intriguing late round project.

With his stock being as a day three safety, Tell was completely open to the move to corner. When I had the chance to interview Tell in the pre-draft process, I actually asked him about the potential switch. His response was;

I’m a quick learner and I played corner in high school so I’m not completely foreign to it. If I can just get to training and work on that craft, I can perfect it.”

With the Colts slowly developing him throughout this season, they finally let him play these past two weeks and the result has been pretty good. Let’s look at a few of these clips though that showcase not only his length and athleticism but also the strides he has taken in his technique.

In this first clip, he was matched up with wide receiver Courtland Sutton. The receiver who haunts the dreams of other rookie cornerback Rock Ya-Sin had an excellent day against the Colts as he was consistently open downfield all game. Tell has him in a goal to go situation here and the call is a fade to the big receiver. Sutton attempts to stutter inside to set up the fade but his progress is stopped by the long arms of Tell. Tell, using his 33” arm length, stops his feet and gives a good jam on the stutter to throw off the timing of the route. Quarterback Joe Flacco is forced to throw the ball away as a result as the timing was completely disrupted by the strong play of Tell.

On this next clip, Tell is lined up at the top of the screen on a third down attempt. Quarterback Mason Rudolph attempted to go at Tell all day likely due to the fact that he is a late round rookie corner. Here he tries to hit the quick curl for the first down against the young corner. Tell does a great job of opening up his hips and staying in the inside hip pocket of the receiver. As the receiver breaks inside, Tell is able to contact him at the crest of the route and disrupt the timing. He is then able to be in perfect position to compete at the catch point. While this technically was a catch allowed, although on replay it looked like an incompletion, this was a great process by Tell to compete throughout the route.

On the athletic side, his burst and closing speed are on display on this play. Playing with his back foot on the goal line, the task is too quickly attack anything in front in this defense and prevent the score. The Steelers try a quick pass in the flats to tight end Vance McDonald and Tell is able to close quickly. The pass is not great but Tell’s ability to fly downhill and hit McDonald as he tries to haul this in is impressive. The result is an incomplete pass and the Steelers are forced to settle for the field goal. You can see in these three clips why the Colts were so high on Tell as the length, athleticism, and ability to learn and develop are all on display.

Former Safety showing on film

When I was writing up the safety scouting reports for the Stampede Blue Draft Guide, I was not very high on Tell at all. His athleticism was never in question but he lacked many other traits that I personally like to see in NFL safeties. The biggest issue however was his run defense as he was a good tackler but he really struggled with his run angles in pursuit. I did mention though that when he was in a confined space with his run defense, he was very good. As a corner now for the Colts with his run angles and ground to cover much smaller, he has looked very good as a tackler.

In this first clip, you can clearly see that he is a good tackler. He is lined up on the outside in zone coverage but then quickly breaks off as the pass is completed underneath. He comes up in pursuit and meets the ball carrier around the first down marker. With little room to give before the first on this key third down, Tell makes a very sound tackle. He is able to wrap the ball carrier up around the waist and drive him into the ground while not giving up any extra yards. This was an excellent form tackle by the former safety in the open field.

In run defense, he has shown a willingness to mix it up and be physical. Here is a textbook example as he does his job perfectly. He quickly diagnoses the run and comes off his receiver who is attempting a clear out route. He establishes outside position on the run and forces the play back to the inside. As the runner begins to slow his progress, Tell closes in and makes the sure tackle for little gain. Flashy? No but this is textbook in terms of diagnosing the play, establishing outside leverage, and making the tackle.

Speaking of textbook, what is the number one thing all little league coaches teach their football players? Get your head on the football and good things will happen. In Marvell Tell’s best play of his young career, he did exactly that. He breaks down his hips perfectly and lines up for a perfectly sound tackle. He then gets his head on the ball and is able to force the huge fumble late in the game. This play gave the Colts a chance to win and was nearly a turning point in the game. Great textbook play by the rookie here.

Still Learning

While his play has been fairly good these past two weeks, it is key to remember that he is still learning the position. Again, he hasn’t played this position since high school so there will be some learning mistakes and areas to improve upon. Regardless though, this has been a very good start for the young cornerback.

This first clip is a tough route to cover even for the best corners. A “whip” route takes advantage of a corner’s leverage and Tell overpursues on the play just a bit. The receiver is then able to work inside as Tell has to recover from his initial over step. While he does close quickly on the receiver and make a tackle to limit yards after the catch, this is definitely a learning moment for the rookie for when he faces these routes again. Still, this is fixable long term and shouldn’t be too much of an issue going forward.

Finally, the biggest concern for every young corner in the NFL is ball tracking. Young corners are so focused on their footwork and technique that they often struggle to finish their reps and get their head around to make plays on the ball. Rock Ya-Sin for instance has had major struggles in this area this season. Tell hasn’t had many times where this issue has appeared other than his pass interference call on Sunday. He is in great position as he doesn’t bite on the stutter step and stays in the receiver’s hip pocket. The next step however is either getting his head around to make a play on the ball or waiting until the ball arrives and attacking the hands of the receiver. While this pass interference call is very weak to say the least, the call never happens if Tell does one of these two things.

Final Thoughts

What a surprise Tell has been these past two weeks. His play hasn’t been phenomenal but this is just about as good as you can expect from a safety convert making his first career starts in the NFL. His length and athleticism have been apparent early in his film and once he learns from mistakes and develops his game a little bit more, he should be a good player in this league.

“I just became a student of the game. I learned how to watch film, I started meeting with my coaches outside of mandatory times, and I just really bought into the defense and understood my role and the roles of others around me.”

This is what Tell told me back when I interviewed him prior to the NFL Draft. Seeing how he has developed from a day three safety in the NFL Draft to a solid NFL corner in a very short amount of time, this quote is completely believable and accurate. The Colts loved Tell in the pre-draft process and clearly like what he is doing in practice and in the games. The sky appears to be the limit for this young corner as he continues to build off these performances going forward.