Before Derek Stingley Jr. had played a single college game, the NFL wanted him. He had turned 18 a few weeks earlier, and at fall camp in 2019 an NFL general manager watched an LSU practice and said, “He’d be a top-10 pick this year.”
A year later, as LSU had five players picked in the first round, the consensus grew. It was widely believed if Stingley were eligible for the 2020 NFL Draft he’d have been the first cornerback selected. It took two more years, but that first-round NFL expectation has been realized, although the path has not gone as expected.
Throughout that 2019 season, he was the closest thing to the defensive back version of a can’t-miss teenager often seen in basketball. He was the No. 1 high school recruit in the country and arrived at LSU as a seemingly perfectly-crafted 6-foot, 190-pound starting corner on a national championship team. He was physically advanced beyond his peers to the point LSU strength coach Tommy Moffitt said, “He kinda reminds me of the first impression I had of (Leonard) Fournette. Just physically mature and game-ready.” Stingley started from Day 1, and by LSU’s second game at top-10 foe Texas, he was defending most opponents’ No. 1 receivers. He was dominant, allowing just 6.6 yards per attempt as teams completed just 37 percent of passes directed at him.
By offseason 2020, he was perhaps the best defensive player in college football. He had Heisman hype, and the No. 1 question was whether then-LSU coach Ed Orgeron would let him play receiver, too.
Instead, Stingley spent most of the injured 2020 season, playing in just seven games. And most of those seven games involved Stingley playing through quad and ankle injuries. Even with the injuries, he was still an All-American who allowed less than a 40 percent completion rate against him (impressive considering LSU had the worst pass defense in the SEC). Then more injuries meant he played just three games in 2021.
Drafting Stingley means betting on the ability that, when healthy, could arguably make him the No. 1 player in this entire draft. He has NFL corner size and technique that has been harnessed by his coach of a father since he was in elementary school. Those traits could make him an All-Pro for a decade. The question comes down to availability, but the value may outweigh the risk.
Dane Brugler on Derek Stingley Jr. (No. 3 CB, No. 14 overall prospect in The Beast)
A three-year starter at LSU, Stingley played both left and right cornerback for defensive coordinator Daronte Jones, his third coordinator in three seasons. Despite injuries hindering him during the last two seasons, he led the SEC in passes defended and interceptions in LSU’s national championship 2019 season, earning Consensus All-America honors as the first true freshman to start on the Tigers’ defense in 34 years.
Stingley, who played primarily outside with some slot snaps worked in, is patient in press with the effortless hip fluidity to turn underneath and run vertically or mirror. Although NFL scouts have questioned his toughness in press coverage and as a tackler, he has outstanding on-ball production thanks to his timing and awareness in coverage (allowed only 41.1% completions during his three seasons at LSU). Overall, Stingley needs to stay on the field (he missed more games the last two years than he played because of injuries), but he is a top-tier athlete with the man-coverage skills and ball instincts to stay attached on an island. He projects as a Pro Bowl-level NFL starter if he stays healthy.
Top college highlight
Perhaps the most informative Stingley performance didn’t involve any interceptions (we could have picked his two-INT game in the 2019 SEC championship against Georgia). It might be his matchup of him with Collin Johnson at Texas earlier that season. It was Stingley’s second career game, and he was matched up with a top-tier receiver and held him without a catch when guarding him. Watch the first highlight in which he seems to be a step behind, he stretches one arm out, uses the one hand to pry the ball out of Johnson’s grasp and then catches up to nearly intercept it. The rest of the video shows him draped over Johnson all night. Stingley didn’t look like a freshman.
Stingley’s legacy at LSU ended in an odd place, as his final two seasons included LSU football falling apart (11-12 record), Orgeron getting fired and Stingley missing time with injuries. His strength coach, Moffitt, said it’s tough to judge him by those two years because of everything around him. “Derek was surrounded by much better talent in 2019. I’m not saying that to take anything away from Derek, but the supporting cast Derek had. That’s the way teams are going to be when he plays in the NFL. They won’t have walk-ons in starting positions.” And though Stingley’s draft stock had failed because of injuries and questions about his toughness, Moffitt said inside the building there were more things going against Stingley than most realized. “If you were there on a day-to-day basis, you would have been like, ‘Wow, how does this kid hold this together? How does he keep getting up and pulling himself off the ground?’ It was unbelievable.”
What you may have missed
In spite of Moffitt’s comments, the primary question about Stingley is his toughness and durability. While those questions are fair, many might not realize how much he played through in 2020. His ankle and quad were injured for most of the year, and he played through it (which made his film look worse). Then, he suffered the Lisfranc injury to his foot from him early in 2021 training camp. Teammate Andre Anthony and Moffitt both said Stingley refused to get surgery and insisted on playing the first three games with it until it got worse and he was forced to have the operation.
(Photo: Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)