Jason Verrett is not your typical NFL cornerback.
At 5'10" and 188 pounds, the San Diego Chargers superstar isn't quite as big as today’s elite defensive backs like Richard Sherman, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, and Aqib Talib, who are all over six feet tall.
But what Verrett lacks in size he makes up for with raw athletic ability and toughness, which is why he's about to become one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL.
Coming into the 2014 NFL Draft, Verrett’s height was a concern for some scouts. But after two strong years in the NFL, the former college All-American has shown that size doesn’t always matter. The Texas Christian University product displayed just how high his ceiling could be with a game-clinching play against the Oakland Raiders during his rookie season in 2014.
Up 31-28 with just over a minute left to play and their fifth consecutive win on the line, the Chargers were trying to keep hard-throwing quarterback Derek Carr and the Raiders offense out of range for a game-tying field goal. Carr threw a deep pass down the left sideline just a few yards from the end zone towards receiver Brice Butler—who has about five inches and 30 pounds on Verrett—but Verrett outmuscled his opponent and came away with a game-sealing interception.
That incredible grab encapsulated why the Chargers made him a first-round draft pick: The cornerback has the ability to match up physically with bigger players and the leg strength to outjump taller receivers for the ball. As a rookie, Verrett was limited to just six games due to a shoulder injury, but he returned in 2015 with a laser-like focus and made the Pro Bowl after starting all 14 of the games he played for San Diego.
That's when Verrett proved his emergence as one of the top defensive backs in the league. He shut down high-profile wide receivers like Antonio Brown and Demaryius Thomas last season, and now 2016 offers the cornerback a chance to take another step forward.
“It starts with myself—my preparation, my training, the way that I perform, and the way that I come to practice,” Verrett says. “I definitely feel like a lot of the players feed off of my energy. It all starts with me being as consistent as possible.”
Part of Verrett’s rise to the top crop of his position in the NFL is the work he does in the offseason with the football equipment company SKLZ and the performance training pros at EXOS. The 25-year-old serves as a team captain for SKLZ—he helps the equipment company with development and gives feedback on how the equipment works in his training—and he trains in the offseason at the EXOS facility located at SKLZ HQ in San Diego.
EXOS Performance Specialist Roy Holmes has helped Verrett develop a workout that fits his exact skill set. Using equipment like the SKLZ 6 X Hurdles and SKLZ Recoil 360, Verrett gets an all-around workout as he trains for the season. The workout hits his legs, shoulders, hips, and hamstrings with hurdle drills, single leg hops, lunges, flexor stretching, and wall acceleration drills that help keep Verrett in top shape.
Verrett spoke with Men’s Fitness about his intense offseason training, which drills help him the most on the field, his nutritional routine, and how the food is much better in the NFL than in college.
(Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for clarity.)
MEN’S FITNESS: What's your daily training like in the offseason?
JASON VERRETT: When I get back to training after the season is over, I try and ease back into the workouts. We start with stretching and some light resistance drills like sprints. Once we get into the momentum of it after about a week or two, things start to get up-tempo and that's when the competitiveness comes out.
What did it mean to make the Pro Bowl after dealing with an injury as a rookie?
It meant a lot. I was just excited to prove what I've always been capable of doing. It started in the offseason at EXOS by getting the strength back in my upper body and doing my best to stay on the field.
What are some drills and workouts that help your skills as a cornerback?
I'm a competitive guy. I just want to beat whoever is next to me. So I favor drills with harnesses, which create resistance and allow me to be more explosive. Being in the harnesses and back-pedaling, or turning and running, high knees, sprinting, touching cone-to-cone—all those different types of things help my game.
As a corner, I focus a lot on going from A to B and back, or getting in and out of my cuts, so that's probably one of the favorites that I do on the field. When it comes to the weight room I probably say upper body is my favorite. I just think that that's the most important at my position—being able to have that upper body strength and being able to press your receiver and get your hands on him.
What type of gym equipment do you like to use?
We use a Keiser machine and air machines. That’s probably the hardest thing to do, just because you have to control the weight. It's different when you just have regular plated weight that's on there—the air allows you to get that cuff strength, the real strength you need to keep your arms stable. You can use it for high pulls, you can use it in the squatting. All those things are good to apply to give that explosive strength—the air max is something I like to do on either leg days or an upper body day.
What is your nutritional routine like?
EXOS provides creatine and other supplements in shakes. I try to get a lot of fish inside of my body—I stick mostly with salmon. I use a lot of green foods like asparagus.
How has working with SKLZ and EXOS helped you with your training and workouts in the offseason?
The main thing they focus on before the workouts is the stretching—that works at getting my legs firing right. Those are the real key factors for workouts. You start off jogging two laps just to warm the body up and doing a little band work to get the glutes and legs firing. Once we get going it's pretty intense.
What are your expectations for the Chargers for the 2016 season?
Overall as a team, I feel like it's going to come down to how intense and competitive we are in practice each week. That’s really going to determine the outcome of this season. I'm expecting a lot of good things from the defense, getting Brandon Mebane [signed as a free agent] and Joey Bosa [2016 first-round draft pick] is big. I think they definitely will be dominant. They can get pressure on the quarterback and I think the defense will end up with a ton of picks.
Who have you learned the most from during your time in the NFL?
[Former Chargers safety] Eric Weddle. Definitely. When I first got here, he was the guy who was lifting before we even had team lifts. He was already in there before anybody was in the building. I watched him the entire time when I was hurt: lifting before practice, lifting after practice, just trying to do all the things that help him to stay on the field—and I think he only missed maybe three games in his nine years that he played for the Chargers. He’s given me the most advice as far as being in the weight room and staying healthy.
What did you learn from dealing with your shoulder injury as a rookie?
The shoulders are so important for cornerbacks. You need them to tackle, you need them to press, you need them to get interceptions—so my main focus was on getting that upper body strength back. I learned I needed to get my [scapular muscles] stronger and how to get all the muscles around my shoulder strong again. My upper back needed to get stronger to help my rotator cuffs get back to full strength. Putting on a little bit of extra weight also helped.
How do you prepare to play against wide receivers—Antonio Brown, Demaryius Thomas, Golden Tate—week in and week out? What do you do to give yourself an edge?
After we watch film and we get out there in practice against the scout team, I try to visualize what they might try on me in a game. Whether it's a ten yard dig in a different formation, or how they get in and out of their breaks—that's just something that I try to focus on each week depending on the opponent. For example: Last year, I knew Golden Tate wasn't too much of a route-running guy, but that when he gets the ball in his hands, he's hard to tackle. So any time he got the ball, I made sure to get him down. No yards after the catch.
What players did you try and model your game after as you were coming up through college and the NFL? What football players do you admire?
I was a big Raiders fan growing up, so guys like Charles Woodson and Nnamdi Asomugha were my top guys. I actually didn't play corner until I got to junior college, so I normally was just a fan of everybody on the offensive side, because that's all I played. Once I got to college I started leaning towards people around my size—guys like Joe Haden, Asante Samuel, Janoris Jenkins—but now then having a few years under my belt, I'd probably say last year I watched Darrelle Revis more than anyone. I just try and watch him, break down everything that he’s done—Revis is the the guy I try to watch as much as possible.
What is your pre-game routine like? Is there anything you feel like you need to eat or anything you need do before a game?
Before a game—this started in college when we only had a few options—it was either a baked potato, spaghetti, or pancakes, and I always chose pancakes and just ate that, so that just became a habit. Once I got into the league, though, that all changed, because for a night game, they’re not serving pancakes [laughs]. In college we had those night games, but they still served those same meals, so I was like, "Damn, man, I always eat pancakes before the game!" It was kind of hard to adjust, but if it’s a morning game then I'm always going to eat pancakes. The majority of the time it's hard for me to eat just because I'm so anxious to get out there on the field.
What was it like transitioning from college into the NFL? What have you learned from that experience that has helped you in the first years of your career?
First off what helped me was just knowing that you belong, because when you're in college and watching the NFL you're amazed by everybody, just because you're not on that level. When I first got in the league I was just so stoked. Like: “Damn, that's Eric Weddle. Damn, that's Philip Rivers. Damn, that's Antonio Gates. It's Brandon Flowers.” It was something that you have to grow into, because not a lot of players come from college and transfer straight into the league knowing that they belong. It wasn't necessarily the hardest transition, but it was something I had to keep in mind: "Man, I can do exactly what they do."
Do you have any advice for younger players in the NFL and aspiring football players in general?
Staying in the weight room and staying in the film room is probably the most important, because if you don't know what you're doing on the field, in the weight room, you're not going to be able to get on the field. Just having that daily routine of always knowing, "alright I gotta stay in the film room. I gotta know my calls. I gotta know the route combinations, know about places on the field depending on splits and hash marks," all those different type of things, and after each and every practice, stretching, lifting, getting in the cold tubs. All those things are going to help you to stay on the field.