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Cornering the Market

by DJ Boyer on May. 7, 2014

The crop for cornerbacks is a bit down this year in comparisons with years past but it is a deep position. Common sense says that if the league is throwing more, you need more well-rounded cornerbacks in order to stop opposing offenses. Coverage can be designed perfectly for a play but if one corner is beaten or does not provide the proper support then all can be lost.

 

The Top Prospects:

 

Darqueze Dennard may not have the top end speed you look for in a truly elite prospect at cornerback and he doesn’t stand 6’0” tall. DraftSite however still believes that Dennard is the cream of the crop of the entire cornerback class. Dennard is a physical corner that is going to press opponents and disrupt their timing at the line of scrimmage, something that just doesn’t get done enough in the NFL, especially with offenses that rely so much on timing and receivers getting to a particular space. Dennard is stronger with his upper body than the 15 reps on the bench at the Combine would suggest, and his closing speed and recognition skills make him appear a little faster than what he is. Some teams are concerned that he does not have long arms, and that could cost him a few spots down teams' boards. We believe Dennard will go in the #12-#26 frame of the first round, with the top 20 very likely where Pittsburgh at 15 and the New York Jets at 18 are looking like the most likely suitors.

 

Kyle Fuller missed significant time this season after sports hernia surgery but he has a clean bill of health and his draft status is now that of the final stages of the first round. We hear a lot of reports with teams like Philadelphia, San Diego, and Cleveland interested in his services. He displays outstanding football intelligence, and always knows where he is on the field and what situations call for. There were 3 or 4 instances in his junior season where Fuller could have made interceptions and instead defensed a pass because that was better for the team field position. He is a solid tackler but seems to have a bit of a gambler streak in him, although it doesn’t seem to manifest itself often. Fuller looks comfy in man coverage and zone and has even played some safety while at Virginia Tech. He seems to be the second or third option with a lot of teams right now, and because of that we should see Fuller in the first round.

 

Justin Gilbert is seen by many as one of the top corners on the market and he is the consensus to be the first cornerback selected in the draft. Gilbert has great size and speed, which is so important at cornerback. The 4.3 numbers he has thrown up in workouts and at The Combine have propelled him from what was once late first/early second round status into being the first corner taken in the middle stages of round one. Gilbert was a star quarterback before coming to Oklahoma State so he understands a little more about the offensive side of the football. His return ability (six career touchdowns) will only increase his value at the next level. Gilbert is more of a zone presence but his increased skills in man-to-man offer hope that he could be as close to a “shutdown corner” as we will see in this draft. The only big knock on Gilbert is whether his speed is all straight line or if his cone and short shuttle times, which are on the slower side, indicate that Gilbert does not have the recovery speed needed when changing directions. Gilbert had a wonderful 2013 season and the tape should be sufficient for most scouts. DraftSite feels that Gilbert is not the best cornerback the class has to offer but he is a solid choice and all-around athlete.

 

Bradley Roby looks faster than Justin Gilbert on tape and from a standpoint of which cornerback in this class has the most natural talent, the winner is Roby and it isn’t close. There is some baggage and inconsistency issues about Roby though that won’t leave every team feeling warm and fuzzy and it could push him out of the first round altogether. Roby loses focus and seems to “play down” to the level of his competition. He has shown well against the top receivers he faces and the Big Ten has many top targets in their own conference. When facing opponents not of the elite caliber he seems to struggle when he should be dominant. Off the field issues including a recent offense where he accepted a guilty indictment for a lesser charge (admitted to having control of a vehicle while under the influence but not a full-fledged DUI that would appear on his record), and a battery arrest will make teams very leary about selecting him in the first round or at all. Roby has great instincts and natural recovery speed, but he is not a textbook tackler and seems to shy away from contact at times.  He has outstanding footwork and with the right coaching he could be the gem of the cornerback class, but the potential for a bust is there. Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Philadelphia seem like the most likely landing points if he is selected in the first round. Reports indicate the Redskins would make him their top choice as the second pick in the second round if he falls out of round one.

 

Jason Verrett lacks true size and is built more like a slot or nickel corner but he has the physical traits teams are looking for in a starter. Verrett is the most sound and physical presence of the top prospects that have a shot at going in the first round. Cincinnati, San Diego, and San Francisco seem to be the first round possibilities if Verrett goes there, but it is 50/50 whether or not Verrett ends up in round one or two. Verrett has tremendous instincts and could be the best corner in the draft. Teams don’t seem very scared with the shoulder surgery he underwent in November for a torn labrum. This procedure was identical to what Dee Milliner has done before the draft last year and he was still the top corner off the board and drafted by the New York Jets.  Verrett is the best corner blitzer of the bunch and a sound tackler who does not shy away from open field contact. He has been a bit underrated in the process leading up to the draft, but that could change on Thursday.

 

Second Tier:

 

Bashaud Breeland is going to get a lot of attention from teams looking for physical corners. Breeland does not have top end speed so being physical at the line of scrimmage is key. He registered 74 tackles this past season, a higher number than we usually see for cornerbacks. Breeland also registered 17 passes defensed, since moving around the field and different packages are common at Clemson. He is leaving school one year early and his draft status is probably not affected that much since he is seen as a second or third round prospect. Breeland should go to a team looking for help with depth, as he is a solid performer but does not have a huge ceiling or upside. He seems very pro ready and can contribute fairly early in his career.

 

Pierre Desir is a small school athlete from tiny Lindenwood University in Missouri that has a lot of people talking. Desir is a very long athlete with long arms and a distance runner's stride who possesses terrific instincts. He does not stand out in any particular area though other than his keen ball skills. Desir has dropped some sure interceptions but is always in position to make a play, although will need to use size to his advantage more. He plays with more finesse versus physicality and you would think the opposite to be true being a larger prospect and playing at a lower level of competition. Desir will not last past the middle of the fourth round although round three is the most likely landing spot for him. Teams that value size in corners like Seattle or Baltimore seem to be natural fits, yet New Orleans, Indianapolis, and Cleveland have all shown increasing interest.

 

Stanley Jean-Baptiste has garnered mixed reviews in NFL circles as the stats are there to support someone who is very active. With monstrous 6'3" size you would figure he would jump off the page at a number of teams. Jean-Baptiste is a converted wide receiver and he is still learning the finer points of being a defensive back. Size and speed may indicate more of a safety prospect versus cornerback, but stopping the run and being active with play recognition are still not quite there. Corner seems to be the best position for him at the NFL and it is what he has been playing at Nebraska. Jean-Baptiste was flagged for holding a few times at Nebraska and will need to be more aware of what he can and can’t get away with at the NFL level. He is a project who will contribute on special teams before he does on defense but so many teams are excited about his size that he should go no lower than the fourth round.

 

Lamarcus Joyner is a player that we see more as a safety prospect but more NFL teams seem to be eyeing him as a corner despite his 5’8” frame. Joyner has played both safety and cornerback in college and he is an excellent hitter and not just for someone 5’8”. He is a sound hitter who is also an above average tackler, which is why we feel he is a natural fit for safety. He would be best utilized with a team where he can play some nickel coverage as a corner and transition into safety for other packages. He can be used off the edge to blitz and has a tremendous vertical leap. Joyner is a wonderful return man who could be used on punts and kickoffs. He is currently seen as a second or third round prospect as there is obvious interest from Dallas and New Orleans. Joyner can use the play of Tony Carter from Florida State as a stepping stone. Carter has been up and down during his brief NFL career but has had plenty of chances and his size and versatility are similar to what we see with Joyner.

 

Keith McGill seems to be another in a long line of very tall Utah corners who are fringe corner/safety prospects at the NFL level, with Sean Smith being the most famous we have seen over the last five years. McGill shows more quickness than all out speed as his instincts and the ability to jump routes and help as a secondary tackler has improved greatly. Does show a knack for seemingly lying low and then making a big play, hit or interception to turn the tide of a game. McGill is a JUCO All-American transfer who has shown the propensity to get dinged, seemingly having some type of nagging injury that leaves him far from 100%. He is not as fluid in the hips though and change of direction skills are a bit under par. These traits may indicate a team trying him at safety or that a move to the position will be necessitated later in his career.

 

Rashaad Reynolds is a prospect that we are very thankful to be seeing rising up the draft boards. Reynolds was projected as a 5th-7th round pick most of the year by many although DraftSite has had him as a solid 3rd-4th rounder most of the year and it looks like others are starting to come around. Reynolds put on a hitting exhibition in the Bowl Game against Boise State by causing two fumbles and returning them for touchdowns as Oregon State took down the Broncos. Reynolds is a very willing and capable hitter who seemed to put it all together this season from a coverage standpoint and is a late-bloomer. He relied heavily on athletic prowess, but he seems to finally be learning the finer points of the position and he could be an absolute steal if he continues this rate of ascension up the board.  He was a second team All-PAC 12 player that by all accounts is a pleasure to coach and has a true football mind. Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Chicago and Cincinnati have been heavily linked to having an interest in Reynolds.

 

 

Marcus Roberson is a bit of an enigma, like many of his teammates, in the surprisingly lean season at Florida. Roberson has all of the athletic talent you would want, like many of the prospects at Florida, but he seems to have a propensity for being injured or just not performing to his capabilities. Roberson seems like he will be the first of the three corners at Florida that are going to be drafted (see Louichez Purifoy and Jaylen Watkins in the "Lurking" section of this article). Despite his draft status Roberson seems to have the most questions unanswered among the three Gators that should be drafted. Roberson had a solid Senior Bowl and by all accounts had some down workouts. He showed flashes of being fearless and playing well on the field but shows at times to be clueless as to what is going on or fooled badly on a play. The football IQ is there and the ability is unquestioned, so Roberson can be successful, but he has to put it all together because watching him on film you see an incomplete project in the works. Should be off the board by the third round but could be slipping to the later rounds once the draft rolls around.

 

Lurking:

 

Walt Aikens is another interesting small school prospect who has safety and cornerback experience as well as being a basketball player at Liberty University. Aikens is also a transfer from Illinois so this is a prospect who had some national attention and noteriety. He is a very long and fluid athlete who seems to just glide instead of run. He has very loose hips and can change directions with ease. His aerial skills need to improve as he seems to mis-time some jumps. Aikens also needs to improve upper body strength as he seems very frail and will need to add some bulk to play in the NFL.  He always tries to strip the ball and excels in causing turnovers though. Washington, Seattle, Miami, and Kansas City are teams we know that have had extended visits with Aikens at this time. He should be taken in the fifth round of the draft but his stock is on the rise so it could be higher.

 

Antone Exum at one time was thought to be the better prospect at Virginia Tech ahead of teammate Kyle Fuller. Yet 2013 was a nightmare for Exum who suffered an ACL tear and then another knee injury later in the year involving meniscus. Before the injury Exum was looked at as a second round pick who had the ability to work his way into the first round with another strong campaign. Exum could be making the move to safety as a result of the knee damage he has suffered, if the team that drafts him feels he has been robbed of some quickness. Don't be surprised if the team that takes Exum decides to sit him for a year on the practice squad as he is coming off some serious injuries, but the upside with him is tremendous.

 

Phillip Gaines may be the fastest riser on the board at the position in the final week leading up to the draft. Gaines was a prospect that some thought may not be drafted and wasn't even the highest ranked “Gaines” at the position (see E.J. From Missouri).  We all know you can't coach speed and this is the aspect that Gaines brings to the table. We always see one or two prospects who go a lot higher than anticipated due to speed and unrealized talent and Gaines is that player for 2014. He started all four years in college but many of those years he played at about 170 pounds. Gaines added weight slowly and is now at around 195 pounds and still ran a blazing 4.30 at the Combine. He was avoided often at Rice as teams would throw to the other side of the field and the Owls were sneaky in devising ways to get him more involved. His physicality has picked up and with his added weight gain and better play against the run, the sky is the limit as to how high he could go.

 

Terrence Mitchell is a player that we were very surprised decided to forgo his senior season because with a strong senior year Mitchell could have become a first round pick. Many feel the decision of teammate Ifo Ekpre Olomu to stay at Oregon for his senior season led to Mitchell wanting to leave early. He started all three years at Oregon but there are some off the field issues and character concerns that have been raised. He has terrific in-air battles and will get in good position when needing to leave his feet. Mitchell works the sidelines well and has tremendous footwork. His change of direction skills are sloppy though and he seems to be lazy and take some plays off when it looks like he won't be involved in a play. We have seen opposing players get under his skin too often and he seems to lose his cool on the field. Mitchell does post numbers and is quick with footwork, but does not have top end straight line speed. He should be drafted by the fourth round but could go sooner based on potential. If Mitchell goes a little late don't be surprised as some teams may feel he is a little too tough to deal with off the field.

 

Louichez Purifoy was a first round prospect and at one time considered to be a contender to be the first cornerback off the board based on potential and return ability. Purifoy has also been used as a receiver by the gators so his two-way abilities were thought to be a draft stock enhancer. Yet he had one career interception going into 2013 so there was some alarming traits that teams needed to check out, and then his play was lackadaisical. Purifoy continued to drop and was thought to be in the third or fourth round range but now he has big legal troubles. Purifoy is part of an ongoing investigation involving his involvement with marijuana and bath salts.  He may be passed on all together but we still feel someone will take a flyer in the 6th or 7th round for this once prized recruit that was among the top in the country when he enrolled at Florida.

 

Jaylen Watkins was thought to be “the other guy” at Florida in the secondary with fellow corners Louichez Purifoy and Marcus Roberson. Watkins may turn out to be the one who is drafted higher than his teammates and actually is the only one of the three that seemed to help his stock with his final year as a Gator. Watkins shows good speed, something that must run in the family as his younger brother is set to be a top ten pick (Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins). His willingness to play the run and overall hustle in a year when Florida had their defense on the field entirely too much after being decimated by injury, was very impressive.  Seems to be just a tick away from that elite status or being a sure fire elite prospect as his work ethic and results are not in question. Watkins has worked his way into what looks like the third or fourth round of the draft and the fact that Sammy will be drafted high will only help his cause.