2017 NFL Draft: Early preview of the cornerback class
One of my favorite position groups to study when evaluating draft prospects is at cornerback. It is easily one of the hardest positional transitions from college to the NFL. In this article, I will give a preview of the top cornerback prospects in the 2017 NFL draft, dividing them into different categories. Feel free to send your feedback to my Twitter. Whether it is love or hatred toward my analysis, it is all welcome for discussion. Without further ado, here is my analysis of the top cornerbacks in the upcoming 2017 NFL draft, starting with the top tier.
Quincy Wilson, Florida
The top cornerback on my draft board, Florida’s Quincy Wilson, looks the part of a shutdown cornerback at the next level. In Press, he is as suffocating as any cornerback in the draft, yet his physicality at the LOS is under control. Most press cornerbacks at this level are found to be impatient with their hips and hands, but that is not the case with Wilson. With his length, patience, sound technique, and controlled aggressiveness at the LOS, Wilson’s skill set in Press translates to the NFL extremely well. As a taller cornerback, his transitions in and out of breaks aren’t expected to be as smooth as players like Jourdan Lewis, but he does have good feet for someone his size. With his back to the ball in bump and run coverage, Wilson is able to mirror the receiver’s route with impressive stop/start quickness, while naturally locating the ball over his shoulder and attacking it with strong hands and an aggressive mindset. One thing he does that young cornerbacks need to learn is that he uses the sideline to his advantage. In run support, his play strength is again highlighted with his ability to shed blocks to get downhill. He is also a reliable open-field tackler on the boundary. With his sticky man coverage skills, play strength at the LOS, and elite playmaking ability, Wilson could be the NFL’s next shutdown cornerback.
Marshon Lattimore, Ohio State
As arguably the most athletic cornerback prospect in this class, Ohio State’s Marshon Lattimore may have the highest ceiling of any prospect at this position in the 2017 NFL draft. In terms of his skill set as a cover corner, he is someone who checks off all of the boxes, despite being only a redshirt-sophomore. The thing about Lattimore is that he may have the best feet of any cornerback in this class. His ability to mirror a receiver’s route, change direction, and recover to get on the hip pocket just comes natural to him. He played a ton of press-bail and bump and run at Ohio State, showcasing his deep speed and ball skills. Another consistent part of Lattimore’s game that showed up on the tape was his physicality in the run game. It’s not just his aggressive mentality or sound wrap-up skills, but it’s also his understanding of angles and contain discipline as well. The questions I have on the field with Lattimore stem from him being a little bit grabby and panicky when initially beat on a route, but with his ability to recover so quickly with his feet, I think this can improve with more reps. He will also have questions to answer about his durability as well. He had a hamstring problem throughout his career at Ohio State, and even after playing a fully healthy season in 2016, front offices are going to have to find out if this is going to be an issue going forward. Overall, Lattimore is the second best cornerback on my board, as he carries a top-15 grade with his excellent footwork in man coverage, ball skills, and reliability in run support.
Teez Tabor, Florida
If you’re looking for the most electric playmaker in this class at the cornerback position, Teez Tabor is your guy. He breaks on the ball better than anyone in the country, mostly due to his reactionary quickness, timing and instincts. With his diagnostic skills and mental processing, Tabor is the best zone cornerback in this class. His alpha dog mentality and aggressiveness in man coverage, however, does get him in trouble at times as it is his biggest strength and weakness. He is impatient and a bit undisciplined at the LOS with his hands, and I believe this kind of physicality will draw a ton of flags. Tabor is also susceptible to double moves, as he too often looks for the big play by directing his vision at the quarterback instead of his man. I don’t have any questions about his quickness or footwork in Man, but it’s more about him guessing instead of reacting. This “boom or bust” mentality in man coverage reminds me a lot of his former teammate and first round pick Vernon Hargreaves III. All in all, Tabor is a physical cornerback with the playmaking potential to be among the interception leaders in the NFL, and his “feast or famine” discipline in man coverage is something teams will have to live with.
Cordrea Tankersley, Clemson
Tankersley is a tall, lanky cornerback with long arms that give him a matchup advantage on the outside. He uses his length and physicality to re-route the receiver at the LOS, showing a necessary trait of a press cornerback. His loose hips and nimble footwork allow him to stay on the receiver’s hip pocket through the remainder of the route, to then stay patient and under control while reading the receiver’s eyes to look over his shoulder and attack the football in the air. Sticky press man coverage comes natural to Tankersley. When the ball is in front of him, he is able to plant his foot and find the ball on the receiver’s hip pocket with good closing speed. The problem Tankersley runs into is his lack of discipline at the LOS. He tends to get too handsy and aggressive with the receiver in order to gain leverage, which is a guarantee to draw a ton of attention from referees at the next level. In run support, aggressiveness is again the issue as although he is a willing tackler, he misses easy ones going for the highlight hit and/or overruns his pursuit angle instead of wrapping up. Overall, he needs to tone down his aggressiveness to where he can be under control, but I think Tankersley is the top senior cornerback in this class because of his ability to shutdown a receiver with his natural length and man coverage skills.
Jourdan Lewis, Michigan
Even though he is one of the smaller cornerback prospects in this class, Jourdan Lewis possesses the traits of a starting cornerback at the next level. He probably is not going to meet the height threshold for some teams in the draft process, but I am convinced that he is going to be a productive player at the next level, whether he plays inside or outside. His natural ball skills catch your eye right away on tape as he makes some of the most spectacular interceptions and deflections you will ever see. With his back to the ball in man coverage, he is comfortable looking over his shoulder, locating the football, and attacking it at the high point with strong hands. If a small cornerback is going to succeed in the NFL, they need to have excellent feet and COD skills, traits that Lewis possesses. His stop/start quickness in and out of the breaks of the receiver’s route is as good as any cornerback prospect in this year’s class. Lewis does need to be more patient at the LOS, as he tends to panic and grab when the receiver gets an early release. Like Lattimore, this stems from him not trusting his technique. He is up and down as an open-field tackler, but the drive and “want to” is definitely there on tape. Overall, he may not be a first round pick because of his lack of size, but I think he will develop a starting role as a nickel corner at the next level. I would rather take a player like Lewis in that I know what he is and that he’ll be productive in that role rather than one of the wild card cornerbacks in this class, some of which I will talk about later in this article.
Gareon Conley, Ohio State
The next two players on this list are virtually the same player. Starting with Conley, he was a productive player at Ohio State with 26 starts and six interceptions during his career. He is a true cover corner with sound technique in both zone and man coverage. He has plus reactionary quickness when mirroring a receiver’s route and gets on the hip pocket to close on the ball. His zone awareness is impressive, as he takes proper angles, putting himself in good position to make a play on the ball. When he is in off man and zone coverage, he is one of the best in the country. The problem though is when he plays at the LOS, as well as coming downhill to help in run support. At the LOS, he gets bullied by bigger, more physical receivers, highlighting his lack of play strength. In jump ball situations, he is susceptible to getting boxed out and outmuscled for the play. While trying to come downhill in run support, he is too often on the ground because he cannot get off blocks. He is a sound open-field tackler when he is in position, but there are plays where he is just not interested in it. Conley is a smart football player who gets himself in position to make plays in both zone and man coverage with excellent footwork and mental processing skills, but his lack of physicality and play strength puts him in the second round for me.
Sidney Jones IV, Washington
As I mentioned earlier, I think Sidney Jones and Gareon Conley are quite similar in how they play the cornerback position. Both of them would rather win with their feet than with their hands. Jones carries a thin frame at 180 pounds, and he plays like it too. Against USC, Juju Smith-Schuster had his way with him by exposing his lack of functional and play strength at the LOS. Because of this lack of strength and thin frame, I also see him become a bit impatient at the LOS, looking anxious. In run support, however, he is different than Conley because I see the “want to” from Jones in this area of the game. As an open-field tackler, he is disciplined and quite reliable. In coverage, there aren’t many weaknesses to his game. He is a smart player in zone coverage, and he can cover a ton of ground to close on the football, highlighting his athletic ability. His footwork and hips are excellent in man coverage, shadowing the receiver step for step without losing ground when forced to change direction. In addition, Jones has proven to be a true ballhawk at the position with eight interceptions and 21 pass deflections in his career at Washington. Jones has a ton of ability as a cover corner with excellent COD skills, hip flexion, and playmaking ability in both man and zone, but he needs to fill out his frame and get stronger before he becomes a difference maker on the outside at the next level.
Marlon Humphrey, Alabama
Alabama’s Marlon Humphrey is one of the most athletic players in this class, regardless of position, and I have no doubt that he is going to shine at February’s Combine. Most analysts have him pegged as a cornerback in the NFL, but I think his future at the next level should be at safety. His skill set is eerily similar to former Connecticut cornerback Byron Jones, who is now the starting free safety for the Dallas Cowboys. Humphrey can run with any receiver, but he struggles with his back to the ball, as he looks awkward looking over his shoulder, losing his man on occasion. He is at his best when he is asked to play everything in front of him. His closing speed is phenomenal, whether that is breaking on a route or coming downhill on a screen play. He is a smart player who is able to key and diagnose quickly, putting himself in position to make a play. In terms of his run support skills, he is one of the best in the country. He has no problem getting off blocks, and he tackles ball carriers in the open field like a linebacker. Not all players can make the jump from cornerback to safety, but with his skill set, I would love to see a team experiment with him the same way the Cowboys did with Byron Jones.
Desmond King, Iowa
Another productive player who I think will make the transition to safety at the next level is Iowa’s Desmond King. King is a ballhawk with 14 career interceptions, eight of them from his junior season in 2015. He is what I like to call a “junkyard dog” because he is so aggressive and physical at both the LOS and in run support. His reliability as a tackler in the open field is as good as any defensive back in the country. The problem I see with him on the boundary is that he struggles with speed. I have my questions about him being able to run down the sideline with receivers at the next level, and I think he’s much more comfortable when he’s playing with everything in front of him. He reminds me a bit of former Maryland cornerback Sean Davis from last year’s draft, who now has a bright future at safety for the Pittsburgh Steelers. If a team puts King in the right role, he can be a dynamic playmaker in both the air and ground game on the defensive side of the ball.
Chidobe Awuzie, Colorado
Chidobe Awuzie is going to be a cornerback in the NFL, and his versatility to play both inside and out is going to draw interest from a lot of teams this draft season. During his time at Colorado, I’ve seen him play effectively on the boundary, in the slot, and in the back end. He has loose hips and doesn’t miss a step when changing direction. His footwork is excellent in man coverage, as he runs the route for the receiver by shadowing with patience and stop/start quickness. He has to become more comfortable looking over his shoulder for the football, but at the catch point, he has a “my ball” mentality. In the open field, he is a bit inconsistent wrapping up, but he takes good angles and has a nose for the football. Awuzie is definitely going to be a prospect worth looking at on the second day of the draft.
MID-ROUND PRESS CORNERBACKS
Kevin King, Washington
Listed at 6’3, 190, Washington cornerback Kevin King has freakish length on the outside. He’s at his best in press coverage, where he can get his hands on the receiver and disrupt his route to the football. King is comfortable with his back to the ball, as he possesses good deep speed and ball skills to locate and attack the ball over his shoulder at its highest point. Like a lot of taller cornerbacks, he struggles when asked to react and stop/start. He gives up a ton of separation in and out of the breaks of the receiver’s route when he is unable to gets his hands on him. King is raw and needs to fill out his thin frame, but I think he is developmental press cornerback with a high ceiling.
Brandon Facyson, Virginia Tech
Facyson is a talented cornerback prospect with a lot of length at 6’2, but he is not yet the sum of his parts. He possesses good play strength at the LOS, and he uses the sideline to his advantage when running stride for stride with a receiver in man coverage. In run support, he brings 110% effort each snap, and is able to get off blocks and make open-field tackles. Although a strong, physical press cornerback, he is limited because he really struggles playing Off and Zone. He has mental lapses in coverage to where he gets lost in the play and loses his man or area. Facyson is at his best when he is asked to turn and run with a receiver with his back to the ball in press man coverage, not when he is asked to read and react in Off and Zone. He is going to need time, but he is definitely a mid-round press man cornerback worth developing.
Rasul Douglas, West Virginia
A cornerback who is a candidate to rise up my draft board is West Virginia cornerback Rasul Douglas. I like him more each time I watch film on him, and his ability to effectively play Press, Off, and Zone is going to play a key part in his draft stock. At the LOS, he is definitely a bit handsy and aggressive, but I don’t see an impatient player who panics when the receiver makes a move in his release. When the ball is in the air, he turns into a wide receiver, and he showed that this year with eight interceptions in the 2016 season. While playing off man coverage, his anticipation and timing of in-breaking routes is quite impressive, as he closes on the hip pocket of the receiver to make a nice play on the ball. At February’s Combine, Douglas won’t stand out with his hip stiffness and inconsistent footwork, but he is a player I think could rise up the draft board because of his well-rounded skill set.
Corn Elder, Miami
People are going to peg Corn Elder as a nickel cornerback only, but I’m completely fine with it because he has the traits to be a very good one on Sundays. I’d also be careful in diminishing the value of a nickel cornerback, as it is most definitely a starting position in the NFL and every team needs one. The one thing that comes to mind about Elder is his physicality. He mugs receivers at the LOS, and while he can get a bit too aggressive, he is as sticky as they come in press man coverage. His athletic ability can be showcased in one play where he tracked down Florida State running back Dalvin Cook on what would have been a long touchdown run. Elder may not be the flashiest cornerback in the class, but I think a team is going to get a lot of production out of him as a starting nickel.
Breon Borders, Duke
Breon Borders is a fun study at the cornerback position because he is always around the football making plays for the Duke Blue Devils. With 12 career interceptions, Borders has proven that he is a feared playmaker on the outside. For example, he intercepted Jameis Winston twice in the ACC Championship as a freshman. The question I have is why he is not getting more hype this draft season. He is a productive, sticky man cover corner with good feet and ball skills, yet is flying under the radar. The biggest red flag I have with Borders is that he takes way too many unnecessary gambles underneath. His playmaker mentality comes at a fault here because he will fix his eyes on the quarterback and lose sight of his area or man. As a result, he is susceptible to plenty of double moves and head fakes because he guesses instead of trying to react. Late in the 2016 season, he suffered a hip injury that sidelined him for a couple of games, and I’m sure it will be something that is going to be checked by teams in the draft process. Overall, Borders is a riverboat gambler who likes to go “all in” on every play and gets burned for it too often, but his ceiling as a potential starting cornerback in the NFL is fairly high.
Damontae Kazee, San Diego State
Kazee will be 24 years old as a rookie, which might scare some teams away from picking him early in the draft, but I think the product from San Diego State is going to make an instant impact in the NFL. He is a natural playmaker with his eye discipline and reactionary quickness to close on in-breaking routes. In terms of cover skills, I think Kazee is one of the most refined players in this class with his patience and footwork. He can play inside and out, Press, Off, and Zone at the next level, making him a versatile piece in a defensive backfield worth taking on Day 2.
Cameron Sutton, Tennessee
I had high hopes for Cameron Sutton when he decided to return for his senior season, but I was more impressed with what he did in 2015 than in 2016. Sutton is a pretty good athlete with good feet, but he too often has mental lapses in both man and zone coverage where loses his responsibility. When he guesses right, he looks great, but too often he is found left in the dust. The saving grace with Sutton is that he will give a ton of effort each and every snap with physicality and reliability in the run game. Sutton has the tools to be a productive cornerback on the outside in the NFL, but he has yet to fully put it together for me to take him before the third day of the draft.
Tre’Davious White, LSU
White is a thin-framed cornerback with outstanding athleticism, fluid hips, and quick feet. He puts himself in good position in both zone and man coverage with his read and react skills. In fact, I think White can mirror receivers as good as any senior cornerback in the nation. He is excellent at everything before the actual catch point. He still looks awkward playing with his back to the ball and turning to look over his shoulder. Because of this inability, he is going to get flagged a ton at the next level because he plays the man, not the ball. I think White has a lot of tools to play on the outside if he can fill out his frame, but any notion that he is the best defensive back in the SEC, as one NFL executive told Daniel Jeremiah, is preposterous. I still believe a team should take White on the second day of the draft because of his natural tools, but I’m a little wary about him the same way I was about Eli Apple.