This year’s secondary class features two elite performers and then a sizeable drop off. There is talent still available, but LSU’s Patrick Peterson and Nebraska’s Prince Amukamara stand a cut above the rest of the pack.
You could not dream up a better cornerback prospect from a physical standpoint than Patrick Peterson. At just over 6’ tall and just under 220lbs, he’s built more like a strong safety than a cover man. He combines that size with blazing speed and tremendous natural athleticism and the complete package allows him to match up with any receiver he lines up across. The physical tools also come with great ball skills, toughness, and aggressiveness. Peterson is arguably the best player in the draft, but is not likely to go 1st overall because of the position he plays.
Nebraska’s Prince Amukamara is not far behind Peterson. He would be a worthy top five pick as a corner in any draft, even though he is not likely to land there this year due to the presence of Peterson and needs at the top of the draft. Like Peterson, Amukamara has a tremendous blend of physical tools and football smarts. He 6’ tall and over 200lbs, he too has great size. He has the athleticism, hips, and closing speed to turn and run with most receivers at the next level and is a willing run supporter.
Colorado’s Jimmy Smith has the natural gifts that compare favorably to Peterson and Amukamara. At 6’2 210lbs, it doesn’t get much better from a size perspective. He also has the athleticism, speed, and toughness to cover and support the run. Smith isn’t quite as fluid an athlete as the two elite cover men, and there are some concerns about his playmaking skills with just three career picks. Those concerns have made him a clear step below the two elite, but he is definitely a great option outside the top 20 picks of the draft.
Brandon Harris of Miami is more of a traditional corner. He lacks the standout size, though 5’10 190 is not small either. He is a very good natural athlete with the quick feet and change of direction skills to mirror receivers in and out of their breaks, and the closing speed to stay with them down the field or recover to make a play. He is willing to come up to the line in run support, making him an all around defender. He could land at the end of round one, depending on how the draft plays out in April.
Aaron Williams of Texas is next in line at the corner spot. He too is a borderline first round talent, that will most likely hear his name called in the second frame. He has solid tools across the board, with very good size, athleticism, and speed. Williams can get beat by the smaller, quick receivers though he does show the ability to recover at times. At the next level though, any step could lead to a big play so he’ll have a little work to do if asked to mirror his man around the field. With a weak safety class, some may view Williams as a potential free safety, which could enhance his stock on many teams’ boards.
Virginia’s Ras-I Dowling is a first round talent based on his on field play. He has the size(6’1 200), speed, athleticism, and instincts to push for a top 20 selection. He is very aggressive and tough on the field, but can also chase around the field with his speed. The real issue with Dowling is his durability. His senior season was a wash due to an ankle injury, and then pulled up with a lame hamstring at the combine. His draft stock will be based on who is sold on his health, but he could be a big steal outside of the top 40 of the draft.
Every year a corner from a less heralded program emerges as a top pick, and this year’s candidate is Davon House of New Mexico St. He has all the tools to develop into a starter at the next level. The jump in competition on a consistent basis will be one hurdle to cross, and he’ll need to become more consistent. House probably isn’t a starter from the outset in the NFL, but he has excellent potential and could be a steal if he slides out of the first two rounds.
It’s not often that a standout for USC flies under the radar, but Shareece Wright has. Wright has very good speed and natural cover skills that could have him starting in the NFL one day. His lack of experience and exposure has hindered his draft stock though. A neck injury cost him the 2008 season, and he was an academic casualty in 2009. He was banged up as a senior but still had a solid season. Someone will like his potential and could pull the trigger in the third round at some point.
Brandon Burton(Utah), Johnny Patrick(Louisville), and Curtis Brown(Texas) are three other corners with the tools to be excellent picks in the first three rounds at the corner position.
The safety position is not as talented at the corner spot this season. Not only does it lack an elite performer, but there isn’t a lot of overall depth.
UCLA’s Rahim Moore is the best safety in the draft, and potentially, the only one to be selected in the top 50. He has an outside shot to land in the first round, but is a lock for the second round. He is a true ball hawk from his free safety position, with fantastic ball skills. He had 14 interceptions in just three seasons for the Bruins. He has tremendous instincts and quickly reads the play and gets to the action. He is a good athlete that has some ability to cover in man situations at times, and will come up to the line and support the run. His lack of bulk will hinder him around the line in the NFL and he’s not real aggressive in the run game, but he’s not afraid of the action. He should be able to start and be a playmaker from his safety spot very early in his career.
Oklahoma’s Quinton Carter could be the next safety off the board. He could project to either safety spot in the NFL, though his frame may be better suited at free, and his game better suited at strong. He is a good athlete with the speed to close on the action, and is physical and will deliver a blow when making a tackle. Carter won’t wow you with his physical tools, though they are decent across the board, but his aggressiveness and ability to help both in coverage and against the run will make him a valuable commodity in this weak safety crop.
Jaiquawn Jarrett of Temple is another safety with great instincts and toughness. He is best attacking the line of scrimmage and making plays in run support. He’ll quickly read run and aggressively fill lanes to make a play. In coverage he shows the athleticism to make plays but has only average speed which could become a bigger issue in the NFL. He may not make game changing plays, but he’s a steady performer in the secondary whose downside should be as a quality special teamer and reserve safety.
Florida’s Ahmad Black has legitimate size issues. His 5’9 185lb frame is average for a corner, let alone a safety. That size limits his potential and could cause some matchup problems against the bigger receivers in the NFL. If you can get past the size concerns, Black is a talented safety. He is athletic and shows the ability to stay with receivers in man coverage. He is very active and aggressive on the field, and has a nose for the football. Whether it’s make a play on the ball or making a tackle, he’s usually in the right position to make the play. The size concerns are obvious and will cause some problems at the next level. In the right situation though, those concerns could be minimized and his positives could outshine that negative and make him a quality safety in the NFL.
DeAndre McDaniel of Clemson is a consistent performer at the strong safety position. He excels near the line of scrimmage where his bulk and tackling ability make him a force in run support. He should be a standout as an in the box safety. In coverage, he has impressive ball skills, showing the ability to pick up the ball in the air and make a play on it. McDaniel lacks the quick feet, change of direction ability, and closing speed to match up well in coverage however. He’ll make some plays on his instincts, but his lack of ideal foot speed could cause problems when asked to cover on a consistent basis. He could thrive in a defense that will allow him to make plays moving forward, and limit asking him to make plays in deep coverage.
There are a few players as fringe day two guys and day three guys have the talent to surprise at the next level. Boise State’s Jeron Johnson is an active safety with solid cover skills. Clemson’s Marcus Gilchrist has the versatility to play both corner and safety, which is an attractive option that stands out in this safety clas. Robert Sands of West Virginia has tremendous size(6’4 220) and all around skills, though his lanky frame makes it tough to cover at times. He could be a potential linebacker conversion project. Iowa’s Tyler Sash has average physical tools but the toughness and instincts that put him in position to consistently make plays.