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2016 NFL Draft: Defensive back

By: Robert Davis

NFL defenses crave defensive backs with the skills to play on an island. Offenses are spreading out the defense and picking up the tempo, so defensive backs that can play man to match and help out in the run game are at a premium. There are a couple elite prospects in the secondary this year, and a lot of players with tremendous upside that teams will heavily scout for the 2016 NFL Draft.

Florida State's Jalen Ramsey has been a standout since he lined up at safety as a true freshman. He moved to corner this year, and his tremendous play continued. Ramsey has the size, athleticism, speed, and toughness to play any position in the secondary. His first two years in college, he displayed excellent range as a safety, as well as the physical nature and hitting ability to project to the spot in the NFL. As a junior, Ramsey showed he has the agility, speed, and natural cover skills to be a gifted corner as well. He's the complete package in the secondary, and the type of player every defense would love to add. Ramsey put on a show at the combine, showing off just how gifted he is. He's a special talent. He has unlimited potential, but also has a really high floor. Just as a corner, he's an elite prospect. The ability to play safety and match up in space makes him even better. Ramsey is as big of a lock for the top five as you can get.

CB RANKINGS
  1. Jalen Ramsey, Florida St.
  2. Vernon Hargreaves III, Florida
  3. Mackensie Alexander, Clemson
  4. Eli Apple, Ohio St
  5. William Jackson III, Houston
  6. Kendall Fuller, Virginia Tech
  7. Artie Burns, Miami
  8. Xavien Howard, Baylor
  9. Will Redmond, Mississippi St.
  10. Maurice Canady, Virginia

Florida's Vernon Hargreaves III is arguably the top cover man available this year. He shows the ability to shadow receives throughout their route, combining tremendous quickness, agility, and awareness in coverage. He can turn and run with anyone, and is rarely caught out of position. Those instincts are even used in run support, where he is quick to diagnose the action and fly towards the ball carrier. Hargreaves isn't as big as Ramsey, so he may have some issues matching up against bigger wide receivers, but he's definitely a true corner. He's an excellent prospect as well, and looks to have his name called at some point within the top ten.

Mackensie Alexander of Clemson is just a redshirt sophomore, but his talent truly stands out. He could give Hargreaves a run for the title of top cover man available this year. He has elite quickness and fluidity, along with very good closing speed. In man coverage, he can mirror his man throughout his route and not give a cushion. He also has the confidence you see in many of the games top cover men. He thinks hes the best, and plays very aggressive and tough on the field. With just two years experience, he may need some time to develop his route recognition and zone awareness but the tools are there to be a potential shut down corner. Many have made a big deal about his lack of interceptions(zero in two years), and it's a legitimate concern to an extent. In a high pick, you want a guy who can cover and make plays. It will remain a concern because there are no more games to be played until he plays on Sundays. The talent level is obvious though and someone will pop for him in the first round.

Another sophomore entry, Ohio State's Eli Apple will command a lot of attention as draft day approaches. From a physical standpoint, he's exactly what teams are looking for in a corner today. He's long, strong, athletic, fast, and aggressive. He shows the skills to do anything you ask of him. He can use his size and strength to jam guys at the line, but also to battle for the ball while it's in the air. He shows the ability to shadow receivers down field. Consistency is the issue with Apple, and he may take some time to develop all aspects of his game. He needs to be more disciplined on the field. He can be too aggressive and too physical, leading to big plays or penalties. The talent is there to mold into an all pro corner. With the right coach and some time, the sky is the limit. With his length and more proven ball skills than Alexander, he's in contention to be the third corner selected in April.

Virginia Tech's Kendall Fuller continues to be one of the drafts top corner prospects, despite a knee injury that caused him to miss most of his junior season. He might rank even higher on this list had he not gotten injured. Fuller has good length, and his athleticism and awareness allows him to constantly be around the action. His combination of physical ability and intelligence should allow him to play both man and zone coverage very well at the next level. He is on the lean side and will need to bulk up, but as a true junior, that is not a surprise. The health of his knee and how much he can work out for teams may decide his fate as far as draft stock goes, but hes a legitimate first round talent when healthy, and has NFL starter written all over him, wherever he's drafted.

SAFETY RANKINGS
  1. Karl Joseph, West Virginia
  2. Vonn Bell, Ohio St.
  3. Jeremy Cash, Duke
  4. Keanu Neal, Florida
  5. Miles Killebrew, Southern Utah
  6. Darian Thompson, Boise St.
  7. Jalen Mills, LSU
  8. Sean Davis, Maryland
  9. DeAndre Houston-Carson, William & Mary
  10. TJ Green, Clemson

William Jackson III of Houston has enjoyed a steady rise up draft boards as this season progressed. He began his career in the JuCo ranks, but impressed immediately with Houston as a junior in 2014 and continued to improve as a senior this year. Jackson is a standout cover man thanks to his combination of length and athleticism. His height matches up well with taller receivers, but he also possesses the speed and change of direction ability to stick with smaller receivers. Jackson has also shown he has the ability to locate the ball in the air and uses his length to go up and make plays on the ball. His physical ability was on display at the combine, clocking a 4.37 40 and looking very fluid and comfortable in position drills. Teams crave long and fast cover men, and for that reason, Jackson will be very coveted on draft day, and could possibly hear his name called in the first round when it's all said and done.

Ohio State has another standout in the secondary that will go early on draft day in safety Vonn Bell. There is no headliner at the safety spot unless you consider Ramsey one, and Bell will be in contention to be the first safety off the board. He isn't the physical specimen you see in an early pick at the position, and he's not going to be much of a factor in run defense, but he excels in coverage. At 5'11 200lbs, the size is only average, but his instincts allow him to consistent make plays in coverage. He's very quick to read the action, has the speed to close on the play, and does a good job finding the football. His lack of size will make it difficult for him to make plays near the line of scrimmage and if matched up against larger receivers. Plenty of teams are looking to upgrade the cover ability at the safety spot, so Bell will have no shortage of suitors on draft weekend.

Karl Joseph of West Virginia brings all around playmaking and physicality to the safety position. He is very aggressive on the field, and flies to the action whether he's running downhill against the run or going after the football and receiver in coverage. He is an excellent athlete with very good speed and range, and is a big play threat in coverage. But he's also a willing supporter against the run, and has no problems throwing his body around the field to make plays. That may be the biggest issue as to how Joseph's game projects to the league. At just 5'10 and 205lbs, he may have to tone down his aggressiveness in order to save his body some wear and tear. That's a tough thing to ask of a player who thrives because of his aggressiveness, but durability and size are definitely concerns. A knee injury ended his senior season and has prevented him from working out, which may be the only issue keeping him from being the top safety selected. As long as his medicals check out, Joseph should hear his name called fairly early. He is a playmaker and plays the game the way every defender should.

Oklahoma's Zack Sanchez isn't going to blow anyone away physically. He has decent height, but is on the thin side and does not possess blazing speed. He has limitations, but the more you watch him, the more you like him. He is a good athlete and has the quickness to stick with receivers off the line of scrimmage. He shows good anticipation and awareness and has great ball skills. Sanchez will have trouble sticking with fast receivers down the field vertically, though. He will also have trouble with bigger receivers, because he really needs to bulk up and get stronger. His quickness and instincts may make him better suited for zone play, where his physical limitations can be covered up a bit. The aggressiveness and ball skills stand out though, and that should find him a role in the NFL. If he can bulk up and get stronger, it will help his future tremendously.

Corners to watch: Rashard Robinson(LSU), Harland Miller(SE Louisiana), Will Redmond(Mississippi St), Artie Burns(Miami)

Safeties to watch: Jeremy Cash(Duke), Miles Killebrew(Southern Utah), Darian Thompson(Boise St), Keanu Neal(Florida)

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