In 2016 I watched many cornerback prospects, but rather than rank them sequentially I wrote up my cornerback “superlatives,” ranking players in various categories. Florida’s Quincy Wilson and Colorado’s Chidobe Awuzie are very different styles of players, and it’s almost nonsensical to rate one as “better” than the other. These categories paint a better picture of the strengths and weaknesses of the class. These are are all my personal takes, not necessarily those of the rest of ITP. “Don’t be mad at me, that’s just one man’s opinion.”
Best Press Coverage
Many of the most interesting press prospects don’t rate here. Towering 6’3” cornerbacks Kevin King of Washington, Ahkello Witherspoon of Colorado, and Brian Allen of Utah don’t have refined technique at the line of scrimmage, but could become effective press cornerbacks in time.
1 Gareon Conley, Ohio State
Conley has an effective one- and two- hand jam at the line of scrimmage, and no one in the class stays in phase on vertical releases better. His 33” arms will make press teams drool, but he moves like a smaller player.
2 Quincy Wilson, Florida
Wilson is tall at 6’1” and long, with the ideal frame for press. He’s not a mauler at the line of scrimmage, but uses his feet and hands in concert to disrupt the opposing receiver, and he employs a variety of techniques. His bail step is smooth and balanced, and he has enough deep speed.
3 Marshon Lattimore, Ohio State
Lattimore shows good stance, quick feet, and balance in his backpedal, and his mirroring skills are impressive. He gets grabby when he allows inside release, a tendency he will need to curb in the NFL.
4 Marlon Humphrey, Alabama
Humphrey has a prototypical cornerback build and plays with a physical edge. He displays balance and patience at the line of scrimmage and the fluidity to bail and run. Despite impressive timed speed, he can struggle with vertical routes from faster receivers.
5 Cordrea Tankersley, Clemson
Tankersley has the play strength to impede even big receivers at the line of scrimmage in press. He even matched up at times against tight ends, such as Virginia Tech’s Bucky Hodges.
Honorable Mention: Washington’s Sidney Jones doesn’t have the size you want in a press corner (especially his 71 ⅞” wingspan), but he gets the most out of his frame, delivering consistent, forceful jams at the line of scrimmage while staying balanced. His play strength limits him against physical receivers, such as USC’s JuJu Smith-Schuster.
Intriguing: Rasul Douglas of West Virginia has the size and length press teams crave, and a nasty physical attitude, but he played a ton of off coverage in the Mountaineers scheme. Can he make the transition to a press-heavy scheme?
Needs Improvement: USC’s Adoree’ Jackson struggles at the line of scrimmage, failing to get a jam and allowing too much separation at the snap. His size limits his ceiling as a press corner, but he has to improve from where he is now or NFL receivers will eat him alive.
Best Mirroring / Off-Man
As more and more teams convert to the press Cover 3 scheme the Seattle Seahawks use, quick footwork and reaction has been de-emphasized, but teams running other schemes still crave cornerbacks with the reactive athleticism to mirror cuts and defend quick receivers.
1 Marshon Lattimore, Ohio State
Lattimore has the hip fluidity to react to cuts and mirror in off coverage. He does not always get enough depth or leverage in zone coverage, leading to receivers breaking open in his zone if they come from unexpected directions.
2 Sidney Jones, Washington
Jones anticipates breaks extremely well, often beating the receiver to the catch point. His knowledge and footwork lets him mirror better than his subpar agility drills would suggest.
3 Chidobe Awuzie, Colorado
Awuzie possesses good movement skills, helping him in off-man schemes.
4 Adoree Jackson, USC
Jackson has top change of direction skills to mirror receivers from off coverage, and he explodes attacking action in front of him.
5 Ahkello Witherspoon, Colorado
Witherspoon towers at 6’3”, but when you watch him backpedal and react to cuts, you would think you are watching a 5’10” guy. His reactions are sure at the top of the route stem, knowing when to break, when to flip his hips, and when to chuck. He has the speed to carry vertical routes.
Intriguing: Washington’s Kevin King dominated the agility drills at the Combine with a 6.56 three cone and 3.89 short shuttle, but that fluid change-of-direction doesn’t show up on tape very often. He will need to land with an NFL team that can help him refine his footwork and harness his physical tools.
Needs Improvement: Cordrea Tankersley of Clemson has some press skills (see above) but he struggles to stick with receivers if he doesn’t win at the line of scrimmage.Best Zone Defense
Pure zone defenses have fallen out of favor, but teams such as the Carolina Panthers and Pittsburgh Steelers have still found success with these schemes, and will seek cornerbacks with the smarts and instincts to cover zones effectively.
Best Zone Defense
1 Teez Tabor, Florida
Tabor anticipates route patterns developing, reading and reacting to the receiver, quarterback, and football to break up passes and make plays.
2 Sidney Jones, Washington
Jones possesses an advanced understanding of route concepts and stays disciplined and assignment-sound even when opponents try to fool him. Opponents throw into his Cover 2 zone at their own risk. He stays on top of deep zones, but gives up too much cushion at times.
3 Howard Wilson, Houston
Wilson played a ton of zone, especially Cover 3, for the Cougars, where he was assignment-sound. He has a knack for anticipating and jumping routes, particularly from Cover 2.
4 Chidobe Awuzie, Colorado
Awuzie demonstrates very good awareness of route patterns in zone coverage and will drive and break up passes while facing the quarterback.
5 Desmond King, Iowa
Smart about help in zone – will undercut routes when he has help over the top. Shows good understanding of route concepts, switching crossing routes and avoiding rubs.
Intriguing: UCLA’s Fabian Moreau bit on play fakes too much in zone coverage, but showed route recognition and playmaking ability. He can be an effective zone player if he can curb his bad habits.
Needs Improvement: A 6’3” cornerback with 4.48 speed shouldn’t get beaten over the top in Cover 3, but it happened to Utah’s Brian Allen multiple times. Teams took advantage of his aggression and inability to diagnose route concepts.
Best Tackler / Run Defense
In the ITP Draft Guide, my associate Luc Polglaze summed up the significance of run defense in evaluating DBs: “Run support from a CB shows a guy who knows what his job is, and is willing to go above that. Run D isn’t what CBs are paid to do, but the ones who are good at it show they know their craft.”
1 Marshon Lattimore, Ohio State
Lattimore has excellent run-support skills for a college cornerback. He looks like a safety or linebacker in the way he’ll stick his nose in on inside runs. He uses play strength and leverage at the point of impact to stop a runner in his tracks or deliver a big blow. Lattimore wraps up as well. He stays aware of angles in the open field even when engaged by blockers.
2 Marlon Humphrey, Alabama
Humphrey plays with a physical edge. He is not afraid to take on lead blockers, an unusual trait in college cornerbacks. He has an ideal build and wraps consistently when tackling.
3 Desmond King, Iowa
There are those who want to move King to safety. In part that’s because of his lack of deep speed, and in part it’s because of his effort in run defense. He keeps contain, fights off blocks, and attacks ballcarriers with violence despite a smallish build.
4 Fabian Moreau, UCLA
Moreau weighs over 200 pounds and plays physical in the run game, especially when working to defeat blocks from wideouts. He takes the fight to blockers, pushing them back or ripping free. His tackling is solid as well.
5 Damontae Kazee, San Diego State
Kazee is small at 5’10” 184, but don’t tell that to the ballcarriers he hits. Urgent effort working free of blocks, pursuing ballcarriers, and getting in on gang tackles.
Honorable Mention: Miami’s Corn Elder, like King and Kazee, is an undersized guy who can pack a wallop in run defense.
Intriguing: Gareon Conley of Ohio State is feisty in run support, showing a strong-safety-esque willingness to hit and jump on piles. His lack of play strength led to missed tackles and yards after contact, however. A season or two in an NFL weight room can turn what’s currently something of a liability into a strength.
Needs Improvement: Colorado’s Ahkello Witherspoon has tremendous size but he hasn’t been able to translate his frame into effective run defense. He fails to wrap, flies in out of control in the open field, and shows little ability to work free of blocks.
Best Ball Skills
When I did this last year, I had trouble finding five cornerbacks to fill out the “ball skills” list. By contrast, this class is loaded with big-time on-ball producers. Players like Desmond King, Cordrea Tankersley, Gareon Conley, and Kevin King would made the top five last year with ease but don’t make my list in this class.
1 Damontae Kazee, San Diego State
Kazee led the Mountain West in pass breakups as a sophomore with 12, and in interceptions as both a junior (with seven) and senior (eight). He has a flair for the leaping and tipping away passes and is aggressive jumping routes from off or zone coverage.
2 Rasul Douglas, West Virginia
Douglas burst on the scene in 2016 with an NCAA-leading eight interceptions, many of them spectacular. His highlight reel is as impressive as anybody’s: diving and tipping balls to himself for the acrobatic catch, ripping passes away from receivers, using his long arms to poke balls away in zone coverage.
3 Jourdan Lewis, Michigan
Lewis led the Big 10 as a junior with 20 passes defensed. His leaping ability lets him compensate for a lack of ideal height. He has terrific hand-eye coordination to attack the ball and poke it away or intercept it.
4 Adoree’ Jackson, USC
Jackson is a former receiver with terrific hands for the interception. He high-points the ball for pass breakups and picks, and knows what to do once he gets the ball in his hands. He had five interceptions in 2016 and his 28 career pass breakups rank second in Pac-12 history.
5 Shaquill Griffin, UCF
Griffin tested out great at the Combine, finishing third in both jumps, and that shows up on tape when he leaps to attack the ball at the catch point. He intercepted four passes in 2016 and led the American Conference with 15 PBUs. He is the conference’s all-time leader with 27.
Honorable Mention: Florida’s Teez Tabor led the SEC with 15 passes defensed in 2015 and tallied eight career interceptions. He has active hands and aggressively seeks to make plays.
Intriguing: LSU’s Tre’Davious White (two picks in 2016) and Colorado’s Ahkello Witherspoon (one) didn’t put up eye-popping interception numbers, but they get their hands on the football. White led the SEC with 14 pass breakups and Witherspoon led all of FBS with 19. If they can hang on to more of the balls they get their hands on, they can be turnover machines.
Needs Improvement: Alabama’s Marlon Humphrey and UCLA’s Fabian Moreau show some playmaking ability facing the quarterback, but both struggled at times locating the ball in the air with their back to the ball, leading to big plays or early contact. Utah’s Brian Allen struggles even more dramatically defending downfield.
Best Special Teamer
Defensive backs often play on special teams, and that’s especially true for young DBs looking to make their mark on the team. There are several players in this class with experience in returns or coverage.
1 Adoree’ Jackson, USC
Jackson was one of the nation’s most dangerous return men, causing damage on both kick and punt returns. He has eight career return touchdowns on special teams and led the Pac-12 in both kick return average and punt return average. He’s so explosive with the ball in his hands that the Trojans often used him on offense. He has vision to weave through traffic, moves to make tacklers miss, and sudden burst when he finds a crease.
2 Desmond King, Iowa
King returned kicks and punts for the Hawkeyes. His change-of-direction skills and balance let him make would-be-tacklers miss on punt returns, though he lacks ideal straight-line speed for kick returns. He also played on field goal blocks.
3 Cam Sutton, Tennessee
Three career punt returns for touchdowns. Sutton shows vision to find return lanes and the shiftiness to make would-be tacklers miss.
4 Jourdan Lewis, Michigan
Plays on multiple special teams units: kick return, punt return, kickoff, field goal block. He shows great vision and nifty moves on kick returns.
5 Cordrea Tankersley, Clemson
Made his mark on special teams as a freshman and sophomore and continued to play on the kickoff coverage team as a senior.
Honorable Mention: Miami’s Corn Elder and Alabama’s Marlon Humphrey work as gunners on return units for their college squads. LSU’s Tre’Davious White was an effective return man for the Tigers.
Intriguing: Minnesota’s Jalen Myrick led all defensive backs with a 4.28 40. He returned kicks for the Golden Gophers but was only moderately effective, averaging a pedestrian 24.5 yards per return. He only got nine opportunities to return punts. NFL teams might look to harness his tremendous speed on special teams.
CB Brian Allen, Utah
CB Chidobe Awuzie, Colorado
CB Gareon Conley, Ohio State
CB Rasul Douglas, West Virginia
CB Corn Elder, Miami
CB Shaquill Griffin, UCF
CB Marlon Humphrey, Alabama
CB Adoree’ Jackson, USC
CB Sidney Jones, Washington
CB Damontae Kazee, San Diego State
CB Desmond King, Iowa
CB Kevin King, Washington
CB Marshon Lattimore, Ohio State
CB Jourdan Lewis, Michigan
CB Fabian Moreau, UCLA
CB Jalen Myrick, Minnesota
CB Cam Sutton, Tennessee
CB Teez Tabor, Florida
CB Cordrea Tankersley, Clemson
CB Tre’Davious White, LSU
CB Marquez White, Florida State
CB Howard Wilson, Houston
CB Quincy Wilson, Florida
CB Ahkello Witherspoon, Colorado
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