In 2016 I watched many defensive back prospects, but rather than rank them sequentially I wrote up my “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 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.” With the rising popularity of spread offenses in college and three-receiver sets in the NFL, the slot defender is increasingly important, and an area where the top cornerback and safety prospects overlap.
Best Slot Coverage
These are the players with the best ability to defend wide receivers in the slot, not necessarily tight ends or huge receivers who sometimes line up there. Defending Julian Edelman and similar players requires a much different skill set than covering Tyler Eifert – you need terrific foot quickness, awareness in both man-to-man and zone, and tremendous reactive athleticism.
1 Gareon Conley, Ohio State
Conley has the size to play outside, but got a lot of reps in the slot for the Buckeyes. His foot quickness and hip fluidity mean he can match up on slot receivers, and he also has the size to defend bigger receivers who move into the slot.
2 Chidobe Awuzie, Colorado
Awuzie got a lot of slot usage for the Buffalos in press, off-man, and zone. He could stand to improve his play strength but figures to be an NFL corner with inside / outside flexibility.
3 Desmond King, Iowa
King played mostly outside for the Hawkeyes, but showed balance, footwork, and tackling ability in his opportunities inside. His size may make him a slot corner at the NFL level.
4 Budda Baker, Washington
Baker served as the Huskies’ de facto slot corner, able to mirror slot receivers from off-man coverage. He also has excellent click-and-close to attack short stuff from underneath zones, though savvy offenses will attack his aggression with misdirection.
5 Corn Elder, Miami
The feisty Elder has the competitiveness and instincts to thrive inside despite a slight build (183 pounds). He isn’t a top athlete but made plays in both man-to-man and zone coverage while lining up in the slot for the Hurricanes.
Honorable Mention: Michigan’s Jourdan Lewis played extensively in the slot for the Wolverines. He has the quick feet to excel in the role but must cut down on his grabbiness. LSU’s Tre’Davious White doesn’t have top athleticism but is solid and experienced in a slot role.
Intriguing: Jabrill Peppers arrived at Michigan as a cornerback recruit but played everywhere for the Wolverines, lining up mostly at linebacker in 2016. His reps in coverage were a mixed bag, but he’s got the physical tool kit to succeed in a slot role.
Best Slot Projections
Not all the NFL’s best slot cornerbacks started there – many played outside in college. The players below rarely lined up in the slot in college but have skill sets that would translate well to the position.
1 Adoree’ Jackson, USC
Jackson has top-shelf movement skills, both in lateral agility and long speed. He also shows off excellent ball skills. His major drawbacks are a slight frame and a tendency to guess and be beaten deep – both would be ameliorated in the slot, where he wouldn’t have to press as much and would benefit from safety help.
2 Damontae Kazee, San Diego State
Kazee is small (5’10”) and slow (4.54 40 yard dash), a bad combination for a cornerback, but he brings a number of other qualities to the party. He’s a tenacious run defender for a small guy, competes on every play, and boasts jaw-dropping playmaking ability. The slot will hide his physical limitations and let him do what he does best.
3 Howard Wilson, Houston
Foot quickness is key to slot defense, and Wilson dominated the Combine’s agility drills, finishing in the 90th percentile in both the short shuttle (3.94) and 3-cone (6.68). The Cougars played a zone-heavy scheme that didn’t always put that agility on display, but Wilson demonstrated anticipation and ball skills.
4 Sidney Jones, Washington
Jones doesn’t have top-shelf size (186 pounds) or athleticism but his awareness and anticipation are second-to-none. Some teams will plug him in outside, but teams that run press-heavy schemes on the outside may look at Jones as a slot defender.
5 Jalen Myrick, Minnesota
The top speedster among Combine defensive backs with a 4.28 40 yard dash, the 5’10” Myrick still finds himself beaten deep at times, lacking the physicality to compete at the catch point with larger outside receivers. He fits better in the slot.
Honorable Mention: Tennessee’s Cam Sutton’s 30-inch arms preclude him from lining up outside on most teams, but he’s got enough stickiness, zone awareness, and ball skills to help in the slot.
Intriguing: Ohio State’s Marshon Lattimore and UCLA’s Fabian Moreau are top prospects who figure to do most of their work outside, but have the mirroring ability to provide slot versatility.Best Blitzer
Not every team uses their slot defender on the blitz, but players who can provide pass rush from that spot add another dimension to their defenses.
1 Chidobe Awuzie, Colorado
The senior racked up nine career sacks, including four each of the past two seasons. Awuzie has quick-twitch athleticism who just explodes to the quarterback. He’s an effective finisher, too, forcing six fumbles for the Buffs.
2 Budda Baker, Washington
Baker plays with terrific intensity, and that shows on his explosive and tenacious blitzes. He bursts off the line and pursues the quarterback like a bat out of hell, or the running back if he takes the handoff.
3 Jabrill Peppers, Michigan
The Wolverines sent Peppers on the blitz fairly often, making use of his special straight-line acceleration. He can come around the edge from the slot or shoot the B gap from a linebacker alignment, getting heat on the quarterback while staying alert for handoffs.
4 Corn Elder, Miami
Elder blitzed from both the slot and when lined up on the boundary side. He is patient in disguising his blitzes, stays alert for the handoff or quick pass, and even has some shiftiness to put a move on a blocker. He had three sacks in 2016.
5 Xavier Woods, Louisiana Tech
Woods blitzed both off the edge and from the middle, and showed nice patience to disguise his blitz until the last minute. He’s tenacious, willing to try to bend the edge against offensive tackles, shove back running backs, or pursue quarterbacks stepping up in the pocket. Three sacks in 2016.
Honorable Mention: Ohio State’s Gareon Conley tallied only half a sack in his Buckeyes career, but he got some pressures bursting off the edge.
CB Chidobe Awuzie, Colorado
S Budda Baker, Washington
S Chuck Clark, Virginia Tech
CB Gareon Conley, Ohio State
CB Corn Elder, Miami
CB Shaquill Griffin, UCF
S Delano Hill, Michigan
CB Adoree’ Jackson, USC
S Eddie Jackson, Alabama
S John Johnson, Boston College
CB Sidney Jones, Washington
CB Damontae Kazee, San Diego State
CB Desmond King, Iowa
CB Marshon Lattimore, Ohio State
CB Jourdan Lewis, Michigan
CB Fabian Moreau, UCLA
CB Jalen Myrick, Minnesota
S Jabrill Peppers, Michigan
CB Cam Sutton, Tennessee
CB Tre’Davious White, LSU
CB Howard Wilson, Houston
S Xavier Woods, Louisiana Tech