There are three core positions in football. Quarterback, meaning someone who can throw the ball downfield. Offensive tackle, meaning someone to protect that quarterback. And an edge pass rusher, meaning someone to disrupt the opponent’s quarterback.
The next in line after this trio would be the field-tilting cornerback. For everything you have up front, under center, or in the shotgun: someone has to be making the plays downfield. Someone has to be taking the ball away and locking down number one pass options in an NFL that is continually moving towards more of a spread-the-field offensive look. Take a gander around the league and you’ll see that the elite defenses not only have a true star cornerback, but a lengthy depth chart of cover guys.
From the Jaguars and Jalen Ramsey, to the Vikings and Xavier Rhodes, these are defensive units that work like a finely tuned machine because they have cornerbacks that open up a flexible defensive gameplan. Effectively, their star cornerbacks help make their defenses matchup proof, even against wide open offensive attacks.
With this in mind, cornerback becomes more of a premium position each year. The 2017 class had extraordinary rookie talents such as the Saints’ Marshon Lattimore and the Bills’ Tre’Davious White. These were first-year players that evolved their defenses and offered another reminder of what a great cornerback can do to galvanize performance team-wide.
The 2018 class, from a glance, has a chance to match that same stage of depth with studs at the top. With the 2018 NFL Scouting Combine field tests set to run this weekend, I’m going to run through the top-five corners in order by my own evaluations and discern what to expect from how they’ll perform in Indianapolis. These aren’t sleepers. These guys are the cream of the crop.
1. Denzel Ward, Ohio State
In terms of pure coverage, there isn’t a better cornerback in this year’s draft than Ward. No one moves as fluidly, naturally, and without wasted movement like he does. Ward is classified as a lockdown corner because he has supreme athletic ability and football intelligence. He can backpedal or stay in man without opening his hips to recover, and can stay stride for stride with whomever he’s covering. He doesn’t have to pull out his bag of tricks and be overtaxed unless absolutely necessary. And when he actually is tested by speed, his makeup and knack for closing on a target is unmatched. His processing of routes gives him a leg up to make a play or at least have a chance every time.
The only concern for me with Ward is his minimal frame. At a listed 5-foot-10, 190 pounds, he’s not the prototypical NFL cornerback teams seek nowadays. That’s why he can occasionally struggle in run support and against more sizable receivers that can outjump him, or beat his presses with strength. His Combine measurements will provide a more solid benchmark in this regard, but they shouldn’t change much.
Aside from body length and mass, Ward should test off the charts in every on-field obstacle from the 40-yard dash, to the three-cone drill. This is where NFL teams will confirm his tremendous skill to change directions on a dime, and where he’ll showcase that he belongs at the highest level. Watch for the Buccaneers (No. 7), 49ers (No. 9), Raiders (No. 10), and Dolphins (No. 11) as prime landing spots in the top half of the draft. Because after this weekend, he’ll solidify himself as a top-15 pick. Whichever organization overlooks Ward because of his size will rue the day.
2. Josh Jackson, Iowa
You want the next great ballhawk? Look no further than Jackson. In 2017, the junior had 18 passes defended and eight interceptions in 13 games: insane figures at any level of football. Taking the ball away and being around it in the air isn’t a skill you can teach either. A defensive back either has it or doesn’t. It’s instinct, of which Jackson has in spades. For this reason alone, some teams might value Jackson more than the other cornerbacks available in April.
Throw a high fade in the air, watch Jackson high point it with ease.
Attack Jackson underneath, watch him smoothly close and play the ball.
Any time you go in his direction, there should be legitimate fear that he isn’t taking away your possession and making you regret your life decisions.
Concerns with Jackson stem from the fact that most of his evaluation comes from one year. 2017 was the first season where he received major playing time. Even while he flashed game-changing ability within this context, this should offer a degree of pause as to how much more he still has to be refined as a player. Or, whether this production was a flash in the pan.
Drills to watch with Jackson at Lucas Oil Stadium will be centered around his actual long speed and how he recovers. More polished cornerbacks have this ability down pat, regardless of athletic makeup. Jackson is going to have to show he possesses the consistent downfield speed to keep up with the increasingly quick NFL. In regards to team fit, think of Jackson like Ward: the 49ers, Raiders, and Dolphins should be pinpointed in and around the top-11.
3. Jaire Alexander, Louisville
A three-year major player for the Cardinals secondary, Alexander is in a similar mold to Ward at 5-foot-11, 192 pounds, but with a different play style. While Ward is your traditional cover man lockdown guy, Alexander goes out and doggedly competes. He’s a physical cornerback unafraid to mix it up with receivers within the confines of the rulebook, and that’s refreshing.
Watching Alexander on the outside you can note his tenacity to let his opposition know who they’re matched up against and force them to starkly remember. While not an elite playmaker breaking on the ball, Jackson shows the ability to break on a route if need be. He’s another mover that doesn’t panic and doesn’t let his man break his bubble of coverage without engaging properly.
What Alexander has to prove at the Combine is whether his compete level can make up for his lanky build. His stock is already at more of a late first round and early Day 2 selection because of it. How he can do that is display his knee and ankle flexibility with necessary athleticism makes up for the risk. The speed is there. The quickness is present. But how does he react when spun around? How does he operate when tasked with quickly transition movements in tracing routes? The shuttle run and three-cone drill are a must for Alexander to solidify himself in this corner class.
With a decent showing at the Combine, make the Alexander connection for the Panthers (No. 24), Titans (No. 25), Patriots (No. 31), and the Browns and Buccaneers in the early parts of the second round once the draft order begins anew.
4. Isaiah Oliver, Colorado
The most optimal way to describe Oliver is tools. He looks like a stud NFL cornerback, with a balanced and ripped body centered around solid upper body and core strength. He’s also got aggressive long arms to rake away space.
And he runs like a stud NFL cornerback, because of track star level speed that affords him the ability to make an initial mistake and quickly backtrack to cover his bases.
Oliver’s natural gifts make him an enticing cornerback prospect for defenses because he doesn’t waste them. Because, in the end, he fits the bill of a player more in line with what the modern league is attempting to unearth.
Where Oliver struggles is in honed-in coverage. He’ll often waste steps when working from man to man, and has a less-than-ample change of direction. You can attack him with in breaking routes that require him to turn because of these faults. He also isn’t always a willing tackler in run support. Which for his size, is disconcerting.
At this stage, Oliver looks like a lock for an early to mid-second round selection, as whoever drafts him is going to have to sand off these rough coverage edges. Any number of teams from the Raiders, Dolphins, and Titans can and likely will take a shot on him there. Oliver can afford himself leeway by mastering the three-cone drill in Indianapolis to show that he’s capable of being tested and succeeding when thrown for a loop.
5. Donte Jackson, LSU
This year’s “Mr. Adidas” i.e. the player that will seek to break last year’s 40-yard dash Combine record by John Ross, Jackson is no stranger to putting on a show. An uncatchable blaze of speed, as a raw athlete with football aptitude taken out of consideration, he’s by far the tip-top of every other cornerback available. Of any player at any position, one could make the argument he’s the best athlete of any of them.
What Jackson brings to the table is that he’s nothing but a quick-twitch reactive player. That’s why he’s most seamless at playing cornerback, because corners have to react and move on the most sudden of whims. Jackson’s athletic profile gives him the talent to match up on the outside or in the slot. He can stay with a slot receiver or match up on the outside because he’s a dynamic, charged stud. If he’s asked to close space in coverage or on a route, he makes it look effortless, as if it could be done by anyone. The type of cornerback that’s apt to cover for everyone else’s mistakes on the back end, if only you asked him to.
All of this is well and awesome with Jackson because he’s the smallest of these cornerbacks. At 5-foot-11, 175 pounds soaking wet, how he’ll stand up to the rigors of the game is a major question. He rarely anticipates routes and tends to rely on his athleticism carrying through rather than reading his keys to take him to the direction his receiver is headed. In this respect, you can fool him on double moves and crossing routes with simple matter-of-fact scheming as he tends to lose ground and positioning. It’s often said that some cornerbacks only play cornerback because they can’t catch. Well, that certainly describes Jackson, who let more than a few picks slip through his hands over the course of his amateur career.
Unlike his defensive back counterparts, Jackson doesn’t have much to prove in any on-field testing. Everyone is aware of the virtuoso athlete of a football player that he is. This Combine is about him maintaining that earned perception and wowing the gathered league base. Any concerns of his size or technician work won’t be fixed at this juncture, though it will drop him to the late second round and early third in all likelihood.
Overall, if you’re looking for a superstar on the defensive boundary, then this 2018 cornerback class is the one for you. Buy high, invest in the future, and watch whomever you decide to roll the dice on erase No. 1 offensive options. The proof is in the pudding, and the first part of that pudding is a dynamite showing at the Combine.