2021 Cornerback Draft Superlatives

All Relative Athletic Scores (RAS) / measurables courtesy of Kent Lee Platte. Thanks to John Limberakis for his advice and all the film sessions, and to #1 Ambry Thomas fan Josh Bollman for providing context around Thomas’ career.

Every draft year is different, and the 2021 draft is especially unusual, with opt-outs, abridged seasons, and an abbreviated offseason process. Despite all the differences, some things remain the same: a player’s fit is a vital part of his resume. The 2021 cornerback class boasts a number of intriguing players with a variety of skill sets, and different teams will value some corners more highly than others based on the scheme they run and traits they covet.

Best In Press: Jaycee Horn, South Carolina

Since I’ve been watching corner film, the best prospect I’ve seen is Jalen Ramsey. Huge, fast, physically, and ridiculously versatile, the Florida State standout has parlayed those traits into an impressive NFL career. Jaycee Horn is not Jalen Ramsey; for one thing, he struggles to make tackles while Ramsey excels in run support. But Horn has similar size, speed, and physicality at the line. He’ll lock you down all game, and he’ll let you know about it. He gets under a receiver’s skin with physical play and trash talk. Teams that run a lot of press should rank him as the top prospect in the class.

Honorable Mention: There are a lot of fine press options in this class. Caleb Farley and Patrick Surtain project to be drafted highly; both looked good pressing in college. Among later-round guys, Washington’s Keith Taylor presses effectively, making the most of his 6’2” frame.

Best In Zone: Asante Samuel, Jr., Florida State

It’s no surprise that the son of Asante Samuel, one of the best off / zone corners of the last 20 years, has a similar skill set. Like his father, the younger Samuel doesn’t have ideal size to play outside (5’10”, 180 pounds), particularly in press-heavy schemes, but a team that plays a lot of zone or off coverage will find a lot to like. For other teams, he likely projects as a slot corner. He might have the best feet in the draft class, and he shows great burst reacting to action in front of him. 

Honorable Mention: Northwestern plays a variety of coverages and Greg Newsome looks good in all of them, particularly in zone. Paulson Adebo has some rough edges to sand off in man-to-man coverage, but he gets depth as the play develops and shows good awareness of pattern match rules.

Best In Slot: Elijah Molden, Washington

Molden fits all the undersized (5’9”) corner stereotypes: scrappy, feisty, competitive, punches above his weight (194 pounds), etc. He doesn’t have the greatest long speed, but he’s got terrific feet and agility, plus he’ll come up and lay a wallop in the run game. It’s not clear whether he can carve out a role in base defense, but with nickel increasingly the dominant personnel grouping, he’s got a lot of value to an NFL team. Like Horn, Surtain, and Samuel, Molden’s got NFL bloodlines; his dad was longtime New Orleans Saint Alex Molden.

Honorable Mention: Draftniks list Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah as alternately a linebacker or a safety, but he covered the slot a ton for Notre Dame and was very effective. His downhill burst is a sight to behold.

Best Ball Skills: Kelvin Joseph, Kentucky

Joseph only started one year, but the redshirt sophomore made an impression with four interceptions, including this impressive one of Mac Jones, in coverage on Heisman-Trophy-winner DeVonta Smith:

Joseph doesn’t have the best change-of-direction skills, but his size (5’11”, 197 pounds, arms just a tick under 32”), long speed (4.34 40), and ball skills make him a good fit in a Seattle-style press cover 3 scheme.

Honorable Mention: Jaycee Horn didn’t have a lot of on-ball production in college, but that’s because teams rarely threw his way. He made plays when he was targeted. Ifeatu Melifonwu doesn’t always make the best use of his size and athleticism, but his length and physicality let him make plays at the catch point.

Best Tackler: Tre Brown, Oklahoma

Boy, Brown’s tape was fun. He’s not quite 5’10” and he tips the scales at just 185 pounds, but Brown is fearless and will lay the wood on runners. He’s a sound tackler who wraps consistently. He played outside corner for the Sooners and will likely have to move to slot or safety at the NFL level, but his tackling ability will play in the middle of the field. He reminds me a little of 2020 Pro Bowl safety Quandre Diggs, who was a similar undersized, effective outside corner at the University of Texas.

Honorable Mention: Of the top-of-the-draft prospects, Caleb Farley is easily the best tackler. It’s wild to think he played quarterback in high school and entered Virginia Tech as a wideout. Ambry Thomas could stand to get stronger, but he was an effective tackler on 2019 tape even below his ideal weight (see below).

Most Intriguing Prospect: Ambry Thomas, Michigan

Thomas’s 2019 tape shows his size (nearly 6’0” with 32.25” arms), speed (4.41 40 at his Pro Day), and willingness to tackle. That solid performance looks even more impressive when you consider he was hospitalized before the season for a month with colitis and lost 35 pounds. That wound up being the only season of film we have on Thomas, after the Big 10’s waffling prompted him to opt out. With a normal offseason and no medical issues, could Thomas have taken a step forward his senior year, propelling him towards the top of the class? We’ll never know, but there’s a lot to like there.

Honorable Mention: Like Thomas, Paulson Adebo opted out of 2020. He’s one of the most physically-gifted corners in the class—his click-and-close is insane—but he’s got rough edges to smooth out in man-to-man and versus the run. Ifeatu Melifonwu looks like a press corner at 6’2” 205 and with 32.25” arms, but he mostly played off coverage in Syracuse’s scheme.

Best All-Around: Caleb Farley, Virginia Tech

This one has an asterisk. Farley has been plagued with a laundry list of injuries, including an ACL tear and two recent back surgeries. It’s unclear how much he’ll be able to play in 2021, how long a career he might have, or how far his medical concerns will cause him to slip in the draft. That’s a shame, because on tape he’s the total package: press skills, ball skills, physical against the run, sticky in coverage. Hopefully he will be able to overcome his injury history and enjoy a productive career.

Honorable Mention: Patrick Surtain doesn’t tackle as effectively as Farley, but he does everything else well and he’s as safe as they come. Northwestern’s defense plays a diverse set of coverages, giving Greg Newsome a great background that will fit in almost any scheme. He’s been deservedly getting some first-round chatter lately. Eric Stokes could add some strength, but he’s blazing fast and has desirable dimensions to press.

Mostly Likely To Succeed: Patrick Surtain II, Alabama

Surtain has been projected in the top half of the first round seemingly from the womb, and no wonder: he’s super clean. He started three years for the Crimson Tide, including 38 straight games, he ran a 4.42 at his Pro Day, he measured north of 6’2” and 200 pounds, he’s got NFL bloodlines, and he was a unanimous First-Team All-American in 2020. He can press, he can play off, he broke up 24 passes in his career, and he did it all against top SEC competition. He’s perhaps a tick conservative at times, but he’s rarely victimized deep.The team that drafts Surtain is going to sleep easy Thursday night.

Honorable Mention: Jaycee Horn is a bit more scheme-specific than Surtain, but as mentioned above, he’s an ideal fit for press teams.

Also watched:

Tyson Campbell, Georgia

Robert Rochell, Central Arkansas

Benjamin St-Juste, Minnesota

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