This is a high quality collection of defensive backs, both at cornerback and safety. Certainly much better than the weak receiver class we’re looking at.
Denzel Ward: Has premium speed and agility. What he lacks is the size and length to pair with it. He’s a smaller cornerback (5’10) who has the athleticism to play outside, but the build of a nickel cornerback. Great closing speed. It’s hard to turn down such an elite athlete, even if he doesn’t have the size teams desire at the position.
Jaire Alexander: His willingness to play physical has it’s upsides and downsides. He’s very aggressive attacking the ball-carrier on running plays. He tackles better than you’d expect of a player his size (5’10, 196 pounds). However, his red flag is a bunch of yellow flags, for pass interference or holding. He has the skills to cover cleanly, but looks for that extra edge. That flaw is why I wouldn’t take him quite as high as I expect him to go.
Josh Jackson: He’s a converted wide receiver. As such, he’s a natural ballhawk with somewhat raw technique. He has the size, speed, and length you’d look for at cornerback. I love him in zone where he can attack the play in front of him. His inexperience can bite him in man-to-man. He’s also not quite as agile as you might like. In a deep cornerback class, Jackson looks to provide the most upside.
Mike Hughes: My favorite pure press corner in the draft. Has the speed and physicality to dominate a wide receiver from the line all the way through the deep tree. Not necessarily a great fit for a zone defense. He has the speed and ballhawk skills to make it work, but not the proper technique or experience. He’s also been an elite returner on special teams. I like Hughes a lot, even to point of taking him at the tail end of day one, depending on how the draft plays out.
Carlton Davis: Some pluses and minuses with Davis. He’s good at staying with a receiver and has a talent for swatting passes away late. However, he’s remarkably trusting of safety help. He’ll aggressively guard his man short, but pass him off easily at a certain point downfield. That’s something his coaches are going to need to correct. He’s also not great at staying with his man on deep routes as he’s not a true speedster. The one thing that bumps him up on my board is his aggressiveness attacking the run. Some cornerbacks view running plays as a rest break. Not Davis, and that adds up over the course of a season. Early day two value.
Isaiah Oliver: There’s no hiding it: Oliver is a finesse corner. He avoids contact, preferring to trust his speed, agility, and vision to remain in contact with the receiver. I suppose having a reputation for avoiding contact is useful insofar as it pacifies litigious refs. As you might expect, his tackling skills are suspect. He has a good mix of size, length, and speed to cover wide receivers at the NFL level. Coaches might be annoyed at a player who doesn’t bring the fire, but they should trust him to do his coverage job.
Donte Jackson: Blazing speed. He’s 5’10, 175, so his power is questionable, but if you’re looking for someone to match up with deep threats, he’s your man. His major value in cover two attacking routes. Quarterbacks who can’t gun the ball in are rolling the dice. Has hands of clay. Not entirely his fault as his hands are small by NFL standards. You can’t teach speed, so Harrison will should a job somewhere in the second round.
M.J. Stewart: A natural fit as a nickel cornerback. He can move outside as a press cornerback so long as you trust the safety coverage on deeper routs. Good coordination to tip balls away. Has the power and vision to attack the line of scrimmage, giving him value as a blitzer and against the run. He has his limitations, but can do enough to help a team win in a variety of ways. Solid round three value.
Duke Dawson: Another quality nickel slot cornerback. In a world where you expect to play base nickel much of the time, Dawson’s a good fit. Very good attacking wide receivers at the line of scrimmage. Excellent at jumping routes on a blitz and returning an interception for a touchdown. He’s not a natural fit outside and doesn’t quite have the skills you want covering the deep tree. I wonder if that’s a matter of technique as his 40-time suggested he should be able to stay with receivers on post and fly routes. I guess it’s possible he just doesn’t have great acceleration/agility coming out of the cut. Another solid third-round value with potential upside.
Quenton Meeks: A solid fit for a zone coverage scheme. Meeks struggles with his transitions against cuts and will struggle against NFL receivers until he rectifies that. He’s solid at covering his area. Doesn’t quite have the agility or burst to close aggressively. Has a solid cruising speed if he can run in a straight line to his target. Should go late day two to a team where he’ll be a good fit.
Anthony Averett: Spent five years learning his craft at Alabama. The upside of all that is he’s as polished as you could hope for. The downside is he’s not that athletic and it shows on film. Receivers routinely put him in bad spots where he had to either gamble and grab or risk a completion and a big play. I feel for Averett as the mind is clearly willing, but the body just isn’t gifted enough. I’d pass on him.
Minkah Fitzpatrick: A safety/cornerback hybrid. Flies are the field. Excellent coverage skills. Can read the ball in flight and time his jump to beat the receiver to the ball. Can do anything you ask of him, including blitzing the quarterback. No real weaknesses. Positional value is the only thing that will cause him to drop in the draft.
Derwin James: Brings a bit more size and power to the table than Fitzpatrick. Excellent coverage range. Can be a bit of a gambler in the open field. Delivers big hits, with the occasional whiff. He’s a prototype strong safety, and may end up coming off the board before Fitzpatrick due to his plug-and-play reliability. I prefer Fitzpatrick’s versatility, but there’s something to be said for someone perfectly suited to a role at the NFL level.
Ronnie Harrison: Do everything safety. He can cover man or zone, attack the line of scrimmage, work through traffic, and bring his man down. Just fantastic on film. One concern: He didn’t perform at the combine. The film is great, but it’s hard to trust a defensive back with no 40-time. I’d still grab him early in the second round, but a good combine would have moved him into the first round (for me anyway).
Justin Reid: Cornerback/Safety hybrid. 4.40 40-time is fantastic. He dominated at the college level with his athleticism. Excellent positioning and vision. Has the physicality to play free safety. He’s versatile in coverage, but somewhat limited in his ability to attack the line of scrimmage. That’s what separates Harrison from Reid, although I’d be tempted to take Reid first just because of his speed/range.
Jessie Bates III: Impressive work in coverage, both in man and zone. Solid closing speed. Makes good decisions. Doesn’t have the power you’d want. That’s problematic as his tackling skills aren’t what you’d want from a safety. Part of that can be improved with better technique, but I suspect he’s just not physically strong enough to be a good tackler at the NFL level. Mind you, he’s not a finesse safety. He’ll give you all he has and sell out to make the play. It’s just a matter of his physical limitations.
Kyzir White: Safety-LB hybrid. Has the speed and power teams are looking for. A bit of gambler, which is more acceptable if you pick up interceptions when you’re right. He’s not a ballhawk, and will need better coaching to make sure he doesn’t aggressively bite on play fakes. He can work in the box when you want to play nickel and not give up too much against the run. Solid pickup late on day two.
DeShon Elliot: Great vision and soft hands make for an elite ballhawk. Average athleticism, but makes up for it by playing smart disciplined football. Aggressive hitter. Needs to work on his tackling technique, although it’s a tradeoff. Sometimes he’ll force fumblers, other times he’ll whiff or bounce off. Honestly not sure if he’s making the correct decision or not, but at the NFL level it’s a weakness opponents will exploit. I expect proper coaching will lead to improved technique. Elliot is a sleeper for me as I expect him to be a quality professional. I’m happy picking him up early in round three onward.
Armani Watts: I’m not sure what to make of Watts. He has solid ballhawk instincts, but also took some inexplicable gambles that lead to big plays. Is it possible for him to cut down on the errors while maintaining the aggression that defined his play? I have no idea. He’s a bit undersized and doesn’t bring the power you’d like. He’s a quality athlete with good range so perhaps his best fit is as a “centerfield” free safety. I’m OK trading some power for speed, but I don’t think I’d take Watts until day three.