NFL Draft 2016 preview: Defensive backs

Jalen Ramsey

Jalen Ramsey

In the 80-year history of the NFL Draft, only once has a defensive back been taken with the No. 1 overall pick. That was all the way back in 1956, when the Pittsburgh Steelers took safety Gary Glick out of Colorado A&M (now known as Colorado State). Glick, who was also a kicker, played seven years in the league with the Steelers, Colts, Chargers and Washington. He finished his career with 14 interceptions and 12 fumble recoveries.

Six decades later, 2016 was shaping up to be the year in which a defensive back went No. 1 in the draft again.

The league was ready for it.

The last four Super Bowl championship teams — the Ravens, Seahawks, Patriots and Broncos — all prominently featured All-Pro defensive backs such as Ed Reed, Richard Sherman, Darrelle Revis and Chris Harris Jr. Two of those Super Bowl winners (Seahawks, Broncos) turned in dominant defensive performances in the title-clinching game; and one of those Super Bowls (Patriots) was decided by rookie defensive back Malcolm Butler‘s interception at the goal line.

Defensive backs are a hot commodity — as evidenced by the free-agency scramble for All-Pro cornerback Josh Norman that ended with Washington signing Norman to a 5-year, $75 million contract with a whopping $50 million guaranteed.

And this year’s draft class has a player who is talented enough to justify the hype, expectations and salary befitting a No. 1 overall pick.

Florida State junior Jalen Ramsey projects as an NFL safety to some, an NFL cornerback to others, and the best football player in the draft to many scouts and observers. And when the Tennessee Titans were scheduled to make the first pick in the draft when it begins on April 28, Ramsey was looking more and more like the player they would choose.

But then the Titans traded the No. 1 pick to the Los Angeles Rams, who are most likely going to follow standard NFL Draft protocol and take a quarterback with the top selection. And then the Cleveland Browns, who had the No. 2 pick, traded that to the Philadelphia Eagles, who also need a QB. So now Ramsey projects at best No. 3 (San Diego Chargers), and we’ll have to wait another year at least before we see another Gary Glick.

While a defensive back is not going No. 1, the 2016 draft class is still loaded with talent at the safety and cornerback positions. A breakdown of the top DBs from Kansas City Star writer Terez A. Paylor:

Vernon Hargreaves III

Vernon Hargreaves III

TOP 10 CORNERBACKS

1. JALEN RAMSEY
6-1, 209, 22, 4.41, Florida State

Bio: Three-year starter who had 52 tackles, zero interceptions, 10 pass breakups and 10 pass deflections in 13 games in 2015. First true freshman to start at cornerback for Florida State since Deion Sanders in 1985. Declared after his true junior season.

Consensus: Outstanding athlete; former track guy who tested well in multiple drills including vertical (41.5) and broad jump (135 inches). Has excellent arm length (33 3/8 inches). Can play cornerback or safety, but has the ability to play multiple positions as a Swiss-army knife, of sorts. Potential Pro Bowler at either position. Has excellent instincts, football IQ and leadership ability. Great tackler who can blitz, too. Surprisingly low ball production (only three career interceptions) is a small concern.

2. VERNON HARGREAVES III
5-10, 204, 21, 4.50, Florida

Bio: Three-year starter who had 33 tackles, four interceptions and four pass breakups in 13 games in 2015. Finalist for the Jim Thorpe Award in 2015. Was first-team all-SEC as a true freshman. Declared after his true junior season.

Consensus: Is young for a prospect but is very experienced. Has a thickness to his frame, particularly in the lower body, but posted good marks in the vertical (39 inches) and broad jump (130 inches) and is very athletic. Smooth corner with very good feet and transitional quickness. Has 10 career interceptions. Good tackler. Quick, fast with good ball skills. Plays press and off-man coverage. Lacks eye discipline in off man; is susceptible to double moves. Has some return skills and also served as a gunner at times. Plug-and-play type.

3. ELI APPLE
6-1, 199, 21, 4.40, Ohio State

Bio: Two-year starter who had 33 tackles, one interception and eight pass breakups in 13 games in 2015. Declared after redshirt sophomore season.

Consensus: Is young for a prospect. Alleviated concerns about his speed with a good Combine 40 and strong field workout. Is long for the position; fits the physical prototype. Combination of size and athleticism will be attractive to NFL teams. Has the hips, feet and length to be a good corner. Has four career interceptions but needs to refine his ball skills. Technique is inconsistent; needs to be coached up. Willing tackler with the size to hold up in run support.

4. WILLIAM JACKSON III
6-0, 189, 23, 4.37, Houston

Bio: Two-year starter who had 43 tackles, five interceptions and 23 passes defensed in 13 games in 2015. Junior-college transfer.

Consensus: Satisfied questions about his speed with a blazing time at the Combine. Adequate arm length (31 3/4 inches). Tremendous ball production; led the nation in passes defensed and has ball skills. He can track it. Good football instincts. Showed good footwork in the combine drills. Is a little tight through the hips in space but looked adequate in movement drills. Willing tackler but must refine his technique there. Looks the part as press-man or off-coverage Cover 1 or Cover 3 corner — did plenty of both. “Kid can play any discipline with equal effectiveness — just needs to get stronger and tackle better,” ESPN analyst Louis Riddick said.

5. MACKENSIE ALEXANDER
5-10, 190, 23, 4.41, Clemson

Bio: Two-year starter who had 23 tackles, zero interceptions, five pass breakups and five pass deflections in 14 games in 2015. Declared after redshirt sophomore season.

Consensus: Superior athleticism. Is field-fast with very good quickness and anticipation. Forty-time comes from his Pro Day, did not run at the Combine. Willing tackler but is small and needs to get stronger. Would be the first defensive back to go in the first round of the draft with zero career interceptions since 1969. Has also reportedly struggled on the blackboard, showing a lack of understanding when it comes to recognizing defensive concepts. Dealt with hamstring issues in his career.

6. KENDALL FULLER
5-11, 187, 21, DNR*, Virginia Tech

Bio: Three-year starter who 54 seven tackles, two interceptions, 15 pass breakups and 17 pass deflections in 13 games in 2014. Only played in three games in 2015 due to a season-ending knee injury. Comes from a long-line of football players; has three older brothers who either are currently in the NFL or have played in the NFL. Declared after true junior season.

Consensus: Is young for a prospect. Has shown ball production in the past with eight career interceptions, so his ball skills are up to snuff. Has a natural feel for the position and has very good instincts for the position but is a little tight in the hips and will occasionally bite on double moves. Lean body who might get outmuscled by bigger receivers in the NFL. Willing tackler who occasionally whiffs in space. Competitive and tough.

7. ARTIE BURNS
6-0, 193, 21, 4.46, Miami (Fla.)

Bio: Two-year starter who had 36 tackles, six interceptions and five pass breakups in 12 games in 2015. Declared after true junior season.

Consensus: Is young for a prospect. Very good arm length (33 1/4 inches). Great combination of size and speed — looks the part. Wasn’t smooth in the turn-and-run drill at the Combine. Has good ball production; can get the ball in the air. Super-physical; can be overly grabby. Is solid in zone coverage. Understands progressions and is scheme versatile. Good character; mother died and is father is in prison, so he’s helping to raise his two younger siblings, in addition to his own young son.

8. ZACK SANCHEZ
5-11, 185, 21, 4.48*, Oklahoma

Bio: Three-year starter who had 45 tackles, seven interceptions and seven pass breakups in 11 games in 2015. Semifinalist for the Jim Thorpe Award. Declared after his redshirt junior season.

Consensus: Is young for a prospect. Lacks bulk and his overall field speed is a concern, though his Pro Day 40 time will help his cause. Outstanding ball production with 15 career interceptions in only three years. Has legit ball skills, which is crucial in today’s NFL. Will get beat — is susceptible to double moves and surrendered his fair share of touchdowns — but makes plays. Bigger receivers gave him problems. Needs to improve in run support.

9. XAVIER HOWARD
6-0, 201, 23, 4.58, Baylor

Bio: Two-year starter who had 42 tackles, five interceptions and 10 pass deflections in 13 games in 2015. Declared after redshirt junior season.

Consensus: Big, press-man corner with good-enough athleticism and solid production. Has good feet and good bulk. Long speed is a bit of a concern (Oklahoma game in ’15). Technique is inconsistent; is very up and down. Struggles to find the ball in the air at times (North Carolina bowl game). Struggled to catch the ball at the Combine. The tools are here to be a starting-caliber NFL outside corner but he would be best served by going to a press-heavy team with good coaches.

10. WILL REDMOND
5-11, 182, 23, DNR*, Mississippi State

Bio: One-year starter who had 25 tackles, two interceptions, one pass breakup and three pass deflections in seven games in 2015. Suffered a torn ACL in October.

Consensus: Arms are probably a little shorter than you’d prefer (30 3/8 inches). Good athleticism and quickness. Combines natural cover skills — he possesses quick feet — with solid instincts. Flashes ball skills but lacks strength and can get outmuscled by bigger receivers. Lack of size is a concern in run support, where he generally tries but can be overpowered.

OTHERS TO WATCH: Maurice Canady, Virginia; Deiondre’ Hall, Northern Iowa; Cyrus Jones, Alabama; Eric Murray, Minnesota; D.J. White, Georgia Tech.

Vonn Bell

Vonn Bell

TOP 10 SAFETIES

1. VONN BELL, Ohio State
5-11, 199, 22, 4.51

Bio: Two-year starter who recorded 65 tackles, nine pass breakups, two interceptions and one forced fumble in 13 games in 2015. Did not work out at the combine. Declared after his true junior season.

Consensus: Had a formal interview with the Chiefs at the NFL combine. Posted a solid 40-yard dash time at his pro day; runs well. Has good athleticism for the position, and can cover some ground in coverage. Can play man on certain receivers and tight ends and flashes comfort in zone coverage. Occasionally flashes ball skills. Could stand to give more consistent effort as a tackler, but steps up when necessary. Is not a striker; is a drag-down type. Often finds himself around the ball.

2. KEANU NEAL, Florida
6-0, 211, 4.62

Bio: Two-year starter who recorded 96 tackles, one pass breakup, one interception and one forced fumble in 12 games in 2015. Declared after his true junior season.

Consensus: Posted a good vertical (38 inches) and broad jump (132 inches). Explosive athlete who will stick his nose and there and strike ballcarriers downhill, though he needs to work on his pursuit angles. Likes contact, but doesn’t always wrap up. Flashes a plus closing burst and runs fairly well on a straight line. Has played some deep zone but does his best work around the box. Will need to prove he’s got coverage skills on the backend; might not be a natural in that area. Has special teams experience and has the look of a contributor in that area.

3. KARL JOSEPH, West Virginia
5-10, 205, DNR*

Bio: Four-year starter who recorded 20 tackles, one pass breakup, five interceptions and zero forced fumbles in only four games in 2015.

Consensus: Experienced enforcer type with plus speed and range. Had an ACL injury back in October but still managed five interceptions on the season. Bullet on the field with good feet for safety; former soccer player who moves well. Good tackler who likes to lay the wood. Reportedly has great football character. Has experience in the box, in one-high and as a nickel corner. Passionate player who counts Ed Reed among his NFL role models. First-round talent whose lack of size and injury history could drop him into the second round, but he has the best tape of any safety in this draft.

4. DARIAN THOMPSON, Boise State
6-2, 208, 22, 4.69

Bio: Four-year starter who recorded 65 tackles, nine passes defensed, four pass breakups, five interceptions and two forced fumbles in 12 games in 2015.

Consensus: Has a good feel for the position. Experienced player with tremendous ball production; his 19 career interceptions, broke Eric Weddle’s Mountain West record. Playmaker with ball skills who is always around the football but is a bit tight in the hips. Ran a disappointing 40-time at the combine and lacks explosion as an athlete. Willing, drag-down tackler who occasionally misses some tackles in the open field.

5. T.J. GREEN, Clemson
6-2, 209, 21, 4.34

Bio: One-year starter who had 95 tackles (5.5 for loss), zero interceptions, three pass breakups and three pass deflections in 15 games in 2015. Former wide receiver who moved to defensive back after 2013 season.

Consensus: Had a formal interview with the Chiefs at the NFL combine. Ran a blazing 40 and posted a great broad jump (129 inches). Has excellent arm length (32 inches). Has the height-length-speed part down and is a plus athlete for the position. Is raw and is still training his eyes in pass coverage, so he will require coaching to reach his potential. Occasionally flashes ball skills of a former wide receiver. Is a very willing tackler who isn’t afraid to stick his nose in there — showed no hesitation going after Derrick Henry, Alabama’s super-sized back, but is not a classic downhill thumper. Has worked on the punt coverage team, might be able to contribute there.

6. DeANDRE HOUSTON-CARSON, William & Mary
6-1, 201, 4.54

Bio: Four-year starter who recorded a team-high 109 tackles, seven passes defensed, three pass breakups, four interceptions and one forced fumble in 13 games in 2015. Team captain.

Consensus: Former cornerback who moved to safety this season. Posted a good 40 time at the combine. Was impressive at the Senior Bowl. Possesses good play speed. Is always around the football but is a little stiff in coverage. Very willing tackler who pursues hard in run support but doesn’t always wrap up and occasionally overpursues. Good special-teams player; has nine career blocks on special teams. Reportedly has good football character. Could intrigue teams who want to try him as a cornerback but might face a learning curve with the jump to the NFL.

7. MILES KILLEBREW, Southern Utah
6-2, 217, 4.65

Bio: Four-year starter who had 132 tackles, zero interceptions, seven pass breakups and seven pass deflections in 12 games in 2015.

Consensus: Ripped-up combine star who was among the top testers among defensive backs in the bench (22 reps), vertical (38 inches) and broad jump (127 inches), but posted a fairly slow 40. Super-productive enforcer who flashes the ability to punish offensive players and pack a punch when he has a head of steam, but occasionally catches ballcarriers instead of delivering the blow. One-speed athlete who might best project as a linebacker but has a translatable skill set to the NFL, overall. Whether he lasts on the backend will depend on his ball skills and comfort in coverage against a much higher level of football. Will contribute on special teams.

8. JALEN MILLS, Louisiana State
6-0, 191, 22, 4.61

Bio: Four-year starter who recorded 30 tackles, two pass breakups, zero interceptions and zero forced fumbles in six games in 2015 after missing the beginning of the season with a leg injury. Had some off field issues in May 2014.

Consensus: Posted a good vertical (37 inches). One-speed defender with an acceptable 40 time who can hold up on an island vs. some receivers. Super-experienced player in the nation’s most physical conference. Versatile; can play corner (in certain coverages) and safety. Sees the game well. Dealt with an ankle injury early in the season but came on strong toward the end of the year. Willing but underpowered tackler. Good football player; might go higher if teams are satisfied after they dig in on his background; had a second-degree battery charge in 2014 that was eventually dropped.

9. JEREMY CASH, Duke
6-0, 212, 24, 4.59

Bio: Three-year starter who recorded 101 tackles, four passes defensed, four pass breakups, four interceptions and three forced fumbles in 12 games in 2015. Finalist for the Jim Thorpe Award in 2015. Transferred from Ohio State in 2012.

Consensus: Is old for a prospect. Very willing tackler who does his best work in and around the box. Posted an eye-popping 18 tackles for loss in 2015. Shows a knack for blitzing; had eight quarterback hurries and 2 1/2 sacks last year. Also looks to force turnovers. Ran well at the combine but isn’t an elite athlete. Could carve out an early role as a nickel defender.

10. SEAN DAVIS, Maryland
6-1, 201, 4.46

Bio: Three-year starter who had 70 tackles, three interceptions, three pass breakups and six pass deflections in 12 games in 2015.

Consensus: Top performer in the bench (21 reps) and broad jump (126 inches) but was tight through the hips at the combine. Experienced and versatile; moved to corner in 2015 but might prove to be a better safety in the long run. Still learning how to play the position but offers an attractive combination of size and athleticism. Can drive on the ball when it’s in the air. Solid, willing tackler who throws his body around. Shows a knack for forcing fumbles (five in 2015). Worked as a punt gunner.

OTHERS TO WATCH: Deon Bush, Miami; K.J. Dillon, West Virginia; Jayron Kearse, Clemson; Tyvis Powell, Ohio State, Justin Simmons, Boston College.

Morgan Burns

Morgan Burns

Paylor also ranked some of the draft’s top special teams players, a group that includes a couple of guys who will be listed as defensive backs, although they could be drafted more for their skills as kick returners:

RETURN SPECIALISTS TO WATCH

MORGAN BURNS, Kansas State
5-11, 201, 4.38

Bio: Cornerback who returned 34 kicks for a 33.5-yard average and four touchdowns in 2015. Returned no punts. Has scored four career touchdowns off of returns.

CYRUS JONES, Alabama
5-10, 197, 4.49

Bio: Cornerback who returned one kick for 24 yards and no touchdowns in 2015. Returned 42 punts for a 12.6-yard average and four touchdowns. Has scored four career touchdowns off of returns.

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