Defensive backs took over the 2018 NFL Combine

Derwin James

The final day of the 2018 NFL Scouting Combine was the most busy in terms of action on the field, as a group of 70 defensive backs (43 cornerbacks, 27 safeties) performed drills and showcased their skills in preparation for this year’s NFL Draft.

There were more defensive backs at the Combine than players at any other position, and it was the largest group of DBs in the event’s history.

According to the majority of reviews and recaps I’ve read, and after watching most of the DBs do their thing on TV, the biggest fish in the big pond was Florida State safety Derwin James.

Going into the 2017 college football season, James was widely considered one of the best defensive players in the nation — if not the best. The redshirt sophomore was preseason All-ACC and preseason All-America according to a lot of media outlets. He was picked by many to win the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation’s best defensive back, he was heavy in the discussion for the Chuck Bednarik Award as the nation’s top defensive player, and there was even some buzz around James as a darkhorse Heisman Trophy contender.

But Florida State lost star quarterback Deondre Francois to a season-ending knee injury in its first game, and wound up going 3-5 in the ACC with a 7-6 overall record. A team that was viewed as a possible national championship contender finished its season playing in the Independence Bowl against Southern Mississippi.

James had a good season. He posted 84 tackles, two interceptions, 11 pass breakups and one sack, and he was voted second-team All-America by the Associated Press. But James was kind of forgotten on the mainstream scene by the time he declared he was leaving FSU to go pro.

It was instead Alabama DB Minkah Fitzpatrick who basically had the year many people thought James would have. Fitzpatrick won the Bednarik and Thorpe trophies, and he’s been widely projected as the first defensive back to come off the board — maybe even as a top-five pick — in this year’s NFL Draft.

At the Combine, James put in the kind of performance that probably won’t vault him over Fitzpatrick (or Ohio State cornerback Denzel Ward) on mock draft boards, but could at least put him back in early first-round consideration.

James ran the 40-yard dash in 4.47 seconds, reached 40 inches with his vertical leap, and broad-jumped 11 feet. He looked more than quick and fluid enough in the agility and position drills. Measuring 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds, James is reportedly being looked at by several teams at a variety of positions, from cornerback to safety to one of those safety/linebacker hybrids.

After the Combine, the popular draft site WalterFootball.com updated its mock draft with James going No. 12 overall to the Cincinnati Bengals.

Fitzpatrick and Ward did nothing to hurt their status as projected top-10 or even top-5 picks. (After the Cleveland Browns, New York Giants and Indianapolis Colts have the first three picks, the Browns are back up with the fourth pick. That is being looked at as the first spot where a DB could be selected.)

Fitzpatrick is another versatile talent who could play safety or corner or S/LB hybrid at the next level, just like he did at Alabama. He ran the 40 in 4.47 seconds and measured 6-foot-1 and 201 pounds.

LSU cornerback Donte Jackson made some noise at the Combine when he predicted he would set a new record for the fastest 40-yard dash time in Combine history, beating the 4.22 seconds that current Bengals receiver John Ross put up last year. And he wasn’t just making empty threats; Jackson was on the LSU track team and was arguably the fastest player in college football last season.

Jackson didn’t reach his goal, however, appearing to catch a cramp during his run. But his time of 4.32 seconds was good enough to tie for the fastest in this year’s field with Ward and Tulane CB Parry Nickerson. All three of them were hurting on Monday — Ward twisted his ankle and Nickerson had a hamstring injury — but Jackson was the only one of the trio able to do position drills after running the 40.

A few other defensive backs who stood out were Louisville CB and kick returner Jaire Alexander, Stanford safety Justin Reid, Virginia Tech safety Terrell Edmunds, Colorado CB Isaiah Oliver and Penn State safety Troy Apke.

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