hopefully the Steelers will draft one of these players very early...
Draft preview: Defensive backs
March 22, 2010
By Frank Cooney
Help is on the way for those teams looking for improved air traffic control against a league that is encouraging rules and schemes that emphasize the passing game.
A solid group of defensive backs will be available in this year's draft. According to ratings by NFLDraftScout.com, cornerbacks could be called at least five times in the first round and 10 in the first two rounds while safeties could add at least six more prospects in the first two rounds.
With a proliferation of spread formations creating increased and improved man coverage by safeties, the amazing abilities of Tennessee safety Eric Berry are so coveted that his name should be among the first five called. Berry is rated as the fourth-best player in this draft by NFLDraftScout.com.
Southern California's Taylor Mays, a freak of nature at 6-feet-3 and 230 pounds with 4.31 speed over 40 yards, is also expected to be among the first 15 players taken, although there is little consensus on whether he projects as a free or strong safety or even a linebacker.
Top cornerback prospects are Florida's slick and athletic Joe Haden and Texas strongman Earl Thomas, who bulked up to 208 pounds for the combine and is being viewed by many as a safety candidate. Where he projects best depends on his new team and the scheme it runs.
Here is a closer look at the top defensive backs in this draft:
Rank/Player/School/Height/Weight/Projected Round (*Underclassman)
1. Joe Haden, Florida, 5-11, 193, 1
Since becoming the first true freshman cornerback to start at Florida, Haden appeared to be the complete package. He was smooth and consistent in coverage, aggressive against the run and possessed unreal ball reaction with the ability to go all the way on an interception or return. At a New Jersey combine for preps in 2007, Haden was clocked at 4.34 seconds in 40 yards and added a vertical jump of 37 inches. However, at the Indianapolis scouting combine his 40-yard time was in the high 4.5 seconds, which shocked some scouts. His father attributed the slow time to a stiff back and Haden was timed in the 4.45-4.48 range at Florida's March 17 pro day.
2. *Earl Thomas, Texas, 5-10, 208, 1
Thomas entered the draft as a redshirt sophomore after setting a school record with eight interceptions last season. He then bulked up from his college weight of 195 pounds to 208 for the combine, probably in response to concerns voiced by scouts about his ability to hold up at the next level. "The extra weight helps, if I'm going to be in the box banging heads out there," he said. Thomas was a ball-hawking center fielder, leading the nation with 24 passes defended last year, and collected 143 tackles the past two seasons. He has the speed, instincts and attitude to play safety, but his college career wasn't perfect. He was the victim on Michael Crabtree's game-winning catch against Texas Tech in 2008 and missed several tackles in the BCS Championship Game against Alabama.
3. Kyle Wilson, Boise State, 5-10, 194, 1-2
Wilson was consistent enough to earn all-conference or All-American awards in all four seasons while impressing as both a defensive back and a punt returner. He didn't run at the combine because of a pulled hamstring, but showed impressive strength, benching 225 pounds 25 times. He made a positive impression at the Senior Bowl by invigorating workouts with trash talk, then backing it up by disrupting passes and receivers. He is extremely competitive, tough and has great ball reaction. Led his Piscataway, N.J., high school team to three state championships, including two undefeated seasons (2002, '04).
4. Devin McCourty, Rutgers, 5-11, 193, 1-2 Identical twin brother of Jason McCourty, a sixth-round pick by Tennessee last year, Devin has the athletic ability to be an excellent cornerback but needs to focus on receivers as acutely as he did his bookwork in college. The winner of several academic honors, McCourty had a 40-yard time of 4.41 at the combine but that speed wasn't obvious in many game situations. He was very impressive on passes in front of him, but too often allowed receivers to get deep. Last season he had 80 tackles, 10 pass breakups and an interception in 13 starts. He also was an outstanding special teams player, blocking three kicks (making it seven in his career) and returning a kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown.
5. *Kareem Jackson, Alabama, 5-11, 196, 1-2
Although he probably could have benefited from another year in college to improve his footwork, Jackson is entering the draft as an underclassman. He is a hard worker in the film room and already shows signs of understanding the nuances of coverage. He is more impressive in bump-and-run coverage in the first few yards than he is at keeping a proper juxtaposition downfield. Jackson is an instinctive, aggressive coverage corner who started all but one of his 41 college games. His career statistics include 159 tackles, eight tackles for loss, five interceptions (164 return yards), two blocked kicks, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery.
6. *Dominique Franks, Oklahoma, 5-11, 194, 2 His ability to read and react to plays in front of him makes Franks a candidate for a team seeking a good zone or off-man coverage corner. He has long arms and strong hands that help when he closes on plays, but overall he is not a physical player. When Franks declared for the draft as an underclassman he stated that he is able to "shut down one side of the field," which says more for his confidence than the reality of his ability. Last season he had 47 tackles and two interceptions, one returned for a touchdown. He flashes athleticism as a returner but seems to lack vision in finding the best place to run.
7. Patrick Robinson, Florida State, 5-11, 190, 2
Robinson is a daring defender who plays with more confidence than consistency and will need to play within his abilities to be a consistent pro. He showed his best overall play last season with career bests in tackles (47), solo tackles (37), passes broken up (11) and forced fumbles (two) and then was impressive during Senior Bowl workouts. He has long teased pro scouts with his ability to cover receivers and react to the ball, which first became obvious in 2007 when he snared six interceptions. Robinson was suspended for taking part in the infamous Florida State academic scandal and missed the Music City Bowl and the first three games of the 2008 season.
8. Chris Cook, Virginia, 6-2, 212, 2
Injuries and academic problems limited his production in college and now Cook is expected by many scouts to showcase his considerable athletic ability in the NFL, where he may be moved to safety. He validated his speed and explosion at the combine with a 40-yard time of 4.44 and a vertical jump of 37 inches. However, despite his size, he was less than stellar on the bench, where he hoisted 225 pounds only seven times. Cook lost most of the 2005 season with a broken leg, three more games in 2007 with a sprained knee and was suspended for the entire 2008 season for academic reasons. He has great size, excellent speed and looked pretty good as a safety in Senior Bowl practices before being sidelined with a groin injury.
9. Brandon Ghee, Wake Forest, 6-0, 192, 2-3
His obvious athletic gifts have been on display for a long time and were highlighted at the combine when he put on a show with a 40-yard time of 4.40 and a vertical jump of 37 inches. However, in games, Ghee seemed to be most impressive against big receivers while struggling against smaller, quicker wideouts. He appeared to be more focused on making the wow hit than grabbing the interception. His production doesn't seem to match his physical ability, as evidenced by having no interceptions last year. He missed 2007 on academic suspension, was out of last spring practice with a sprained knee and then missed two games with a sprained ankle.
10. Akwasi Owusu-Ansah, Indiana (Pa.), 6-0, 207, 2-3
Born in Ghana, his first name means "Born on Sunday" and now pro scouts are curious how well he might be able to play on Sundays. Owusu-Ansah displayed shocking abilities as a returner, where he had nine career touchdowns -- four on punts, three with kickoffs, and one each with an interception and a fumble. But he injured his shoulder in November and was unable to play against top competition in postseason all-star games, so questions remain over how well he projects for the NFL. At the combine he was disappointingly slow in 40 yards (4.5 and struggled in agility drills. However, he reportedly underwent shoulder surgery after the season so they may have impacted his workout. He participated in Ohio State's March 12 pro day and was timed in 4.33 and 4.41 seconds in 40 yards and benched 225 pounds 21 times, according to NFL.com, and stayed afterward to run drills for a handful of teams.
11. Jerome Murphy, South Florida, 6-0, 196, 3
Despite his lanky appearance, Murphy is one of the biggest hitters in this year's cornerback class. He is especially willing and impressive in run support. Last season, Murphy had a career-high 77 tackles along with a team-leading four interceptions and seven breakups. He had 67 tackles and a pair of picks in 2008. Although he might fit the need for the bigger cornerbacks that NFL teams are seeking, it wouldn't be surprising to see Murphy moved to safety, where his abilities to hit and cover will be an asset against the league's pass-happy offenses.
12. Javier Arenas, Alabama, 5-9, 197, 3
Well known as a return artist since his prolific displays in high school, Arenas gained considerable attention as a cornerback the past couple of years. However, concerns about his size and durability were underlined when he measured under 5-9 (5-8 5/ at the combine and was unable to complete the 40-yard dash because of a pulled hamstring. He then aggravated the injury during his first 40 attempt at Alabama's pro day, and there's a chance he'll schedule another workout for teams before the draft. For his career, Arenas averaged 24.1 yards per kickoff return, 14.2 yards per punt return and his seven punt-return touchdowns are an SEC record. He is the cousin of NBA Washington Wizards star Gilbert Arenas.
1. *Eric Berry, Tennessee, 6-0, 211, 1
This is one case where there was probably nothing to be gained in terms of his football career had Berry stayed in Knoxville for one more year. This intense player has displayed insane on-field abilities and may be the best athlete in this draft. He certainly gave credence to that perspective at the combine, where he ran 40 yards in 4.43 seconds, soared 43 inches in the vertical jump and had the second most reps of any defensive back by benching 225 pounds 19 times. He said he would like to schedule another pre-draft workout after leaving Tennessee's pro day early with a minor toe injury. Rated as one of the top cornerbacks in the country coming out of high school, Berry found a home at safety in college. In 2008 he led the nation with 265 return yards on seven interceptions and became the first Volunteer named a unanimous first-team All American since 1990.
2. Taylor Mays, Southern California, 6-3, 230, 1
Even in a supposedly controlled environment, Mays seems to create controversy and defy description. At the combine, there was agreement that he measured 6-3 (actually 6-3 1/ and 230 pounds. However, various stop watches had his 40 yard time somewhere between 4.24 (NFL Network) and 4.43 seconds (NFL.com). Sources indicate the combine Master Record had his best times at 4.31 and 4.33, but the electronic time on the same run was not reported. So let's just agree that he has a freakish combination of size and speed. The real controversy/question is this: What can he do with it? His penchant for intimidating and mugging players seems to override reacting to the ball. He was used as a center-field safety because he is at his best when things are in front of him so he can use great closing speed to make a play. However, he often took bad angles on deeper plays, resulting in him trailing when he should be on top of the receiver. If he puts it together, Mays could be a difference maker in the NFL. His father, Stafford Mays, was a defensive lineman in the NFL (Washington, St. Louis, Minnesota).
3. Nate Allen, South Florida, 6-1, 207, 2
This former Florida high school quarterback sensation took his athletic ability and leadership to the other side of the ball in college. At South Florida, Allen was respected as a team leader and was responsible for setting the defense on each play. He is deceptive in that he seems to play faster than he runs and bigger than he measures. That means he has excellent instincts, technique and focus. However, his man coverage ability may be good enough only to take on tight ends and backs in the NFL as he might be overmatched if singled up on a wide receiver. Scouts are looking forward to his March 30 pro day because Allen was unable to run at the combine due to a pulled quad.
4. *Chad Jones, LSU, 6-2, 221, 2
Back when the NFL made such a distinction, Jones would probably be projected as a strong safety, although that tag might be curious considering his bench press at the combine -- only nine reps with 225 pounds. But forget that, he's an excellent athlete in two sports. Jones rejected a large signing bonus with the Houston Astros to play baseball and football for the Tigers. As a sophomore he moved from nickel cornerback to starting free safety and collected 74 tackles, six pass breakups, three interceptions and a 93-yard punt return for a touchdown. He is excellent in run support and closes well, but must improve his backpedal. Jones posted a 2.70 ERA as a left-handed reliever in LSU's run to the 2009 NCAA title.
5. *Reshad Jones, Georgia, 6-1, 214, 2-3
Jones is an interesting athlete who could have used another year in college to improve his abilities. However, he showed considerable improvement last season, starting 13 games and collecting 73 tackles and a team-leading four interceptions. In Georgia's 44-20 Independence Bowl victory over Texas A&M, Jones had five tackles and a 59-yard interception return. His strength was evidenced by bench pressing 225 pounds 24 times at the combine and his explosion was quantified with a 39½-inch vertical leap. He used that strength and explosion to make a lot of big hits in college. But to be consistent in the NFL he will need to wrap up on his tackles.
6. *Morgan Burnett, Georgia Tech, 6-2, 209, 2-3
Burnett had a coming-out party as a sophomore in 2008, when his seven interceptions tied for No. 1 in the nation and he lead his team with 93 tackles while earning an All-American nod. His production wasn't as impressive last year, with 85 tackles and four interceptions, but he decided it was time to turn pro anyway. He does just about everything well, with excellent awareness and reaction in both man and zone coverage and can be intimidating as a hitter. His first career touchdown came against 2009 No. 1 draft pick Matthew Stafford. Burnett was unable to run at the combine because of a pulled hamstring, but he posted a very impressive 4.42 at his pro day, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He also went 11 feet in the broad jump and soared 39½ inches in the vertical jump -- both very strong numbers for a safety. Burnett told the paper he has private workouts scheduled with Houston and San Diego.
Frank Cooney is the publisher of NFLDraftScout.com, distributed by the Sports Xchange.
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