NFL Draft Rankings 2014: Cornerback

The common idea for cornerbacks is that essentially, they are former wide receivers that just could not make the cut, whether it was catching ability or maybe just having a bad attitude, one good way to rile up a cornerback is to imply that they are the wide receiver rejects. And while there is admittedly truth to that notion, in a way it makes them profoundly well suited to what they need to accomplish at the position. Looking at the position these days, especially looking at one Richard Sherman, it is almost a given that cornerbacks come with an attitude, a certain amount of swagger. Personally I have always preferred people who are a little quieter at least on the field, like Darrelle Revis, who wins matchups because both he and the receiver know he is going to win. But with injuries Revis is fading and Sherman is quickly becoming the face of the position.
As I was saying, taking the attitude of being a “rejected receiver” actually helps the cornerback play his position. Just about everyone plays better when they have something they feel they need to prove, we can see evidence of that almost yearly for everyone that has an expiring contract or late round draft pick that feels slighted. And given that a fair amount of wide receivers have a diva nature themselves, having someone that can mirror that confidence and frankly arrogance gives them a much better chance to win a matchup. A good amount of a cornerback-receiver matchup is mental, and if the corner can find some way to get into the receiver’s head, that is beneficial for the team. Plus, if a corner previously worked as a receiver then they should have a fair understanding of routes and what a receiver is planning to do on a given play. After all, the corners and defense as a whole have to react to what the offense does, the receivers know the plays, corners do not, so having any kind of jump just increases the odds of the cornerback. So when you think about it, it can be a good thing if a corner is a “failed receiver”, and it might go towards explaining the arrogance of some of these cornerbacks. Essentially what I am trying to do here is explain why cornerbacks can act the way they do, and maybe encourage people to lay off them when they start talking trash. After all, how often are corners noticed unless they mess up?
Enough about inferiority complexes. Let’s go over some reminders before starting.

How it works-

I will start each of these posts by examining which teams need the players in question. By in large this is only going to be teams that are in need of a new starting player, not necessarily a backup.

For each player I will provide analysis, statistics from the 2013-2014 season, and a general idea of where I believe they will be taken in the draft.

Things to keep in mind-

The rankings that I post here are based on my observations of the player’s statistics, game tape, and any rumors that leak out to the general public. I make no claims to have insider knowledge into the draft process or any teams overall plan this is merely my own ranking system if I were evaluating these player for any given NFL team.

As with any ranking system, it is all relative. Scouting reports by professionals can differ greatly for the same individual for the same game. So my rankings by no means the definitive order.

I love football. I love the NFL, and college football, and I love sharing what I love with other people. And that is the ultimate point in creating these rankings: To share what I know about the players who will be a part of my favorite football event of the year, namely the draft. Whether you love the draft process as I do, just want to know a little bit more about some of the top college players outside of those at Wisconsin, or are simply interested in who your favorite team could be looking at in May, I want these rankings to be informative.

Now let’s get to it.

Before I talk about which teams need cornerback help, I would like to say that there are so many more teams that need cornerback help than the six I will list here, so I will try to limit my selections to some of the more desperate teams.
Teams looking to draft a cornerback in 2014:
Carolina Panthers: The Panthers right now are in something of an awkward stage with their cornerbacks and defensive backfield as a whole really. There are a couple of spots of talent in the cornerbacks, but it has failed to materialize thus far. Melvin White played well for them last year, but he is still young and will need to continue his growth if he wants to be the top dog, because there were certainly times that he appeared lost and confused. Josh Norman was one of the top corner prospects available in the 2012 but fell because of character concerns, and after a good rookie year, Norman played in just 7 games last year and was reportedly benched for several of the games for his mistakes. Apart from that, the Panthers did well to add Antoine Cason from Arizona, but he is just one man that was inexplicably ineffective for Arizona last year, and De’Andre Presley, who played quarterback at Appalachian State. Needless to say, right now the Panthers have a hodgepodge at cornerback, and they need to find some assistance in the draft. Despite the need though, they may have to wait until the later rounds because the glaring hole they have at wide receiver could influence contract talks with Cam Newton.
New York Jets: Not long ago the Jets had a truly fearsome secondary, pairing Revis island and Antonio Cromartie together created a tandem that was dangerous to challenge. Now Rex Ryan, who is famous for always wanting more cornerbacks, is currently looking at starting Dee Milliner and Dimitri Patterson. Patterson has been a journeyman for most of his career, and will probably not be a long-term solution. Milliner struggled at the beginning of his career and was benched several times for his mistakes, but he did improve as the season progressed. Before last year’s draft Milliner looked like a legitimate lockdown cornerback, and I was among those expecting great things from him. Given his progression it is certainly possible, but the strain that comes from being the top corner after only one season in the league might be a lot for Milliner to handle. Even if he does, that still leaves New York with only one legitimate cornerback on the roster, and Rex Ryan prefers to have a plethora of corners. At some point in the draft, look for the Jets to go for a corner, and depending on who they get, the Jets’ secondary could be scary again in a few years if they can pair another young talented corner with Milliner.
Chicago Bears: It is no secret that the Bears defense took a major step backward last year, but looking at the numbers, while their run defense was abysmal, the pass defense performed quite well, comparatively speaking. That being said, the ball-hawk Charles Tillman is now gone, and Tim Jennings is now on the wrong side of 30. After also losing Zack Bowman to the Giants, that leaves Chicago with Isaiah Frey, a young man with only one year of starting experience, and Sherrick McManis, who has seen minimal playing time over four seasons with Chicago and Houston. Personally, I do not have a lot of faith in a Bears’ defense that starts Jennings and Frey, and I doubt many Bears fans have more faith than me. The Bears need to find both depth and youth for their corps, to eventually replace Jennings and have some additional pieces in place should the Bears sustain any injuries. If they do not do anything to address this issue, the Bears defense might end up worse next year than this year, just for different reasons.
Cincinnati Bengals: Right now the Bengals need youth at the cornerback position, and they need it bad. Out of their top three cornerbacks, Leon Hall, Adam Jones, and Terence Newman, the youngest is Hall at 29. Hall is also the tallest at 5’11. Dre Kirkpatrick is still on the roster, and he has youth and height, but he was limited by injuries and has appeared in just 19 games after two seasons. In his defense he played well when he was on the field from time to time, but the jury is still out on whether or not he can make up for lost time and ever achieve the lofty expectations placed upon him when the Bengals drafted him 17th in 2012. Given how solid the rest of the Bengals defense is and the expected availability of top corners when the Bengals make their selection this year, there is a good chance they will go in that direction. After all, having to play against speedsters like Torrey Smith, Antonio Brown, and most of all Josh Gordon twice a year means that older corners might not be able to keep up.
San Diego Chargers: Excluding Richard Marshall, who was recently signed in free agency, the other six cornerbacks on San Diego’s roster have combined for a career 102 tackles. Between six players. Granted most cornerbacks do not have a ton of tackles, but that is excessively low regardless of who is involved. Oh and Shareece Wright owns 77 of those tackles. So beyond Richard Marshall, a journeyman corner at the age of 29 and Wright, who has played in three seasons but only one good season, the Chargers are sitting on 5 players with a total of 25 tackles. Oh and the Chargers lost two of their corners from last year to free agency. So despite the fact that according to ESPN the Chargers had the 29th worst passing defense in the league, unless they acquire an improvement in the draft, this secondary might end up worse next year. In fairness to San Diego the safety position is relatively locked down with Marcus Gilchrist and Eric Weddle, but the cornerback position is a major hole. Last year the Chargers managed to sneak into the playoffs, and if they want to do it again this year the need to target a corner early to try and shore up this issue.
Denver Broncos: Last year the Broncos made it to the Super Bowl with Peyton Manning’s arm and general magnificence as a quarterback. The defense was an issue, and the secondary in particular struggled with injuries. Top that off with losing Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to free agency and cutting Champ Bailey, the Broncos need some help with cornerbacks. Adding Aqib Talib was a good first step, but he alone cannot make up for what DRC and Bailey brought to the table. The Broncos already addressed their safety concerns by adding T.J. Ward, and now it is time to turn to the cornerbacks. Beyond Talib the Broncos have Chris Harris, a talented young corner that has been able to contribute the past couple of years, Quinton Carter, aconverted safety, and Kayvon Webster, another young player with minimal experience. This is primarily about depth because as it stands, the top two corners Talib and Harris have injury histories (Harris is currently recovering from ACL surgery), so depth is a necessity if the Broncos want to compete again next year.
#1. Justin Gilbert, Oklahoma State University (OSU)
Height: 6’0, Weight: 202 lbs.
2013 Stats: 7 INT, 7 Pass Deflected
NFL Combine: 4.37 40-yard Dash, 20 reps Bench Press
There is a lot of disagreement as to who is the top cornerback in this draft, and I must admit that even I go back and forth on who the top dog is. But right now, I am going with Justin Gilbert because I believe that he has the highest ceiling of any corner and also has the best man to man coverage skills. It was a good year for Gilbert, he finished the season with 7 interceptions and 7 pass deflections, the most picks of anyone on my list. The interception total points towards his ability to win 50-50 match ups and his ball-hawk nature, and Gilbert’s career interception total also puts him ahead of the others. However, Gilbert’s stats do indicate some inconsistency, this year he had 7 INTs, last year he had 0, and the year before he had 5, so it can be up and down for Gilbert’s numbers, but his pass deflections remain consistent.
Gilbert flashed an impressive combination of strength and speed at the Combine, taking the top position for cornerbacks in the 40 yard dash and tied for second most in the bench press. What was more, Gilbert impressed in the on-field drills as well, showcasing good movement, excellent change of direction, and overall superb athleticism. Gilbert also confirmed his ball-hawking tendency, rarely dropping a ball during the drills and tracking the ball with good vision and anticipation.
Gilbert’s tape from this year is also impressive. Gilbert almost always plays man coverage, and while that is almost assuredly because he quite good in coverage, another part of that probably comes from his issues in run support. This is one of the few complaints I have of Gilbert, he is almost a non-factor in most running games. He gets moved around easily on blocks, lacks hustle to the ball carrier, and does not always take the best route to the ball. Needless to say, this is the weakest part of Gilbert’s game. Because watching him in coverage is evidence for why he is the top corner in the class. Gilbert has great size to match up with NFL receivers, and he wins the jump balls more often than not, including picks or disruption as a whole. Gilbert simply plays differently in coverage than in run support, he is more confident, aggressive, and the results speak for themselves. He does a good job of getting a hand in the play without drawing flags, and plays physically with receivers, which will be necessary in the NFL.
Ultimately, I put Gilbert at the top of my list because he deserves it. He has the height, speed, strength, and overall talent to be a #1 corner in the NFL, and he just needs more polish and playing time to reach that level. The inconsistency is slightly troubling, and it would be better to see his motor run full speed even on running plays, but few defensive coordinators will be upset with him if he shuts down opposing wide receivers on a consistent basis. The exact position Gilbert will fall to is undecided, depending on the team it is not unrealistic to think that Gilbert could go in the top 10 to Minnesota or Detroit depending on who is available at the time, but it is hard for me to envision a scenario where Gilbert is still waiting at the end of the 1st round.
Final Decision: Middle 1st Round
#2. Darqueze Dennard, Michigan State University
Height: 5’11, Weight: 199 lbs.
2013 Stats: 4 INT, 10 Pass Deflected, 2 Force Fumbles
NFL Combine: 4.51 40-yard Dash, 15 reps Bench Press
Dennard has jumped up draft boards in a major way because of a stellar senior season. Although to be fair, Dennard’s stats are almost identical this year to last, in both seasons Dennard had 3.5 TFL and 10 Pass Deflections. The only difference is one more interception this year and 2 forced fumbles. So from a statistical perspective, Dennard is a consistent, disruptive force in the defensive backfield. Dennard also accumulated 62 tackles, a high total for a cornerback. Normally that would be concerning for a team in case the rest of the team was that bad, but given Dennard’s propensity to play at the line of scrimmage removes that stigma.
At the Combine Dennard did not place in the top spots for either 40 yard dash or bench press, but he still performed respectably, and since one of the biggest concerns experts had on Dennard was his speed, posting 4.51 40 is good enough to assuage fears. But Dennard did impress in on-field drills, his natural instincts and vision played up in tracking the ball and moving well, and he was also able to move from side to side and change directions with good speed. So while Dennard did not put up the mind boggling speed of Jadeveon Clowney or Justin Gilbert, Dennard was able to perform well and ultimately helped his draft stock at the Combine.
When I watched Dennard on tape, my first thought went to Charles Tillman, the now ex-Bear cornerback famous for creating turnovers. Of course Dennard lacks Tillman’s height, but still, that same aggressive nature and attack on the ball was present. The best part of Dennard’s approach is that even when he is attacking the ball he still managed to wrap up the runner or receiver. However, my favorite part of Dennard’s tape is his evident instincts. He has a nose for the ball and where it is going to go, which is one of the reasons Dennard has been so productive despite lacking prototypical size or speed. A ball-hawk like Gilbert, Dennard does lack the athletic explosion of Gilbert to get the pick, but Dennard still manages to get a hand in or pop the ball loose before the receiver can complete the catch.
The athleticism is the main difference between Gilbert and Dennard, and it is the difference between a ceiling of a #1 corner and a #2, my personal ceiling for Dennard. I love Dennard’s play-making ability and his natural instinct for playing the position, and I think it will help him start sooner rather than later in the NFL. That being said, he will need to use his intangible qualities, which he has a plethora of, to stay with some of the best receivers in the NFL. The difference in height and speed will definitely be a factor in Dennard’s progression, and that is why I envision him as a #2 corner in the NFL. There are differing opinions on Dennard, some like Bradley Roby better, who has better speed, but I am going with Dennard because of his play-making ability and overall package of run stopping and coverage corner. He might not have the same talent as other corners, but he is much closer to a finished product. Most likely Dennard ends up being selected in the end of the first round, although earlier is certainly possible.
Final Decision: Late 1st Round
#3. Kyle Fuller, Virginia Tech
Height: 6’0, 190 lbs.
2013 Stats: 2 INT, 10 Pass Deflected, 1 Forced Fumble
NFL Combine: 4.49 40-yard Dash, 128.0 Inch Broad Jump
Compared to some of the other players I have listed here, Fuller’s statistics might not seem quite so impressive, but that does not diminish his talent, though I will get to that in a bit. The best part about Fuller’s stats is his consistency. He has had 2 interceptions every year for the past three years, or ever since he became a full time starter. What is more, he always gets one forced fumble, and at least 7 deflected passes. One interesting thing to note as well is that two years ago, Fuller led Virginia Tech with 14.5 TFL and also had 4.5 sacks. He did not record a sack since, but these still show that despite Fuller’s slighter frame, he is capable of playing the run game as well.
At the Combine Fuller displayed his athleticism well. Though he was only a top performed in the broad jump, he still put up good numbers in the other categories. Fuller’s 40 time checks out as well, he should be able to cover most receivers with his speed and his instincts during the game make him play faster. In the drills, Fuller moved well, but at times he did appear stiff in his transitions. Even so, Fuller was able to track the ball well in the air and was able to demonstrate skills that can only be learned through experience.
The tape is really what makes Fuller stand out, and what puts him at my third spot. Fuller does have impressive instincts, and anticipates the quarterback’s decisions well, putting him in great position to make a play every time. He is best used in zone coverage and off-man, which is what he did most often for Virginia Tech. He can play man, but Fuller benefits greatly from having the extra space to move with the ball. Fuller also gives his all every play, but he can miss tackles in open space, particularly if it is against a more physical runner. Physically Fuller might have problems matching up with some of the larger receivers at the next level, but if he is kept in zone that may mitigate some of his limitations.
Ultimately, Fuller has been a consistent producer for Virginia Tech for the past three years, and his experience helps him make the most of his talents. Even if he does not start for a team, he played on special teams during college as well, so he can start gaining playing time from the word go. I think that Fuller has the ceiling to be a #2 cornerback in the NFL, unless he is able to bulk up. I will place him in the back end of the first round, but there is a chance he falls to the start of the first round, and I think a lot of teams would be very interested if he does. Fuller is one of those underrated prospects that could contribute in a big way after a few years.
Final Decision: Late 1st Round
#4. Bradley Roby, Ohio State University (OSU)
Height: 5’11, Weight: 194 lbs.
2013 Stats: 3 INT, 13 Pass Deflected
NFL Combine: 4.39 40-yard Dash, 17 reps Bench Press
There’s no denying Roby’s production. In the past two years Roby had 32 pass deflections and 5 interceptions. These statistics also indicate the type of player Roby is. He has far more pass deflections than interceptions, and that is because Roby does not win the jump balls as often as other corners, but he still gets involved, so gets deflections rather than interceptions. Bottom line Roby has produced big numbers for Ohio State since becoming a starter, and though his numbers were more impressive a year ago compared to now, Roby still put together an impressive season, even after missing a game to start the season. Production is a big part of any evaluation, and there is no doubt that Roby produced for the Buckeyes, and it plays a big role in many people believing that Roby is one of if not the top corner for the draft.
Roby’s 40-yard dash placed him 4th overall for cornerbacks, and was a confirmation of the speed evident on tape. Roby is able to chase down players that break away, and proved it at the Combine. The rest of Roby’s Combine numbers were impressive even if he was not a top performer, and his 17 reps on the bench are quite good for a corner standing under the 6’0 mark. Roby ran well during the drills, and overall did a good job catching despite dropping a couple of balls. He did stutter a bit during his transitions, but ultimately Roby’s athleticism was on display at the Combine, and he certainly helped himself.
Roby’s tape is where I start to have concerns. Roby plays a physical style of cornerback, and it is not always the best decision. Given that he is on the smaller side of things, he can get overmatched by receivers, and as I already stated, he has issues with the jump balls. While Roby plays the position well and can cover well at the college level, I am not sure how well he will succeed in the NFL. He has an aggressive nature, which makes him more of a man corner, but every Wisconsin fan will remember the game against Ohio State and how Abbrederis was able to burn Roby throughout the game. I like Abbrederis, but he is far from being a top receiver in the NFL. He has great potential, but Abbrederis is not going to match up next to Calvin Johnson. So ultimately, the question has to be asked, if Roby gets burned by Abbrederis, where exactly does Roby’s talent fall? From a talent standpoint, Roby could be an excellent corner, but the uneven tape makes him fall on my list.
Not everyone is as unsure about Roby as I am, and I see Roby going in the end of the first round. Teams will love the upside of Roby and someone will end up taking him, most likely before Fuller, but with Roby’s considerable upside, there is considerable risk. Depending on the team, I think there is some bust potential with Roby, and as such I have him listed at #4.
Final Decision: Late 1st Round
#5. Jason Verrett, Texas Christian University (TCU)
Height: 5’9, Weight: 189 lbs.
2013 Stats: 2 INT, 14 Pass Deflected, 1 Forced Fumble
NFL Combine: 4.38 40-yard Dash, 39.0 Inch Vertical Jump
Jason Verrett is a player that is quickly rising up a lot of draft boards, mostly because of his Combine, but his statistics are equally impressive, particularly the ones from last year. A year ago Verrett put up 6 interceptions and 22 pass deflections, topping the NCAA in that category. Like Roby, Verrett produced more deflections than interceptions, and that is mostly due to Verrett’s size. He gets involved on most plays, and for being 5’9, Verrett produces like a much taller corner. Even if there was a drop-off in production this year, Verrett’s numbers justify his status as a top cornerback prospect in this year’s draft.
The Combine is really where Verrett shined. He was a top performer in the 40-yard Dash, Vertical Jump, 3 Cone Drill, and 20 yard Shuttle. As far as the basic numerical drills such as those are concerned, the most surprising for me to watch was probably his vertical jump, strange as that may seem. Verrett seemed to glide farther and farther upward, and hang in the air for a moment longer. If you watch him and compare it to other players, his does seem particularly special. As for the rest of the Combine, his other drills were equally impressive. He flowed well, his feet were quick and efficient, and his transitions smooth. Verrett simply looked natural working on the field, and it makes me believe that no matter what a team ultimately decides to do with him, Verrett will make the most of it.
On tape, Verrett is highly aggressive, which as I stated with Roby, could be an issue for Verrett at the next level. However, unlike Roby, Verrett appears to be comfortable playing in off-man and zone coverage as well as man to man, excellent diversity and versatility to further Verrett’s cause. Speaking of versatility, Verrett also was involved on several blitz plays each game, and even got a sack against LSU. Verrett’s speed certainly shows during games, as well as excellent instincts and an ability to find the right angle to get to the ball carrier. The biggest issues I found with Verrett were that he can get caught up on blocks, unsurprising for someone of his size, and he can have issues tackling in space. Apart from those, I enjoyed watching Verrett’s tape, and I am sure that like many NFL evaluators, I lamented his lack of ideal height.
If Verrett were taller, he would almost assuredly be in the top half of the first round, and probably right up with Gilbert to be the first corner taken in the draft. Unfortunately, that is not the case, and as such Verrett will probably fall in the end of the first round, like most of the other corners I have listed. At the start of this piece I talked about how corners almost need to have a chip on their shoulder to succeed. With Verrett’s height, the chip on his shoulder might be larger than anyone else’s. The main question is, will it be enough to overcome physical limitations? He has a great skill set and attitude, but as it stands, Verrett is best suited to work in the slot, and depending on the receiver, he might be able to work as a #2 corner. However, for as much as I like him, there’s no getting around the fact that asking Verrett to cover a receiver over 6’0 in the NFL is asking for trouble. But I hope he proves me wrong.
Final Decision: Late 1st Round
That does it for cornerbacks, next week I will finish up the series by discussing the top safeties in the draft.
By Mike Veldhuis