Leading the pack, by a large margin, is Louisiana State's Morris Claiborne, with the Vikings, Tampa Bay and St. Louis expected to strongly consider the Tiger, who won't be on the draft board past the first day's No. 6 pick. The Vikings have whittled down their targets with the third pick to either the junior cornerback, Oklahoma State wide receiver Justin Blackmon, or more likely, Southern California offensive tackle Matt Kalil.
If Minnesota bypasses Claiborne, look for Tampa Bay to pounce on him, especially if the Browns do as expected and take tailback Trent Richardson. The Bucs are moving aging veteran Rhonde Barber to safety and are actively seeking a trade partner for their other 2011 starting cornerback, oft-troubled Aqib Talib, but have yet to find a match, as other teams are hesitant to take on that chronic headache who has an impending trial for a gun charge this summer.
If the Buccaneers go for Blackmon, even though they are trying to trade up and leap-frog Cleveland to snatch Richardson, the Rams will not hesitate to take Claiborne, if their trade offer is shunned by Minnesota.
Claiborne plays with keen ball-awareness skills. He is alert on the field and a good student of the game, needing minimal reps to retain plays. He learns well and makes adjustments on the fly. He does a nice job of working to get position in the zone and can't be fooled by play action or misdirection.
Much like former teammate, Patrick Peterson (Arizona), Claiborne adds to his resume as a dangerous return specialist. Against plays in front of him, Claiborne is quick to react, taking good angles to close on the ball. He is effective in press coverage, but when he spends too much time attacking his man rather than playing off them, he does not always anticipate the quarterback's moves.
When operating in the deep zone, Claiborne reacts well to the ball in flight, showing great leaping ability. When working on deep routes, he has the speed to recover when beaten. The thing you see constantly on film is his ability to identify his keys and react in an instant as the play develops (no need to digest). Claiborne can be active and physical with his hands. He can generate a strong jolt to reroute receivers at the line and knows how to stay on the hip of the receivers through their routes.
The junior shows sharp plant and drive agility, but will sometimes get sloppy on deep routes and round his angles to the ball. He is best when using his size to jam the opponent at the line. He can mirror in the short area and shows quick reactions when playing off the line. He has outstanding feet and balance when adjusting to the receiver's moves and can flip his hips, redirect and plant sharply coming out of his breaks without needing to gather.
Some analysts seem to prefer South Carolina's Stephon Gilmore to Claiborne, citing that he is a more physical man-coverage defender. I tend to disagree, as I have some concerns about his hip stiffness and ability to explode out of his breaks and recover when a receiver gets behind him. I do agree that he is more physical than Claiborne and appears to be a safe bet for hearing his name called after the LSU defender at this position.
Gilmore has a muscular physique with good definition in his upper body, trapezoids and pectoral areas. He has a tight waist and hips with a good bubble strong thighs and knotted calves, with minimal body fat (4.8 percent). He has good chest thickness, along with broad shoulders, impressive arm length and a frame that has room for additional growth (can max out at 200 to 205 pounds with no loss in quickness).
Gilmore is adept at making quick reads and reacting to the action in front of him. Much like Tampa Bay's Barber, he is good at anticipating the receiver's body movements. He is not the type that quarterbacks will fool with misdirection or play action, as he excels at jumping routes because of his ability to read the eyes of the passer. He has that timing and feel needed to make plays on the ball in flight and is quick to react when he sees the play develop.
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Gilmore showed as a freshman that he has a good feel for zone coverage. He has the peripheral vision to quickly locate secondary targets and is fluid making the switch-off in the deep part of the field. He uses his hands effectively to get a push off his man going up to compete for the ball in flight and has probably the best comprehension of zone concepts than any other college cornerback.
With his range and sudden movements to the ball, he does a fine job of being in position to make plays, as it is very rare to see him misdiagnose routes. He has that added maturity and intelligence that allows him to get a good drop, read pattern development and react suddenly to the play.
While he might not make it into the first round, unless Denver takes a few "smart pills," Vanderbilt's Casey Hayward is not only an outstanding ball thief but is the most explosive hitter in this group. As for his run stuffing and blitzing ability, name the last time you can remember a Southeastern Conference cornerback leading his team in tackles for losses (2009), making 18 tackles behind the line of scrimmage while picking off 15 passes and making 31 touchdown-saving tackles over his last three seasons.
What separates him from most of the other cornerbacks in the draft is his keen field vision, above-average instincts and excellent ball-anticipation skills, along with impressive leaping agility that allows him to climb a receiver and get to the ball at its high point, even when challenged by much taller opponents (see 2011 South Carolina, Army, Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee and Wake Forest games, along with his classic jam vs. 6-foot-10, 280-pound Ali Villanueva in the 2009 Army clash).
He is a good student of the game and it is rare to see him make the same mistake twice. He has a keen understanding for blocking schemes and could make a fine coaching candidate one day, as he is apt to ask detailed questions to explore every aspect of the play with his coaches. With his loose hips, suddenness to redirect and true explosion to close, you would think that Hayward would get over-confident and give a big cushion to the receiver, but he prefers to play his man tight, knowing that he has the hand placement ability to impede the receiver's route progression.
The Vanderbilt defender has the valid speed to stay with his assignment on deep patterns and does a nice job of getting his body in the way to prevent catches over the opponent's outside shoulder. He can close in an instant and is quick to react to the ball in flight, showing natural hands to make the interception or pass deflection. He has the burst needed to accelerate and close on plays at the opposite end of the field and has the second gear to catch up on rare times that he is beaten (see 2011 Elon, South Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee games).
Hayward has above-average quickness, which gives him the ability to adjust to the receiver's movements, along with the ability to plant, redirect and flip his hips. However, when he gets too tall and upright in his pass drops, he will take wasted steps (needs to be more certain of himself playing on an island, at times).
One player that presents an enigma, at least for me, is Alabama's Dre Kirkpatrick. Not only do I question his explanation for his recent marijuana arrest (charges were dropped), I have huge questions about his hands and, more importantly, his interception skills. Stating that the pot found in the car was not his was like telling your teacher the dog ate my homework. I guess he took "getting high for the ball" to a different level!
Here is a player that in 38 games managed to pick off just three passes and break up 16 others. Some state that his lack of thievery skills is due to a series of shoulder issues dating back to his high school days, but to plant somebody at the demanding left cornerback spot with questionable ball skills is like going into a tennis doubles match with Venus de Milo as your partner.
He is not the smartest acorn to fall from the tree, and I suspect he will have problems digesting a complicated playbook. You can see evidence of his lack of an instinctive mental grasp, as he is usually a bit late diagnosing routes, and with 4.5 speed, you wonder if he might be better suited for safety duties than handling man-coverage chores at cornerback. He has decent recovery speed, but film view shows the tight hips similar to Gilmore that will make both wishing they had Claiborne's overall athletic talent.
For a guy with such long arms and good leaping ability, Kirkpatrick will frustrate a coach with his lack of interception prowess. He simply lacks the change-of-direction agility and great balance to mirror receivers through the route's progression. He has most of his troubles vs. speedy receivers, as they have had good success (gave up three of the six touchdown passes Alabama allowed in 2011) getting behind him and in his attempts to combat for the ball, he will usually be late getting his head turned around to look the pass in.
The next tier of cornerbacks all have off-field issues, whether with the law or with medical reports. Let's begin with this year's Pacman Jones Award Winner (fictitious award given to the player with the most legal problems in the draft), North Alabama's Janoris Jenkins, who was given more chances than a church raffle during his troublesome career at Florida before being booted by the new coaching staff prior to 2011.
Jenkins transferred to North Alabama, where he received preferred treatment, and word in the scouting industry states he continued to be a jerk off the field. He apparently is trying to rival the Jets' Antonio Cromartie for collecting children like you and I used to collect trading cards. Unless Cheech & Chong buy an NFL team, he comes with a major "buyer beware" tag.
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Yes, some teams love his athleticism and are basing a lot on his Senior Bowl performance, but if you look at his body of work at North Alabama last season, outside of his return skills vs. very mediocre Division II competition, there was not much to write home to mother about. He had 56 passes targeted into his area, with the opposition catching 31 of those tosses (55.36 percent) for 445 yards and four touchdowns.
Even without his off-field antics, those numbers scream out at me to stay far away from him in the first round. His reputation is muddied, to say the least, but while he more than likely will be taken in the second round, don't be surprised if this former Gator is looking for a home by the start of the draft's third day.
A solid second-round talent, Montana's Trumaine Johnson is a tough, physical cornerback in the Ike Taylor (Pittsburgh) mold, sans the speed. But, like Jenkins, he does not come with baggage – he comes with a full set of luggage. The recent scandal that saw the coaching staff booted was the result of several off-field incidents involving Grizzly players that the staff tried to cover up, including several by Johnson.
On Oct. 24, The Associated Press reported that Johnson and quarterback Gerald Kemp were arrested after police were called about a noisy party at Johnson's apartment. Court records say Kemp hit an officer in the chest. Kemp was shot with a stun gun, followed by Johnson when he tried to intervene. The players pleaded not guilty in Missoula Municipal Court to charges of obstructing a peace officer, resisting arrest and disorderly conduct. As a sophomore, he was involved in an unprovoked attack on another Montana student that led to that person being hospitalized.
However, on the field, Johnson displays excellent size and quickness for his position. He has the quickness to mirror receivers on long routes and the big frame needed to come up and lend support vs. the ground game. He is best when allowed to perform in press coverage, having rerouted his assignments away from 59-of-98 passes targeted into his area as a senior and 160-of-305 tosses during his four-year career.
His range and fluid hips might make him a better fit at free safety at the next level, as his explosive closing burst reminds many of Denver's Brian Dawkins in his prime, but teams that like to blitz a lot will look to keep him at boundary cornerback. He does a nice job of slipping through trash to make plays in run force (made 29 plays that limited those ball-carriers to 23 yards in 2011, posting six stops for losses and seven more that took down runners at the line of scrimmage).
He is a strong athlete who shows nice short-area quickness and agility. He maintains balance changing direction and displays quickness through transition. He redirects well and plays with very nice balance and quickness in transition. The thing you see on film is his ability to run and turn quickly to the ball in flight, hauling in 15 interceptions while deflecting 35 other throws during his career. He is an instinctive player who has the burst to recover when a receiver gets behind him.
One of the more electrifying player in this draft is Georgia's Brandon Boykin, whose outstanding senior season ended with a broken bone in his leg at the Senior Bowl. The injury sidelined him throughout the predraft workout process, but the Paul Hornung Award winner (nation's most versatile player) is not only coveted for his pass defense skills but is being eyed as a wide receiver and return specialist.
Boykin saw action as a starter at right cornerback, kickoff returner, punt returner, tailback, quarterback in Georgia's "Wild-dog" set, receiver and coverage man on kickoff and punt teams. He scored in all three facets of the game along the way: offense, defense and special teams. The injury will keep him out of the first two rounds of the draft, but if he fully recovers, he will give his team one player who will instantly become a fan favorite.
It has been a troubling off-eason for Nebraska's Alfonzo Dennard, capped by his arrest last week for striking a police officer. He had a bad performance throughout Senior Bowl practices, compounded by an equally lackluster showing at the Scouting Combine, where he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.65 seconds and then injured his right pectoral muscle in the bench press drills.
Watching film on Dennard, he is a work in progress. He relies a lot on his athletic ability and needs more than a few reps to retain. He is best served playing in an uncomplicated defense, as he struggles to take the plays from the board to the field. He has the ability to learn, but needs patient coaching. He will need to get more coverage reps and play with better field instincts before he can be productive at the next level.
If you want evidence, here you go: In 2011, teams threw 43 times into his area, completing 21 of those attempts (53.49 percent), averaging 13.14 yards per completion, as two of those throws went for scores. He was penalized three times during the course of the year, mostly for pass interference, and gave up 18 first downs on those 21 catches. Slowed by a right hamstring issue early in the year, he offered little in run support, as opponents averaged 6.7 yards per play on the ground vs. the Husker.
While he lacks the sand in his pants teams want in a physical cornerback, Virginia Tech's Jayron Holsey is a close clone to former Hokies standout Brandon Flowers (Kansas City). He is an agile player with quick feet and good change-of-direction agility. Yes, he will get reckless and over-pursue, struggling a bit to recover, but he does have the valid speed to stay with the receiver when mirroring. The thing I like about him is that he is a smart, instinctive player who makes proper reads and knows what his responsibilities are coming up in run force (will bite on double moves, though).
Holsey uses his hands with good force to reroute in man coverage and shows explosive hitting ability, squaring his shoulders, staying low in his pads and driving with his legs to impede the ball carrier's forward progress in outside run support. He has good acceleration planting and driving out of his backpedal and shows good discipline and movement skills, sticking tight with the receivers by using rapid feet in transition, excellent balance and good body control throughout the route's progression.
When he plays in control, Holsey shows the ability to jump and anticipate the route. He likes to press better than he likes to play off the receiver, but does a good job of taking his opponent out of rhythm (just needs to recover better when he loses position). He does a nice job of picking up receivers in the zone and is a forceful tackler who takes proper angles in order to spring into his hits. He also stays low in his stance, displaying fluid hip swerve and head-turning abilities to track the ball in flight.
Other second-day draft targets are rising Central Florida standout Josh Robinson and possibly Oklahoma's Jamell Fleming. In the third- or fourth-round area, Arizona's Trevin Wade, LSU super sub Ron Brooks and Louisiana-Lafayette's Dwight Bentley are expected to come off the draft board.
One of the more physical players in the draft, hard-hitting Robert Blanton of Notre Dame, is a quality midround talent who will more likely shift to safety. Arizona State's Omar Bolden will be around on the draft's third day because of a lingering knee issue (left knee ACL). Others that will need to assure teams they have recovered fully from injuries or see their draft stock slide are Virginia's Chase Minnifield (knee surgery and bi-lateral ankle problems) and Iowa's Shaun Prater (right knee).
A few small-college stars hoping to elevate their stock are Albion's Chris Greenwood, Cal Poly's Asa Jackson, Furman's Ryan Steed, Hampton's Mitch Pellerin, Coastal Carolina's Josh Norman, Western Kentucky's Derrius Brooks, Northwestern State's Jeremy Lane and Jacksonville State's are potential late-round picks.
Major-college types that should go late in the draft are Mike Harris of Florida State, DeQuan Menzie of Alabama, Coryell Judie, Lionel Smith and Terrence Frederick of Texas A&M, Coty Sensabaugh of Clemson, Donnie Fletcher of Boston College, Buddy Jackson of Pittsburgh, Greg McCoy of TCU, Charles Brown of North Carolina and Emmanuel Davis of East Carolina.
Dave-Te Thomas has more than 40 years of experience scouting for the NFL. With the NFL Draft Report, Thomas handles a staff that evaluates and tests college players before the draft and prepares the NFL's official Draft Packet, which is distributed to all 32 teams prior to the draft.