Gazing Into Crystal Ball: Cornerbacks

NFL Draft Report's Dave-Te' Thomas provides his Cream of the Crop, Best of the Rest, Most Underrated and Overrated, and Sleeper among the cornerbacks. Thomas' "Sleeper" has been linked to Green Bay, and you might be surprised who's "Overrated."

Cream of the Crop

Morris Claiborne, LSU

Confirming his status as college football's best cornerback, the 2011 Jim Thorpe Award winner marked the second consecutive season that a Tiger captured the award, following former teammate Patrick Peterson. The duo formed the premier cornerback tandem two years ago, with Claiborne then being joined by Tyrann Mathieu in 2011 to carry on that title for Louisiana State.

Morris Claiborne
Brian Spurlock/US Presswire
Much like Peterson, Claiborne not only excelled in man coverage, but his ability to handle kick return duties added to his impressive resume. His Velcro-like hands helped establish the junior as one of the best pass thieves in the collegiate game. In two seasons as a starter, the wide receiver recruit registered 11 interceptions, tied for sixth in school history. Those pass thefts were returned for 274 yards, the second-highest career total by a Tiger.

Claiborne's average of 24.91 yards per interception return ranks seventh in Southeastern Conference annals. He tied for seventh on LSU's season-record chart with his six interceptions in 2011, as his 173 yards in returns placed third on the school record chart. While those figures should serve as a forewarning for opponents, offensive coordinators could not game-plan for the Tiger, who would line up at either cornerback position or nickel back, depending on the situation.

Compares to: Patrick Peterson, Arizona Cardinals — Claiborne has a lot of similarities in his game to his former teammate, including return ability. The thing you first notice about Claiborne on the field is his exceptional body control, as he has the sudden quickness and foot movement to get back on his man in a hurry when a receiver happens to get behind him. He shows good agility and balance in his running stride and has the ability to instantly change direction without having to gather or throttle down.

The Tigers defender has quick hands and reactionary ability going up for the ball in flight, using his reach well to get up and around the receiver to compete for the thrown pass at its high point. He has the loose hips and explosive second gear to recover and shows very good hand placement that he utilizes with force in man coverage (excels in the bump-and-run).

Best of the Rest

Stephon Gilmore, South Carolina

There was good reason why Steve Spurrier and staff inserted Gilmore into the starting lineup as soon as the former prep quarterback arrived on campus for fall camp in 2009. They immediately saw that he carried over that astute awareness from being a quarterback and instantly translated that into what he could accomplish in the secondary. Opposing offensive coordinators that dared to test Gilmore during his 40 games found one thing to be true: It is dangerous to attempt anything in Gilmore's territory and that he is a player that needs to be accounted for at all times.

Gilmore always played with the first unit as a Gamecock, a testament to his athleticism, hard work and high intelligence, as he has been called by some the "most complete" cornerback in college football. Compared to former South Carolina greats, he has the aggressive press coverage skills and hand usage of Johnathan Joseph, the keen feel for the pass in zone coverage of Sheldon Brown and the cat-like moves and mirroring ability in man coverage of Dunta Robinson.

Combine all those traits into one player and you still do not have the entire package that Gilmore brings to the table. He has the natural hands, great field vision, outstanding leaping ability and perfect timing teams want in a combative cornerback going up to deflect or intercept the ball. He has become an effective punt returner and special team "gunner," thus affording some professional team a chance to possibly save a roster spot usually reserved for just a return specialist.

Do not be fooled by Gilmore's weight (190), as he has a muscular physique with a defined upper body, good trapezoid and pectoral development, tight waist and hips, good bubble, strong thighs, knotted calves and minimal body fat. He shows exceptional body control and open field quickness. He is an intelligent player who thinks well on his feet and can handle different assignments, making him more that capable to digest a complicated playbook.

Compares to: Devin McCourty, New England Patriots — Gilmore's instincts are evident in his ability to make quick reads and along with his blazing speed, good timing and a feel to make plays on the ball in flight, he has defended 23 passes (17 break-ups, six thefts) as a collegian. He runs with a quick stride and has the flexibility, along with good size to be effective playing off coverage or in the press, showing tight coverage in both (opponents completed less than 18 percent of passes targeted into his area the last three seasons).

Gilmore can play the trail, cover or give a cushion. He can flip and burst in the deep secondary, as it is rare to see him separate from the receiver for too long once he locks on. He can also play off the ball, as he is very alert and aware playing in the zone, showing good timing when breaking on the ball.

Most Underrated

Casey Hayward, Vanderbilt

Don McPeak/US Presswire

One of the most fearless hitters in the collegiate game, Hayward has recorded 31 touchdown-saving tackles after opponents broke free from other Commodores defenders, thinking that they had great opportunities to score. Eighteen of those touchdown-saving tackles came in run force, as the first cornerback to ever lead the team in tackles for losses (8.5 in 2009) registered 113 stops vs. the ground game, limiting those ball-carriers to just 332 yards (2.94 ypc), despite playing in the secondary. Ten of those runners were stopped at the line of scrimmage for no gain and he killed 14 scoring drives with third-down tackles.

Where Hayward excels is in keeping his opponents from the ball vs. the aerial game. He has had 242 passes targeted into his area, allowing only 71 receptions (29.34 pass completion percentage) for 498 yards and just two touchdowns, as those opponents averaged only 7.01 yards per completion and 2.06 yards per pass attempt. He rerouted and jammed his coverage assignments on 106 of those pass attempts (43.80 percent), as he posted 74 third-down hits and five more on fourth-down snaps.

Hayward shattered the school career record with 46 passes defended, tied for the Football Bowl Subdivision lead among active players and good for 11th on the major college all-time record chart. His 15 interceptions are tied with Leonard Coleman (1980-83) for the school career record. Proving his ability to keep the opposition out of the end zone, he delivered 37 of his tackles inside the red zone, with 12 coming on goal-line plays. He has also provided support for the Commodores' special teams, in addition to seeing brief action on offense as a senior.

Compares to: Brandon Flowers, Kansas City Chiefs — Few cornerbacks show the feel for the ball in flight like Hayward displays, especially during his senior year. He looks natural fielding the ball and does a nice job of tracking the pigskin in flight (see 2011 Connecticut, South Carolina, Arkansas and Cincinnati games). He has good timing trying to leap and attack the ball in flight, showing excellent elevation to reach the pass at its highest point. He does not allow much cushion, but when he does, he is alert to blocking schemes and is quick to close, especially vs. plays in front of him. He has good breakdown ability playing in space and plays the ball with good relationship on the receiver. What you can see on game film is his outstanding ability to break on the ball vs. plays in front of him, especially in run support. With his foot quickness, he shows consistency stepping in front of the receiver to make the pick or deflect the pass.

Most Overrated

Dre Kirkpatrick, Alabama

Kirkpatrick's physical and aggressive style of play have led to injury issues, but he is the type that plays until the whistle and willingly sacrifices his body to make the play. Unlike most elite players, he does not mind getting his uniform dirty and is one of the top gunners on the kickoff units in the Southeastern Conference.

But Kirkpatrick lacks the blazing speed to recover when beaten and is not the most instinctive player on the field (prone to eyeing the quarterback too long). His keen zone instincts could see him convert to safety at the pro level. Where the ‘Bama defender excels the most is his natural power that he delivers behind his hits, as the zone defender is a strong force stepping up in the box to challenge the ball-carriers attempting to turn the corners.

Kirkpatrick resorts to duck-and-swipe when unnecessary, which may work against college ball-carriers but will cause problems at the next level. His recovery speed from double-moves and pick plays is less than adequate, and he can be overaggressive landing his punch in press, giving up inside position, losing his balance, or even falling down. He does not find the ball quickly when the receiver turns to look, as he overruns plays too regularly. He also gambles on interceptions instead of securing the tackle. He needs to consistently break down and keep his feet outside or NFL backs will evade him.

Compares to: Jason Allen, Miami Dolphins — Like Allen, Kirkpatrick is limited as a ball thief and might be better suited to play safety at the next level. I doubt if he will ever discover the recovery speed needed to handle when receivers get behind him, but he's a good open-field tackler that I feel is more suited to be an NFL safety.

Super Sleeper

Josh Robinson, Central Florida

Josh Robinson
Jerome Miron/US Presswire
Robinson's body of work is impressive, as he is not only an excellent boundary cornerback with outstanding timing, leaping ability and natural hands going up for the thrown ball, but adds to his resume as an elite punt returner. He has a lean, yet athletic frame with room to add at least another 10 pounds of bulk without it affecting his blazing quickness.

The junior is a superb playmaker with the ball in his hands on both interception and punt returns, as he has that explosive second gear and good forward body lean to hit the seams and gain long yardage. With his speed, when he gets in the open field, he will generally win most foot races. He ranks fifth in school history with 10 interceptions and eighth by gaining 147 yards on those runbacks, making a name for himself as a freshman, when he picked off six passes, tying for second on the UCF season-record chart.

Robinson shows ease-of-movement agility working in space and has the balance and flexibility to redirect without having to gather. He has quick plant-and-drive agility to come out of his breaks cleanly and shows good urgency to close once he locates the ball, especially in the air, as his 46 passes defended rank 11th in the NCAA.

The boundary cornerback has good press coverage technique, and uses his speed well to mirror the receiver throughout the route. He is equally effective in trail technique and in press, as he has the valid feet and loose hips to turn and run without breaking stride. He does a nice job of staying square in his backpedal, as long as he does not revert to a shuffle-and-bail technique (when he does this, he is slow turning on the ball).

Robinson knows how to get vertical, flashing explosion and range with excellent catch-up quickness, showing improved feel for jumping on the cut. He has the leaping ability and timing to get to the ball at its high point and does a good job of tracking the ball in flight, demonstrating and explosive vertical leap to win most jump ball battles.

Compares to: Asante Samuel, Philadelphia Eagles — The three-year starter basically flew under the radar where scouts were concerned, as no one anticipated that the three-year starter would leave school a year early for the NFL. After his sensational performance at the Scouting Combine, even Mr. Magoo could see that the Knights cornerback is rapidly rising up draft boards and could hear his name called early next weekend.

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.

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