The Green Bay Packers used their first two draft picks on Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins last year, so cornerback might not be high on the priority list. However, Casey Hayward departed in free agency, Rollins hasn’t proven himself and there’s no such thing as too many good cornerbacks.
With that as a backdrop, here are our top five cornerback prospects. Stats are from STATS via Real Football, though yards per target and the statistical comparisons were assembled by Packer Report. Scouting information is provided courtesy longtime NFL scout and Packer Report contributor Dave-Te’ Thomas.
JALEN RAMSEY, Florida State
Position rank: 1
Height: 6-foot-1 1/4. Weight: 209. 40: 4.41. Vertical: 41.5. 20 shuttle: 4.18.
Notes: Ramsey was the first true freshman to start at cornerback for FSU since Deion Sanders in 1985. He was a Freshman All-American in 2013 and an All-American in 2014 and 2015. While not intercepting a pass, Ramsey led the entire draft class with 4.29 yards allowed per targeted pass. Of our top 40 cornerbacks (not including FCS players, for which STATS has incomplete data), Ramsey ranked fourth with a 38 percent completion rate allowed and was one of six to not be penalized for pass interference or holding. He allowed 3-of-12 on passes of longer than 20 yards. Ramsey did give up three touchdowns. Showing why some teams covet him as a safety, he had nine run disruptions. That’s as many as the combined total of the rest of our top eight cornerbacks. Plus, he was the third-best tackler with 10.2 tackles per missed tackle. In 2014, he had 9.5 tackles for losses. In 41 career starts, he intercepted three passes.
Scouting: While he is considered the premier corner in this draft by many scouts, some of the same scouts like him better at safety. Regardless, he’s one of the top handful of prospects and a certain top-five pick because of his incredible versatility — able to play cornerback, safety and nickel. “There is no question about his press coverage skills, but once a receiver separates from him on deep patterns, trouble soon follows (much better in the midrange area),” Thomas said. “Still, Ramsey can press effectively. He has fluid hips, transitions smoothly and stays low and is quick in his backpedal, but needs to stick to receivers on their routes better and improve his change of direction. Because he has the size to play more physically, you will often see him use his hands to jam on the line and larger receivers struggle when they try to use their size to separate from slants and crossing patterns.”
Personally: A two-sport star, Ramsey won the ACC long jump title at the outdoor and indoor championships and was part of the winning 400-meter relay at the outdoor championships, as well. He qualified for the NCAA indoor and outdoor championships in the long jump, placing fourth and 14th, respectively. He was so good at the long jump in high school that he almost jumped over the sand pit, so the school moved the launching point back three feet. He considered trying to make this year’s Olympic team but has decided to stick with football. “I’m a year-round, full-time football player now,” he said at the Combine. “My track days are over, my track days ended last year when I finished in nationals, I haven’t been on a track since. My heart, my ambition, all of it, is to be great at football.”
ELI APPLE, Ohio State
Position rank: 2
Height: 6-foot 5/8. Weight: 199. 40: 4.40. Vertical: DNP. 20 shuttle: 4.08.
Notes: Apple played only two seasons for the Buckeyes, recording four interceptions during that span. After redshirting in 2013, Apple intercepted three passes in 2014 — including Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota’s final collegiate pass in the national championship game vs. Oregon. Of our top 40, Apple tied for 11th with a completion rate allowed of 43 percent and 15th with 6.43 yards allowed per target in 2015. He allowed two touchdowns (both against Minnesota), had one interception and finished with eight pass breakups. He yielded 2-of-12 on deep passes but gave up 46 penalty yards (holding and pass interference) and had 4.0 tackles per missed tackle.
Scouting: You’d like to see Apple make more plays on the ball and play more physically, but tall and fast is always the flavor of the day at cornerback. “The first thing you notice is his natural playmaking instincts,” Thomas said. “He understands how receivers are trying to attack coverage and he is a master at reading quarterbacks’ eyes when having to drop into zone coverage. Apple is an explosive, quick-twitch athlete with a sudden closing burst, especially when receivers catch the ball in front of him. He possesses that second gear needed to track the ball downfield and he’s fast enough to recover when gets caught out of position. Thanks to his fluid hips, he can make the smooth transition when forced to change directions quickly. When he stays under control and keeps his knees bent, is a good tackler in space. While not a valid ball thief, he does have the natural hands to reach out and pluck the ball to make the tough interception.”
Personally: He changed his last name from Woodward to Apple to honor Tim, his father since age 2, in December 2012. That’s just part of his personal story. He lived in Ghana when he was younger, and his mother, Annie, was born in the West African country and also lived in such places as Liberia, Nigeria, England and Scotland. He moved to the United States when he was 10. Now, he’s headed to the NFL as a sure first-round pick. “It starts with preparation,” Apple said of what gives him an edge. “You've got to have the right preparation. If you're not prepared to go out and play to the best of your ability, you're not going to have that confidence. When you prepare they way you're supposed to with the film work and practice well, you can play free.”
MACKENSIE ALEXANDER, Clemson
Position rank: 3
Height: 5-foot-10 3/8. Weight: 190. 40: 4.47. Vertical: 37.5. 20 shuttle: 4.21.
Notes: Alexander, one of the top recruits of the Class of 2013, played just two seasons for the Tigers. Showing that interceptions can be an overrated stat, Alexander didn’t have any in his brief career. He didn’t give up many completions, though. He earned All-American honors both seasons, including third team from The Associated Press this past season, when he allowed just 15 — second-fewest among corners who played at least 50 percent of the snaps. His 30 percent completion rate allowed ranked No. 1 in the nation and his 4.76 yards allowed per target trailed only Ramsey in our top 40. Alexander never gave up more than three catches in a game. North Carolina got him for a season-high 52 yards late in the season but needed nine targets to get it done. Forget about throwing it on deep on him. Despite being undersized, he allowed just 1-of-11 on passes thrown more than 20 yards downfield. About the only knock on him is he doesn’t tackle well — 3.3 tackles per missed tackle.
Scouting: Press coverage is his deal. While he might have the best cover skills in the draft, height is a concern. Given Green Bay’s draft history, Alexander might not even be on its draft board. “Like Ramsey, Alexander plays a physical game, but he’s tight in his hips and struggles to come out of his breaks suddenly,” Thomas said. “What Alexander has become is a very good bump-and-run corner. He provides a good, physical pop at the line of scrimmage and keeps his hand on the receiver downfield to control. He demonstrates good body usage to push the receiver outside, using the sideline to help cut off the space in which the quarterback can throw the ball, but there are times when he allows too much separation on deep routes and has stiffness in his hips when suddenly changing direction.”
Personally: Alexander grew up in Immokalee, Fla., a farming community inhabited mostly by immigrants from Mexico or Haiti. Alexander, with Haitian roots, joined his family in the fields picking tomatoes, watermelons and oranges when he was 10 or 11. That work ethic has driven him to succeed. “I’m going to say it – and a lot of you guys will say it – I’m the best corner in this draft class. You know what I mean? If you look at stats, my numbers, who I am as a person, who I’m competing against – I went against the best receivers in the country. I went against more of the top receivers than anybody in this draft class, and I’m going step for step. I’m not just moving outside, I’m going inside. I’m playing zone, I’m able to blitz, I’m able to show my versatility, everything.”
VERNON HARGREAVES, Florida
Position rank: 4
Height: 5-foot-10 1/2. Weight: 204. 40: 4.50. Vertical: 39. 20 shuttle: 3.98.
Notes: Three years, three All-American seasons. Hargreaves was a third-team All-American as a true freshman in 2013, a first-team All-American as a sophomore and a unanimous first-team All-American as a junior. By the numbers, he wasn’t nearly as good as the top 10 or even 20 corners this past season. He allowed 51 percent completions and 8.41 yards per target, the latter number being sixth from the bottom of our list, and yielded 5-of-15 on deep passes. In a matchup against Ole Miss’ Laquon Treadwell, Hargreaves yielded six receptions for 70 yards but did intercept one pass. Hargreaves gave up two touchdowns — one in each of his final two games — but picked off four passes and had eight breakups. In three seasons, he intercepted 10 passes.
Scouting: Regardless of the numbers, he’s a tremendous athlete who is more powerfully built than just about every corner in the draft — though he doesn’t play with that power often enough. He’s slipped a bit after being the consensus top-rated corner entering the season, but he’s a no-doubt first-rounder because of his nimble feet and best-in-class change-of-direction ability to mirror receivers. “Hargreaves has very good coverage skills, but is a tentative hitter whose biggest drawback is his inability to play a physical game,” Thomas said. “Hargreaves is regarded as the type of defender who will bait the quarterback when in zone coverage and can break on the ball quickly to make the interception. He times his leaps well and can snatch the pass outside of his frame. However, he plays with more of a cover-corner mentality and it is rare to see him get involved in run support. Hargreaves can flash physicality as a hitter, but as the 2015 season progressed, more often he was a duck-and-swipe type of tackler. That resulted in him taking too much time getting past the receivers’ blocks when having to attack at the line of scrimmage.”
Personally: Hargreaves has been around football throughout his life. His dad, Vernon Hargreaves Jr., coached linebackers at the University of Miami for the first eight years of his life. Not only did he know guys like Ed Reed and Sean Taylor, but Vince Wilfork used to be a baby-sitter. His father never pushed him into football or made it his job to coach his son. “It was a great benefit bur our relationship isn’t like what most people think it might be. We don’t sit down and talk ball 24-7. We actually rarely talk about football. It’s usually about life stuff. But if I do have any questions, I know that I can go to him and ask him and I’ll get the real answer.”
WILLIAM JACKSON, Houston
Position rank: 5
Height: 6-foot 3/8. Weight: 189. 40: 4.37. Vertical: DNP. 20 shuttle: 4.32.
Notes: After spending 2012 at a junior college, Jackson broke into the starting lineup late in the 2013 season. As a senior, he intercepted five passes — including two vs. Florida State in the bowl game — and broke up 23 others to give him a NCAA-best 28 total pass breakups. That was 10 more than any other corner in the nation other than Southern Mississippi’s Kalan Reed. However, it must be noted that Jackson was targeted by quarterbacks. A lot. According to STATS, Jackson was targeted 100 times. That’s 15 more than any of our top 40 corners and more than Alexander and Hargreaves combined. And it’s not as if teams shied away from him, with a total of 29 targets in his final two games. In those games, against Temple and FSU, he gave up 13 catches but had 11 breakups. For the season, Jackson allowed a 43 percent catch rate and 6.08 yards per target — both of which ranked 12th in our top 40. Jackson yielded 7-of-27 on deep passes and tackled pretty well (7.2 tackles per miss) considering his lack of strength.
Scouting: Height, speed and playmaking ability — Jackson can check off all of the boxes. He’s a pure man-to-man corner but might not be strong enough to press against the NFL’s big receivers. “Jackson is certainly not going to impress you with a great physical presence on the field. However, he is very consistent,” Thomas said. “He opens his hips well when asked to line up in press coverage and moves well in space, as his long arms allow him to get his hands on balls even when he isn't in great position. However, Jackson fails to sink his hips low enough or explode off his plant foot when forced to change directions quickly. This can cause him to have some problems staying with receivers coming out of breaks. He possesses an above-average closing burst, but he will need to work on improving his foot work (planting) when trying to transition out of his backpedal. Still, his timing is impeccable, evident by his nation-leading 28 passes defended.” Teams covet height and playmaking ability at cornerback. Jackson has them both. “You watch him on film and you see the same guy I saw here," Vikings secondary coach Jerry Gray, a four-time Pro Bowl cornerback, told the Houston Chronicle following the Houston pro day. "He can go get the ball. He can cover anyone in our league. You see him against good teams, especially Florida State in the bowl game, and you can see how his confidence grew and how he can make plays.”
Personally: He was teammates at Houston’s Wheatley High School with Baylor’s Xavien Howard, one of the top corners in this draft.
Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at www.twitter.com/PackerReport.