Every year, the elite draft prospects garner most of the media attention leading up to draft day, and rightfully so. There are players who might not get the recognition that they deserve, but end up becoming fan favorites for their ability to handle the "grunt" work, go out and play the game like a pack of "junk yard" dogs. In order to make my Tough-As-Nails Team, I want players that perform, no questions asked. I want players that laugh in the face of adversity; those that would much rather tear an opponent's head off rather than make a passive tackle, run through a pile rather than avoid contact, flatten defenders with devastating down field blocks and relish playing on special teams.
The players listed below might end up being the best performer in the draft by the time all is said and done with their NFL careers. They might not be the first taken at their respective positions, but if I put a team on the field, they need to be "Tough as Nails" as this starting unit.
Cortez Allen, The Citadel Bulldogs, #13, 6:01.4-196
Generally, teams look for cornerbacks that were developed in the major college ranks, but there have been a handful to go on to Pro Bowl careers from the small-college level, most notably Arizona's Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. Blessed with the size and hitting ability of Pittsburgh's Ike Taylor, Allen has received serious mid-round consideration by more than a dozen teams looking to upgrade their secondary.
Allen has a tall, well-built, muscular frame with long arms, good bubble, thick thighs and calves. He has a tight abdomen, trimmed upper body and a frame that can carry additional bulk without it affecting his overall quickness. He has smaller than ideal hands, but it does not impede him from securing the ball properly and extending away from his frame when competing for the pass at its highest point.
Since moving into the starting lineup as a sophomore, Allen has allowed just 69 of 197 passes targeted into his area to be completed (35.03%). He has limited his main coverage assignments to 33 of those grabs.
During his career, opponents managed to convert just three of those receptions into touchdowns, as the Bulldog limited his competition to an average of only 4.42 yards per pass attempt. During that same span, The Citadel's other defensive players have allowed 527 of 767 pass attempts to be completed (68.71%) and gave up 56 aerial touchdowns.
Further evidence of Allen's "shutdown" ability is the big plays he has consistently produced that killed the oppositions' scoring drives. His 29 third-down stops vs. the passing game as a junior led all of college football.
Allen produced 63 third-down hits (five vs. the run, 58 vs. the pass) and 15 more on fourth-down action in his last three seasons. The rest of the Citadel defense recorded only 159 third-down tackles and 12 fourth-down stops during that same 39-game span.
Allen's ability to execute the bump-&-run is almost flawless. On the 128 passes that the opposition failed to complete in his area, the Bulldog rerouted/jammed his main pass coverage assignment on 102 of those incomplete tosses (79.69%) and also recorded 21 passes defended (16 deflections, five interceptions).
Physicality is the "name of the game" for Allen. Having allowed just three touchdown catches by an opponent since the start of the 2008 campaign, the cornerback delivered 21 of his stops inside the red zone. He also excelled on special teams, producing 13 tackles for the special teams coverage unit (eight on punts, five on kickoffs). All but one of those tackles was a solo effort.
Compares To: Aeneas Williams-ex Arizona Cardinal. Allen is a vastly underrated boundary cornerback who has the length and stride in his backpedal to easily stay on the receiver coming out of transition. He does not let his assignments break his cushion and gets on top of those receivers in an instant, evident by rerouting 54 opponents away from catchable throws last year. He opens up laterally or vertically with ease and shows an outstanding burst to recover.
Allen can plant-and-drive with no gather and displays the mirror ability to stay with any receiver he's matched up against. He consistently makes plays on the ball and is determined to finish when executing the tackle. He might not get a lot of opportunities vs. the running game, but when he does, no other FCS cornerback can do the job of keeping outside containment like Allen. He just might be the most underrated man coverage defender in the collegiate ranks.
Because Allen plays mostly in man coverage, he has had just limited opportunities to make plays in the box, but he is a physical tackler in the open field. He can put a big hit on a receiver competing for the ball and is not the type that will just attack "legs" when facing up to a ball carrier. He has effective drag-down strength and can get guys to the ground, but is not regarded as an explosive tackler. He knows how to make adjustments to break down and fit when playing in the open and shows good desire to make the play. He will go low, wrestle the ball carrier down or use his upper-body strength to knock his opponent out of bounds.
For a boundary cornerback, Allen does a very nice job of disrupting the receivers before they can get into their patterns. He has that strong hand placement to tie up his man for a long time at the line of scrimmage. He uses his length well to reach around and compete for the ball in flight. He has the speed and burst to run on the receiver's hip and recover when his man gets behind him.
With his fluid hips and quick change-of-direction agility, along with excellent anticipation skills, he does better than most corners in attempts to be very active and physical with his hands. He shows sharp plant and drive agility, but will sometimes get sloppy on deep routes and round his angles to the ball. Still, 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.
Teams Showing the Most Interest: Pittsburgh, Carolina, Baltimore and Oakland. If the Steelers fail to re-sign Ike Taylor, cornerback becomes an immediate need for Pittsburgh. Even if Taylor returns, the secondary was exposed enough in the playoffs to warrant multiple picks at this position. Chris Gamble never panned out in Carolina and the Panthers had their most success when they had a big, physical press coverage corner like Ken Lucas starting for them. Allen might fit that mold with a mid-round choice. Baltimore has one of the worst secondaries in the NFL. They ranked 21st in the nation in pass defense (224.9 ypg) and their cornerbacks were torched for 19 touchdowns during the regular season. Fabian Washington proved to be a first-round bust and was replaced during the course of 2010. Oakland suffered perhaps its greatest loss in recent history when it was announced that Nnamdi Asomugha was declared a free agent. They resigned Stanford Routt and were close to extending Chris Johnson before the lockout, but depth is lacking and neither of those can ever hope of matching Asomugha's playing level.
Ras-I Dowling, University of Virginia Cavaliers, #19, 6:01.3-198
Dowling seriously considered leaving school for the NFL after the 2009 season, but decided to return to improve his draft stock. The problem was injuries. A rash of ailments sidetracked the physical cornerback, leaving him with only five games of action to show for his decision to play college ball in 2010.
Dowling is a tall boundary cornerback with an impressive wingspan, big hands, good bubble, high-cut, long legs and solid overall muscle tone. He has a tight abdomen, developed hamstrings and broad chest, looking more like a Cover-2 strong safety rather than a cover cornerback.
The senior would sit out the team's first two games in 2010 while recovering from his hamstring issues. He struggled some upon his return, seeing action in three games before again being sidelined vs. North Carolina due to a knee sprain. When he returned to the field vs. Eastern Michigan, he lasted just three plays before again heading to the sidelines after the knee started acting up.
After two more games of inactivity, Dowling attempted to play vs. Maryland, but he exited that contest in the first quarter with what doctors first thought was a left foot sprain. X-rays revealed that the right cornerback had suffered an ankle fracture.
In mid-November, head coach Mike London announced that his star defensive back had played in his final game for the Cavaliers. "I think he'll do things in his pro day to warrant the first-round tag that a lot of people put on him initially," London said. "I think he'll be bigger, stronger, faster."
Dowling turned down invitations to play in college all-star games after his injury-plagued season. He concentrated on rehabilitating and preparing for the agility tests conducted in late February at the NFL Combine. He clocked 4.56 running his first 40-yard dash, but was prevented from completing the rest of the drills, as he suffered a right hamstring strain during his first run.
Dowling started 25 of 40 games at right cornerback for Virginia, recording 160 tackles (115 solos) with a 6-yard sack and 7.5 stops for losses of 24 yards. He recovered one fumble and caused four others, gained 34 yards on a punt return lateral and 70 yards on a trio of interceptions. He also deflected 29 passes. He also became the eleventh player in school history to lead the team in interceptions in consecutive seasons (2007-08).
Compares To: SEAN SMITH-Miami. Dowling has the height, arm length, leaping ability and timing to win most jump-ball battles. He shows good ability to jump and track the ball in flight and is fearless going up for the ball in the air when working in a crowd. He takes good advantage of interception opportunities and has the ability to reach and pluck outside his frame. There are times he will drop the ball when tracking it over his shoulder, though.
Dowling has solid ball reaction skills, using his arm length and leaping ability to win most jump ball battles attempting to get to the pass at the high point. He will round his breaks (stiff hips), but has the burst to the ball and can get physical with the receiver. Still, with that hip stiffness, you can see that he will have some problems (needs to show better rapid foot turnover).
His long stride allows him to make up ground in a hurry, more so on plays in front of him (another reason he might be a better fit at safety). He shows the power to combat for the ball in flight and is starting to show ability to read the quarterback and bait him to throw, knowing he has the burst to close on the ball. He seems to get better depth and position playing in the zone than in man coverage, as he uses his frame well to keep everything in front of him. With his reach, leaping ability and natural hands, he reacts quickly in attempts to make a play on the ball.
Teams Showing the Most Interest: Detroit, Philadelphia, Houston and Minnesota. The Lions desperately need somebody who can shut down the big, physical receivers they faced regularly in the NFC North. While they will more likely go for an outside linebacker in round one, they could still find a first round talent like Dowling still around with their 44th pick. Only Dallas (33) and Houston (33) gave up more touchdown passes in 2010 than Philadelphia (31). Asante Samuel is a ball hawk, but with Ellis Hobbs expected to retire due to injury issues, getting a physical press corner who would allow Samuel to continue to freelance is essential early in the draft for the Eagles. Houston might regret letting Dunta Robinson bolt for Atlanta, as they failed to replace the All Pro last year on the way to yet another non-playoff season. Putting Dowling in a Houston uniform could solve two issues, as he would be a nice fit at left cornerback and allow the 2010 starter, Glover Quin to shift to his more natural free safety position. Minnesota would be another nice fit, where he could be reunited with his old Virginia teammate, Chris Cook, and also add needed frontline youth to a secondary whose best player is 34-year-old corner Antoine Winfield.
Mark Legree, Appalachian State University Mountaineers, #13, 5:11.6-200
The Mountaineers have been known for producing outstanding playmakers in recent years and LeGree is the nation's active pass thief. He has an athletic build with minimal body fat (6.4%) and room on his frame to carry at least another 10-15 pounds of bulk without the added weight affecting his overall quickness.
Much like the New Orleans Saints' Darren Sharper, LeGree is a punishing contact hitter with classic wrap-up technique. He has the ability to cover speedy receivers in the deep zone, come up to provide solid run support inside the box and the hand placement and technique to consistently jam receivers and take his coverage assignments out of their route's progression.
But, LeGree is mostly recognized for his big-play ability, as he has been responsible for setting up 11 Appalachian State touchdown drives from the 24 turnovers he's totaled (22 interceptions, two forced fumbles). His 22 pass thefts rank third on the school and tied for second on the Southern Conference all-time record lists.
In his time as a starter, he has personally killed 103 potential scoring drives by the opposition, based on his turnovers (24) and stops on third-down (69) and fourth-down (10) plays and preserved a victory when he deflected a two-point conversion pass with 0:56 left in a 42-41 win over Chattanooga in the 2010 season opener.
During his time as a starter, receivers have averaged a miniscule 4.24 yards per pass attempt vs. LeGree. None of those receivers have found the "promised land," as the Mountaineer has yet to allow a touchdown catch. Further evidence of his "big play" skills comes from his stellar performance in tight quarters. He registered 39 of his tackles inside the red zone, with fourteen of those stops coming on goal-line plays.
The defensive back has also shown a fearless attitude when asked to play near the line of scrimmage, making 98 of his plays vs. the ground game. For a player with his pedigree, LeGree still has a blue-collar work ethic, relishing his role as a wedge buster on special teams, delivering eight tackles for the kickoff coverage squad as a junior.
Compares To: Nick Collins-Green Bay. Like Collins, LeGree has enough range to play centerfield and his 17 interceptions are evidence that he is a solid ball hawk. He can mirror the tight end underneath and stays tight with the slot receivers up the seam. When working the zone, he gets a much better jump on the ball on plays coming from the middle hash. He will square up and hit with good pop and is a solid wrap-up tackler. He appears very instinctive going for the jump ball, timing his leaps to get to the pigskin at its high point.
LeGree's best assets are his hands, as he holds two of the top three season spots on ASU's pass theft record list. While he has shorter-than-ideal arm reach (29 7/8-inches), he compensates with good leaping ability, timing and natural hands to reach and pluck the ball at its highest point. He catches the ball with his hands properly extended from the body's frame. When he competes for the ball, he will generally get a piece of the pigskin. He uses his hands with force in pass coverage, doing a good job of jamming and rerouting tight ends when attacking at the line of scrimmage.
Teams Showing the Most Interest: Dallas, Denver, Jacksonville and Minnesota. Dallas needs help at both safety positions. While both lines need immediate attention, the Pokes hope to find a "diamond in a coal mine" on the draft's third day. Alan Ball is really a corner forced to play free safety for Dallas and with the team not interested in bringing back Gerald Sensabaugh, they need to find a player who can replace Sensabaugh's pass thievery skills. Brian Dawkins has been showing his age lately (37) and had perhaps the worst season of his career in 2010. The new defensive coaches say they would like him to return for 2010, but they need to draft a youngster to groom behind the perennial All-Pro. Jacksonville featured Don Carey, a converted cornerback at free safety, but in two seasons with the Jaguars, he's managed only 55 tackles with one interception. Minnesota thought it solved their free safety issues when they inked Madieu Williams away from Cincinnati, but in three seasons, the oft-injured defensive back has made just three interceptions and missed the end of 2010 dealing with a concussion.
Ahmad Black, University of Florida Gators, #35, 5:09.0-184
Sometimes, maybe teams need to toss away their criteria factors when it comes to a player. Ask any general manager what he looks for in a strong safety and they will tell you they want one who is over 6 feet, more than 220 pounds, has the speed of a cornerback and the tackling ability of a linebacker. In Black's case, he only managed the tackling criteria. He's just 5:09, 184 and ran a 4.77 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine, numbers that saw his draft stock slide considerably.
Having started 39 of his last 41 games at strong safety, Black just shrugs off all of that draft-stock-slipping talk. "I go out there and try to prove my doubters wrong. I regret nothing about this whole ride. I enjoyed everything about it. I met some great people, some great players. I'm just enjoying it. I'm just living the moment. I'm having a lot of fun. It's probably the most fun year I've had here. It's sad that it's coming to an end," the safety said after the 2010 regular season.
"I had a pro scout tell me that he [Black] is the best tackler in college football today, UF safeties coach Chuck Heater said. "He's got a gift for it. He's an athletic guy. He's really athletic. First off, he's tough. If a guy doesn't want to make a tackle, all that other stuff doesn't really matter. Some guys don't want to make a tackle. He's a tough guy. Then it becomes just that ability to weave himself through people and around people and make plays the way he does. He's extraordinary."
Black closed out his career with 244 tackles (142 solos) with two sacks for minus 30 yards, 14 stops for losses of 52 yards and two quarterback pressures. He caused three fumbles and recovered two others, blocked a kick and deflected 15 passes.
Black tied Bruce Bennett (1963-65) for fourth in school history with 13 interceptions. He holds the school career-record with 362 yards gained via interception returns. Only Darryl Bishop of Kentucky (376 yards; 1971-73), Bobby Wilson of Mississippi (379; 1946-49) and Eric Berry of Tennessee (494; 2007-09) gained more yards via interception returns in Southeastern Conference history.
Compares To: Bob Sanders-San Diego. Few safeties in the professional ranks have the instinctive feel for the ball and knowledge of the action in front of him that Black displays. He plays with the same field vision, ball anticipation skills and determination as Sanders. He is a physical tackler who excels in run support and does a nice job of impeding the ball carrier's forward progress with his hard-hitting wrap-up tackling skills. He has large, natural hands to make the interception and excels at gaining placement in attempts to reroute the receiver.
What he lacks in hip fluidness and explosive second gear, Black makes up for it with solid tackling skills, a good understanding for taking proper angles and great anticipation skills. Toss in his total disregard for his own safety, determination to make the play and an added bonus with his kamikaze-style of play on special teams and you have player who is certain to become a fan favorite.
Black plays with impressive strength to quickly gain leverage, setting the tone of the game with his aggressive play, and he will not hesitate to close once he spots the ball. He is an explosive wrap-up tackler who does a nice job of attacking the outside leg to prevent the ball carrier's forward progress. For a player his size, he has a strong desire to fill the rush lanes, extending his arms properly to engulf the ball carriers.
The thing you see on film is that Black will always stick his head into the pile and he is very good at coming up and filling the rush lanes, looking like Sanders with his ability to use his hands to slip blocks and push the fullback back into the holes (uses his hands well to counter the bigger blocker's moves).
Teams Showing the Most Interest: Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Dallas and Houston. When Indianapolis cut Bob Sanders, it left a huge void in their secondary, making Black, a version of Sanders an ideal fit to be his replacement. Dallas is not going to bring Gerald Sensabaugh back, leaving them with nobody in the secondary with the pass thievery skills Black brings to the table. Jacksonville ranked 28th in the league vs. the pass (250.2 ypg), as they allowed 28 touchdowns while picking off 13 passes with Courtney Greene and Don Carey both expected to lose their starting safety jobs. Houston tied for the league lead by allowing 33 touchdown passes. Bernard Pollard recorded 111 tackles, but failed to record any interceptions in 2010 at strong safety and the Texans' free safety, Troy Nolan, recorded just 49 tackles after signing off the street.
Tough-As-Nails Team: The defensive backs
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