Grading the pro potential: Cornerbacks

The cornerback position is loaded with talent … and question marks off the field, including in some of the first-round values. NFL scout Dave-Te Thomas has a lot of team information and in-depth stats in his assessment of the cornerback prospects.

The cornerback position features five first-round talents, with three expected to be selected in the opening round – Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard, Oklahoma State's Justin Gilbert and Virginia Tech's Kyle Fuller. A torn labrum might see Jason Verrett (TCU) slide to the second round.

One of the finest athletes in the draft, Ohio State's Bradley Roby, continued his self-destruction off the field with another in a series of alcohol issues. It is anyone's guess if a team will invest a first-round choice in a player that is in need of guidance.

He is not the only cornerback whose off-field issues will impact his draft status, as Florida's Loucheiz Purifoy could be a locker room outcast for agreeing to "snitch" on others after a marijuana arrest and South Carolina's Victor Hampton has a domestic violence charge as the latest to add to his several team suspensions.

The most complete cornerback in this draft class is obviously Darqueze Dennard, evident by his unanimous All-American selection and being the recipient of the Jim Thorpe Award, given to the nation's top defensive back. Teams that are likely to select a cornerback in the first round have Dennard and Justin Gilbert running neck-and-neck on their draft boards and both should hear their names called in the top two from this cornerback group.

Teams expected to address cornerback needs in the early rounds are Baltimore, Cincinnati, Denver, Detroit, Kansas City, the New York Jets, Pittsburgh, San Diego, San Francisco and Washington. The Lions appear to be the most desperate to restock their secondary, eyeing both Gilbert and Dennard, but the Michigan State standout might be the logical choice.

Tennessee will strongly consider whoever of the two corners that are still available with their first-round pick, but only if linebacker Anthony Barr is no longer available. The Rams could look for a cornerback with their second first-round pick and Pittsburgh is strongly considering an eventual replacement for Ike Taylor, but will have to address defensive line needs first.

The Jets are looking to move up and get a complement opposite Dee Milliner, but only if they can secure the services of Dennard. Kyle Fuller is getting a lot of love from Chip Kelly and the Philadelphia coaches, but they are also active trying to move up to grab a receiver like Odell Beckham or Brandin Cooks, leaving Fuller as an alternative if their trade offer fails to get them the pass catcher they covet.

Cincinnati has grown fond of Jason Verrett, but the injury factor could leave him on the board when Round 2 begins. Both San Diego and San Francisco are the type of teams that feel they can restore Bradley Roby to "good citizen" status, but I say good luck with that thought. Cleveland also might opt for a cornerback late in the first round, preferring Fuller to Roby, but had both high on their draft board.

Whoever ends up with Dennard will have the best NFL-ready cornerback in this class. He established himself as perhaps the hardest-hitting defensive back to wear a Big Ten Conference team uniform since the days of Ohio State's Jack Tatum (1967-70) and Michigan's Heisman Trophy winner, Charles Woodson (1995-97). Evidence to back that claim was his dominance as a shutdown cornerback, as he allowed only 18 of 91 passes targeted into his territory (19.78%, the lowest completion percentage allowed by any starting cornerback in the FBS in 2012), as opponents managed averages of only 8.39 yards per completion and 1.66 yards per attempt.

Dennard recorded an incredible 33 third-down stops, adding two more on fourth-down snaps during his junior season. He delivered 22 of his 52 hits inside the red zone, posting four of his stops behind the line of scrimmage. He also produced nine touchdown-saving tackles, racing out of his assigned area to make those crucial stops after opponents had eluded other MSU defenders. The hard-hitting cornerback also caused his coverage assignments to drop five of the balls intended for them.

In 44 contests, Dennard has had 293 passes targeted into his territory, as the opponents completed 61 of those tries (20.81%) for 577 yards and three touchdowns, an average of 9.46 yards per reception and 1.97 yards per pass attempt.

Dennard might have gone home the winner of the 2014 Thorpe Award as the nation's top defensive back, but Oklahoma State's Justin Gilbert will not concede the top spot on the draft "pecking order" for cornerbacks. While Dennard and Gilbert have excellent coverage skills and quickness, what separates the two is that the Cowboys pass defender has not only had better success defending vs. the ball in flight, he is perhaps one of the finest kickoff returners in the nation.

Just from a statistical standpoint, Gilbert would win the argument vs. the Michigan State product. Gilbert has recorded 182 tackles, including 157 solo strikes in 39 starting assignments, compared to Dennard's 167 hits (105 solos) in 40 starts. The Cowboy has defended 39 passes at OSU, while Dennard produced 30. Gilberts' 12 interceptions rank tied for fifth in school history and seventh in Big Twelve Conference annals. His MSU counterpart posted 10 thefts.

The former track standout was the unquestioned "King of the Hill" when he faced off vs. the other defensive backs attending the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine, leading all safeties and cornerbacks with a scorching 4.37-second clocking in the 40-yard dash. Dating back to the last 10 events in Indianapolis, that time was the fourth-best for any defensive back. Dennard was timed at an adequate 4.51 seconds in the same event.

The once 160-pound Kyle Fuller had grown to a muscular 195-pound defender by the time 2013 preseason camp opened. He earned Super Iron Hokie honors for his performance in the training room, where he boasted a 330-pound bench press, 370-pound front squat and 305-pound power clean. Before undergoing sports hernia/core muscle surgery on Nov. 19, he made 24 tackles, two for losses, along with batting away ten passes and picking off two others for the third straight season.

Fuller started 42 of 50 games at Virginia Tech – 14 as a nickel back/whip linebacker and 28 at cornerback, recording 173 tackles (129 solos) with 4.5 sacks for minus 39 yards, 23.5 stops for losses of 82 yards, four forced fumbles and one fumble recovery.
Thanks to his experience as a linebacker and safety, he excels when it comes to spacing, doing a good job of breaking down and closing on plays in front of him.

Fuller uses his hands well to jam his opponent at the line and he is very alert when handling the switch-off assignment. He has the short-area burst to make plays underneath and could eventually grow into a safety in the Brian Dawkins (ex-Denver) mold one day. He gets good depth in his pass drops and when reacting to the ball and has a good concept for taking proper angles. He is good at reading and reacting to the quarterback and won't bite on play-action fakes. He is alert and sees threats, doing a nice job of quickly planting and driving on the ball.

Verrett has been nicknamed "The Sandman" by professional scouts, as more often than not he will "take a few Z's" on the football field – as in taking on the opponent's elite pass catcher, which is usually the "Z" (flanker) receiver. In two short seasons at Texas Christian, the California native has established himself as the best shutdown cornerback in the collegiate ranks. The problem is his shoulder surgery, as a team will have to be confident he will recover fully before investing a first-round pick.

Verrett might have just an adequate frame, but is blessed with exceptional speed and shows that sudden burst to close on the ball. He shows good field savvy and vision, along with the loose hips to fluidly come out of his backpedal and turn to run to the play. He is very smooth coming out of his breaks and is able to transition thanks to excellent hip flexibility and body control. He flashes good take-up speed and acceleration to close. His flexibility allows him to adjust and make plays on the ball in the air (35 pass break-ups in his last 37 games). With his timing and vertical leap, he can easily compete for the ball at its high point.

Utah's Keith McGill could provide immediate value as a slot cornerback, thanks to three seasons as a safety before excelling outside in man coverage as a senior. The change in positions was actually just a way to ease McGill back into the game of football during 2013 fall camp after he had missed the '12 campaign due to shoulder surgery. But based on his dominance taking on receivers in practices, the coaches decided to make the move permanent and installed their former junior college All-American at left cornerback for the entire season.

While McGill first thought he was a "fish out of water" playing on the outside, he turned into a "ball shark" on the field, earning All-Pac 12 Conference honors while leading the league in pass deflections, as his 12 break-ups rank fourth on the school season-record list. He also ranked second in the conference with 13 passes defended, returning his only interception for a touchdown.

McGill is very effective closing on the ball, especially vs. plays in front of him and vs. the running game. He has very good breakdown ability in space and shows clean feet in transition. He takes good angles and has good balance and quickness to accelerate and close on the ball. He times his leaps well, consistently making plays on the pigskin at its high point. He also has the strong hands and reach to pluck for the ball outside his frame.

Off-field issues continue to plague the Ohio State program. Roby started all 36 games he played in, lining up at right cornerback for 13 games as a freshman and his next 24 on the left side. He recorded 179 tackles (132 solos) with 7.5 stops for losses, deflected 36 passes and returned eight interceptions for 226 yards and a pair of touchdowns.

Tossing aside his problems away from the game, Roby has the vision and quick-decision process to read keys, and once the quarterback releases the ball he can redirect and get under the throw in a flash. He shows good anticipation tracking the ball in flight to get to the pass at its highest point. Against plays in front of him, he is quick to react, taking good angles to close on the ball.

Roby is very 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. He makes quick decisions when working in the box, but sometimes jumps the play before it develops, resulting in several costly penalties. When operating in the deep zone, he reacts well to the ball in flight, showing above average leaping ability and natural hands to secure the interception. When working on deep routes, he has the speed to recover when beaten.

Rice's Phillip Gaines has been a mainstay in the secondary for the Owls, starting 48 games during his career – including 40 as their boundary cornerback and eight others at the "field" position. While not known for his ball thievery skills, the physical and quick Owl has made certain that few receivers in his area have an opportunity to get to the ball, as his 38 pass deflections rank ninth in Conference USA history and set the school's all-time record.

Gaines has always been known for his incredible leaping ability and quickness, as he led the league and ranked 12th in the nation with eight pass break-ups during his junior campaign. He would close out his career with 42 passes defended, as he had the first four interceptions as an Owl during his final season.

A highly effective blitzer, Gaines has also proven to be a valuable asset for wreaking havoc in the backfield, as he chased down ball carriers and quarterbacks to record 11 of his 175 total tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Two of those stops were crucial sacks, both coming on third-down snaps to kill potential scoring drives. In fact, of the six turnovers that he had a hand in, Rice converted five of them into touchdowns during the ensuing possessions.

Nebraska's Stanley Jean-Baptiste is an imposing figure at 6-foot-3, 218 pounds. The bigger the wide receivers and pass-catching tight ends get in the National Football League, the bigger the premium defensive coaches are putting on their scouts to find tall, physical cornerbacks to counter. The Huskers had the benefit of locating one of them right in their own "backyard," by way of Miami, where most elite cornerbacks usually end up playing for a Southeastern Conference or Atlantic Coast Conference school instead.

Defensive coordinator John Papuchis credits Jean-Baptiste's ability to handle the tight ends and slot receivers in the short area as a crucial factor for the team's success in keeping plays in front of the secondary last season. Few cornerbacks in the Big Ten Conference showed the inside-the-box tackling skills that the junior college import possesses.

Jean-Baptiste's success in run support comes from his long arms, as he is able to reach out, grab and hold on to ball carriers until help arrives. He also shows the lower body strength to hold his ground at the point of attack, along with keeping his hands active in order to maintain outside leverage of stave off reach blocks to get through trash and clog the rush lanes.

Highly versatile Jaylen Watkins (Florida) might have to spend his NFL career taking on his younger half-brother, standout Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins. The Gators defensive back was one of the few bright spots. So much so he was named an in-season team captain. He started nine games, including three at right cornerback and six at free safety, finishing third on the team with 52 tackles (31 solos) with two stops-for-loss. He also broke up seven passes and limited his coverage assignments to 10 receptions on 65 targeted passes (15.38%).

The postseason would become Watkins' "proving ground," as he first impressed NFL decision makers while performing all week in Mobile preparing to play in the 2014 Senior Bowl. He was one of the few defensive backs to truly stand out from the rest, putting together a string of positive plays during drills, getting his hands on the ball on a few reps.

Watkins showed smooth feet and hip action to quickly redirect and get his body under control to mirror the movements of the receiver. He also did a nice job getting his head turned around to find the ball, elevate and break up the play. While he is noticeably lean, he would elevate any concerns about his power with an impressive strength performance a few weeks later at the NFL Scouting Combine.

Watkins was one of the top performers at his position during agility tests at the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine. He opened eyes in the weight room, where his he bench pressed 225 pounds 22 times, tying Keith Reiser of Florida Atlantic for the top berth among the cornerbacks in attendance. Including the safeties at Indianapolis, it was the third-best lifting performance of all defensive backs. His 4.41-second clocking in the 40-yard dash was the fifth-best run for the safeties and cornerbacks.

Liberty's Walt Aikens has been making a steady climb up the draft boards, even though he was left behind when close to 60 other defensive backs were working out for teams at the NFL Scouting Combine. More than a handful of teams admit they made a mistake when Aikens was not on their lists to come to Indianapolis.

The former University of Illinois transfer had impressed scouts with his performances as a boundary cornerback during his three seasons with the Flames and he continued to open eyes with a solid showing as a member of the South roster during the week-long practices leading up to the 2014 Senior Bowl.

Aikens' last chance to show off his athletic ability came during Liberty's Pro Day on March 4. After an adequate performance in the weight room (just 13 reps in the 225-pound bench press test), the cornerback recorded a 35-inch vertical jump and 9'10" broad jump. He was timed at 4.42 seconds in the 20-yard shuttle and 7.12 in the three-cone drill.

He posted a 1.59-second 10-yard burst and performed the 40-yard dash in 4.49 seconds, which would have ranked 11th among the 39 cornerbacks that did receive an invitation to attend the Combine.

It was the culmination of Aikens' three seasons of trying to redeem his career that was almost sidetracked after he was arrested after his freshman season at Illinois. He was charged with felony possession of stolen property in connection with theft of electronics from a dorm room in 2010. After pleading guilty to misdemeanor theft, Aikens was later dismissed from the team by former Illini head coach Ron Zook.

Duke's Ross Cockrell's performance on the field has generated considerable interest in the cornerback, as he is regarded as one of the elite performers in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Blessed with incredible speed, the former prep track star has converted that quickness to the gridiron, where he has done a remarkable job of shutting down his opponent's top receiver on a weekly basis.

Even though he is a 191-pound athlete, his power behind his hits has seen him also perform as a safety for the Blue Devils, as it has become commonplace to see the veteran cover tight ends while leading a very young secondary. Since become team captain prior to his junior season, Cockrell has allowed only 25 of 120 passes targeted into his area (20.83%) to be completed.

During those 25 games, he has defended 33 of those tosses, breaking up 25 attempts while intercepting eight others. Additionally, he rerouted/jammed his coverage assignments away from 56 other tosses (46.67%), delivering 43 third-down stops and four more on fourth-down plays.

Other mid-round finds can be unearthed from a group that includes Clemson's Bashaud Breeland, Oregon State's Rashaad Reynolds, Utah State's Nevin Lawson, Georgia Tech's Jemea Thomas, Maine's Kendall James and Oregon's Terrance Mitchell, all expected to be selected by the end of the fifth round.

Some late rounders who could earn a roster spot are E.J. Gaines (Missouri), Dontae Johnson (North Carolina State), Ricardo Allen (Purdue), Chris Davis (Auburn, injured), Aaron Colvin (Oklahoma), Kenneth Acker (SMU), Dexter McDougle (Maryland) and Shaq Richardson (Arizona).

CREAM OF THE CROP: Darqueze Dennnard (Michigan State)
BEST OF THE REST: Justin Gilbert (Oklahoma State)
MOST UNDERRATED: Phillip Gaines (Rice) and Keith McGill (Utah)
MOST OVERRATED: Marcus Roberson (Florida) and Victor Hampton (South Carolina)
SUPER SLEEPER: Walt Aikens (Liberty)

DENNARD, Darqueze   5:11199 4.5115 3611'02" 4.417.07 8.21
GILBERT, Justin   6:00202 4.3720 35 1/210'06" 4.396.92 7.51
FULLER, Kyle (FS/SS)   6:00190 4.4912 38 1/210'08" 4.196.9 71
%VERRETT, Jason   5:10189 4.3819 39 1/210'08" 46.69 6.82
MCGILL, Keith (FS) 6:03211 4.5112 3910'09" 4.136.9 6.53
#ROBY, Bradley   5:11194 4.3917 38 1/210'04" 4.046.74 6.42
JOYNER, Lamarcus (FS) 5:08184 4.5514 37 1/210'04" 4.47.26 6.33
GAINES, Phillip   6:00193 4.3811 36 1/210'02" 4.046.62 6.33
JEAN-BAPTISTE, Stanley   6:03218 4.4513 41 1/210'08" 4.196.69 6.23
WATKINS, Jaylen   6:00194 4.4122 31 1/209"10" 4.57.13 6.23
AIKENS, Walt (FS)   6:01203 4.4913 3509'10" 4.427.12 6.14
DESIR, Pierre   6:01198 4.5211 3811'01" 4.36.86 6.14
#BREELAND, Bashaud   5:11197 4.5711 34 1/210'03" 4.337.03 63
REYNOLDS, Rashaad   5:10189 4.5120 38 1/210'03" 46.72 5.94
LAWSON, Nevin   5:10190 4.3816 34 1/210'00" 4.137.12 5.85
%EXUM, Antone (SS)   6:00213 4.5817 3509'11" 4.137.01 5.75
THOMAS, Jemea  (FS) 5:09192 4.5219 3710'05" 4.157.03 5.74
#MITCHELL, Terrance   5:11192 4.528 3410'01" 46.57 5.65
JAMES, Kendall   5:11180 4.49 3910'00" 4.196.81 5.65
#ROBERSON, Marcus   6:00191 4.698 37 1/210'00" 4.467.19 5.53
ALLEN, Ricardo   5:09187 4.5113 3710'00" 4.156.9 5.55
%GAINES, E.J.   5:10190 4.4415 3409'09" 4.127.01 5.45
COCKRELL, Ross   6:00191 4.5610 36 1/210'02" 4.327.28 5.45
JOHNSON, Dontae   6:02200 4.4512 38 1/210'04" 4.246.82 5.36
DAVIS, Chris (FS) 5:10202 4.5515 40 1/210'04" 4.186.93 5.35
#PURIFOY, Loucheiz   6:00190 4.636 35 1/210'00" 4.327.28 5.26
%COLVIN, Aaron   5:11177 4.5116 3309'06" 4.126.99 5.27-FA
RICHARDSON, Shaquille  6:00194 4.4314 38 1/210'07" 4.236.95 5.17
%MCDOUGLE, Dexter  5:10196 4.47NL 3710'02" 4.126.84 5.17
DIXON, Brandon   6:00203 4.4117 3410'00" 4.277.15 57
ÊRRIE, Travis   6:00206 4.4317 4110'03" 4.216.97 57-FA
HAL, Andre   5:10188 4.515 35 1/209'11" 4.277.14 57-Jun
JACKSON, Bennett   6:00195 4.413 3810'08" 46.75 57-Jun
ACKER, Kenneth 6:00191 4.511 3609'09" 4.376.94 4.97-FA
GOODSON, Demetri   5:11194 4.5211 3710'03" 4.346.8 4.97-FA
BYNDOM, Carrington   5:11180 4.3514 3609'11" 4.37.16 4.97-FA
#HAMPTON, Victor   5:09197 4.6920 33 1/209'10" 4.27.01 4.97-FA
¾LUE, Deion   5:11182 4.5211 36 1/209'09" 4.387 4.8PFA
BENWIKERE, Bene   5:11195 4.6910 40 1/210'02" 4.386.94 4.8PFA
WESTBROOKS, Lavelle   6:00186 4.6320 3610'01" 4.276.98 4.87-FA
DUCRE, Gregory   5:10178 4.3217 3510'06" 46.56 4.7PFA
SAWYER, Charles   5:10183 4.5313 3709'02" 4.26.9 4.7PFA
WILLIAMS, Marcus   5:11196 4.5715 3509'09" 4.277.18 4.7PFA
EVANS, Ciante   5:10193 4.598 32 1/209'10" 4.136.65 4.7FA
%LYN, Keon   6:01201 4.4615       4.7FA
SEISAY, Mohammed   6:01202 4.5213 3911'00" 4.136.5 4.6FA
#SEAMSTER, Sammy   6:00198 4.4215 3510'04" 4.276.86 4.6FA
PRICE, Jabari   5:11200 4.4516 29 1/209'04" 4.37.04 4.6FA
HARRIS, Torin 6:00189 4.469 4110'10" 4.236.96 4.6FA
PHILLIPS, Dashaun 5:11182 4.4814 3910'03" 3.976.65 4.6FA
%REASER, Keith   5:11189 4.4322       4.6FA
LEWIS, Keith   5:11194 4.4514 3110'03" 4.116.89 4.6FA
IRABOR, Osahon   5:10186 4.72        4.5CMP
JOHNSON, Najja   5:11189 4.43        4.5CMP
YOUNG, Louis 5:11209 4.46        4.5CMP
JONES, L.J. 5:10197 4.47        4.5CMP
HAWKINS, Travis 5:10192 4.4        4.5CMP
JONES, Darius 5:10187 4.43        4.5CMP
DIXON, Brian 6:00197 4.43        4.4CMP
GILSTRAP, Kenneth 5:10187 4.4        4.4CMP
FREEMAN, Malachi 5:09180 4.44        4.4CMP
OLATOYE, Ayodeji 6:01198 4.49        4.4CMP
BRANDON, Tevrin 5:09183 4.33        4.4CMP
GLOVER-WRIGHT,Tay 6:00177 4.35        4.4CMP
SERMONS, Brandon 5:11181 4.46        4.3CMP
LEGREE, Jimmy   5:11194 4.52        4.3CMP
GORDON, Eric 5:09192 4.43        4.3CMP
WASHINGTON, Todd   5:11196 4.5713       4.3CMP
FOGG, Kevin 5:09182 4.49        4.3CMP

Immediate starter...Should have a major impact to the success of the franchise, barring injury...Possesses superior critical factors...Plays with consistency and without abnormal extra effort...Rare talent.
7.6-8.0Star Quality Eventual starter...Should make a significant contribution in his first year...Possesses above average critical factors...Has the talent and skills to start...Will contribute to upgrading the team...Can play without abnormal effort, but has some inconsistency in his play that will improve with refinement and development...Has no real weakness.
7.0-7.5Impact Player Possesses at least average to above average critical factors in all areas...Will contribute immediately, whether as a starter or a valuable reserve...Will move into the starting lineup with seasoning...Above average player who needs to refine certain areas.
6.5-6.9Eventual Starter Could move into the starting lineup within three years...Has average critical factors in all areas...Needs further development, but has the ability to contribute.
6.0-6.4Potential Starter Could force himself into the starting lineup with improved perform- ances...Will make a team...Has average critical factors in most areas, but at least one with less than average quality that he will have a hard time overcoming...Probable draft choice.
5.5-5.9Roster Player Has the ability to serve as a key reserve and possible future starter... Possesses average critical factors, but more than several areas are less than average...Plays with normal extra effort.
5.0-5.4Project Has the skills to play pro ball with proper tutoring...May make a team based on need...Possesses no real strong critical factors and is probably below average in several areas that the player will have a hard time overcoming...Possible draft choice, but only if that team is caught short on talent available at that position.
4.6-4.9Develop- mental Could make a team with an impressive showing in training camp... Not strong in most critical factors...Deficient in more than one area that he will not be able to overcome...At least average in the factor of competitiveness...May not make a team due to his limitations.
4.1-4.5Camp Player Has redeeming qualities that could allow him to play in the pros with improved performances...Deficient in more than one critical factor... Might make a team, but will always be the player that squad will look to replace.
3.5-4.0Reject Might make a team, but has glaring deficiencies in several critical factors...Below average competitor whose athletic skills will allow him to enter training camp, but has a difficult time in trying to make a team.

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