Written By Jack Bourgeois
With the NFL Draft less than 50 days away and free agency about to start, cornerback is a pressing need for several teams in the NFL. It’s the second most important position behind pass rusher on the defensive side of the ball, and this year’s draft class is loaded with talented prospects throughout the first few rounds. After a 2017 NFL Draft Class that featured two dominant corners in Defensive Rookie of the Year Marshon Lattimore and Bills’ corner Tre’davious White, expect the position to be targeted early and often come April 26th.
A handful of teams come to mind that could take a corner day one including; 49ers, Raiders, Bucs, Bears, Packers and Patriots to name a few.
1. Denzel Ward: Ohio State University
Height: 5’ 10”
Weight: 191 lbs
Career Stats: 29 Games
Pass Breakups: 24
Denzel Ward is this year’s pound-for-pound toughest player and top of the cornerback rankings. What he lacks in measurables he makes up for tenfold in athleticism and aggression. At 5’10” and 191 lbs, with only 2 career interceptions, Ward’s numbers won’t jump off the stat sheet. But he does light up the film and is by far the most polished corner in the draft. His footwork and mechanics are extremely crisp; there are no wasted steps or motion when getting in and out of his breaks, and his “kill or be killed” mentality makes you instantly fall in love with his play.
Ward is a dynamic playmaker: he can line up both inside and out, and isn’t necessarily mismatched against bigger, more physical wide receivers. He often plays tight press coverage and is instantly thrown off the line, but he has the balance and recovery to not let it affect his coverage positioning. He has the best lateral movement in this year’s draft and will match up quite well against the quicker slot receivers in today’s NFL.
Coming from Ohio State, Denzel was rarely asked to play much zone but excelled when he was called upon to do so. He’s a true shutdown corner who’s at his best when playing in off-man coverage, allowing him to keep his eyes on the quarterback and break on the ball. It showed this year against Maryland when Ward was in off-man coverage; he read the play, instantly broke off of his responsibilities, had a lightning-quick burst upfield and laid a thunderous hit on the receiver. Sadly, he was called for targeting and got ejected that game for what went down as one of, if not the best, hits in college football this past year.
Ward’s ability to slip blocks like he’s greased up and make plays at the line of scrimmage is what truly sets him apart from his competition. His willingness to lower his shoulder and give 100% effort in every tackle is a rare trait to have as an undersized defensive back. His playing style is similar to that of the “Honey Badger” Tyrann Mathieu, as he has complete disregard for his well being and will throw his entire body weight into an offensive player at full speed. It’s hard not to appreciate that, but it will possibly come with repercussions at the next level.
Denzel Ward most definitely helped his draft stock this past weekend at the NFL combine with a blazing 4.32 40-time that tied the fastest time in this year’s draft. He obviously has everything but the length on his side and could improve in ball location by getting his head around faster against deeper routes. The fact that Ward played alongside Marshon Lattimore and Gareon Conley early on at Ohio State, who both went in the 1st round last year, should only help his draft stock come April 26th. He’s a top-10 talent, and I’d be surprised if he makes it past any of the teams sitting from picks 7–15 who are desperate for help in the secondary.
Projected Round: 1 (top 15)
Team Fits: Buccaneers, 49ers, Packers
NFL Comparison: Brent Grimes
2. Josh Jackson: University of Iowa
Weight: 196 lbs
Career Stats: 29 Games
Interceptions: 8 (all coming in ‘17)
Pass Breakups: 24
Josh Jackson is undoubtedly the best cover corner in this year’s draft class. In his first and only season as a starter for the Hawkeyes, he led the nation in interceptions with 8 and added another 18 passes defended. He is a prototypical corner with the size, length, and athleticism to make it at the next level. His ball skills and ability to high point the football is simply unmatched. Jackson became a dominant force this season, and midway through his junior year opponents started to build offensive game plans opposite of where he lined up. It was a mistake to even consider targeting whomever he was covering, a mistake Ohio State made not once, not twice, but three times against Iowa this year. Jackson picked off JT Barrett on three different occasions, leading the Hawkeyes to a huge 55–24 upset victory over number 3 ranked Ohio State. He somehow followed that statline up with a 2 interception, 2 touchdown performance the week after against Wisconsin. He’s just not a man to be messed with in coverage.
Jackson would be the number one corner on our big board and the first to be drafted if it weren’t for his lack of aggression against the run. He’s a timid, ankle biter type tackler, who looks very business oriented when near the line of scrimmage (he’s soft). Josh doesn’t lower his shoulder and rarely attempts to gang tackle, often getting completely blocked out of the play. He lacks the ability to disengage, and if he doesn’t adopt some physical corner traits he’ll continue to be a liability against the run. With all of that said, his coverage skills make up for his inefficiencies.
Iowa’s defensive back primarily played in man coverage; he’s at his best when in press, but would instead shadow his opponent step for step, then get physical with him. He won’t jam a wideout at the line, as he’d rather use his long arms to redirect and cut off his receiver’s route. The DB is a true definition of a ballhawk. In man coverage, good luck creating separation versus Josh. If there is any space between himself and the receiver it’s because he allowed it to happen in an attempt to bait the quarterback. His ability to read the QB is possibly his best attribute; he continuously puts himself in the right position to make a play. He has the football IQ to be able to transfer his coverage responsibilities, understands route concepts, and has the guts to leave his zone to make a play elsewhere.
Josh Jackson is regarded as a top three corner on nearly every draft board out there, but some NFL scouts and exec’s question whether he is a one year wonder. His 4.51 forty time at the combine will also hurt his stock. Either way, the film doesn’t lie, and though Josh will be considered a finesse corner, he’s still a day one starter and top 25 lock come the draft. He’s best suited in a heavy cover 3 man defensive scheme such as Seattle’s and with it being rumored that Richard Sherman is on his way out the door, he’d fill those shoes quite nicely.
Projected Round: 1
Team Fits: Seahawks, 49ers, Raiders
NFL Comparison: A.J. Bouye
3. Jaire Alexander: University of Louisville
Weight: 192 lbs
Career Stats: 29
Pass Breakups: 15
Jaire Alexander is a particularly intriguing cornerback prospect with massive upside and very few holes in his game. His Combine performance only reassured what scouts and execs had seen on film. He is an explosive, quick-twitch player with ultra-rare athleticism. He is very disruptive at the point of attack and refuses to give up an easy catch, constantly ripping at wideouts’ hands and dislodging what should be a simple completion by any means necessary. He’s so intense it appears as though ke he’s throwing blows in a street fight the second the ball touches a receivers hands- it’s quite entertaining to watch.
Alexander possibly has the biggest ceiling out of any of the top cornerback prospects (barring Jackson learning to tackle). The only major concern for scouts is his health. He has missed some time throughout his career at Louisville, and most recently had a leg injury and broken hand that caused him to sit out 7 games in 2017. But he did show toughness in coming back from injury despite being considered a sure-fire 1st round pick by many. His footwork has room to improve and he can cut down on wasted motion when breaking on lateral and comeback route. He is also overly physical at times, often flagged for defensive holding and pass interference for being too grabby. Jaire has also been shown to give up the long ball on a few occasions through his 3 years as a Cardinal. But all of this is overshadowed by his elite athleticism, ball-hawking abilities, instincts, and overall well-rounded skill-set. He might not do anything perfectly, but he does a little of everything very well. If taught proper form, the sky’s the limit.
Jaire was also a significant contributor on special teams as a punt returner for Louisville, where he averaged just under ten yards per return with one touchdown. His return numbers might not be that flashy, but his highlight real is mightily impressive, as he possesses a human joystick-like ability to make defenders miss with the ball in his hands.
Jaire is a special team’s ace, a mega-competitor and is tough as nails. Teams that ask for physical play from their corners will fall in love with this guy, and after the combine, his stock will only continue to rise. He’s responsible for far more interceptions than he’s given credit for on the stat sheet and the stat collector deserves to be fired for not marking him down for twice as many pass breakups as reported. Alexander has the opportunity to move past Jackson as the second corner taken, especially after the Iowa product’s poor 40-time and combine performance. He should be a first round lock and on everyone’s radar come the 2018 NFL Season.
Projected Round: 1
Team Fits: Raiders, Green Bay, Patriots
NFL Comparison: Darius Slay
4. Isaiah Oliver: University of Colorado
Weight: 195 lbs
Career Stats: 31 games
Pass Breakups: 25
Isaiah Oliver is still a very raw prospect with plenty of coaching required to get him to reach his potential, but the upside of a big, lengthy decathlete, with sprinters speed and some impressive ball skills, makes him a hot commodity in the NFL. The Colorado defensive back is an immensely gifted individual who is still picking up the position’s finer details along the way. As seen above, he has one of the prettiest interceptions ever made! His ability to locate the ball in the air is like that of an all-pro wide receiver; the hand-eye coordination required to make an over the shoulder catch is hard enough when a wideout knows when and where the ball will be, but to do it on the fly like that is astonishing.
Oliver is, as advertised, a raw athlete with elite, yet unpolished skills. He is eager to get his nose dirty and make tackles near the line of scrimmage, and his form isn’t perfect, but he does know how to get lower than the ball carrier and wrap up. Colorado primarily played a cover two man scheme which relied heavily on Oliver’s man coverage skills. He was often asked to shadow number one wide receivers without much or any help over the top, something no other top corner was asked to do. Isaiah did so quite well and rarely allowed anything to get behind him. He has shut down quite a few WR prospects that are considered to be dangerous playmakers in this year’s draft class, such as Michael Gallup, who Oliver got the best of throughout their in-state rivalry.
Isaiah’s weak point is unquestionably his zone coverage and off-man, as his football IQ and reaction time are just not at an NFL level at this point. He’s able to lean on pure instincts and athleticism when in man press, but often looks lost when in zone coverage, allowing opposing wide receivers to get behind his part of the field. In off coverage, he gives far too much space and will need to continue to work on his mechanics and elongated recovery step when guarding against underneath routes.
With all the physical traits needed to play the position, Oliver could easily see himself going inside the first round, especially if there is a run on corners early in the draft, but as the board sits right now, he’s an early day 2 pick. It truly just depends on the scheme fit and positional responsibilities the coaches would ask of him. It never hurts to be versatile, as Oliver was also used in the punt game and had a few impressive returns. Expect Isaiah Oliver to go anywhere from picks 23–40 and to a team in need of a physical corner.
Projected Round: 1–2
Team Fits: Ravens, Redskins, Broncos
NFL Comparison: Jimmy Smith
5. Mike Hughes: University of Central Florida
Weight: 195 lbs
Career Stats: 23
Pass Breakups: 14
Central Florida’s Mike Hughes is all over the place when it comes to everyone’s Big Board Rankings. Some scouts and analyst have him as a top 2–3 corner, while some say he’s nothing more than a third-round pick and special teams contributor. The truth undoubtedly lies somewhere in between. At 5’11” he doesn’t have the prototypical size, but he’s technically not undersized either. He’s a thicker bodied corner, who plays bigger on tape than he looks on paper. He’s quicker than fast and, for his frame, posting a 4.53 40-time isn’t going to hurt his draft stock. Hughes biggest attribute is his versatility; he has the quickness to cover the slot, the strength to help out against the run, and the return ability to score anytime he gets his hands on the football.
Hughes has very quick feet, and while they may not be mechanically sound, he’s able to get in and out of his breaks with a rare burst. Mike’s speed may not be top notch, but his acceleration and cutting ability make for the best returner amongst the cornerbacks listed. UCF’s defensive scheme asked the prospect to play a majority of his collegiate career in man coverage. The man can go step for step downfield, he’s got excellent recovery speed, and can close the distance in a hurry. He’s best when pressing at the line as he’s highly physical within 5 yards and is good at redirecting wideouts, although he’s shown to be vulnerable against bigger, stronger wide receivers.
Mike is another raw athlete, with plenty of room to grow as a player. His zone coverage skills are subpar, and he relies a lot more on his physical traits than his football IQ. Hughes tends to have a delayed reaction when in zone, but he seems to compensate for his 4.5 speed by leaning towards deep coverage and allows receivers to feast on underneath routes. The UCF prospect could also clean up his tackling form, often missing with weak arm tackles and not meeting the ball carrier head up. Power backs have had their way with him at times when in the open field due to his size, but it’s never for lack of effort. Hughes is as aggressive as they come, refusing to be blocked and always fighting to get to the ball. All of his flaws stem from his form, as well as his size. Luckily. one of those deficiencies is correctable, and teams should see Hughes as a ball of clay just waiting to be molded.
Any team that drafts Mike Hughes is getting a stud return specialist, as he’s the only player in his school’s history to return a punt, kickoff, and interception for a touchdown. Over his two year career at UCF he averaged an impressive 31.7 yards per kick return, 16.6 yards per punt return and totaled 4 return touchdowns with another handful of TD’s called back. His field vision is incredible: he knows how to set up his blocks 15–20 yards ahead of him, understands tackling angles, and knows how to avoid defenders with a single cut and go without losing speed. He’s a playmaker and a ballhawk, very good at adjusting and tracking the ball in the air. If Mike can clean up the mechanics, he most certainly has a chance of being a day one starter. Teams will likely look to draft him as a slot corner due to his shortcomings. He’s a Day Two guy with massive upside and an equal amount of bust potential if taken too early. Expect Mike Hughes to become a team’s primary returner instantly and slowly be worked into the defensive scheme throughout his rookie season.
Projected Round: 2
Team Fits: Bears, Dolphins, Redskins
NFL Comparison: Chris Harris