Leading up to the NFL draft on May 8-10, Shutdown Corner will examine each position, rank the top players at each spot and try to identify some top sleepers, sliders and lesser-known gems.
Need a corner? A safety? You might want to act fast.
There are some strong talents at both positions in this draft and they won't last long. The class in the secondary is very top-heavy this year, with perhaps seven DBs going off the board in Round 1 — with a noticeable dropoff after that.
There are some good-looking cornerbacks with clear first-round traits. Oklahoma's Justin Gilbert, Virginia Tech's Kyle Fuller, Ohio State's Bradley Roby and Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard all should safely be taken in the first 25 or so picks, and TCU's feisty, smaller Jason Verrett also could go late in Round 1.
At safety, Alabama's HaSean "Ha Ha" Clinton-Dix has received the most pre-draft attention, but don't forget about Louisville's Calvin Pryor. They have different styles, and each could be favored by different teams seeking different qualities in a back-half defender. Northern Illinois' Jimmie Ward grades out more like a third-round talent, but with the dearth of quality safeties in the draft, he could go high as well, as could Washington State's Deone Bucannon, who is the better player of the two.
Expect to see some reaches in the secondary. There are some interesting physical specimens and some decent length at corner, but there is not the quality depth teams are seeking in the secondary, especially at safety. And after the second round, there are mainly fliers.
Here are our top 10 defensive backs for the 2014 NFL draft (not what order they will be drafted but how we think they ultimately will perform in the NFL, with their primary position listed first):
Justin Gilbert (CB)
6 kickoff-return TDs, 2 INT-return TDs in career
Most gifted cover man in draft with major ego, and he has added kick-return value
Calvin Pryor (S)
Knocked out players in 3 consecutive games
Rodney Harrison-like swagger, approach but can be reckless at times
Kyle Fuller (CB)
6 INTs in 35 starts past 3 seasons
Displayed terrific athleticism at combine; good cover man who can get stronger
HaSean "Ha Ha' Clinton-Dix (S)
5 INTs as sophomore; 2 as junior
Rangy, instinctive, effective center fielder who does most things very well
Bradley Roby (CB)
30 passes broken up past two seasons combined
Effective blitzer, leaper, tackler and kick blocker who needs coverage refinement
Darqueze Dennard (CB)
4.51 40-yard dash, 15 bench-press reps at combine
Extremely confident press-man corner whose durability, consistency have held him back
Jason Verrett (CB)
14 passes defended, 2 INTs in 2013
Always seems to be around the ball; undersized but tough as nails and competitive
Deone Bucannon (S)
114 tackles, 6 INTs, 4.5 TFLs, 3 forced fumbles in '13
Tone setter was 3-time captain; aggressive but has some coverage liabilities
Bashaud Breeland (CB)
74 tackles, 14 passes defended in '13
Rangy corner with guts, hitting ability; lack of speed might make him best in Cover 2
Jimmie Ward (S)
95 tackles, 7 INTs in 2013
Experience, production have caught scouts' eyes, but he might be a bit on the lean side
Oregon State CB Rashaad Reynolds
A Day 2 prospect who has a chance to be very good. Although Reynolds is not tall or extremely fast, he is a terrific athlete with good strength, tackling ability and special teams value. Reynolds projects to both man and zone schemes, and though he might be a nickel for some teams, he has starting potential with quick feet, hip-flipping ability and a nose for the ball.
Nebraska CB Stanley Jean-Baptise
In an age when everyone wants the long corners, the nearly 6-3, 218-pound Jean-Baptises stands out. But when you turn on the tape, you see a stiff cover corner who doesn't flip his hips well and can get turned around in coverage. That last part was his biggest problem at the Senior Bowl -- against a so-so crop of wideouts. Jean-Baptiste has terrific measurables to be the kind of player who can match up with big wideouts, but he's 24 and hasn't always shown a capacity to improve in coverage which is worrisome.
SMALL SCHOOL WONDER
Lindenwood CB Pierre Desir
The D-II school has an enrollment of about 1,900 students and is better known as a soccer school. But Desir has a chance to change the narrative a bit. The 24-year-old has an exceptional story — he has three children and emigrated from Haiti — and an affable personality. He also has the kind of length (6-1, with 33-inch arms) to get teams excited. Yes, the level of play is concerning, but Desir stood tall against stronger competition at the East-West Shrine Game and the Senior Bowl. He's smart, tough, competitive and worth giving a shot to in the middle rounds.
Florida CB Louchiez Purifoy
At the start of the college season, Purifoy was considered among the better returning talents at corner, with a chance to make himself into a first-rounder. Now, he's considered a mid-rounder with questions about his strength (six bench presses at combine), his 2013 play (he split reps) and his speed (4.61 40). Purifoy is confident, has ball skills and special teams value. But he has taken a big step back in his development and is no way an instant contributor on defense.
Minnesota S-CB Brock Vereen
The more scouts went back and reviewed the tape — and they most certainly did after a banner showing at the combine — the more they thought about what Vereen (brother of Patriots RB Shane Vereen) might project to be. He was a safety at Minnesota but might possess the coverage skills and quickness to be a nickel corner as well. His frame is small, but Vereen pumped out 25 reps on the bench press (more than Buffalo LB Khalil Mack) and has the kind of motivation and athleticism to overcome his physical deficiencies.
Arizona State S-CB Alden Darby
Some teams are not enamored with Darby's size (he's 5-10, 194) to be a safety, and they are worried that his unpolished cover skills and lack of foot speed might prevent him from being an outside corner. But look past those, and you see a football player who has overcome long odds, has a winner's makeup and enough physical gifts to stick on a roster as a do-it-all contributor. He has played corner, safety and nickel, as well as gunner on special teams. Darby also was a strong leader whose teammates went out of their way to praise.
PLAYER WHO WILL GO UNDRAFTED BUT SHOULDN’T
Liberty CB Walt Aikens
It was a crying shame he was not invited to the combine, as this Illinois transfer has the size (6-1, 205) and physicality teams are looking for in project corners. He held his own at the Senior Bowl, making plays on the ball and showing the requisite toughness to make a roster. Aikens might not have ideal speed or instincts, but he's draft-worthy.
Gilbert to the Titans
New Titans coordinator Ray Horton loves to blitz and asks his corners to man up quite a bit, so Gilbert would be the perfect replacement Alterraun Verner, who was lost in free agency. Gilbert can step in at left corner, and though he'd be tested against some good receivers on the Titans' schedule, he has the confidence and outstanding feet to be a key performer from the get-go.
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