Cooper DeJean will stand out as a white NFL cornerback. Labeling the Iowa star isn't easy.

Whichever NFL team drafts Cooper DeJean will decide how to best utilize his skill set and athleticism. The former Iowa Hawkeyes cornerback is one of the draft's most intriguing prospects to evaluators thanks to the versatility he showed in his three seasons of college play. He's also an anomaly himself.

DeJean is a cornerback. DeJean is white. DeJean is a white cornerback.

To refer to him as a “defensive back” or prognosticate a necessary transition to safety is “mind-blowing,” according to ESPN analyst and former NFL cornerback Domonique Foxworth.

“I think the history of the white cornerback in general … it’s not some travesty that some Black quarterbacks have experienced, but it does feel like there’s some confirmation bias and inherent bias,” Foxworth told USA TODAY Sports. “It’s absurd that we haven’t had a white cornerback in the league.”

The last white cornerback to consistently start was the New York Giants’ Jason Sehorn, who retired after the 2003 season.

DeJean’s college teammate at Iowa, the Denver Broncos’ Riley Moss, was selected in the third round last year as a cornerback but hardly played in his rookie season. Troy Apke was moved from safety to cornerback for the Washington Commanders, but he did not play a defensive snap in the past three seasons and remains a free agent.

“It’s ridiculous to think of white men as an oppressed minority, but it’s equally ridiculous to think that there hasn’t been one white kid who could play corner,” Foxworth said.

Typically, Foxworth said, white players who excel at corner in their youth are moved to offense as wide receivers or running backs. Some stick at safety.

DeJean said he has not spoken with teams about his race in relation to his position.

“It doesn’t really bother me too much,” he said at the NFL combine. “I’m just going to go out and be myself. Just go out and play my game.”

Cooper DeJean: cornerback, safety – or both?

Iowa Hawkeyes defensive back Cooper DeJean (3) returns a punt against the Western Michigan Broncos during the second quarter at Kinnick Stadium.
Iowa Hawkeyes defensive back Cooper DeJean (3) returns a punt against the Western Michigan Broncos during the second quarter at Kinnick Stadium.

Since fracturing his fibula in practice in November, which caused him to miss Iowa’s last four games, DeJean has concentrated on recovering from surgery. DeJean did not participate in the Hawkeyes’ pro day on March 18 but set a workout date for April 8 – 17 days before the draft's first round.

Draft experts widely predict he will be taken then and regard him as a top-five cornerback in the class. Quinyon Mitchell (Toledo) and Terrion Arnold (Alabama) are the two players at the position most likely to be taken before DeJean. The unanimous All-American would be ranked as the top safety, ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said. DeJean can also be a special teams asset and was the 2023 Big Ten Returner of the Year.

“Cooper would have been a top-15 guy had he finished the process healthy, finished the year healthy,” Kiper Jr. said on a conference call.

Where he lands in the first can be tricky to predict, especially in the range – typically between 19th to the Los Angeles Rams and 25th to the Green Bay Packers – most mock drafts have him slotted into.

A native of Odebolt, Iowa – population roughly 1,000, per the 2020 census – DeJean “did some things naturally that other kids just weren’t able to do,” said Larry Allen, a distant relative of DeJean who was his high school football coach.

Allen tried to protect freshmen by not allowing them to play much on varsity, but DeJean left him little choice. On his first defensive play, he racked up 30 yards in penalties – a pass interference and personal foul combo.

“Might be the only mistakes he made throughout his high school career,” Allen told USA TODAY Sports.

DeJean played wide receiver and defensive back during his first two years of high school. For his junior and senior seasons, he was the quarterback and also played safety.

DeJean proved he was the fastest in the state by winning the 100-meter dash his senior season and also won the long jump. On the Iowa boys’ all-time scoring list for basketball, DeJean is between Minnesota Vikings tight end T.J. Hockenson and NBA player Harrison Barnes.

“He’s not one of those guys who’s satisfied with being the best on the team or the best in the area,” Allen said. “He wanted to be the best in the state or the best in the nation.”

NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah – who said that if he was “nitpicking,” a pause in DeJean’s transition is what worries him about sticking at cornerback – is hesitant to pigeonhole DeJean at one position. That DeJean can play in any defensive structure is what Kiper Jr. likes about the prospect of him remaining in his current role.

“You are drafting a big-time athlete who has just got – he has football instincts,” Jeremiah said. “He has ball skills.”

In 2022, as a sophomore, DeJean picked off five pass passes and returned three for touchdowns. He had two more picks and five pass breakups the next season.

A team would be wise to first bring DeJean into the building and figure out where he could be the best asset, Jeremiah said.

“Being able to play multiple, different positions, I think that’s an advantage,” DeJean said.

For Foxworth, the answer is simple: Leave DeJean at cornerback and have him neutralize the other team’s top receiver. Despite DeJean's relative lack of experience playing man coverage, the allure of moving him into the nickel spot or safety against teams with multiple weapons is appealing, though.

“He’s big enough and strong enough and physical enough to play safety,” Foxworth said. “I think where the league is going, having a safety like that could be hugely valuable.

“But we just haven’t seen that discussion for (other) guys.”

'Novelty' and evaluating biases

On Bomani Jones’ podcast “The Right Time” that aired Dec. 1, 2023, Foxworth was quick to point out that his colleague at ESPN, Field Yates, had listed DeJean as a “DB” rather than a “CB.”

During the light-hearted banter, Foxworth said that for a subset of “trolls,” DeJean was “their Lamar Jackson,” the Baltimore Ravens quarterback who shrugged off pre-draft comments about changing positions and became a two-time MVP.

Why that may not have been the best comparison, Foxworth said, is because Jackson clearly needed to refine his passing abilities coming out of college. It’s not as though DeJean plays cornerback in a vastly different way than other elite corners.

“But I do think the ‘look’ part is the part where it’s like – some people, whether they want to admit it or not, had a hard time with Lamar because of the way that he looked, and I think the same thing is happening with Cooper,” Foxworth said.

Conversations about race, bias and disparity can often harbor malicious undertones. That’s not the case with DeJean and white cornerbacks.

“This is more novelty than anything,” Foxworth said.

Whether the bias is intentional or not, the result is harm, Foxworth said, because preconceived notions that could influence decisions are never beneficial.

“I think there are white kids who could have grown up to be cornerbacks in the NFL, and it didn’t work out for them because whenever anyone looked at them, they didn’t see a cornerback,” Foxworth said. “But I don’t think we need to have a fundraiser and put together a campaign to fight for the white cornerback.”

Foxworth has enjoyed discussing DeJean during the pre-draft process because the case is an on-ramp into a broader conversation to which people are more receptive. Some people tire of hearing that the world is unfair for others and may not even believe that to be true.

“But I think no one can look at this and deny that we have some biases,” Foxworth said. “Or look at the history of the position – Cooper aside – and say that we have some biases.”

Moss – DeJean’s former college teammate and the Broncos corner – was asked about being the lone white corner in the league during rookie minicamp last year.

“It’s pretty crazy,” Moss said. “At the end of the day, if you can do the job, you can do the job.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Cooper DeJean will be a white NFL cornerback, but labels aren't easy