This year's crop of defensive back shows is filled with a number of players who are bigger, and have more size than your traditional crop of corners. The wave of bigger, more physical corners is just starting to come through the college ranks and into the pros. With the rise of the Seattle Seahawks defensive scheme and style of play getting copied throughout the NFL, look for teams to invest early and often on bigger defensive backs.
This will inevitably cause some corners who are bit smaller and don't check off all the measurable boxes to fall down the rankings and draft boards. This year's defensive back class has some intriguing prospects, one of them being former college basketball player Quinten Rollins (Miami, OH) who has only played one season of college football. In his lone season of football he recorded 9 pass breakups and 7 interceptions. A number of NFL teams are wondering if he has just scratched the surface of his potential or if he is just a one-year wonder who will likely bust in the NFL.
With the NFL becoming more and more a passing league, NFL teams played their nickel defense (an extra defensive back) over 60% of the snaps last season. More and more teams will look to find ways to increase their depth at the cornerback position. Don't be surprised to see a number of late round or undrafted cornerback prospects end up making an opening roster in the NFL. The New England Patriots proved with the addition of Super Bowl hero, Malcolm Butler, that even if you go undrafted you can still make an immediate and major impact in the NFL.
For the defensive backs, I have created an impact plays formula that takes into consideration INT, PB, FF, TFL, sacks, times targeted, yards given up and the opponent's success rate. This is always one of the more difficult positions to quantify based on the fact that if a player is a shutdown corner, his opponent will more than likely avoid him. Below are the top five cornerbacks in this year's draft class.
1) Ifo Ekpre-Olomu (Oregon): One of the top NFL cornerback prospects coming into the season at 5'9” and 192 pounds, Ekpre-Olomu was one of the best man-to-man cover corners in college football. He followed opponent's top wide receiver across the field. He is at his best when he is able to press at the line of scrimmage, flip his hips and run with his man stride-for-stride down the field. Ekpre-Olomu is very physical at the line of scrimmage and routinely pushed the wide receiver to the outside and was able to press him towards the sidelines.
The major concern for NFL teams is not whether Ekpre-Olomu is talented enough to play in the NFL, it is if he is healthy enough to play this upcoming season in the NFL. Ekpre-Olomu sustained a torn ACL injury in December, the timeline on these returns is roughly nine months, and this puts him back into action right at the start of the season.
With 40 straight starts before his injury, Ekpre-Olomu had no red flags or concerns on his ability to withstand the rigors of the NFL. With 52 career games played, he recorded 204 tackles, 6.5 TFL, 39 PB, 9 INT, and 8 forced fumbles. He amassed 99.5 impact plays, an average of 1.91 impact plays per game.
He shows quick reaction time and anticipation, though he could be baited with a play action or pump-and- go by the quarterback. In some cases he looks to make the big play as opposed to the right play. More than anything else he is a playmaker on defense, evident by the total number of turnovers (17) caused during his career.
Due to his smaller stature, Ekpre-Olomu might be best suited to play the nickel corner back position in his first year in the NFL. Over time, he should be able to slide to the outside and become a legitimate number one corner in the NFL. He is similar in both scouting and statistical comparisons to Brandon Boykin.
2) Steven Nelson (Oregon State): It is almost a rare occurrence to find a corner in college football who can play press man coverage and play it well; Steven Nelson can do both. The physical, outside cornerback for Oregon State made an impact in his two years playing for the Beavers.
At 5'10” and 197 pounds, Nelson is pure muscle and doesn't back down from jamming his opponent at the line of scrimmage. He uses his hands and has great technique at locking his opponent at the line, is able to quickly turn his hips and run with his man down the field.
Nelson quickly shut down opponent's top offensive weapons and opposing quarterbacks did not even look to throw to his side of the field. Against USC in 2014, Nelson was matched against top wideout Nelson Agholor. Agholor finished the game with just three receptions for 27 yards. Two of the receptions allowed were screen passes where Nelson was able to fight through a blocker and make a tackle for a two yard loss on one of the screen passes.
It is rumored that he was able to consistently give former teammate and 2014 NFL Draft first round pick, Brandin Cooks, fits in practice during the 2013 season.
In 25 career games, Nelson had 103.5 tackles, 2 TFL, 16 PB, and 8 interceptions. He had a total of 45 impact plays, an average of 1.8 impact plays per game.
A hard hitting tackler, Nelson shows a willingness to put his head down and get involved in the action. He is able to break down the ball carrier and follows through with excellent technique at wrapping up. He had zero missed tackles on the year according to Pro Football Focus.
A talented athlete and a fundamentally sound cornerback who has attracted a lot of attention from NFL personnel, Nelson looks to be a late second or early third round selection in the upcoming NFL Draft.
3) Eric Rowe (Utah): Blessed with the length and frame that so many NFL teams are coveting these days, Rowe is a converted free saftey who shows exceptional coverage and ball skills. He does a good job at using his size to disrupt wide receivers at the line of scrimmage by jamming them with his long arms.
A three-year starter at the free saftey position, he moved to cornerback with the loss of two starters for Utah. A remarkable athlete, Rowe was one of the top performers at the NFL Combine this year, posting in the top percentile in speed and agility drills.
At 6'1” and 205 pounds, Rowe represents the new breed of defensive backs ushered in by the likes of Richard Sherman and Byron Maxwell. Rowe does a good job at locating the ball and tracking it while it's in the air. For a young player he does a good job at not always playing the ball but waiting for it to come into his opponents arms and then knocking it loose.
In terms of run support, Rowe does an excellent job of bringing a physical presence to the outside, he isn't afraid to take on blockers.
Aggressive at wrapping up the ball carrier, he won't lose containment and minimizes runs to the outside.
Opponents tended to throw away from Rowe this past season minimizing his opportunities for interceptions. He had one of the lowest burn rates in college football allowing a reception on less than 40% of his intended targets.
In 47 career games he recorded 209 tackles, 7 TFL, 1.5 sacks, 33 PB, 2 INT, and 1 blocked kick. He finished with 50.5 impact plays, an average of 1.07 impact plays per game.
While Rowe does a good job at matching up against bigger, more physical wide receivers, he had trouble containing and stopping smaller, quicker wideouts. He will have a hard time if he is asked to slide inside and cover the slot wide receiver in the NFL. He will need to work on getting in and out of his breaks, while minimizing the contact with his opponent. Being a physical cornerback can have its benefits but Rowe will need to learn when he can grab and when he needs to let a receiver go when he runs down the field. These are all things most corners must learn when making the jump to the NFL.
The versatility to play corner or saftey gives Rowe a lot more value to NFL teams. In addition, he offers an extra piece and a possible playmaker on special teams as a gunner. Rowe might not be ready to start day one, but with development and in the right system he can be a quality number two defensive back in the NFL.
4) Marcus Peters (Washington): If you were to solely judge Peters based off of his on-field production then there is little doubt that he is a certifiable first round type of prospect. Unfortunately for Peters, his action both on and off the field have given enough evidence for teams to be wary of his behavior and actions. Peters brings a tough, physical nature to his style of play and he is not one to back down from an opponent or challenge. In some cases this mentality has made him susceptible to losing his temper and being flagged for unnecessary unsportsmanlike penalties.
At 6'0” and 197 pounds with long arms, he has the natural athletic ability and athleticisms to go up against all types of wideouts. From the bigger, strong bodies such as Jalen Strong to the quicker, smaller wide receivers, neither group gave Peters much difficulty the past couple of seasons. For the most part he was able to shut down opponent's passing attack with little problem.
The aggressive nature Peters takes on the football is shown in his tackling prowess; he is a willing participant who looks to make the big hit on plays to his side of the field. His tendency to look for the big hit caused Peters to have eight missed tackles on the season.
He will drop his head and not focus on who he is tackling, in some cases just throwing his shoulder and hoping to hit his opponent.
He will need to re-learn how to wrap up the ball carrier and minimize his yards after contact.
With natural ball skills, he does a good job at high pointing the ball and will win the 50-50 contested balls. In 34 career games played he recorded 112 tackles, 9.5 TFL, 1 sack, 24 PB, 11 INT, 1 FF, and 1 blocked kick. He finished with 73.5 impact plays, an average of 2.16 impact plays per game, the second highest average in this draft class amongst all defensive backs.
The off-field behavior causing him to get suspended on multiple occasions by three different head coaches, unnecessary fighting and unsportsmanlike penalties in games and off-field troubles are of grave concern. A fiery competitor who harms his team is a player that few teams and coaches will deal with for very long in the NFL. Peters will have his opportunity to prove that he has matured and is a better person. If that is the case then whomever selects him will have a talented, shutdown corner.
Look for Peters to be a mid to late first round draft selection. It might take him some time, due to missing the last half of the season in 2014, to get back into game shape. He will have a short rope and a lot of eyes will be watching him both on and off the field.
5) Trae Waynes (Michigan State): In some cases, the lack of statistics is indicative of how much an opponent respects you. Trae Waynes, a former cornerback for the Michigan State Spartans, quickly made a name for himself for his ability to shut down opponent's top wide receivers. Playing in a defense that put him out on an island, he was able to showcase impressive one-on-one cover skills and the ability to press his man at the line of scrimmage.
At 6'0” and only 186 pounds, Waynes is built like a fireman's pole, but don't let his lack of bulk fool you. He is more than willing to sacrifice his body and mix it up in piles and he doesn't shy away from contact. He is at his best when he can press his man on the outside, run stride-for-stride and does a fantastic job of locating the ball in the air.
In the Michigan State scheme, Wayne and the rest of the defensive backs are left to play a lot of man-to-man coverage with no saftey help over the top. They have a tremendous amount of responsibility that few college programs place on their cornerbacks.
In 36 career games Waynes finished with 86 tackles, 4 TFL, 1.5 sacks, 13 PB, and 6 interceptions. He had a total of 36.5 impact plays, an average of 1.01 impact plays per game.
Waynes will need to add some size and bulk to his frame. With the rigors of a full 16 game season and going against bigger, stronger wideouts on the outside, he will need to get stronger. With an additional 5-10 pounds of muscle this will help Waynes when he goes up against the bigger, more physical wideouts in the NFL such as Calvin Johnson and Dez Bryant.
In terms of both his size and style of play, Waynes reminds me of last year's first round selection for the San Diego Chargers, Jason Verrett. Few players come into the NFL with the experience and ability to play both man-to-man and press corner. Waynes has that ability and experience. Look for Waynes to be one of the first corners off the board in this upcoming NFL Draft.
Best of the Rest
6) Kevin Johnson (Wake Forest): Career impact plays: 73.5: Impact plays per game average: 1.56
7) Quinten Rollins (Miami, OH): Career impact plays: 40: Impact plays per game average: 3.33
8) Donald Celiscar (Western Michigan): Career impact plays: 96.5: Impact plays per game average: 2.01
9) Troy Hill (Oregon): Career impact plays: 59.5: Impact plays per game average: 1.24
10) Jalen Collins (LSU): Career impact plays: 30: Impact plays per game average: .73
11) Quandre Diggs (Texas): Career impact plays: 100.5: Impact plays per game average: 1.93
12) P.J. Williams (FSU): Career impact plays: 46: Impact plays per game average: 1.21
13): JaCorey Shepherd (Kansas): Career impact plays: 55: Impact plays per game average: 1.72
14) Byron Jones (Connecticut): Career impact plays: 48.5: Impact plays per game average: 1.13
15) Damian Swann (Georgia): Career impact plays: 77: Impact plays per game average: 1.54
16) Lorenzo Doss (Tulane): Career impact plays: 78.5: Impact plays per game average: 2.12
17) Ronald Darby (FSU): Career impact plays: 29: Impact plays per game average: .69
18) Doran Grant (Ohio State): Career impact plays: 57: Impact plays per game average: 1.06
19) Josh Shaw (USC): Career impact plays: 43.5: Impact plays per game average: 1.09
20) Charles Gaines (Louisville): Career impact plays: 46: Impact plays per game average: 1.77
21) Senquez Golson (Mississippi): Career impact plays: 72.5: Impact plays per game average: 1.48
22) D'Joun Smith (FAU): Career impact plays: 75: Impact plays per game average: 1.63
23) Kevin White (TCU): Career impact plays: 52.5: Impact plays per game average: 1.05
24) De'Ante Saunders (Tennessee State): Career impact plays: 75.5: Impact plays per game average: 2.1
25) Bryce Callahan (Rice): Career impact plays: 90: Impact plays per game average: 1.91
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