Defensive backs become more important every year because of the proliferation of the passing game. In 2008, 32 teams passed 16,350 times and ran 14,207 times. In 2009, they passed 17,033 times and ran 14,088 times (56.5 percent). In 1997 there were no 4,000-yard passers. In 2008, there were six. In 2009, 10 quarterbacks passed for over 4,000 yards.
The feeling around the NFL is that you can never have too many good cornerbacks. The key trait for this position is speed — speed to break on the ball and the speed to turn and run with a wide receiver. Height is also important due to the size of wide receivers.
Because of the empty backfield, one running back and multi-receiver sets, teams feel it’s important to have three cornerbacks on the field a high percentage of the time in order to match up against all the fast wide receivers in coverage. Sometimes teams will have a third (slot) corner on the field as much as 75 percent of the time. The league average is about 64 percent.
The highest a cornerback has been drafted is third, when Seattle took Shawn Springs in the 1997 draft.
Pittsburgh steelers defensive coordinator and football Hall of Famer Dick LeBeau holds the NFL record for most consecutive starts at cornerback (171). He played 14 seasons and started 185 games.
Here are my top five junior and senior prospects that scouts will be keeping a close eye on this winter/fall.
5. Ras -I Dowling, Virginia, 6ft,2″, 200 lbs, Senior.
Dowling played as a true freshman but attended Hargrove Military Academy after high school, therefore he was an older true freshman than normal. He has very good athletic ability and speed, along with outstanding ball skills. He has eight interceptions in three years of college. During his junior campaign, Dowling tallied 58 tackles, 2.5 tackles-for-loss, 3.0 sacks and three interceptions. His 2008 season earned him a few accolades, like second-team All-ACC honors and his 2009 campaign earned him plenty more conference accolades. The 2010 campaign has not gone well for Dowling. He has struggled with a nagging knee injury and has missed most of the season. Dowling’s size is what makes him such an attractive cornerback. At 6-2 and 200 pounds, Dowling has more size than most corners, but he does not lack the coverage skills or the speed to keep up with most NFL receivers. His size could also mean Dowling could play some safety and that versatility, not to mention his great cover skills, make him a very attractive prospect. Dowling’s lack of playing time during his senior season has hurt his stock, but Dowling could have been a borderline first round pick last year. He needs to prove that his knee injury is healed sooner or later, but NFL scouts can look at his junior season and know that they have a quality player who is worthy of a late first round selection.
4. Brandon Harris, Miami (the U), 5ft 11″, 195 lbs, Junior.
As a freshman at Miami, Brandon Harris was thrown into the fire. He was often beat for big plays, but Harris showed his attitude and stuck with it game after game. While that would crush the confidence of many players, for Harris it was a learning experience. He has gotten better and it did not take long. Just a year later he led the ACC in passes defended per contest and tied for second nationally with 15 pass break-ups. His junior campaign in 2010 has been equally successful. Harris has the right attitude, but he has the skills to play at the next level too. He has a quick first step and amazing overall speed. Very few players at any level will blow by him. For a player who relies on speed, Harris is surprisingly tough and the opposition cannot pick on him anymore or Harris will make them pay. Miami got torched by Ohio State and Florida State early in the 2010 season and Harris has some work to do before he will be considered a consensus first round pick. He definitely has the skills to be considered a first round pick by the end of his junior season and I believe in him a great deal.
3. Jimmy Smith, Colorado, 6ft 2″, 205 lbs, Senior.
Rather quietly Jimmy Smith has turned into one of the best cornerbacks in the Big 12…and it is never easy to be a corner in that conference. Smith saw most of his action as redshirt freshman on special teams where his pure speed helped him make a big impact. By the end of his sophomore campaign, Smith was starting at corner and he has been there ever since. Smith was not too consistent as a sophomore, but he was making some big plays in big games. By the time he was an upperclassman, Smith did emerge as the consistent cornerback Colorado was looking for. He tallied 70 tackles and was named to the All-Big 12 second-team by the Associated Press. Heading into 2010 Smith picked up where he left off and is on the watch list for the Jim Thorpe Award (given to the nation’s top defensive back). Once again Smith is not putting up eye popping numbers, but most of the competition tries to stay away from him. Since he has his wide receiver blanketed most of the time anyway, it becomes very tough to throw to his side of the field. Smith’s speed is going to impress a lot of people at the NFL Combine. This is a player who can run a 4.4 40 on a good day. That is great speed for anybody, but having a corner who is 6-2 that can run that fast is special. That may push Smith into the top 25 of the draft. He has four brothers that have also played college football.
2. Prince Amukamara, Nebraska, 6ft 1″, 200 lbs, Senior.
Quarterback Taylor Martinez provides all the flash for Nebraska, but it is their defense that wins games. And nobody plays a more vital role than cornerback Prince Amukamara. However, that has not always been the case. Amukamara barely saw the field during his freshman campaign in 2007. In 2008 he made three starts against non-conference opponents and played a relatively small role off the bench for the rest of the season. Once he was given a full-time starting job as an upperclassman, Amukamara made a big name for himself, totaling 64 tackles and five interceptions. By the end of the year the opposing offense rarely threw his way. For his efforts he was named to a variety of all-conference and all-American teams. Amukamara is not putting up great numbers so far in 2010, but his presence alone has made this a great defense. The opposition cannot afford to throw anywhere near the 6-1 corner. In part, that has led to 11 interceptions for his teammates, but none for Amukamara. He does lead the team with seven pass break-ups, but do not expect Amukamara to put up great numbers again this season…the Big 12 knows better. No matter what the numbers are, Amukamara is an elite cornerback coming into the draft this season and should not last long on draft day. He could easily be a top ten selection in April barring a major injury or some very disappointing workouts leading up to the draft. He was a great high school athlete in Arizona and was a starting point guard on a state championship team. He was an Arizona player of the year in high school as a running back, rushing for 366 yards and four touchdowns in a playoff game. He was also the state high school track champion in the 100 and 200 meters. Just an amazing athlete.
1. Patrick Peterson, LSU, 6ft 1″, 222 lbs, Junior.
222 lbs is not a miss print. Peterson is the best cornerback prospect for the 2011 NFL Draft. The LSU Tiger is just a junior, but he will almost certainly leave early. And why not? The guy can do it all. Peterson is the best shutdown corner in college football and he has been clocked as fast as 4.30 in the 40-yard dash. He is averaging 27.5 yards per kick return this season and 19.7 yards per punt return, while returning two punts for touchdowns. Opposing quarterbacks have been avoiding him like the plague, so his defensive numbers don’t exactly stand out. Still, Peterson has two interceptions and he has returned those for a combined 46 yards. His combination of size and speed really is incredible. Peterson can be physical at the line of scrimmage while also matching opponents’ best receivers stride for stride. He did not have a ton of experience heading into this season, but eight straight starts give him 25 for his career. As such, he will head into the NFL with basically no question marks. Peterson will be the first cornerback off the board and that should come within the first five picks of the draft.
Thanks for reading.
Tredegar, Wales, United Kingdom.