Switching back to the defensive side of the ball, after breaking down the draft’s best receivers earlier this week, we are now looking at the guys covering them. So this group includes outside and slot cornerbacks, where the boards among NFL teams can vary a lot depending on the defensive scheme they run and what they ask their CBs to do.
As always, I will break down my top ten overall prospects, regardless of scheme fit, and I have three more guys in the “just missed the cut” paragraphs”. Just like the receivers, there’s five names worthy of going in the first round in my opinion and there’s several potential diamonds in the rough, with a large amount of small school prospects with intriguing qualities.
Here’s what I ended up with:
1. Derek Stingley Jr., LSU
6’1”, 195 pounds; JR
A local kid from Baton Rouge, this former Louisiana Gatorade Football Player of the Year was the number three overall recruit back in 2019 for his hometown LSU Tigers. Stingley came out as a freshman and was the best corner in all the SEC – if not the country – even though that conference is always stacked with talent at the position. He intercepted six passes and deflected another 15 that year, which made him a consensus All-American and he played a pivotal role en route to a national championship. He missed some time early on in 2020 and injuries followed him throughout the season, but Stingley still was named a second-team All-SEC contributor. Then this past season a Lisfranc injury forced him shut it down three games in, with zero passes defensed, even though he did record a career-high 3.5 tackles for loss.
Stingley is close to a perfect cornerback prospect when you look at the measurements and the athletic skill-set, already putting up numbers that would be elite for the combine at Nike’s 2018 Opening in Dallas. He played a ton of soft press for the Tigers, where he showed good patience off the line, not prematurely committing his hips. He’s got the feet of a boxer and the loose lower body to incorporate any type of jams without allowing receivers to get to the edges of his frame. Stingley is physical with not giving up free release on in-breaking routes, but his ability to turn, run and find the ball in the air, whilst engaged with a receiver is just breath-taking. Unless your guy has actual track speed, Stingley will effortlessly carry him down the sideline on fade routes, if he even wants to settle for trail position, as guys run themselves into the sideline almost. Stingley is so damn good that he can get away with turning the wrong way, but then pivot back around and recover, to re-enter the picture in phenomenal fashion. He’s one of those guys who is so confident in his game, that he is routinely peaking at the quarterback without losing his man.
Not only does Stingley have all the tools to absolutely blanket guys across the field, but he has that unreal ability to turn his head, along with the hand-eye coordination to deal with passes that get there a split-second later. When quarterbacks put air underneath the throw and it turns into a jump-ball, he displays the elite ball-skills and leaping ability, to actually come down with it himself. Stingley wasn’t put in a lot of off-zone coverage during his time at LSU, but he already showed some pretty advanced understanding for splits of receivers and which routes to expect. He had two phenomenal interceptions against Georgia in the SEC title game, once finding it at the last second on a go route and then undercutting a speed out from George Pickens, after motioning into a stack. Stingley has a quick trigger against screens and short outs. And his 3.5 tackles for loss last season were a product of how aggressively he raced down once the ball got out to the flats. Stingley was blitzed off the edge when the opposing offense was on the hashes a few times and displayed impressive acceleration, to gain ground on guys, who actually ran away from him.
You go back to some of the practice footage as a freshman, Stingley locked up Ja’Marr Chase and Justin Jefferson routinely, before they both had All-American seasons and then became NFL superstars. Against Auburn’s Seth Williams in particular I thought he really frustrated the big receiver, who outside of one ridiculous sideline catch for 35 yards off a scramble heave, caught just one of the other six targets and Stingley had an amazing toe-tap interception on a jump ball himself. As much as there was made about Stingley’s game falling off, he only surrendered 158 yards (and one touchdowns) in seven games of 2020 and last year trying to play through the Lisfranc didn’t help anybody, even though that long run-after-catch play by UCLA’s Kyle Philips, where his alignment put him in an unfavorable position and then he slipped off the tackle at the sideline was basically all he gave up in limited action (two more receptions for two yards).
The hesitation with labelling Stingley as a true blue-chip prospect are obvious. It’s been a while since he was a truly dominant player and we’ve seen Lisfranc injuries linger around, particularly for guys on the perimeter. On the field, we did see more advanced route-runners give Stingley a little bit of trouble by the way they set up routes, getting him to lean one direction or working in hesitation releases, such as slants after a double-up jab to the outside. Former Florida Gator and now L.A. Ram Van Jefferson hauled in all four of his targets for 51 total yards and a touchdown in their 2019 matchup. And obviously DeVonta Smith cooked him on multiple occasions that year, as the only receiver to record for than that against him, as the former Heisman trophy winner and now Philadelphia receiving record-holder went off for over 200 (although Stingley got caught looking over towards the sideline for some reason on a 65-yard TD). That ability to trigger certain reactions off the line and turn late on back-shoulder fades were the two things opposing receivers were able to defeat him on. While those are technique-based, Stingley’s lack of willingness to come off his island, contribute in run-support and tackle guys in space is the one area of his game that isn’t joyful to watch, as he missed 17.6 percent of his career attempts.
If I purely graded Stingley based on his 2019 season – in which was a TRUE FRESHMAN – he would be the top cornerback I’ve evaluated since Jalen Ramsey. I mean you put on the tape and it’s like he and the guy he’s responsible for aren’t even part of the play for the most part. Unfortunately, he didn’t quite look as good the season after and wasn’t very invested in the Tigers’ struggling program last year, while we don’t know for sure how long that foot may bother him. With that being said, as an organization I will let my medical staff evaluate that and if they give me the green light, I have no issues with making this guy a top-five pick. Personally, I just wouldn’t be able to forgive myself for missing out on a generational talent like him. The combination of light feet, oily hips, length, strength, explosiveness, long speed and ball-skills are just unmatched.
2. Ahmad Gardner, Cincinnati
6’3”, 190 pounds; JR
A consensus three-star recruit in 2019, Gardner hit the field running, as he recorded three interceptions and six PBUs in each of his first two seasons with the Bearcats, scoring off two of his picks in 2019. In 2021 he started to receive some of the national attention he deserved, making the first-team All-American team, picking off three more passes, deflecting another four and recording three sacks, while rarely being targeted. He helped Cincinnati become the first Non-Power Five team to make the CFP and with questions about all the other top corners, he has risen to the top of most draft boards, that you will find.
“Sauce” lined up almost exclusively in press-coverage (FBS-high 397 snaps last season) and has been a lockdown guy as Cincy’s boundary corner. He shows good patience off the line and excels with his catch technique, fluidly transitioning hands that attach to the pads of receivers and smoothly flipping his hips around along with it. He’s light on his feet and has that short-area burst to get into perfect position as the receiver commits to his route stem. His success rate with landing one- and two-handed jams into the frame of his man with those 33 ½-inch arms is excellent, to where he would end some routes by AAC receivers before they could even really start. While he was shaded to the outside a lot, Gardner does not surrender easy access to the middle of the field, staying engaged throughout inside stems. He has the speed to carry vertically and squeeze guys into the sideline, as well as the feel to bubble or slip underneath, to stick with crossing routes when manned up, along with the make-up burst to get back into the picture and crowd the catch point once he sees the receiver turn his head for the ball, if the corner does get beat off the line initially. Gardner was matched up with tight-ends a few times as well in unbalanced sets.
While he was so heavily utilized in man-coverage, the times Cincinnati bailed out into cover-two, Gardner showed an ability to layer in-between routes and get a hand on throws over his head. That was part in him getting three picks last season, while only allowing half of 20 targets his way to be completed for 131 yards. He displays that ability to bail sideways in cover-three and peak at the back working into the flats, ready to fly upfield if the ball goes underneath him, as well as peel off his man as teams try to hit scissors concepts or a deep crosser coming his way. Sauce is willing and urgent to shut those quick throws down. You see the same in run-support if he doesn’t have to stay with somebody trying to run him off, and even then he’s using his hands to get off blocks and contribute. When he can track the ball, he plays with extension through blocks, at times even tight-ends.
Gardner’s long arms are a major asset when face-guarding receivers and trying to swipe through the hands of the man once the ball gets there. Even when smaller, shifty receivers do find a way to create an opening for the ball, the all-world corner can reach in at the last season and break up the pass. He plays the back-shoulder ball patiently and confidently, not really allowing tall wideouts to outmuscle him. Sauce only allowed 40 catches on 98 targets for 581 yards through his first two years. Yet, last year he absolutely blanketed guys, not surrendering more than 13 yards through the air in any single game. He also came up big against East Carolina, as he broke up a pass into the end-zone and then took a blocked FG back to the house on consecutive plays, to secure the win.
With that being said, Gardner is pretty high-cut and might not quite be able to stick with super-quick NFL route-runners necessarily. You saw him look a bit uncomfortable and try to get a hold of Memphis’ Calvin Austin a few times in their 2020 matchup. At times he will overextend in press and compromise his position because of it, plus he’ll get a little grabby at the top of routes, when he has his back to the ball. NFL referees won’t let that fly, while obviously getting challenged by more explosive threats on the outside, who he won’t be able to bully in that same manner. And when he sees it and tries to play it, Gardner tends to go for the pick rather than knock it out of the receiver’s hands, which ended up with him not doing either a few times prior to this past season. At this point, he is more so a dive-tackler missed six of 45 attempts last season.
If you’re looking for a press-man shutdown type of corner, nobody has been better at it over the last two years and this past one particularly than Sauce. I have a little bit of a concern about him going up against really shifty, smaller receivers, but he just had an excellent combine performance, measuring in taller than expected at 6’3”, running a 4.41 in the 40, being so fluid in his transitions despite that lanky build and catching the ball well. He will have to get better at staying on his feet as a tackler and there will probably be some growing pains with learning how much less contact the NFL allows, but he’s an amazing single-high, boundary corner.
3. Andrew Booth, Clemson
6’0”, 195 pounds; JR
The number two cornerback of the 2019 class, behind only LSU superstar Derek Stingley Jr., Booth barely saw the field his first year on campus and it took until almost halftime of the CFP semifinal against Ohio State of his sophomore year to become a full-time starter for the Tigers. Yet, he still had a very productive 2020 season, picking off two passes, breaking up another four, recording three tackles for loss and a scoop-and-score. This past season he repeated his three TFLs, along with three passes intercepted and five more broken up, earning first-team All-ACC accolades.
Booth can legitimately be in a quarters/bail turn, going sideways, and keep up with receivers streaking full speed down the sideline up to a certain depth. At times he will launch himself straight back almost off both legs to gain depth in zone patterns. And he can get out of those half-turns in a hurry, to shoot upfield and chop down guys on screens or flat routes. This is an ultra-confident athlete with the way he can sit on some routes and then explode as he sees the break from off-alignment. Booth displays good peripheral vision out in the flats, to see and layer between two routes, yet when he’s asked to bail, he has the speed to attach to receivers bending down the post and not allow guys to get a step on him. Booth shifts inside and is looking for crossers when he becomes the hang defender in cover-three. He shows some good football IQ overall, like on a third-down play against Georgia in 2021, where his receiver worked back down to help his quarterback, but Booth let him catch the ball falling out of bounds, while he defended the sticks.
I don’t believe anybody in this class quite matches the feet of Booth. When he’s in press-alignment, he can seemingly mirror any footwork of receivers with no issues and then has the speed to carry guys down the sideline. With how rapidly those cleats hit the turf, he’s not put off balance by receivers adding a little extra at the top of the route and delaying the break. Booth has the snappy hips to get back into phase after receivers try to widen him initially and then gain the inside position as they straighten up, or getting back into position against deeper in-breaking routes after turning out to the sideline. He displays impressive make-up speed overall when he gives up inside access on a post route and gets back underneath those a few times. When the ball is put up for grabs and the receiver it looking back for it along the sideline, Booth can push himself into the man and establish position to make a play on it himself. Back-shoulder balls are truly 50-50 opportunities with him, if not slanted further his way. Last season he surrendered 29 completions on 47 targets his way for 326 yards and two touchdowns, compared to three interceptions (passer rating of 70.0). And man, is this guy chippy, constantly delivering shoves at the end of plays.
This kid also shows some awesome competitiveness with he flies up and destroys screen passes. He’s a more than willing in run-support, looking to discard blockers by tossing them to the side and he doesn’t shy away from getting into traffic with bigger bodies around him. You see him shoot past tight-ends and take the legs from underneath receivers just as they catch the ball behind the line of scrimmage on several occasions. When Booth was playing more in the slot, his ability to jump inside of blocks and get involved against the run was really fun to watch. He had an excellent showing against Georgia in ’21, where his physicality and willingness to tackle really stood out to me.
My main question about Booth coming into 2021 was just wanting to see a larger sample size, but with it came some concerns in terms of the lack of growth to some degree. His athleticism really helped him out at times with taking false steps and leaning the wrong way. You see him overrun the break point and take himself out of the window a little bit. Booth only spent 65 snaps in man-coverage all of last season, which you wouldn’t expect for a talent like that, knowing how much the Tiger coaches were willing to leave guys on an island in prior years, and there were a couple of bad reps for him. You love the aggressiveness against runs and screens, but 11 missed tackles (on 42 opportunities) last season is unacceptable. He needs to learn to break down in space and stay on his feet in that regard, because he was absolutely reckless this past year.
This young man the supreme athletic profile to become a scheme-agnostic corner, who can excel in any defense in the league. He doesn’t have the experience of a Sauce Gardner or full season of dominant play like him or Derek Stingley Jr., but his feet and sudden explosiveness are as good as anyone’s in this class. Unfortunately, he didn’t show enough growth for me last season and his tackling form is hard to watch at times, but he doesn’t lack any want or physicality to be a great all-around player. He may not be a plug-and-play impact starter, but the reward down the road could be incredible.
4. Trent McDuffie, Washington
5’11”, 195 pounds; RS SO
A four-star recruit in 2019, McDuffie immediately became an impact player for the Huskies, recording 46 solo tackles, three combined fumbles forced and recovered respectively and an interception in each of the first two seasons (16 combined games), being named a second-team All-Pac-12 selection in the COVID-shortened 2020 campaign. This past year, he didn’t pick off any passes, but broke up six and was recognized for his excellent play in coverage, along with four tackles for loss, as he improved to first-team all-conference.
McDuffie moves so smoothly in lateral shuffles/bail position in cover-three at the pace of the receiver, to stay over the top of vertical stems. He actively widens his movement, to play with vision on the quarterback through the route, yet he’s light-footed enough to stay in position when the guy he’s capped over snaps off curls and stuff like that. Washington showed man pre-snap a lot of times and McDuffie really exploded from that position with parallel feet to gain depth as they bailed into two-high shells. He quickly realizes when he becomes the hang defender and has to fall off for a deep crosser, or get underneath a corner route by the slot, as the wideout quickly breaks inside. When quarterbacks get into scramble mode and McDuffie has nobody around him, he tracks the eyes of the passer and floats underneath receivers working across the field. He showcased the ability to high-point the ball on multiple occasions, with some real hops, to not be taken advantage on 50-50 throws. He came up with a great game-sealing pick at full extension in the 2020 Utah game.
Lining up in soft press-man, McDuffie displays very patient feet and attaches to the hip-pocket or receivers releasing down the sideline, while quickly recognizing a change in stride length/frequency. Plus, then he has the light feet to stop his momentum simultaneously, to mirror that movement. Yet he also shows some physicality when receivers try to release against his leverage, denying easy access to the inside. In off-man, his transitions are smooth like butter and he has the quick acceleration to contest anything on the horizontal plane. McDuffie recognizes when offenses try to set up RAC opportunities for his guy on like drag screens and won’t get caught in traffic. Last season, he was charged with just 16 completions for 111 yards on 36 targets (44.4% completion percentage), with no TDs or picks.
As excellent as he’s been in coverage, McDuffie is also so quick with coming downhill as the ball is completed or screens are thrown underneath, while effectively swiping down the reach of receivers try to get by them cleanly. He has better thickness than you see from most corners and doesn’t shy away from throwing his shoulder into or better yet dip underneath a pulling lineman out to the edge. I’ve actually seen him split two guys out in front on sweep plays. This guy won’t stop going after the ball is constantly looking to get involved on tackles. He religiously maintains his contain responsibilities and only shoots inside once the ball-carrier clears the blocker he’s engaged with. And he’s arguably the top tackling corner in the class, with just four missed (on 32 attempts) this past season, showing the tenacity to bring down bigger backs right where they meet. McDuffie displays good snap anticipation to shift inside late and blitz off the edge, making some stops at or behind the line of scrimmage in the run game, and his pursuit in that regard is outstanding.
However, McDuffie does have very limited ball-production to his name, with only 11 passes defensed on 100 career targets. He wasn’t put in a ton of tough situations by Washington’s defensive scheme, with a heavy dose of off-zone and very limited experience of actually disrupting receiving off the line from press alignment. He also almost purely lined up on the left outside of the formation. And as good as McDuffie has been in zone coverage – and this may have more to do with the teaching points by the Husky coaches – I’d like to see him squeeze routes more, rather than just dropping to spots. Coming in short of the six-foot and 200-pound marks, McDuffie is on the fringe of meeting thresholds some teams set for boundary corners, particularly with his arms measuring in just short of 30 inches. However, according to PFF, he’s only spent 38 career snaps in the slot. And I wouldn’t say that he has top-tier long speed.
McDuffie presents one of the cleanest evaluations in this draft, regardless of position. In terms of his football IQ, play-recognition, short-area quickness, willingness and form as a tackler, I don’t really have any questions. Now, he lacks prototype size and wasn’t challenged with a lot of man-coverage duties against top-tier competition in the Pac-12, but as you try to point out of negatives it’s all more about what you didn’t see, rather than anything he actually put on tape. I believe in a zone-oriented defense, like a lot of these modern two-high structures, he could become a Pro Bowler within the first three years of his career.
5. Kaair Elam, Florida
6’2”, 195 pounds; JR
This former top-50 overall recruit from 2019, and nephew of former Ravens first-round pick at safety in Matt Elam, didn’t see the field a lot his freshman season, but still came up with two picks. He did so again as a full-time starter the next year, along with 12 more passes broken up, which earned him second-team All-SEC accolades. While his production went down in 2021 (one INT and five PBUs), due to missing a couple of games late, his highs in coverage were arguably more impressive last year than any other. And he did return for the team’s bowl against UCF, which he absolutely didn’t have to.
Elam presents outstanding size for the position and does not look out of position matching up with tight-ends at all, thanks to his muscular build. He consistently lands his hands inside the frame of receivers and dictates their route stems, while remaining in phase and sustaining contact with his man for the most part, having his hand placed on the near-shoulder. Elam has the strength to deny receivers any angle when playing stack technique, but he’s equally effective in trail, where he stays right in the hip-pocket on outside releases and guides go routes towards where quarterbacks barely have any space to place the ball in bounds. At the combine, he managed to clock in one hundredth of a second below that 4.4-mark despite weighing 195 pounds. So he has that speed to not allow guys to detach on the outside and can play the hips of the opposition, flipping around as he sees those cleats dig into the turf.
In off-alignment, Elam doesn’t typically seem afraid of people running by him. He blasts out of his stance to attack routes in front of him and punches through the arms of the target, showing impressive click-and-close ability for his size. Yet, he also has pretty good quickness to stop as receivers snap off at the top of the route, when he does have to turn and run initially. He swipes through the reach of the target with great effectiveness. Heading into 2021, Elam had forced incompletions on over 20 percent of his 77 career targets and surrendered only a 42.9% completion percentage. This year the Gators’ coaching staff trusted Elam with travelling with the opposing team’s top receiver a lot of times (nearly tripling his snaps in the slot), which is why his numbers in coverage got a touch worse, but he still only allowed just over half of the targets his way to be completed for less than 200 yards and two TDs on 359 coverage, versus his one pick. That included several tremendous reps against Alabama receivers Jameson Williams and John Metchie III.
Elam’s physicality really shows up in contested catch situations, where he won’t allow big receivers to box him out for jump balls. You see him use those long arms to reach in right between the hands of receivers as the ball gets there on multiple occasions, when he has his back turned towards it. And he made a few really nice diving grabs on overthrown passes, which a couple were taken off the board by flags. Elam takes care of his contain responsibilities in the run game and plays with good extension through blocks. He doesn’t mind locking horns with tight-ends when he’s put on the edge of the line with no wide receivers on the boundary. And he has the frame to actually wrestle ball-carriers to the ground, rather than dive at their legs like a lot of other corners. Last season, he only missed three of 30 tackling opportunities. Plus, he looks like he’s shot out of a cannon when he comes on a blitz, not giving the quarterback or protection any tell.
On the flipside, Elam isn’t nearly as effective when he can’t be in contact with his target in off-coverage, where you see some discomfort as he tries to stay with the break point. And as he’s running stride for stride with somebody down the field, Elam tends to try grabbing an arm and slowing the receiver down when it’s not necessary. That’s why he drew seven combined flags for holding and pass interference last season in ten games. Elam’s experience in zone is largely limited to cover-three press-bail, not being asked to read route patterns when not engaged with anybody. According to Pro Football Focus, his grade regressed in each of the last three seasons. I saw him pull up a couple of times as he watched a tight-end rumble down the middle of the field and he might have still been able to knock him to the turf.
Prior to this past season, Elam was looked at as one of the top-tier CB prospects in that non-Derek Stingley Jr. tier. His numbers in coverage looked a little bit worse, but I don’t understand how he’s fallen so far off the radar among the general media. I believe in terms of a press-man/-bail corner on the perimeter, who can really disrupt receivers off the line and has the speed to stick with guys down the field, along with the ability to crowd the catch point, he’s the safest bet not named Sauce Gardner. Elam has amassed over 1000 career coverage snaps in the premiere conference in college football, particularly in terms of receiver talent, and more than held his ground.
6. Roger McCreary, Auburn
5’11”, 185 pounds; SR
Just barely a top-1000 overall recruit in 2018, McCreary didn’t see much of the field as a freshman, but took over as a starter for the Tigers ever since. He filled the stat sheet during junior year, when he intercepted three passes, broke up another six, forced a fumble and recorded seven(!) tackles for loss, but somehow slipped under the radar. This past year he picked off one less pass, but went up to an SEC-best 14 PBUs and was named a first-team All-American.
Despite being smaller than most guys he faced in the SEC, McCreary can really throw off the rhythm for receivers off the line and stay in sticky coverage throughout. You rarely see him overextend or lean the wrong way when stabbing at or jamming receivers, to where he can’t get back in position, and there’s very little wasted motion. He does a nice job of allowing no more than a step of separation on deep crossers and working around traffic efficiently, as he trails his man from outside shades. That showed up on several occasions, where he didn’t allow other receivers to pick him off or he really gets off track when there’s bodies in the way, releasing out of stacks/bunches. And even when quarterbacks get to ball to his man quickly on shallow crossers, due to just having the angle based on alignment, McCreary sets the tackle instantly as the catch is made, to limit any yardage after the catch.
McCreary shows a ton of confidence in his speed, to not end up panicking down the field and feeling comfortable with turning his head, to actively play the ball in the air. He has the ability to close the gap and re-enter the catch window when receivers do find a way to detach, with the way he chooses his path to it. He has seen 183 career targets in the SEC and has been effective at defending those, thanks how to feisty he is at the catch point. You consistently see him rake through the hands of the receivers, trying to get the ball out. Last season he surrendered a completion percentage of 45.3% for just 5.9 yards per target. McCreary broke up or disrupted several passes like that in the 2021 Alabama game, helping Auburn shut out that explosive offense through three-and-a-half quarters. And he didn’t allow Penn State’s speedster Jahan Dotson to get behind him once.
While he was in press-man for the majority of last season, in 2020 he did play some off-zone, such as quarters. On those snaps, he gained depth as receivers stemmed vertically, not blindly jumping on the first key, but then was quick to come upfield and get involved on tackles in the flats. And he was “credited” with a lot more true zone snaps, when Auburn was playing a variation of three-deep with him basically being in man on the backside, as he passed on deep in-breakers or post to the free safety and basically switched assignments, to take away shots over the shot. McCreary is the one looking to engage receivers as the ball goes out to his side on bubble screens or sweep plays, while fighting to shed those – unless there’s a lane to shoot through altogether. He routinely trips up or at least slows down the ball-carrier when he’s approaching a blocker leading the way in space. When working upfield against screens or toss plays as the unblocked force defender, McCreary paces his steps to square up the ball-carrier and then effectively shoots through the outside thigh, to chop down bigger opponents a lot of times.
The thing that puts McCreary outside of top-five is that he only has 29-inch arms and a 70 ½-inch wingspan. Receivers who can stem to the outside and create an angle for themselves to bend towards the middle of the field make it tough for him to reach around. While his measurements would scream nickel, he barely scratches 100 snaps in the slot on over 2000 total throughout these last three years. And he has admitted himself that he basically has no experience in zone coverage, knowing where his eyes are supposed to be, reading patterns and positioning himself to make an impact. You saw it a few times, where his intent was to mid-line a concept to his side and he ended up spinning around as somebody wheeled down the sideline. Running a 4.5 flat at the combine and finishing in the bottom-twelve percentile in both the jumps at his pro day speaks to the lack high-end athletic traits. While I like the way he engages blockers, his lack of length makes it tough to actually shed them and get to the ball, if receivers land their hands inside his chest.
Looking at the numbers, McCreary did miss nine tackles last season, but when you average it out over his 63 attempts, that’s about the same rate as many of the guys who are labelled as reliable in that regard. He does launch into contact with his feet off the ground a lot, but at least makes a real impact at contact. As far as his coverage goes, he is one of the most battle-tested press-man corners in this draft, yet with the lack of length some teams may look at him as a slot option only, because there’s such little tape of him anticipate patterns in off-zone. I believe he’s a very safe bet for a team that wants to play a lot of man and is looking at him as a nickel or a guy, who will trail smaller number two receivers. McCreary played sticky coverage throughout practices and while corners are set up to not look good, I never thought anybody made him look bad, and he was voted American CB of the week.
7. Kyler Gordon, Washington
5’11” ½, 200 pounds; RS SO
A four-star recruit in 2018, Gordon only saw action in one game his first year and decided to take a redshirt. He played in all of the 17 games over the next two seasons (five starts), earning honorable mention All-Pac-12 notice in both of them. This past season he was named first-team all-conference, thanks to his only two career interceptions, to go with seven more passes broken up and a career-high 36 solo tackles.
Gordon has the feet and easy overall movement skills to be all over intricate routes, such as post-curls and rake through the arms of the receiver at the end of them, when he can feel those develop with that hands-on approach. He showcases absurdly oily hips at times when he’s caught leaning the wrong way and gets beat across the face on like V-release slants. Gordon is uber-explosive in short areas. His zero-to-100 speed in nearly impossible situations, where he’s in off-alignment and his man comes underneath a bunch on a crossing route, where he has to cover twice as much ground basically but still somehow get back to the receiver as the ball arrives there, is pretty mind-boggling. And when he’s in trail position down the sidelines, he turns his head as he sees the receiver’s eyes lock on the ball, before extending himself with the inside arm, to knock the pass down, which would otherwise drop perfectly into the bucket. In 2020, Gordon lined up inside a lot more and you saw him actually beat up tight-ends on their routes at times.
Considering how limited his playing experience is, that feel for zone coverage is highly impressive for Gordon. You see him toggle in-between routes as offenses try to stretch him horizontally or vertically as a flat defender, with the sudden burst to contest either one. When bailing in three-deep coverages as he doesn’t have to match the perimeter receiver, Gordon keeps gaining ground as one of the inside receivers keeps pushing down the numbers, yet he doesn’t commit to a full turn unless the ball comes out, where he then has the acceleration to make a play on those shots. At the same time, he rapidly gets out of that bail position into driving forward. Last season he allowed 21 of 41 targets his way to be completed for just 243 yards and no touchdowns, while he picked off two of those himself.
This guy shows real urgency to fly upfield and shut down plays out wide, such as fly sweeps. He slices past his man on the outside routinely, isn’t afraid to stick his face in the fan in run-support and attacks low as a tackler. And he will drive through receivers on stalk blocks if he has to. Gordon led all Pac-12 corners with a PFF grade of 86.2 this past season. They charged him with six missed tackles on the year, but I don’t see any real issues with his approach in that regard and I’m guessing two of those I saw on tape were him squeezing off the edge and just attempting to trip up the ball-carrier, which you don’t even see from many corners. Like he will squeeze in some tight-ends sifting across the formation on split zone runs if he’s on the edge of the line.
Keeping that in mind, there’s certainly room for improvement in Gordon’s route anticipation, where his quicks in short areas bailed him out a few times against non-NFL talents at receiver. He gets caught trying to find the football in the air and overrunning it at times, when he’d be better served to just play the hands of the receiver. His press-technique is still a bit of a work in progress, as he gets his feet stuck in the turf at times, while only having spent 69 snaps in man-coverage last season. And in zone he has improve his understanding for where the help is and how to funnel targets towards his teammates. Being lauded as this freakish athlete, Gordon running a 4.52 in the 40 at the combine didn’t nearly live up to the hype, along with not doing any of the other drills and measuring in half an inch short of six feet.
The UW program has sent a lot of talented defensive backs into the pros in recent years and usually when there’s one guy everybody’s talking about, there’s this second name that some NFL teams are even more intrigued by. Trent McDuffie is obviously a very clean prospect, like I mentioned, and Gordon is still trying to develop in order to become that kind of heady player, but I believe his explosiveness and physicality might actually be a tad better. And unlike McDuffie, he actually has experience playing the slot and even matching up with tight-ends. I believe he can eventually be a quality piece to any defense with that inside-out, man/zone versatility. Apparently he absolutely blew away teams on the whiteboard during combine interviews.
8. Alontae Taylor, Tennessee
6’0”, 195 pounds; SR
A four-star wide receiver recruit in 2018, Taylor immediately was thrown in the fire for the Volunteers on defense and played in 45 career games (including 31 starts). Over the course of his time in Knoxville, he picked off four passes and broke up another 15, along three forced fumbles.
This young man has experience in a multitude of coverage responsibilities, such as press- and off-man, cover-three and quarters. He was clearly one of the leaders and brains of the Volunteer defense, even communicating with defensive tackles a couple of times pre-snap, with his eyes on the ball constantly. I love Taylor’s diversity in press-approaches, being able to play catch-technique as well as dictate route stems and stay attached with receivers throughout plays, where his lanky build with 32-inch arms really helps. He can deliver a mean one-handed stab to completely throw off receivers and he routinely takes away the space between the guy in front of him and the sideline on routes stemmed that way. Taylor also trusts himself athletically, to shuffle along with receivers on outside releases and only actually turn as he sees that guy try to take off, while continuously working the hands to not get stacked. And he has the speed to get beaten cleanly off the line a few times, yet stay stride-for-stride with receivers on go routes, despite having no contact, which was backed up by running a 4.36 in the 40 at the combine. On hard inside stems, he’ll make receivers run their route whilst getting ridden along throughout the route.
Taylor’s four years of starting experience in the SEC shows up even more so in zone-coverage, with the way he positions himself. Even when engaged with receivers – at times actually staying directly in front of them and forcing them to go through him – Taylor’s eyes are on surrounding targets and/or the quarterback. You see it a few times where a receiver is trying to get past him on vertical patterns and he peeks at a deep crosser coming his way, ready to come off. Taylor does an excellent job feathering between routes as teams try to stretch him high-to-low. He has some beautiful reps staying over the top of a hitch on the outside and fall off, to knock the ball away on a seam shot inside of him. He looks quite comfortable staying over the top of post routes in three-deep coverage. Plus, when the ball is out or the quarterback’s hands and going into the flats, he’s quick to accelerate upfield and tries to shut it down.
His branch-like arms give Taylor some extra room for error, to get a hand on the ball from behind as it arrives at the target, even if he isn’t in perfect position. And he does a nice job to fully extend himself and get his paws on the ball as quarterbacks try to drop balls into the bucket of streaking receivers. He had an outstanding pick against Kentucky last season, where he sat on a speed out from the explosive Wan’Dale Robinson in cover-two, jumped it and took it back across half the field for six. Taylor displays great urgency to actively reduce and set the edge, jumping inside the blocker and aiming at the edge of the O-line. The willingness and activity to get off blocks is clearly there, And man, can he get chippy when guys try to grab him later in plays, literally throwing them off himself at times.
However, prior to this past season, Taylor only had 11 passes defensed through 32 games. When he doesn’t actually jam in more of a soft press and can feel the route, he gets caught shifting his weight too far outside against double-ups or shuffle releases, as guys try to set up the inside release. With those long limbs and his high-hipped build, Taylor won’t be as fluid in his transitions as some smaller corners. You see it against guys who actually can threaten him vertically, as they’re able to gain separation when snapping off curls and comebacks. In zone, he will at times float towards no-man’s land because he’s so locked in on the quarterback, rather than toggling back towards the routes run. And Taylor gets over his skies and leaves his feet way too much as a tackler.
Taylor’s competitiveness and smarts for the position are off the charts. I believe he’s a scheme-diverse, physical player, who can be a quality starter in the NFL for years. His lanky build may limit the ability to stay one-on-one with the truly explosive number one receivers at the next level and he will have to clean up his tackling efforts, but with proper coaching I believe he can be a versatile player on the perimeter. Taylor’s mindset will make him a quality special teams contributor, already having experience as a gunner, potentially before he enters the defensive lineup full-time.
9 Cam Taylor-Britt, Nebraska
5’11“, 200 pounds; JR
A top-1000 overall recruit in 2018, after barely seeing the field as a freshman, Taylor-Britt was a very productive player in each of his next two seasons, recording two interceptions and four pass break-ups in each of them, along with seven combined tackles for loss. He finally received recognition in 2021, when he was a first-team All-Big Ten selection, thanks to a career-best 11 PBUs, even though he only had one pick.
Taylor-Britt presents a muscular frame with 32-inch arms. He has one of the fastest back-pedals in this class and can quickly drive out of it as well as fluidly transition, when he has to flip and run. In off-man coverage, he can click and close on an angle in impressive fashion. Taylor-Britt has the short-area burst to quickly cover that distance as guys find separation on inside breaks after widening their stem initially. However, he also seems very comfortable carrying routes vertically with that 4.38 speed and at times you see him bring his head around earlier than the actual receiver, as he’s right there in the hip-pocket. And when he does allow somebody to get behind him on like a double-move, he has elite make-up speed, to get back into the picture somehow. He had an absolutely insane pick in the end-zone against Minnesota last season, where he wasn’t even on the screen on the broadcast view and seemingly came out of nowhere, in order to tip it to himself with one hand.
Covering the flats in two-deep shells, Taylor-Britt makes sure to put hands on receivers coming through his area and passing them off to one of his teammates. In cover-three, he can quickly make up ground on routes down the seams as he falls off the outside receivers. He does a nice jo of leveraging outside against stacks and tight-ends as the only pass-catcher to his side, picking up guys breaking towards the sideline on corner routes. Taylor-Britt attacks the ball at its highest point and doesn’t typically allow receivers to gain that rebound position on him, plus when the opponent does get his hands on it, Taylor-Britt swipes through effectively, to knock it loose. He had three outstanding PBUs against Michigan last season, twice leaping up to deny deep balls (and nearly come up with picks himself) and once wrestling the ball out of someone’s grasp at the back-line of the end-zone.
This kid is so aggressive with shooting downhill and cutting down ball-carriers when he sees the ball come to his side. You actually see him meet running backs in the C-gap and shrug off guys on jet sweep fakes, to get to the ball a couple of times on tape. When he’s left unblocked at the end of the formation, Taylor-Britt will flatten down the line and chase down the ball-carrier, yet he won’t shy away from dropping his shoulder on a tight-end either. Plus, you see him hit another gear as ball-carriers get past him and he tracks them down. His pursuit overall is top-tier. The former Cornhusker has plenty of experience on CAT blitzes, where his speed to run plays down from the backside is excellent- Yet, he can also sort of dip the inside shoulder and get around backs in protection. As reference already, Taylor-Britt had that unreal pick against Minnesota, but earlier he had an almost equally impressive sack, when he snuffed out a reverse flea-flicker pass.
On the negative side, Taylor-Britt commits his hips to vertical stems a little prematurely and makes it tougher for him to redirect that way. At this time, it’s more about seeing routes than anticipating them in off-coverage for him. Taylor-Britt got burnt badly by some double-moves thanks to how aggressively he is with sticking his foot in the ground and driving forward. He has to learn how to affect plays when he’s left unoccupied in zone-coverage. At Nebraska, Taylor-Britt would allow some boundary receivers to release wide against him in cover-two and put the safety in a really spot trying to cover that distance towards the sideline. Someone has to teach the aggressive corner that he can actually bring his arms with him as a tackler and even when he does, he doesn’t actually wrap up any body part of the opponent.
Some people will look at Taylor-Britt as a potential conversion player to safety, because of how much he loves contact and the fact he jumps on the initial clue of routes on too many occasions. He spent some time there during Senior Bowl practices, showing good physicality and ability to rake through the hands of receivers. However, what makes him so special of a prospect for the outside in particular is his incredible make-up speed. He will have to improve that ability to foresee routes and play more disciplined at times, along with staying on his feet as a tackler, but the physical tools are all there to be a high-level man-corner.
10. Marcus Jones, Houston
5’8”, 180 pounds; RS SR
Just outside the top-2000 overall recruits in 2017, Jones’ college journey started at Troy, where he did have some solid production through two years (three INTs, one returned for a TD and seven PBUs), along with a nation-leading three kick return TDs as a true freshman, earning himself first-team All-American honors. In 2019 he decided to transfer to Houston and after sitting out one season, he had a moderate statistic year. However, he finished his college career on a very strong note, picking off five passes, breaking up another 13 and excelling in the return game, with 34.0 yards per kick and 14.4 per punt return, with two TDs each – but this time he made first-team All-American for his contributions on defense.
Jones has quality experience inside and out, lining up in press, matching routes in man, feathering off in zone and playing in various coverages. He displays exceptionally fluid hips and great speed. Rarely do you see him allow receivers to detach vertically, as he maintains contact throughout and it never looks like he’s afraid of getting beat deep. Because he trusts his own speed so much, he can be super-patient at the line and you rarely see any unnecessary steps. At the same time, he can stop on a dime, basically like wide receivers, to blanket them on curls. Jones’ short-area burst to re-enter the catch window and make a play on the ball after allowing the inside access initially really pops off the screen. Plus, even if he can’t quite get there in time, he effectively twists receivers to the ground
Going back to the 2020 Memphis tape, Jones had some very impressive reps against Calvin Austin in their matchup, squeezing the receiver into the sideline and crowding the catch point. He also had an outstanding pick off a scramble drill, when he outmuscled the tight-end in a jump ball situation that day. Jones shows the awareness to fall off in zone coverage and get to the ball thrown over his head. And his football IQ is really on display when he’s on the field side in three-deep coverages and already cheats inside pre-snap to be able to jump on the slot route, as he reads the quarterback’s release. Pro Football Focus credited him with 16 forced incompletions in 2021, which was the third-most among draft-eligible CBs.
While he may not be the biggest guy, Jones doesn’t show it when he attacks downhill against the run or as a blitzer off the edge, where he doesn’t hesitate to go through running backs either. Jones routinely slips underneath receivers trying to shield him on slip/tunnel screens and wraps up the target just as the ball gets there. And he has the natural leverage advantage, as he launches into the lower body of ball-carriers, to stop their momentum. He missed just five tackles last season. I don’t usually talk about this a whole lot, but it has to be mentioned here – this kid is ELECTRIC with the ball in his hands on special teams, with nine career return touchdowns. He’s super elusive, can be deceptive body leans and head nods, cross guys up on the fly and has that speed to defeat pursues angles in that area. Houston even put him in on offense, actually running some routes and showing body control near the sidelines. He caught ten balls for 109 yards and a TD last season.
At 5’8”, Jones is on the very small spectrum for any player and with how much NFL teams put big receivers in the slot, that may not be the solution either. His lack of length (29-inch arms) shows up when receivers catch the ball away from him and he can’t affect the catch point by reaching around. Texas Tech’s Erik Ezukanma bullied him quite a bit in their matchup this past season, when the quarterback just threw it up for grabs. Overall, Jones is a little slow to react to receivers pirouetting around to the back-shoulder and he doesn’t have that length plus to affect the catch point. While I love the smarts to cheat a little bit and be aggressive in zone coverage, schooled quarterbacks will be able to take advantage of it and we could see some double-moves burn him. And he will already turn 24 mid-way through this season.
There are some obvious size limitations for Jones, because I’m convinced if he’s six feet tall, he’s a top-20 pick. There will be guys at the next level, who can box him out and he’ll be targeted on some back-shoulder balls. However, his competitiveness is off the charts and he even had an awesome PBU on a goal-line fade to Cincinnati’s freakish big receiver Alec Pierce last year. In terms of oily hips, start-stop quickness and long speed, I don’t know if anybody quite measures up to Jones – and he’s really smart in zone too. I just couldn’t leave him out of the top ten.
Just missed the cut:
Martin Emerson, Mississippi State
6’2”, 195 pounds; JR
A three-star recruit in 2019, one of Emerson’s two plays on the ball as a freshman was an interception. He didn’t get one in year two, but he deflected an SEC-high 11 passes, along with 72(!) combined tackles. This past season he had his lowest ball production (just four total passes defensed), but recorded a career-best three tackles for loss.
+ Ranks in the 91st percentile for height, 98th percentile in arm length (33.5 inches) and hand size (10.25 inches)
+ Pterodactyl-like build is a major asset, to really stab at the chest of receivers and maintain contact throughout the route
+ Bullies several receivers into the sideline
+ Rarely bites on double-moves or stops his feet as sees those rounded initial breaks
+ That length is a legitimate make-up tool in this aspect, just like other guys have that extra gear
+ Gave up only one completion of 25+ yards last season
+ Excellent ability to position himself in a low shuffle to counter patterns high-low patterns by mid-lining them
+ Can eat ground with those strides when he turns and bends towards the post, but also keeps himself ready to work upfield from that quarter-turn
+ Really physical with the way he works through blockers see through opponents with extension
+ Provides strong wrestle-down tackling – made ten times as many tackles as he missed (five vs. 55)
– Height doesn’t allow him to move rapidly in lateral fashion or transition forward cleanly against his momentum
– Can’t sharply push off to counter in-breaking routes when he’s not engaged, and he can get pretty grabby at the top of routes,
– Plays flat-footed and catches receivers way too much in off-coverage – will be flagged pretty much every single time by NFL referees,
– Such limited ball-production outside of 2020, with five total passes defensed on over 1000 coverage snaps,
– Completion percentage (58.0%), yards (358) and touchdowns allowed (three) all increased last season compared to 2020 on 35 fewer coverage snaps
We’ve seen plenty of those long press-corners from the SEC, who can’t really run or change directions come into the NFL as later round picks in the past – I don’t believe Emerson classifies as that. He has good instincts and fundamentals as a flat-defender, he can play bump-and-run and he’s not content with staying on an island. There are some limitations in terms of defending the entire route tree, particularly if he’s asked to play any extended amount off-man coverage, and the lack of ball production is a little discouraging. However, he can really disrupt receivers at the line of scrimmage, he’s not too aggressive with trying to jump routes and he has the long strides to run with guys down the field. He projects very well for a single-high structured defense, where he’s allowed be in press-alignment for the most part.
Coby Bryant, Cincinnati
6’1”, 190 pounds; RS SR
A three-star recruit in 2017, after barely seeing the field as a true freshman, Bryant earned a starting spot for the Bearcats defense over the course of his second season. Due to his running mate Ahmad Gardner not being tested a whole lot, Bryant saw plenty of targets his way over these past two years, intercepting six of those (one returned for a touchdown) and breaking up another 18, along with three forced fumbles. In 2020, he was already a first-team All-AAC selection, before winning the Jim Thorpe trophy (giving to the best DB in the country) and making second-team All-American in his final season.
+ Was the more versatile corner on Cincinnati, lining up on the field-side away from Ahmad Gardner, where he played press, off, man and zone
+ In man, he doesn’t typically overrun vertical stems and makes it tough for receivers to break against his leverage
+ Can click-and-close in a hurry from off-alignment, particularly on quick in-breakers
+ Flips around effectively, as receivers bend it up the post after selling the outside release initially
+ Overall he’s smooth in his transitions and displays good hip mobility
+ When tangled up with a receiver and the ball up for grabs, he leans his body into the opponent and attacks the ball in the air
+ On 75 targets last season, Bryant allowed 33 completions (44.0%) for 460 yards and three touchdowns versus his three picks, with 15 incompletions forced
+ Disciplined zone-defender, who doesn’t blindly get off his landmarks and has an innate feel for spacing against route patterns
+ Shows FBI to trigger as he recognizes certain keys and is ready to drive once he sees the passer get his cleats in the turf
+ Aims around the knees as a tackler and takes guys off their feet effectively – only missed three of 44 tackling attempts
– Not really dying to get involved in the action in the run game when he’s further away from it
– Gets pushed him around quite a bit when receivers go after him as blockers
– The few times the Bearcats moved their corners, it was Sauce Gardner following the opposing top receiver and the best opponent Bryant faced in the AAC was probably at their own practices (Alec Pierce)
– Success was largely due to his ability to anticipate and read routes, but I believe as a pure athlete he’s more so average
– Stronger NFL receivers might be able to box him out better in contested catch situations
This is one of the most complete corners in this draft from a coverage perspective. Bryant spent over 200 snaps in man and zone last season, he has quality ball-production to his name and is a highly reliable tackler. I would like to see him be more active in run support and I believe he lacks the top-level athletic traits to become a number one at the next level, but in a zone-heavy scheme, particularly on the field side in quarters-based approaches, his smarts for the position would make him a perfect fit. At the Senior Bowl, he was voted National CB of the week, showing active feet and patient hips throughout practice sessions.
Tariq Woolen, UTSA
6’4”, 205 pounds; RS SR
Right around the top-1000 overall recruits as a receiver in 2017, Woolen barely saw the field through his first three seasons (24 catches for 263 yards and a TD), before transitioning to the defensive side of the ball. Over 18 games at cornerback, he picked off two passes and deflected another nine, along with five tackles for loss. Woolen was number six on Bruce Feldman’s Freaks List, thanks to the reported numbers in the 40-yard dash and broad jump, which he ultimately surpassed at the actual combine.
+ Length is a major plus – 33 ½-inch arms and a crazy 79-inch wingspan
+ Doesn’t look like he’s really straining as he carries guys 40+ yards down the field, while pinning the inside arm to slow them down
+ Can rake the ball out of the receiver’s pocket with those long claws, at times where others corners wouldn’t even come close to
+ Flip of the hips is better than you’d expect for his height and has the short-area explosiveness to attach to the hip-pocket of receivers trying to beat him across his face
+ Lands some mean one-handed stabs and deny access against his leverage on numerous occasions
+ Holds his ground when guys get into his chest and create space with subtle push-offs, particularly on short in-breakers
+ In cover-two, he does a nice job of floating along with guys who take wide releases “behind” him and doesn’t bail too far if there’s a threat in the flats
+ When exploding upfield, he can really pop guys and at times separate them from the ball
+ Has some force in his hands as he approaches blockers and as he extends that one arm, basically no receivers will be able to get at all into his chest
+ Was shifted inside to set the edge against tight-ends at times and was willing to fill the C-gap
– There’s some false steps and exaggerated leans in soft press, to where guys can get him spinning around with more advanced footwork
– Tends to overrun the break point against vertical stems and struggle to transition with those long legs, if he’s not in phase with contact
– Can be way too conservative just sitting back in off zone coverage, as guys catch the ball uncontested on slants, etc.
– Surrendered a passer rating of slightly above 100 all three years of his career
– Missed ten of 35 tackling attempts this past season, routinely just diving at the legs of ball-carriers
There’s arguably no bigger athletic freak in this entire draft than Woolen. He was the fastest player in Mobile over the last three years, with a max speed of 22.45 mph, and backed that up at the combine, where he ran a blazing 4.26 in the 40 and jumped 2.5 inches higher than the next-closest CB (42 inches) in the vert. Unfortunately, his game doesn’t yet live up to it. When he’s in a shade press alignment and force receivers into release with strong single-hand jams, he has the explosiveness and speed to not allow guys to run away from him, but refined route-runners schooled him a few times off the line. His long arms give him a lot of room for error and as long as he’s close, he can basically crowd any catch window. I like his range as a zone-defender and the willingness to force the run back inside, but he may be a rather specific scheme fit and his tackling needs to become more reliable.
The next names up:
Mykael Wright (Oregon), Jaylen Watson (Washington State), Jack Jones (Arizona State), Akayleb Evans (Missouri) Tariq Castro-Fields (Penn State) & Mario Goodrich (Clemson)