This is the fifth of an eight-part series previewing the NFL Draft on May 8-10. Today’s installment: Defensive backs.
By Mark Gaughan // NEWS SPORTS REPORTER
NFL personnel executives will be tested by the defensive back class in the 2014 draft.
There are no worry-free cornerback prospects in the first round. The cornerback class has a lot of good size, which NFL teams value more than ever. There are plenty of capable prospects to be found well into the third day of the draft at the cornerback position. But teams will have to make good evaluations in projecting which players might become sure-fire stars.
The top five cornerbacks all are big talents with some question marks. Michigan State’s Darqueze Dennard has great size but lacks elite speed. Oklahoma State’s Justin Gilbert might be the best overall athlete in the draft, but he did not shut everybody down in his college career. Ohio State’s Bradley Roby has elite skills but some off-the-field concerns. Texas Christian’s Jason Verrett plays great but lacks size. Virginia Tech’s Kyle Fuller has good instincts but has had some injuries.
At safety, the clear top two – Louisville’s Calvin Pryor and Alabama’s Hasean Clinton-Dix – both look like capable starters from Day One in the NFL.
ESPN’s Mel Kiper on the top corners: “Gilbert is not what I thought he was going to be in terms of a top 10 to 15 pick. He still could be. But he’s just not physical enough in run support. You’ve got to be able to tackle as well after the catch. ... Darqueze Dennard is an in-your-face, tough, aggressive corner. Roby to me is a little overrated. Fuller can get in your face, but he’s had some durability issues and tends to peek into that backfield a little too much.”
Dennard’s toughness in coverage was one of the keys to the Spartans’ Rose Bowl season. He won the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation’s top defensive back. He didn’t run a blazing time (4.51 seconds in the 40-yard dash). He needs to play in press coverage and get his hands on receivers. He allowed only three completions on 31 pass plays of 15-plus yards last season.
Gilbert is the fastest cornerback in the draft, with a time of 4.39 in the 40. He has six career kickoff returns for touchdowns. He led the Big 12 in interceptions last season with seven, but he was shaky in coverage in 2012.
Roby is feisty, plays tough and ran a 4.39 in the 40. He made 36 starts for the Buckeyes. At times he’s overaggressive. He was arrested in a bar fight last July.
Verrett is only 5-foot-9, but he’s quick in the short area and was outstanding in coverage the past two years. His 22 passes defended led the Big 12 in 2012, and he added 15 passes defended in 2013. He’s tough, too. He played with a torn labrum in his shoulder much of the year.
Look for four or five cornerbacks to be taken in the first round.
At safety, it’s a close call between Pryor and Clinton-Dix, both of whom should go roughly in the middle of the first round. Pryor is more versatile. He’s a hard hitter who played free safety for the Cardinals but can play strong safety. Clinton-Dix is a fluid athlete and a pure center fielder. He had seven INTs in 19 starts.
The top three strong safeties are Northern Illinois’ Jimmie Ward, Washington State’s Deone Buchanon and Louisiana State’s Craig Loston. Ward, a second-round prospect, is a ball-hawk who ran a 4.47 at his pro day.
The top small-school prospect at defensive back is Pierre Desir of Division II Lindenwood in Missouri. He is big with good ball skills and should be a Day Two pick.