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The Ultimate Combine Preview: Defensive Backs

Posted Mar 5, 2018

INDIANAPOLIS - On the final day of the NFL Scouting Combine, the defensive backs take to the turf at Lucas Oil Stadium to prove themselves in athletic testing drills. Who should you be watching? Let’s take a closer look.

Top Pick

This is the player at each position who I feel is at the top of the class coming into the event, and who should hear his name called first among the position in April.

Cornerback: Minkah Fitzpatrick (Alabama)

There has been a lot of discussion about where Fitzpatrick will play at the next level. Is he a safety? Can he be a full-time cornerback on the outside? Will he stick more to the slot? I think he’s got the ability to do all three. I do think his best long-term fit is at safety similar to Malcolm Jenkins coming out of Ohio State, but I’d like to try him outside at corner to start his career. Fitzpatrick is the total package in terms of character, size, athleticism, toughness, and instincts. The one question I have is his ability to find the ball downfield late as an outside corner. This is something that has been a bit of a bugaboo for Alabama corners in recent years. If he’s not in this slot, he’d be in the one I’m going to talk about next.

Safety: Derwin James (Florida State)

With Fitzpatrick at corner, I’ll slot James here at safety, but similar questions remain. What is his best position in the NFL? Can he play in the deep part of the field, or is he more of a box player at safety? Can he play in the slot in the NFL? Is he a future linebacker? People are going to asking all of these questions leading up to the draft. I think James’ best role right now is as a box safety, where he can cover tight ends in man coverage and attack the run close to the line of scrimmage. That’s a specific role that not every team utilizes these days, but I see that as his best fit.

Workout Warrior

This is the player at each position who I expect to see perform best in the athletic testing portion of the workout (40-yard dash, cone drills, jumps, and/or bench press).

Cornerback: Donte Jackson (LSU)

We’ve seen some pretty fast times in the 40-yard dash this week, but I think Jackson tops them all on Monday. The junior corner ran track in high school (where he won state titles in the 100-meter (10.3 seconds) and the 200-meter events (21.26), and at LSU, where he was one of the top sprinters in the entire country and posted some eye-popping numbers that nearly made him an Olympic qualifier. Jackson has great position versatility (he’s lined up at all three corner spots and has moonlighted as a safety during his career) and is clearly a great athlete, but he won’t be viewed as a fit for everyone due to his lack of size and his inconsistencies as a tackler.

Safety: Van Smith (Clemson)

One of the surprise early entrants into the draft, Smith is built like a cornerback but played safety for Brent Venables with the Tigers, lining up primarily to the wide side of the field closer to the other team’s passing strength. A really easy mover with burst, flexibility, and change-of-direction skills that pop off the tape when you watch him, Smith should shine in the athletic testing portion of the workout. His lack of size will concern teams, but cover safeties certainly have a role to fill in today’s NFL.

Trust The Tape

This is the player at each position who I don’t expect to test off the charts and is a better football player than he is an athlete. With that in mind, don’t drop him down the board with a subpar workout!

Cornerback: Josh Jackson (Iowa)

I’m a fan of Josh Jackson. I like his quickness, his clean feet, his instincts (especially for a former receiver), and his fantastic ball skills. The one question I and other analysts have about the junior Hawkeye is his long speed. I don’t think he’ll run really slow, but while the oher top corners in this class should run very well - I’m looking at you Donte Jackson, Mike Hughes, and Denzel Ward - I expect Jackson to post a time in the 40-yard dash that will just be viewed as above average. Don't worry about it. Jackson’s film is very, very good. He’s got a knack for staying on top of receivers and I mentioned his ability to find the ball downfield and make a play on it. He’s a big-time player who, on the field, reminds me of Pro Bowl cornerback Marcus Peters.

Safety: Deshon Elliott (Texas)

I’ve only watched a couple of games so far, but from what I’ve seen of Deshon Elliott I think he’s one of the best pure box safeties as well as one of the best tacklers in this defensive back group. Elliott has a natural feel for navigating through traffic to find the football and is very aggressive attacking the line of scrimmage. He displayed pretty good ball skills throughout his career and just enough range that he can play as a two-high safety. What I don’t expect from him is a great workout across the board. I don’t expect good scores in the agility drills or even in the jumps from Elliott, and if that happens I’m not going to knock him for it.

Stopwatch Shocker

This is the player at each position who I expect to see test better than most in the media believe based off of current projections.

Cornerback: Jaire Alexander (Louisville)

Analysts who have watched Alexander won’t be shocked if he posts a great workout, but after being banged up for a majority of this past year, he’s flying a bit under the radar right now. A two-year starter with plenty of experience at both corner spots as well as in the slot in the Cardinals' nickel package, the junior’s versatility will serve him well at the next level. His quickness and top-end speed will be put on display at Lucas Oil Stadium.

Safety: Ronnie Harrison (Alabama)

A lot of people view Harrison strictly as a box player. I agree that his best role is as a strong safety, but I think he’s going to surprise people with his athletic test scores. A two-year starter for Nick Saban, Harrison displays more than the requisite speed, burst and, change-of-direction skills to play on the back end of an NFL defense. His short-area burst, in particular, is something that stood out to me on film. He’s a tough player and reliable run defender who will have to improve his technique as a tackler but certainly has the aggression and physicality needed to be a force at the line of scrimmage at the next level.

Will Kill The Drills

This is the player at each position who may or may not be a great athlete, but he will look the best in the position-specific drills after the athletic portion of the workout.

Cornerback: Tarvarus McFadden (Florida State)

Coming into the season, McFadden was viewed by most analysts as a future first-round pick, and for good reason. The junior boasts all of the physical traits of a top-shelf cover man in the NFL. He’s got prototypical size, impressive speed, and quickness on film. Plus. he has the ability to finish in the air for acrobatic interceptions. McFadden’s issues are more of the mental variety, where lapses in coverage and with his technique have resulted in far too many big plays or penalties down the field. He doesn’t have to worry about that on Monday, however, and I expect him to be one of the most impressive DBs on the field.

Safety: Armani Watts (Texas A&M)

The safeties who stand out most in the position-specific drills are the ones with the most range and ability to finish in the air for interceptions. Watts definitely has those traits, and was used in a variety of ways for the Aggies. An aggressive safety who lacks ideal size and needs be more consistent against the run, the senior has all of the athletic traits to stick in the NFL. While there’s some "boom or bust" here, I think he has a floor as a backup and special teams ace with the ceiling as a starter at free safety.

Most To Prove

This is the player at each position who has the most to prove away from the field, whether it’s during the interview process, medical examinations, or even the weigh-ins.

Cornerback: Holton Hill (Texas)

A long, physical press corner with the ability to disrupt receivers at the line of scrimmage, Hill will likely need a perfect scheme fit to become a starter at the next level. That being noted, he’s an outstanding tackler, and his physicality and hands to finish for interceptions are impressive on film. Hill's season ended when he was suspended in November, so he will have some questions to answer for teams.

Safety: Jordan Whitehead (Pitt)

Hill missed the back end of the season, while Whitehead missed the first three games of 2017 due to a violation of teams rules, something he’ll have to provide clarity on during private meetings. On the field, the aggressive, versatile safety wore a lot of hats for the Panthers, playing in all three phases of the game. He’s undersized, but is very physical and aggressive against the run. I also worry about his eye discipline in the deep part of the field, so I believe he’ll be at his best close to the line of scrimmage. I’m excited to see how he works out on Monday.

Most Productive College Player

This is the player at each position who produced at the highest level, either in his final year in college or over the course of his entire career.

Cornerback: Parry Nickerson (Tulane)

No cornerback at the NFL Scouting Combine has more interceptions on his résumé than Nickerson with 16, a fun player from Tulane who started all four years during his career. The senior is severely undersized, which means he’ll likely have to shift into the slot full time although he did get reps there in college as well, but this is a very savvy prospect. Nickerson’s best traits are his outstanding ball skills as well as his instincts in coverage. I’m a fan of the way he plays the game.

Safety: Quin Blanding (Virginia)

Blanding isn’t the most explosive or versatile athlete, but he’s a smart, tough, instinctive player who has been very productive throughout his career with the Cavaliers. His 492 tackles over four seasons ranks as the most of any safety drafted in the last decade, and his 26 ball disruptions (interceptions and pass breakups combined) is a very respectable number as well. Time will tell if he develops into a starter on the back end, but Blanding is a football player who I wouldn’t bet against.

Best Pro Comparison

Comparing draft prospects to NFL players is tough, but here’s a player with the easiest picture to paint when looking at his NFL future through my eyes.

Cornerback: Carlton Davis (Auburn)

Davis is one of the more intriguing corners in this class because of his combination of size and speed. I love his abilities at the line of scrimmage, where he has a real knack to disrupt receivers early in the down and keep them from getting into their routes with correct timing. With his skill set and mindset at the position, there are flashes of what Xavier Rhodes was coming out of Florida State a few years ago. Rhodes, a former first-round pick, may have been a slightly better overall athlete than Davis, but I think their play personalities are very, very similar.

Safety: Jessie Bates (Wake Forest)

In what is being described as a pretty good safety class, Bates is an intriguing option who will likely come off the board sometime in the second day. The redshirt sophomore has NFL size and, considering his youth, he sees things pretty quickly on the back end in coverage. With his instincts allowing him to play faster than I think he’ll time, Bates is a viable option down the road as a starter at free safety. I think he has plenty of potential as a run defender as well from his single-high position because of his size and aggressiveness which reminds me of longtime starter George Iloka. Bates is no sure thing, but I like his upside.

Small-School Standout

This is the player at each position who comes from a lower level of competition but still has a very bright future in the NFL.

Cornerback: Taron Johnson (Weber State)

Johnson was extremely productive as a two-time Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year and reportedly performed very well at the Senior Bowl in January. A hyper-competitive corner who mixes things up with receivers, reads things very quickly, and has inside-outside versatility, I’m anxious to see how well Johnson tests, but even if he is average across the board I still feel good about his NFL future. In a class full of small-school corners (Johnson, Georgia State’s Chandon Sullivan, Dubuque’s Michael Joseph, and Western Michigan’s Darius Phillips stand out the most to me), I think Johnson is the best.

Safety: Trey Walker (Louisiana-Lafayette)

I watched Walker back in the fall because I had heard good things about him, and I came away impressed. He’s got above-average height for the position with great length, has plenty of experience playing man coverage, and is a pretty good athlete. I want to see him improve as a tackler, and if he can prove to have top-end sideline-to-sideline range I think that will serve him very well, but I think Walker will end up coming off the board sometime in the middle rounds.

Philly Connection

This is the player at each position with a special tie to the City of Brotherly Love or to the Eagles that you should keep a close eye on.

Cornerback: Danny Johnson (Southern)

I mentioned all of the small-school corners in this draft and Johnson is right there in the mix. An undersized corner who became a four-year starter for the Jaguars, Johnson is an explosive athlete who should impress on the turf on Monday. He also flashes great hands down the field, so in position drills he should look strong as well. I like this kid’s upside, and while he’s got some things to work on - namely his tackling and overall cornerback technique across the board - I think he’ll be a viable pick sometime in the middle of day three. The Philly connection? He hails from the same school as Eagles Hall of Fame receiver Harold Carmichael.

Safety: Sean Chandler (Temple)

The lone player here in Indianapolis who actually played his college ball in the City of Brotherly Love, Chandler hails from just across the bridge in Camden, New Jersey and enjoyed a stellar career as a four-year starter with the Owls. A former cornerback who made the change to safety two years ago, Chandler has exemplary toughness and tackling ability on the back end. If he can test well on Monday, it will go a long way toward his draft stock.

Mr. Average

We get to read all about the measurements for all these players over the next few weeks ... but wouldn’t it be nice to have some context? What is considered a "good" 40-yard dash time for any given position? What about arm length? The broad jump? Here’s what the average player drafted at each position has looked like over the last decade (by my records).

Mr. Average - Cornerbacks
Category Measurement
Height 5-11 1/4
Weight 193 Pounds
Hand Size 9 1/8 Inches
Arm Length 31 1/2 Inches
Wingspan 75 1/2 Inches
Unofficial 40-Yard Dash 4.46 Seconds
Official 40-Yard Dash 4.50 Seconds
10-Yard Split 1.56 Seconds
3-Cone Drill 6.9 Seconds
Short Shuttle 4.18 Seconds
Broad Jump 123 Inches
Vertical Jump 36 Inches

Mr. Average - Safeties
Category Measurement
Height 6-0
Weight 208 Pounds
Hand Size 9 3/8 Inches
Arm Length 31 5/8 Inches
Wingspan 76 1/2 Inches
Unofficial 40-Yard Dash 4.53 Seconds
Official 40-Yard Dash 4.57 Seconds
10-Yard Split 1.57 Seconds
3-Cone Drill 6.96 Seconds
Short Shuttle 4.23 Seconds
Broad Jump 121 Inches
Vertical Jump 35.5 Inches

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