clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Summer Scouting 2023: Cornerbacks

Taking a look at the pass defenders who will be on NFL radars next year.

Syndication: Online Athens Jenna Watson/IndyStar / USA TODAY NETWORK

Many analysts found Houston’s selection of Derek Stingley 3rd overall a tad rich in terms of draft value. Typically in league circles only 4 premium positions are considered that early. Quarterback is the obvious one, Edge rushers statically have proven their worth on making units competitive, most offensive lineman without many question marks are hard enough to find warranting their elevation, and elite receivers in select cases is the exception when deviating from the previous three positions at the top of the draft board.

With this growing inflation when it comes to pass catching threats it should only make sense the bodies sought out to defend against these athletic marvels should garner a higher demand as well. While still viewed by many as a premium position I think corners perception as an acceptable early pick go-to will begin to normalize in the coming years. The hit rate is probably the biggest argument you could make against it which is totally understandable.

But these past couple of draft cycles teams have been blessed with multiple high caliber rare athletes at the position such as Patrick Surtain Jr, Jaycee Horn, Ahmad Gardner, and the aforementioned Stingley. If all 4 of these prospects turn out, we could see general managers convincing themselves how the past results are evidence of an appropriate return on investment. In turn, just like receiver and to a certain degree just like this previous drafts defensive back heavy first round, we could see names who might originally be slated at a lower draft slot get moved up the board due to supply and demand.

Unlike the previous couple of drafts, however, there really aren’t any confident leaders at the top of the ranks in this class. No bona fide, lockdown, automatic, primary-receiver-erasing presence that is a sure fire thing. This appears on the surface to be a deeper class than the year before but at this point in time before the upcoming season, before games are played; the pecking order is very much up for grabs. Without further ado enough of me rambling:

Outside Corners:

Eli Ricks (Alabama)

Probably the most talked-up corner of the group, Eli Ricks sent shockwaves through college football media when he chose to ride the transfer portal to the perennial collegiate juggernaut Alabama. Similar to his former LSU teammate and now Texan Derek Stingley Jr, Ricks hit the ground running to see the field his first year earning him all freshman honors. Unfortunately like many touted prospects on this list his season was cut short due to injury (for Ricks it was a torn labrum).

Now with the Crimson Tide, Ricks will get the chance to finally hit his awaited breakout campaign under noted defensive backs developer Nick Saban. Ricks has the potential to assert himself as a starting corner; and no offense to Jayln Armour Davis or Josh Jobe, but he is the best pure prospect at corner Saban has had since Surtain Jr. a couple of seasons ago. At 6’2” 190 lbs., length is Ricks’ calling card and he is very aware of how to best use it to his advantage while also having elite short area quickness to stay steady with receivers during their breaks. If the LSU transfer can build on or even match his electric play as a freshman there’s a strong chance Ricks could get his name called on the first night of the draft.

Kelee Ringo (Georgia)

Another year, another Georgia defender near the top of his position group, that’s what they say right? After getting his chance to truly start last year with top 50 picks Eric Stokes and Tyson Campbell no longer blocking the way, Ringo showed he belonged on a historic national title-caliber defense. While the flashes weren’t as bright as some of these other big names listed here, this Bulldog has something the other corners are still looking to find this season: consistency.

The top corner in the ‘20 recruiting class, Ringo is one of the few corners this year to boast legitimate 4.3 speed that shows up on the field with vertical threat Jamison Williams being one of the few to truly get by him (to be fair Jamison got drafted in the 1st round because he got by a lot of people). Not only does Ringo show off speed but he also possess ideal size at 6’2” 205 lbs. with reports that he even played as heavy as 220 lbs. during last season. If true, it would not only make him one of the faster corners in the class but also one of the bigger ones out of this years group which is an enticing combo NFL evaluators will salivate over.

Last year was his coming out party but this year Ringo can control his own destiny with how high he gets drafted. Speed and size on an elite program are tantalizing enough but if he can take the next step this season as the leader of that secondary and demonstrate a consistent knack for playmaking interceptions like he did to seal Georgia’s national championship we may see general managers rushing to the podium to add Ringo in today’s pass happy league.

Garrett Williams (Syracuse)

A great but not elite athlete at a glance, Williams first caught my attention while playing across from ‘21 draft choice Ifeatu Melifonwu. His back-to-back seasons of 9 pass deflections ranks near the top of the ACC during that span. At 20 years old while being hampered by some hamstring issues, Williams clearly had the time to spare by not declaring early. Instead of being discussed around the 10th corner in a deep crop last year Williams now has a chance to insert himself near the top of the ranks with a third straight solid season on his resume. A light frame which shows up at the catch point combined with questionable long speed would be some of my biggest hesitations from putting him in the discussion to be the first corner selected.

Cam Smith (South Carolina)

One of the headliner favorites for breakout sleeper at cornerback back this summer, you’ll be hard pressed to find somebody who doesn’t draw a comparison to Smith’s former teammate and top 10 draft selection Jaycee Horn. At just over 6’ 187 lbs. Smith’s calling card lies in his physicality while playing press man coverage with savvy instincts as a get out of jail free card.

Many draft analysts project him to build off a solid ‘21 campaign where he raked in 3 interceptions to pair with 11 passes defended. This season should prove to be fairly important for Smith because while his evident mental understanding of the game combined with an imposing physical edge is easy to like for the casual fan I have worries he will not bear the same fruits that Horn did just a couple of years ago.

Smith’s biggest issues tie into his strength, he’s a tad too physical at times believe it or not. This leads to a frequent waste of motion that, while the Gamecock can get away with at the collegiate level, has potential to be exposed in the NFL. Smith is incredibly reliant on a 2-hand jam to press at the line of scrimmage which is great when it lands. But that same jam could be compared to a hook or a strong haymaker in boxing, if that power shot misses it can leave you in an awkward position trying to recover. In addition to his jam woes, Smith can also be caught being overly handsy at the top of routes, the same concerns were made of Horn. All in all, I completely get the appeal with Smith however I worry he will carry many of the same concerns of his highly drafted teammate Horn who by all accounts was one of the more athletic corners in the last decade, something Smith does not have to fall back on.

Mekhi Garner (LSU)

If you’re coach Brian Kelly attempting to turnaround the poor culture in Baton Rouge and see NFL caliber corners like Derek Stingley, Cordale Flott embark for greener pastures in addition to watching prime breakout candidate Eli Ricks transfer to one of your biggest rivals what do you do? You grab one of the best transfer corners in the portal excluding Ricks in Mekhi Garner formerly of the Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns.

Kelly’s secondary has almost been entirely made up of transfer bodies but none present a bigger mutual benefit than Garner. At 6’2” 212 lbs., Garner already looks the part of an outside corner in regards to his body with great length to pair alongside a twitchy step. Now moving on from the Sun-Belt to the big stage SEC, he hopes to improve his inconsistent albeit splashy resume with dominant play against a higher tier of receivers week in and out.

Myles Jones (Texas A&M)

A 6th year senior pushing 6’4” with great arm length and long speed? With traits that are normally coveted like gold, health is the main gray area when it comes to Myles Jones’ draft projection. After playing the majority of his games the first few years, a leg injury sidelined him for the final 2 games of the ‘20 season after securing a starting role on the boundary. This past season which by all accounts was looking like the breakout year Jones could finally be putting it all together was sadly cut short after only 2 games.

A true zone technique, Jones is at his best when reading the quarterback while using his length to his advantage in order to control the receiver. He does have surprisingly fluid hips to boot given his lanky build but Jones struggles with more twitchy jitterbug receivers which limits his ability as a pure man corner. A healthy season of his continued development and I could easily picture Jones having his name called on an early day in the draft.

Emmanuel Forbes (Mississippi State)

It was hard to truly be a fan of Martin Emerson when watching the Bulldogs last season. Not because of any poor play on his part, it was very clear to see he deserved a high draft slot. However the man working opposite of Emerson was just so eye-catching it became hard to keep my focus away from Emmanuel Forbes playing years ahead of his age. One of the few prospects who has the looks of a shutdown corner out of the names you’ll find listed here, Forbes has incredible instincts to pair with pro-tier athleticism. An absolute ball hawk, Forbes has the movement skills for man coverage but is truly at his best when he is able to dissect plays and aggressively trigger down. As if these weren’t enough traits to get excited about, Forbes is dangerous with the ball in his hands evidenced by his FBS-leading three pick-sixes during his freshman campaign. While that playmaking production didn’t carry over last season Forbes coverage ability was still very apparent.

Joey Porter Jr. (Penn State)

Yes you probably guessed it. We are talking about the son of Steeler great and former linebackers coach Joey Porter. Size is a gene that definitely got passed down as Jr. comes in at an imposing 6”2 192lbs with long vines for arms. His wingspan is still unconfirmed but I have a feeling Porter will challenge recent draft pick Sauce Gardners gaudy 33 ½ inch arm length which was in the 97th percentile for corners in the league. Despite being a 4th year true senior with multiple years of valuable snaps under his belt Porter remains more of a theory than a proven concept. His awareness in coverage is still fairly raw to pair with the fact that he is still learning how to weaponize his tantalizing traits against receivers. With only a single interception and 4 defended passes last season it was evident the Nittany Lions scheme didn’t do the long corner any favors by routinely asking him to play off coverage.

Clark Phillips III (Utah)

  • Don’t be fooled by his limited size (5”10 184lbs) Phillips is quickly becoming one of my favorite defensive backs in this cycle and continues to carry the legacy of Utah churning out consistent NFL defensive talent. After an eye opening freshman year the Ohio State decommit took a step last season during his true Sophomore campaign. The bowl game against the buckeyes was probably the one that caught my attention the most. Sure CJ Stroud was missing the wonder twins (1st round draft picks Garrett Wilson & Chris Olave) but playing against likely top 5 receiver Jaxson Smith Njigba and the offspring of Marvin Harrison would be a challenge for any defensive back. Stroud and coach Ryan Day’s game plan involved routinely avoiding Phillips at all costs and when he was targeted he gave up very little ground generating an interception to go with a forced fumble in the game. Phillips routinely plays bigger than his size and has no issue putting himself on an island in lockdown coverage. With his size profile tackling is an obvious concern that needs to be tightened up and a continuation of his playmaking ability (he has a pick six in each of the past 2 seasons) could lead to Phillips proving to NFL evaluators his size should be an afterthought to play the boundary.

Noah Daniels (TCU)

You won’t see this often from me but I actually think Pro Football Focus had it right. In one of their pieces highlighting team fits with the upcoming class, Noah Daniels’ blurb started with the assessment that he “has CB1-type talent with a UDFA’s injury history.” Most people in draft media have been talking about Daniels for the past 3 seasons however after a missed ‘19 due to his shoulder, playing in only 4 games for ‘20, and starting only 2 out of his 5 games played in ‘21 due to a nagging knee injury his hype has been consistently derailed.

So why does somebody with Jason Verrett’s level of questionable availability continue to get this constant complimentary draft talk? When healthy, Daniels is probably the best pure man corner in this draft and at 100% would be the closest thing to compare to previous elite prospects like Patrick Surtain, Jaycee Horn, and Derek Stingley that at first glance this year’s group seems to lack.

Nickel Backs:

Tre’Vius Hodges-Tomlinson (TCU)

Don’t let TH-T’s diminutive size fool you. At 5’8” 177 lbs. soaking wet the Horned Frog is an absolute baller in the secondary. Tomlinson first burst onto the national radar during his infamous ‘20 campaign where he was near the top of the nation in deflected passes. The nephew of NFL great LaDainian Tomlinson had a tough time one upping such a stellar year this past season especially with much of that secondary moving on towards the draft. While size is not his strong suit, Thomson’s game is predicated on exceptional burst and change of direction quickness.

When he is confident in what he sees, the tiny titan can erase big plays charging vertically and avoid blocks in the run game by moving well laterally. The TCU product has a great feel for coverage and his pass defense numbers are the product for his natural timing on when to challenge the catch point that routinely shows up which translates favorable to life in the slot.

All in all, size will be a question for Tomlinson all draft cycle and rightfully so as teams stray away from the jitterbug Cole Beasley slot machines in favor of bigger bodied pseudo tight end power slots. However in a similar standing as Roger McCreary from last year’s draft Tomlinson shows an understanding for the spacing and timing that comes with playing the cornerback position. In fact don’t be surprised if he’s not only my top nickel defender this cycle but also one of my top cover corners overall.

Tiawan Mullen (Indiana)

Search your favorite draft analysts’ (other than me of course) receipts and you’ll be hard pressed to find somebody who wasn’t talking about Mullen as a potential draft darling last offseason. Brother of Raiders pick Trayvon Mullen from Clemson and the cousin of Lamar Jackson he was in the running to be one of the guys taken after names like Roger McCreary, Kyler Gordon, and Martin Emerson.

Unfortunately an ankle injury spoiled his hyped up season leaving a sour taste in his mouth causing the lauded corner to return for another year. Capable in both man or zone Mullen is a hyper aware stat sheet stuffer who just needs to continue his solid momentum in order to be viewed not only as one of the top nickels in the class but similar to McCreary a year ago could be viewed in the conversation as a top 5 for his position.

Josh DeBerry (Boston College)

One of the more physical nickels on this list, DeBerry is a borderline box safety with how aggressive he plays coming downhill. Whether it be fitting the run, pressing running backs and tight ends or even rushing the passer situationally DeBerry is a versatile player teams should covet.

A true Jack of all trades while being a master of none I don’t see any elite traits he can hang his hat on. DeBerry recently turned in a career season that could have easily put him in the draft conversation last year until he decided to run it back. This season the 2nd team all-ACC player needs to continue to build momentum and have a strong showing to separate himself from the elite athletes in this group.

Despite his physical nature he can be pushed off his spot frequently by bigger bodied receivers which is a bit of an ominous sign for his future on the boundary. DeBerry has a very usable skill set as a Nickel who won’t shy away from stopping the run but needs more consistent splash plays to be considered an early day two type of talent.

Arquon Bush (Cincinnati)

The forgotten corner from the Bearcats intimidating secondary, Bush played the majority of slot defender snaps for the surprise playoff Cincinnati team. Much like his now drafted teammates Coby Bryant and Sauce Gardner he plays with a notoriously aggressive style with above average recognition when making plays on the ball evidenced by his three interceptions to go alongside six passes defended.

For most analysts, Bush feels like a known commodity but now with his vaunted teammates on the outside moving on it leaves a void for the noted nickel defender to show evaluators a higher ceiling as a lockdown outside guy. With a fairly safe floor based on the past few seasons in the slot Bush could boost his stock in league circles with a strong season while being buoyed as a high floor prospect.

If he can flash against what should be a fairly modest schedule for Cincinnati I can already picture teams talking themselves into sticking Bush in the slot year 1 while believing they could develop him on the outside down the road.