2013 NFL Combine: Defensive backs make case for deepest position

By the final day of the combine, scouts and coaches are ready to get back home and break down more tape in preparation for upcoming pro days in March and April. But the defensive backs, who were the only prospects remaining in Indianapolis on Tuesday, made sure their group was worth sticking around for.

This year’s class of defensive backs has several notable storylines: Is Dee Milliner that “elite” cornerback worth of a top-10 pick? Who is the top senior cornerback? Is it the long and lean Johnthan Banks or the speedy Desmond Trufant? It’s a deep safety class; how many future starters are in this group? And what about the Honey Badger? How will Tyrann Mathieu look in drills and where might he land on draft day?

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These questions weren’t fully answered for us at the combine, but Tuesday’s workouts at Lucas Oil Stadium did provide some interesting results.

Milliner makes strong case to be top 10 pick, with Rhodes nipping at his heels
Each of the last three years, at least one cornerback has been drafted in the top 10, including a pair of corners in the 2012 NFL Draft with Morris Claiborne and Stephon Gilmore. But is there a top-shelf cornerback prospect in this year’s group?


While not everyone sees him in the top-10, Alabama cornerback Dee Milliner is NFLDraftScout.com’s No. 6 overall prospect and top player at his position in the draft. And after running an official 4.39 40-yard dash on Tuesday, that high ranking won’t change. Milliner’s other results were also strong with a 36” vertical and 10’7” broad jump.

While he’s not known as a fast player and his long-speed was a question mark on tape, Milliner helped dispel those thoughts with his sub-4.4 40-yard dash. It was also important for him to nail these drills because Tuesday is the final time scouts will get to see him work out before the 2013 NFL Draft. Milliner will have surgery next week to repair a torn labrum in his right shoulder, an injury he played through much of the season.

Time will tell if he ends up in the top-10 picks in April, but Milliner helped himself with his combine workouts so much that he might not fall past Cleveland with the sixth pick.

The top prospect who could challenge Milliner to be the first cornerback off the board is Florida State’s Xavier Rhodes, who also shined during Tuesday’s workouts. The imposing junior (6-2, 210) was among the top performers in each category, including 40-yard dash (4.43), vertical jump (40.5”) and broad jump (11’). Rhodes could sneak into the top-10 with his combination of length, speed and strength and looks like the clear-cut No. 2 cornerback in this draft behind Milliner.

And the top senior cornerback is?
Coming into the 2012 season, Mississippi State’s Johnthan Banks seemed to be the consensus top senior cornerback prospect, but Washington’s Desmond Trufant has since emerged as a viable first round prospect as well.

Both Banks and Trufant had good (not great) senior seasons, but Trufant began to close the gap between the two since the end of the season. With Banks not able to go in Mobile due to a knee injury, Trufant took advantage of the Senior Bowl's big stage and looked like one of the best defensive prospects on the field. He kept that momentum going at the combine with a 4.38 40-yard dash and a better-than-expected 16 reps on the bench press.

Meanwhile, Banks didn’t help himself on the field in Indianapolis with a 4.61 time in the 40-yard dash and just 10 reps on the bench. He also finished 40th among defensive backs in the vertical jump (34”) and was average-at-best during positional drills. At 6-2 and 185 pounds, Banks has impressive size with 34” arms, but his lack of speed and explosiveness in drills could make him more of a 2nd-round prospect in the minds of some teams. While Banks will have his pro day to try and improve those results, Trufant has boosted his NFL resume with an outstanding pre-draft process thus far.

Other top senior cornerbacks who shined in the 40-yard dash on Tuesday: Mississippi State’s Darius Slay (4.36), Boise State’s Jamar Taylor (4.39), Southeastern Louisiana’s Robert Alford (4.39) and Miami’s Brandon McGee (4.40).

Safety stand-outs
This safety group might not have an “elite” prospect at the top, but the depth at the position in the 2013 draft class will produce numerous NFL starters. With Florida International’s Jonathan Cyprien sidelined with a hamstring injury, Texas’ Kenny Vaccaro likely held onto the distinction as the top safety with his good-enough results in drills (4.63 40-yard dash, 15 reps, 38” vertical and 10’1” broad jump).

But several lesser-known safeties turned heads with excellent workout results, showing off their athletic skill-sets. Syracuse’s Shamarko Thomas led all safeties in several categories, including the 40-yard dash (4.42), bench press (28) and vertical leap (40.5”) and finishing second in the broad jump (11’1”).

NC State’s Earl Wolff and LSU’s Eric Reid tied for the position lead in the broad jump (11’2”) with both also shining in the other drills. Wolff finished second in the 40-yard dash (4.44) and fourth in the vertical leap (39”). Reid was among the top safeties in the 40-yard dash (4.53) and vertical leap (40.5”), adding 17 reps on the bench.

And can’t forget about the Honey Badger…
While the interviews and media sessions were more about his off-field discretions, former LSU All-American Tyrann Mathieu had a chance to take the field on Tuesday and turn the conversation to his on-field abilities. Although his workout wasn’t exceptional, it was better than some expected, especially considering he hasn’t played football in over a year.

Mathieu finished with a 4.50 40-yard dash, 34” vertical and 9’9” broad jump. During positional drills, he looked quick-footed and fast and although he seemed a bit stiff at times in his transition, Mathieu didn’t take long to accelerate to top speed and recover. He also showed outstanding ballskills, attacking the ball and completing the catch.

Mathieu is the type of prospect who will create a lot of discussion in war rooms leading up to draft day due to his on-and-off field actions. Does he have the size to hold up on the outside? Does his lack of strength and tendency to freelance limit his NFL ceiling? Can we trust him to keep his nose clean off the field?

And while Mathieu is doing all he can to repair his image, the most important question remains: where do teams feel comfortable drafting a talented, but risky prospect like the Honey Badger?

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