|Alabama's Dre Kirkpatrick is an aggressive cornerback projected to be a first-rounder. (US Presswire)|
Ten NFL quarterbacks threw for more than 4,000 yards in 2011, including three who went for more than 5,000.
To give that some historical perspective, they all threw for more yards than the legendary Joe Namath did in his best, albeit 14-game, season. Prolific Dan Marino's best 16-game season would have earned him third in 2011. And with his best season, Peyton Manning, the current active legend, would have placed fifth, right behind brother Eli.
Add to that the 2012 free agency in which wide receivers are more precious than gold, with Detroit's Calvin Johnson signing an NFL record $132 million deal on a day when gold closed at $1,728 an ounce. At his listed 235 pounds, a solid gold Johnson would be worth only $6,497,656.
Free agent wide receiver Vincent Jackson signed a contract with the Tampa Bay Bucs worth $55,555,555, giving new meaning to the term Ocho Cinco in the NFL.
What does this all mean? For one thing, it means NFL teams will need the best defensive backs they can find to pretend to cope with the NFL's prodigious game of pass and catch.
In this year's NFL Draft, teams will need to dig into their small school intel to uncover some of the most intriguing defensive backs available.
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The top two cornerbacks figure to be right out of the BCS' Intra-SEC, Championship defensive show -- LSU's Morris Claiborne and Alabama's Dre Kirkpatrick. The top three might be from the SEC if South Carolina's fast-rising Stephon Gilmore goes next.
But according to ratings by NFLDraftScout.com, three of the next four cornerbacks are exciting athletes from less prestigious programs -- North Alabama's Jenoris Jenkins (formerly of Florida), Virginia Tech's Jayron Hosley and Central Florida's Josh Robinson.
Here is a closer look at the top defensive backs available in the 2012 draft (Position rating, player, school, height, weight, projected round, *-underclassmen):
1/4 *Morris Claiborne, LSU, 5-11, 188, 1
Claiborne arrived at LSU expecting to play wide receiver but was moved to corner as a freshman at the insistence of teammate Patrick Peterson. In 2010, Claiborne started opposite Peterson (No. 5 overall selection in 2011 draft, Arizona Cardinals) in what will be remembered as one of the best cornerback tandems in college history. Peterson won the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation's top defensive back in 2010 and Claiborne won the award himself last season when he grabbed six of his 11 career interceptions. The popular term "shutdown corner" comes to mind watching Claiborne, who has in-your-face coverage instincts and is one of the best returners in this draft. A versatile athlete, "Mo" piled up 2,000 all-purpose yards and 30 touchdowns at quarterback as senior at Shreveport's Fair Park High School, where he also played baseball, basketball and won the Louisiana state 4A 110-meter championship (10.76 seconds). Little wonder he is dangerous with the ball, evidenced by a college career total of 274 yards after the theft, including an 89-yard touchdown. He also averaged 28.8 yards last year on kickoff returns, including a 99-yard touchdown. At the scouting combine, his unofficial time in 40 yards was an acceptable 4.50, but his speed wasn't in question and he improve to 4.39 and 4.44 at LSU's pro day. Claiborne will need to add bulk to be competitive at the next level. Scouts told The Sports Xchange's Len Pasquarelli that pending wrist surgery shouldn't keep Claiborne out of the top five overall picks.
2/17 *Dre Kirkpatrick, Alabama, 6-2, 186, 1
Alabama coach Nick Saban rode Kirkpatrick hard to keep him focused in college; now the big question is can he stay focused when he is rich and on his own in the NFL? Scouts are confident Kirkpatrick can be a special pro if he learns self discipline and gets his ample athleticism to match his audacious attitude. Even as he announced his decision to attend Alabama, Kirkpatrick adopted a nickname and reputation, "Swag" -- or as teammates call it "Swagga" -- when he dissed and dismissed Texas as "ain't got no swagger." While that's a good attitude for resiliency at the vulnerable position of cornerback, Kirkpatrick sometimes pushed the limits on and off the field, where his swagger staggered into a charge of marijuana possession only one week after he declared he was entering the draft. The charge was dismissed but lingers in the minds of scouts even as they admire the rare combination of size, speed, agility and strength that helped Kirkpatrick grab 11 career interceptions. He plays with aggression on the field, which sometimes works against him on pump fakes and double moves. On balance, that was a criticism of Ronnie Lott at Southern California. Kirkpatrick was unofficially clocked in 4.51 seconds in 40 at the scouting combine.
3/24 *Stephon Gilmore, South Carolina, 6-0, 190, 1
Several NFL scouts were enamored with the mental and physical abilities of this athletic corner and looking for a reason to push him up draft boards. He gave them reason at the scouting combine when he quantified his speed with an unofficial 40 time of 4.40 and had the second best time among defensive backs in the 20-yard shuttle (3.94). He also measured a full 1/4 inch over 6 feet tall. Gilmore plays with an astute awareness that makes him a dangerous defender to test. He is a vocal team leader who understands everybody's role on defense and is especially effective in zone coverage, where he seems to triangulate well, tracking both the quarterback and receivers. Gilmore is aggressive both going to the ball and coming up on the run, although he could use a little more bulk to hold up in the NFL. Gilmore started at cornerback all 40 games the last three years and in 2011 made 46 tackles and led the team with four interceptions, giving him eight for his career. He was selected first-team All-SEC and third-team AP All American in 2010.
4/32 Janoris Jenkins, North Alabama, 5-10, 193, 1-2
After being dismissed by new Florida coach Will Muschamp following a second charge involving marijuana, Jenkins finished his career at North Alabama. He might have qualified for the NFL supplemental draft last year but preferred to take time to rehabilitate his off-field image -- and a shoulder injury -- so pro scouts would judge him more on his on-field abilities. And pro scouts think his on-field ability is extraordinary. Jenkins has that rare combination of instincts, quickness and agility needed to be a truly great cover cornerback. Scouts at the Senior Bowl likened his play to that of several-time All-Pro Asante Samuel. Jenkins flashed his talents in 2010 at Florida when he held two players selected in the top six of last year's draft to an average of 38 yards a game -- Georgia's A. J. Green (No. 4 pick, Bengals) and Alabama's Julio Jones (No. 6, Falcons. At the scouting combine he was unofficially clocked at 4.46 seconds in 40 yards. He should be able to step in immediately and cover those pesky slot receivers as well as help as a punt returner.
5/40 Alfonzo Dennard, Nebraska, 5-10, 204, 1-2
Dennard is a tenacious, physical cornerback who has the ability to make it difficult to get a clean release off the line if he plays up. If Dennard plays off, he has the closing speed and toughness to make it difficult to catch or keep the ball. But didn't look great playing off during Senior Bowl practice, so teams that expect that of their cornerbacks probably took note. He won the Tatum-Woodson Defensive Back of the Year last season after getting four interceptions, six pass breakups, and 31 tackles, most of them loud. Dennard was the main reason opposing Big Ten quarterbacks were held to a conference-low 51 percent on completions. His career included 97 tackles, four for a loss. Dennard led Wilcox County High (Rochelle, Ga.) to second place in the Class A State championships, stealing five passes as a cornerback, catching 39 passes for 780 yards, 14 touchdowns at wide receiver and returning two kickoffs for touchdowns. At the scouting combine, Dennard had an unofficial 40 time of 4.55 and a 37-inch vertical jump.
6/52 *Jayron Hosley, Virginia Tech, 5-10, 178, 2
Hosley is entering the draft after playing through an injury-hampered junior season (hamstring, concussion), which followed a sophomore year (2010) in which he led the nation with 10 interceptions. Hosley plays bigger than he measures and is very physical, both in coverage and in run support. But at his size he would do better if he becomes more of a wrap-up tackler. Over the past two seasons, he had 12 interceptions and 20 passes broken up. He adds value as a punt returner, where he averaged 11.8 yards an attempt in three seasons. In games he appears to have better quick explosion than long-term speed, but he had an unofficial 40-yard time of 4.47 seconds at the scouting combine, where teams were glad to see he added five pounds since the end of the season.
7/55 *Josh Robinson, Central Florida, 5-10, 199, 2
As the most conspicuous gold medal winner at the NFL's annual Underwear Olympics known as the scouting combine, Robinson sent scouts and coaches back to game tapes to see what he is all about. They already had some interest because he was a two-time All-Conference-USA first-teamer with 10 interceptions and 36 passes broken up the past three seasons. But he demanded even more attention after clocking the combine's fastest unofficial 40 time of 4.33 seconds. He also bested all defensive backs in the broad jump (11-1) and three-cone drill (6.55) and was third in the vertical jump at 38.5 inches. "They told me I wouldn't be drafted in the top three rounds," Robinson said after his Indianapolis show. "So that gave me motivation. That made me want to prove that I could be drafted higher than that." He convinced some people, evidenced by his move from a fourth-round prospect to a second-round possibility on this list.
8/61 Brandon Boykin, Georgia, 5-9, 183, 2-3
Boykin may have a small frame, but he came up big to win the Paul Hornung Award as the nation's most versatile player in 2011. He is a formidable athlete as both a cornerback and a kick returner. Scouts will be limited to seeing him on game tapes because he fractured his fibula during Senior Bowl workouts. "The timing was terrible, but at the same time the combine and pro day isn't the be-all end-all," Boykin said, naming the two workout events he missed because of the injury. "I feel like I had a really good career. ... My speed and athleticism shouldn't be a question." Some scouts believe Boykin could run 40 yards under 4.4 seconds. He had three touchdowns on kickoff returns as a sophomore, two for 100 yards each and then added another in 2010 to become the only player in SEC history with three plays of at least 100 yards. He is hardly bashful as a corner, where he surprises bigger opponents by getting right in their face as much as he can rather than playing off and using his speed to catch up. In 1999, this bothered Oklahoma State star Dez Bryant (now with Dallas), who was held to three catches and 77 yards. Boykin's career totals include 159 tackles (20 for a loss), nine interceptions and he averaged 24.2 yards on 110 kickoff returns.
9/69 Dwight "Bill" Bentley, Louisiana-Lafayette, 5-10, 182, 2-3
Bentley gained attention at Florida's Pahokee High, which won three state championships with the help of Bentley and teammate Janoris Jenkins. Bentley is quick, confident and courageous, but may need to add a little beef to hold up in the NFL. He shows natural coverage skills but his aggressiveness which he showed in abundance during Senior Bowl practices where he looked good against bigger receivers. He confirmed he has the speed to play at the next level with an unofficial 40 time of 4.43 at the scouting combine. But his 31.5-inch vertical jump was disappointing because at his height, he will need all the hops he can get against big NFL receivers. His career stats included 232 total tackles, 13 for a loss, 1.5 sacks, seven interceptions and 20 passes broken up.
10/77 Leonard Johnson, Iowa State, 5-10, 196, 2-3
After being ejected from a game for a late hit as a freshman, Johnson quickly matured into vocal and by-example team leader. He finished that season well enough to earn Freshman All-American honors as a kick returner (26.4-yard average) and has been a starting cornerback ever since. Johnson is a quick-twitch athlete with great speed the right attitude to play corner. His most dramatic performance was a key to Iowa State's upset victory over then No. 2-ranked Oklahoma State. His job was to cover two-time Biletnikoff Award winner Justin Blackmon, rated as the best receiver in this draft. Blackmon had one of his least productive games as Johnson held him to 99 yards receiving and snagged a big interception in the third quarter. At the combine, medics reportedly said there were no long-term effects of neck injury last October, but his unofficial 40 time of 4.71 seconds didn't do him any favors. Johnson's career numbers include 39 starts in 50 games, 247 tackles (eight for a loss) and six interceptions. He can help anybody immediately as a kickoff returner.
11/80 Chase Minnifield, Virginia, 5-10, 183, 2-3
There are obvious signs of genetic inheritance and perhaps a bit of coaching from his father, Frank, who was a Pro Bowl caliber cornerback for the Cleveland Browns (1984-92). Chase is tall, lean and plays alertly within the framework of the system. He is high cut, and could use a little more heft if he can handle it because he already isn't exceptionally fluid when flipping his hips. Minnifield is a menace in press coverage as he reroutes receivers well and has exceptional ball skills, aided by excellent leaping ability and long arms. He sat out Virginia's 42-24 loss to Auburn in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, and on Jan. 3 underwent arthroscopic surgery at the Andrews Institute in Gulf Breeze, Fla., to evacuate floating cartilage particles that bothered him most of the 2011 season. His father said the procedure took 15 minutes, and he expects Chase to be 100 percent. But Chase did not work out at the combine and reportedly ran 40 yards in only the mid-4.6-second range at his March 15 pro day, which means NFL teams may think his refined skills and instincts may work better at safety. Minnifield was selected All-ACC the last two seasons and in four years he had 151 tackles, 13 interceptions and showed decent return ability.
12/89 Jamell Flemming, Oklahoma, 5-11, 206, 3
Size and speed were never Flemming's strong suit, so scouts were more mindful of his memorable play during the Senior Bowl practices than they were his largely forgettable data from the scouting combine. In college,e he was a two-time first-team All-Big 12 player because of his impressive combination of tenacity and natural man coverage skills. Even when coaches asked him to play off in Senior Bowl workouts, it was easy to see his instinctive movement and great ball reaction. At the combine, Flemming had a pedestrian unofficial clocking of 4.53 seconds in the 40, but his 60-yard shuttle time of 10.75 seconds led all defensive backs. His college career included some academic issues that forced him to attend junior college and miss spring practices in 2009 and 2011.
13/94 Trumain Johnson, Montana, 6-2, 204, 2-3
After an outstanding, multisport high school career, Johnson was recruited to play wide receiver at Montana, but was moved to cornerback the second day of practice. He seems smooth and instinctive on defense, especially when going for the ball. His size and overall athleticism are impressive, but scouts question whether he has the quickness to compete with NFL receivers. And that is still a question after had unofficial 40 times of between 4.50 and 4.61 seconds -- but he confirmed his excellent leaping ability with a 35.5-inch vertical jump. Johnson had some off-field concerns, including missing games for eligibility problems and an arrest last October when police were called to a late-night party and tased Johnson before taking him into custody. In high school, Johnson played quarterback his senior year, throwing for more than 1,800 yards, running for more than 500 yards and scoring 22 touchdowns. But Johnson was selected to the school's Hall of Fame as a defensive back. He was also the team MVP and all-conference pick in basketball as a senior.
1/29 Mark Barron, Alabama, 6-1, 213, 1-2
Barron's rating is a bit tenuous after recent surgery for a double hernia that kept him out of the scouting combine and Alabama's March 7 pro day workouts. A consensus All-American and All-SEC player, Barron was a leader in Alabama's devastating, No. 1-ranked defense. If his feet were as quick as his instincts, he would be a great free safety, but Barron is built like and plays like an outstanding strong safety. He has exceptional read-and-react skills, gets a quick jump on passes and has great hand-eye coordination going for the ball. All this somewhat compensates for his lack of great speed. On run support, Barron plays with a good balance of patience and aggression that keeps or puts him in the middle of plays that others might overrun. While he does make the occasional big hit, Barron is more of a textbook tackler. Barron was arrested in March of last year after police believed he was not telling the truth regarding a one-car accident in his hometown of Mobile.
2/66 Harrison Smith, Notre Dame, 6-2, 213, 2
Invited to the combine as a free safety, there is still debate whether he can play there or may be more suitable for strong safety or even outside linebacker. He played mostly strong safety at Notre Dame, but at the combine he had a free safety-like unofficial 40 time of 4.57. He has the size to play somewhere, but his game is less than refined, so he is probably destined to be a special teams standout until he finds a position -- if he finds a position. His speed is of the straight line variety and he is less than fluid as an athlete, but he is competitive. Smith had an excellent 2010 season with 91 tackles, seven interceptions then last year as team captain, he added 90 tackles, one forced fumble and 10 pass breakups but no interceptions.
3/67 George Iloka, Boise State, 6-4, 225, 2-3
Here is another interesting combination of size, speed and strength who needs to find a position. He was listed as a free safety at the scouting combine, where he proved to be a strong free safety with 20 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press. Iloka also was clocked in unofficial 40-yard time of 4.66 seconds. He shows excellent skills in various zone and man coverages, and his unusual size will allow him to physically deal with the NFL's biggest wide receivers. His presence gave Boise State a lot of versatility on defense, where he started his final 45 games, lined up as both a safety and a cornerback and finished his career with 231 tackles and seven interceptions.
Frank Cooney is the publisher of NFLDraftScout.com, distributed by The Sports Xchange.