Cornerbacks are position players teams will draft in the first round. Every team is searching for that lockdown corner to match up with the elite receivers, or at least hold his own so the team can blitz or double someone else.
In the last three years there have been 12 corners selected in the first round and this year should be no exception IF the top four corners answer all the questions during the combine and the other measuring tools in the process leading up to the April NFL Draft.
I could make a case that 11 teams should consider a corner in the first round if one was high on their draft board when their turn comes. Whether the following teams select a corner will be based on other needs, strengths in the draft, and of course where in the first round a team is selecting.
At any rate it isn't hard to understand that the Eagles, Lions, Browns, Chargers, Dolphins, Buccaneers, Panthers, Saints, Bengals, Texans, and Broncos will all pay close attention to the corners when they work out at the combine in Indianapolis. Right now it looks like four corners, at best, will wind up with first-round grades if they don't disappoint during the drills.
Historically, the 12 corners taken in the first round over the last three drafts averaged 4.42 in the 40-yard dash and 4.10 in the 20-yard short shuttle. Corners need speed and change of direction when they get to the NFL, and unlike some other positions, corners need to run. Right now there are questions about the top four corners in this draft when it comes to speed and quickness.
Dee Milliner (Alabama), Xavier Rhodes (Florida State), Desmond Trufant (Washington), and Johnthan Banks (Mississippi State) all pass the eye test for size and played well on their college game tapes, which I have watched, but are they fast enough?
Rhodes said, "How I perform at the combine will determine if I'm a first-round selection."
He's right, because the 6-foot-2, 205-pound corner has the long arms and ball skills to make plays on the ball if he hasn't been beat by speed first. If Rhodes runs a pedestrian 40 time some will look at him as a safety or a cover-two corner. Either way his stock will drop.
Milliner is a fine football player but he's headed for shoulder surgery right after the combine and will not perform at the Alabama pro day. That makes his combine 40 time a valuable piece of information. He needs to run in the low 4.4s if he wants to remain a top-10 selection. Three of the teams looking for a premier corner are in the top 10 of this draft and they need to feel great about Milliner by the end of the combine. At least three teams in the top 10 are eagerly awaiting his workout.
Desmond Trufant was smart to go to the Senior Bowl and let the NFL people watch him work for a week. Coaches have a comfort level with him already, and in the Senior Bowl game he answered some questions about his pure speed when he caught a kick returner from behind in the open field.
Banks didn't finish the 2012 season as strong as teams would have liked and then he withdrew from the Senior Bowl. He needs to make his move on the combine field in all the running drills. He should still be a first-round selection but needs to run well just like the other three corners.
Obviously, not every team is going to satisfy its corner needs in free agency or the first round of the draft, so here are three corners to keep an eye on during the combine who I liked during the Senior Bowl week and on tape when I watched them in games:
- Robert Alford (SE Louisiana): He has speed, ball skills and competes all the time. I like him in the second round.
- Jordan Poyer (Oregon State): He isn't as fast as Alford, but has a real knack for locating the ball. He reminds me of Bill Bentley from the year before who was drafted by the Lions in the third round.
- B.W. Webb (William and Mary): Webb has return skills, slot-corner quickness and can leap to overcome his 5-10 height.
Finally, every team in the NFL is trying to build what the Seattle Seahawks have created with four big secondary players who are physical and can take away the passing game in man-coverage schemes. The four corners at the top of this draft all have Seahawk size, but can they run like the guys out in the Northwest?