This is the last in a seven-part series previewing the NFL draft. Today's installment looks at defensive backs.
NFL defensive coordinators have spent many sleepless nights worrying about how to deal with the rising number of NBA-size wide receivers. Fortunately for them, help is on the way.
This year's draft is well stocked with big cornerbacks, guys with the size, speed and coverage skills to match up against the likes of Randy Moss (6-foot-4), Terrell Owens (6-3) and Plaxico Burress (6-5).
The list of 6-foot-plus corners who could be first-round draft picks includes Miami's Antrel Rolle, Auburn's Carlos Rogers, Michigan's Marlon Jackson, Louisiana State's Corey Webster and Oregon State's Brandon Browner.
"We're all looking for bigger corners to cover these big guys and go toe-to-toe with them or you're in trouble," Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Jon Gruden said at the NFL owners meetings last month. "Having size at that position helps a lot."
But size isn't everything at cornerback. Most NFL scouts consider West Virginia's 5-10 junior Adam "Pac-Man" Jones to be the best of the class. Though he lacks ideal size, Jones is coveted because he combines excellent speed, toughness, instincts and playmaking skills.
Jones has the leaping ability and body control to fight for balls in the air. He plays the run well and is a dynamic return specialist.
"There are not many receivers he can't cover," an AFC scout said at the NFL combine. "When it comes to playmaking potential, Pac-Man Jones is as good as it gets. I think he's the No. 1 corner in this draft."
If Jones is No. 1, Rolle is a very close second. At 6-1 and 196 pounds, Rolle has the size and strength to hold his own against big receivers and disrupt their routes. He has good speed and ball skills to make plays downfield.
"I'm very competitive and very confident," Rolle said at the combine. "I'm a big, physical corner that can run. I think I bring the total package to the game."
Rolle is big and rangy enough to be a safety. Some scouts think that's where he'll end up.
But most people agree that cornerback is his natural position. A punishing tackler, he is without peer at his position when it comes to run support.
"Antrel Rolle is one of the most physical corners I've ever evaluated," said Buffalo Bills regional scout Joe Haering. "He tackles like a linebacker."
Rogers probably will be the third corner drafted in Round One. A four-year starter at Auburn, he has the size and toughness to challenge receivers at the line of scrimmage. He's a good athlete with instincts and ball skills to play man-to-man or zone coverage.
Clemson's Justin Miller and Nebraska's Fabian Washington are among the top small corners at 5-10, but both will be drafted early. Miller is aggressive in pass coverage, gets out of his backpedal smoothly and closes on passes in a hurry. Like Jones, Miller is an accomplished return man. Washington has blazing speed, reportedly recording sub 4.3-second times in the 40-yard dash, and a nose for the ball (11 interceptions and 38 passes defensed as a three-year starter).
Webster, Jackson and Browner are built like safeties. Especially the 6-3, 224-pound Browner, who might eventually make the position switch because of a lack of ideal speed. But Webster and Jackson are better suited for cornerback because they have the requisite quickness and cover skills.
The knock on with most big cornerbacks is they can't turn their hips and change direction quickly. And with the NFL's renewed emphasis on illegal contact 5 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, the value of physical cover corners may be diminished.
"There are those that argue it will, but I'm not one of them," Atlanta Falcons General Manager Rich McKay said at the combine. "It might affect the type of cornerback you draft, but not the value. At some point your cornerbacks are going to be on the island, so you'd better have good ones."
The Bills might take a corner at some point in the draft. A good middle-round possibility is Oklahoma's Antonio Perkins, an athletic cover guy who doubles as a record-setting punt returner.
The safety position is very shallow. With Georgia junior Thomas Davis expected to play linebacker in the NFL, Oklahoma's Brodney Pool and Michigan's Ernest Shazor are the best of an otherwise average class. Pool, a potential first-round pick, is a classic center fielder with good range and instincts. Shazor (6-3, 224), a likely second- or third-rounder, is a physical hitter whose long-term position hinges on which team drafts him.