This is the fifth in a seven-part series previewing the NFL draft. Today's installment: defensive backs.
Teams stock up on cornerbacks in the NFL draft to a greater degree than ever before.
An average of 32.6 cornerbacks has been taken in the draft over the past five years. Over the first five rounds, an average of 23.6 corners has been picked. That's up from the previous five years. From 2002 through 2006, the number of corners drafted averaged 25.8, and the average for the first five rounds was 18.8.
More passing in the NFL means a greater need to find players to defend receivers. This year's draft will be no different. Two dozen cornerbacks will likely be taken in the first five rounds.
"There is a whole bunch of players that are in that second-, third-round range, and I think the depth is great," ESPN analyst Todd McShay told reporters on a national conference call. "You can almost get the same quality player in the third round as you can get in the second."
The Buffalo Bills are likely to take a corner or two during the draft.
"I think you've got to always look at corners -- always, always, always," said Bills General Manager Buddy Nix. "It wasn't this year as much as it was the year before, when we lost two or three. Terrence [McGee] went down, Leodis [McKelvin] went down. You can never have enough quality corners on a football team, because they're special-teams players, too. I think corner is deep in this draft."
At least three cornerbacks are expected to go in the first round. Louisiana State's Morris Claiborne is the top player, a big, all-around cover guy. The next two are South Carolina's Stephon Gilmore and Alabama's Dre Kirkpatrick.
Gilmore is big, physical and fast. He ran a 4.40 time in the 40-yard dash and might be a tad better in man coverage than Kirkpatrick, who ran a 4.51 in the 40. North Alabama's Janoris Jenkins is as talented as Kirkpatrick and Gilmore, but he has off-the-field question marks. He was booted off the University of Florida team after three years after he was arrested three times.
"When you look at the cornerback position, it's a hard group to evaluate because a lot of the guys that we initially thought were going to run well and had the speed, did not run well," said NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock. "There are a lot of good players at big schools, but they're not elite players. There are a lot of players that appear to be better from smaller schools."
"I think what we'll see is teams trying to take [a lot of] corners because of the proliferation of all the spread sets and safeties coming down on tight ends and slots," Mayock said. "There aren't a lot of natural safeties in this draft that can cover a slot, and I think you'll start to see those bigger corners where teams start to look at them and say, 'Is he tough enough and smart enough to play inside?' "
Besides Jenkins, cornerbacks who could go in the second round include Central Florida's Josh Robinson, Virginia Tech's Jayron Hosley, Montana's Trumaine Johnson and Georgia's Brandon Boykin. Robinson ran a 4.33-second 40-yard dash, fastest of any player at the NFL Scouting Combine. Hosley led the nation in 2010 with nine interceptions but may have some medical question marks. Johnson has great size, but he didn't run great in the postseason. Boykin scored five return TDs at Georgia and averaged 26.0 yards on kickoff returns.
Dwight "Bill" Bentley of Louisiana-Lafayette is a second- or third-rounder who ran 4.43 and started 45 college games.
The list of guys who could go in the third or fourth rounds is long. It includes: Oklahoma's Jamell Fleming, Nebraska's Alfonzo Dennard (who has medical questions), Virginia's Chase Minnifield, Vanderbilt's Casey Hayward, Arizona State's Omar Bolden (who missed 2011 with a knee injury), Texas A&M's Coryell Judie, Louisiana State's Ron Brooks (who ran 4.37) and Iowa State's Leonard Johnson.
The safety position is weak this year. The best is Alabama's Mark Barron, who is a first-round talent.