This is the sixth installment of a position-by-position preview of the 2018 NFL Draft. Check out previous installments: running backs, wide receivers, tight ends, offensive tackles and interior offensive linemen.
Overview: There were 34 cornerbacks drafted in 2017, the most players at any position. That’s not a surprise given how much teams are throwing the ball. Former Bills general manager Doug Whaley believed in drafting at least one cornerback every year, which stands up as one of his few good ideas.
The good news for teams in need of a cornerback this year is that it’s a strong year at the position. Four or five cornerbacks could go in the first round, and plenty more will be Day 2 picks. Grade: A-.
“The cornerback class is a deep and talented pool of athletes that can line up at a variety of alignments,” Pro Football Focus analyst Sam Monson wrote in his preview of the position.
“The 2018 class lacks the top-end talent of last year’s group, with no obvious Marshon Lattimore-type among them,” USA Today Draft Wire editor Luke Easterling wrote in his positional preview. “There are some intriguing prospects in this year’s crop, though, from big athletes with long arms to feisty, undersized defenders who could start immediately in the slot.”
The best: Denzel Ward, Ohio State. The Buckeyes have been loaded at cornerback recently, with Ward following 2017 first-round picks Lattimore and Gareon Conley. Playing behind those two meant Ward’s snaps were limited in 2016, but he broke out this past season, being named a first-team All-American after finishing with 37 tackles, two interceptions and 15 passes defensed. He’s not real big at 5-foot-10, 191 pounds, but ran the 40 at the NFL Scouting Combine in 4.32 seconds.
“I would say my speed separates myself from other players,” Ward said. “Other than speed, my footwork at the line of scrimmage and my ability to be able to mirror receivers and stay in the hip pocket of receivers.”
Bills view: Buffalo’s list of pre-draft visitors shows that General Manager Brandon Beane is keeping a close eye on the position. If Beane keeps the 12th and 22nd picks and doesn’t move up for a quarterback, cornerback will be a consideration in the first round. If the Bills actually make all six of their scheduled picks in the first three rounds, it would be a surprise if one of them wasn’t on a cornerback.
The team did not re-sign nickel cornerback Leonard Johnson, so there is an immediate job opening in what amounts to a starting role. Additionally, veteran Vontae Davis is on a one-year contract and has to show he can stay healthy.
Ward, Louisville’s Jaire Alexander, LSU’s Donte Jackson and Iowa’s Josh Jackson have all made pre-draft visits to Buffalo. Donte Jackson is considered a second-round prospect by nfl.com, while the other three project as first-round picks. In the case of Ward, he might not be available to the Bills at pick No. 12. Josh Jackson and Alexander could be around at pick 22.
Central Florida’s Mike Hughes hasn’t made a publicized pre-draft visit, but he would figure to be a consideration at No. 22, as well.
Colorado’s Isaiah Oliver, Auburn’s Carlton Davis, Alabama’s Anthony Averett, North Carolina’s M.J. Stewart and Florida’s Duke Dawson are all second- or third-round prospects. Dawson also made a pre-draft visit to Orchard Park.
Averett, the nephew of former NFL left tackle Bryant McKinnie, had the best long jump in the country in high school (25 feet, 2 inches) and also won New Jersey state titles in the 55-meter dash and high jump.
Dawson earned playing time as a true freshman for the Gators, which is impressive in a secondary with plenty of NFL talent. He led Florida with four interceptions in 2017 and projects best as a slot cornerback at the professional level.
A quick study: Iowa’s Jackson has been playing cornerback since only 2015 after switching over from wide receiver. He’s been a starter for only one season.
“I think the most intriguing corner in this draft is … Josh Jackson,” NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said. “He had eight interceptions. He’s only been a D-back for two years. He’s a wide receiver coming into the program. He’s instinctive, he’s got some length.”
Jackson has drawn comparisons to 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman. In addition to his eight interceptions in 2017, Jackson finished with a whopping 26 passes defensed.
“What I like about him is he can play zone,” Mayock said. “He understands what the No. 2 and 3 receivers are doing when he’s out on No. 1. He’s got great eyes, great instincts, and he trusts them. It’s rare when you get a corner that has great instincts.”
Sleeper: Heath Harding, Miami (Ohio). The 5-foot-10, 188-pounder is called the “Mayor” by his teammates and coaches. He plays with an ultra-aggressive style that Bills coach Sean McDermott will appreciate.
TOP 10 CORNERBACKS
1. Denzel Ward*, Ohio State. 5-10, 191. Plays a physical style that will have to be dialed down in the NFL.
2. Josh Jackson*, Iowa. 6-1, 192. Can give up the big play at times, allowing four touchdowns in 2017.
3. Mike Hughes*, Central Florida. 5-11, 191. The longest pass he allowed all season was 21 yards.
4. Isaiah Oliver*, Colorado. 6-0, 195. Has 17 passes defensed over the past two seasons.
5. Jaire Alexander*, Louisville, 5-11, 192. Limited to seven games in 2017 because of injuries.
6. Donte Jackson*, LSU. 5-11, 175. He’s got a thin frame that will be a concern for some teams.
7. Carlton Davis*, Auburn. 6-1, 203. Cut his missed tackles down from 12 in 2016 to two last year.
8. M.J. Stewart, North Carolina. 6-0, 200. Set a program record with 41 passes defensed for his career.
9. Anthony Averett, Alabama. 6-0, 185. Had just one interception the past two years on 121 targets.
10. Duke Dawson, Florida. 5-10, 202. Projects as an early contributor as a pro in the slot.