This is the last in a nine-part series previewing the NFL Draft on April 30-May 2. Today’s installment: Defensive backs.
News Sports Reporter
Before every game he played at the University of Alabama, safety Landon Collins sought inspiration from watching video of the NFL player he idolized, the late Sean Taylor, in action.
“Always,” Collins said, making it clear that the ritual was every bit as important as any other phase of his preparation.
Taylor, a former standout safety for the Washington Redskins who was murdered at age 24 by intruders at his South Florida home, is also the reason Collins wore No. 26 for the Crimson Tide. That was Taylor’s number at the University of Miami.
“That’s my model,” Collins said. “His physical presence and passion for the game, you could see it every time he touched the field.”
Collins’ physical presence is one of the main reasons he’s viewed as the best safety and one of the top defensive backs in the NFL Draft. He’s expected to be the only safety selected in the first round – representing one of the thinnest positions in the draft – and therefore well out of reach of the safety needy Buffalo Bills, whose first pick isn’t until the second round.
At 6-foot and 228 pounds, Collins could actually function as a small linebacker in some defenses.
“He’s at his best inside the box,” ESPN’s Todd McShay said. “He’s got some limitations in terms of man-to-man coverage. He’s got good straight-line speed. He can cover in deep half-field coverage, two-high safety coverage. I don’t know that you trust him as the single-high safety.
“In run support, he’s outstanding. He’s got some playmaking skills. He can sift through traffic in the box. He’s a late first-round pick in my estimation.”
Collins is one of four defensive backs to whom most draft analysts give a solid first-round grade. The others are cornerbacks Trae Waynes of Michigan State, Kevin Johnson of Wake Forest, and Byron Jones of Connecticut.
By most accounts, Marcus Peters of Washington is the most gifted cornerback of the college crop, but he could fall out of the first round because he was kicked off the Washington team after a practice altercation with an assistant coach and other run-ins with the coaching staff. Before being dismissed, Peters was suspended for one game for throwing a sideline tantrum after drawing a personal foul penalty.
Other cornerbacks viewed as first- to second-round talents are Ronald Darby of Florida State and Eric Rowe of Utah.
Jim Monos, the Bills’ director of player personnel, considers it a good cornerback class.
“I think the best thing about this class of corners is they all have size now,” he said. “This is a big group of corners this year, and that’s always fun when you’re evaluating big corners because receivers keep on getting bigger.”
Several of the cornerback prospects stand 6 feet or taller. The 6-0, 197-pound Peters is easily the most intriguing, because were it not for his off-field issues, he would likely be ranked at the top of the position list. He told reporters during last February’s NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis that he returned to Washington and made amends with the coaches. He also said he has been straightforward with NFL teams in discussing what led to his dismissal.
“I made some immature decisions at the University of Washington and it hurt me truly,” Peters said. “So I’ve just got to learn from my mistakes and I grow from it.”
“There’s a chance Peters falls because of the behavioral issues, but I think he’s the best pure cover corner in this draft,” McShay said. “When I watch him, you see the instincts. I think he’s highly confident in what he’s doing. He understands how he has to read receivers and then get his eyes back to the quarterback. And he has great ball skills, too. Natural playmaker.”
Still, there are other corners in the draft who share similar traits, including Waynes.
This is what the Pro Football Now Draft Guide has to say about the former Michigan State star: “Can play man coverage vs. big receivers. Needs to add strength and bulk so he can shed and tackle better. Has good ball skills and a short memory; doesn’t let mistakes bother him. Will be one of the first corners drafted and will play right away.”
Another intriguing prospect is Jones, who struggled last year largely due to a shoulder injury he suffered during the preseason and reinjured during the season. However, he played exceptionally well in 2013. He ran a 4.4 40-yard dash at his Connecticut Pro Day, and set a combine record for the broad jump at 12 feet, 3 inches.
“This guy has the tools to be great,” McShay said. “His intangibles are outstanding. You saw flashes of it in 2013. His teammates call him ‘Senator Jones’ because he’s all business.”