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2016 NFL Draft: Top 10 cornerback prospects

Teams can always invest in more cornerbacks in the current pass-heavy NFL, regardless of how good the starters may look.  A strong rotation

Teams can always invest in more cornerbacks in the current pass-heavy NFL, regardless of how good the starters may look.  A strong rotation, especially should injuries hit, is a must.  Fortunately, this is a good looking class at the top end of the draft, with a lot of depth to be had in the later rounds.  There should be some excellent value to be had in the last couple of rounds and perhaps even into free agency afterward.  For now, this is a more in-depth look at the top ten ranked prospects at the position in our rankings.   Sr = Senior, Jr = Junior, So = Sophomore.  An “r” prefix indicates a redshirt year (sat out for a year without playing, usually their first year of college).

1. Jalen Ramsey, Florida State, Jr.  6ft 1, 202 lbs.

1st Round Few secondary players get selected in the top 5 of the draft, but Ramsey has an excellent opportunity to do so in 2016.  Blessed with both size, and the versatility to play either at safety or corner, the Seminoles defensive back ticks a lot of boxes for any NFL defensive scheme.  The first freshman to start at cornerback for FSU since Deion Sanders, Ramsey was an instant star, and finishing his first season as the defensive MVP in the team’s national championship win over Auburn.  As a sophomore, Ramsey played as a roaming safety and big nickel, before reverting back to corner this past season after the departures of P.J. Williams and Ronald Darby to the NFL.  The junior has played at a very high level at both spots, combining his instincts and athleticism to be a big playmaker regardless of where he lines up.  Far from completely mistake free, he has shown some deficiencies at both positions.  While playing safety, he occasionally abandoned assignments on poor reads, losing the coverage and generally appearing lost in space once or twice a game.  He seems to have a more natural football IQ for the corner spot, where he has a chance to grow into one of the elite players at the position at the next level.  However, he has proved very susceptible to beats on comeback routes, allowing easy separation frequently when his receiver works back toward his quarterback.  The final question with Ramsey is that despite the good size and build, his functional strength is surprisingly lacking.  One play of note that particularly stood out was from his 2014 film versus Miami, in which the very undersized Philip Dorsett comfortably blocked Ramsey out the way with ease to clear out a running lane that resulted in a touchdown for the Hurricanes.  Overall though, Ramsey is an elite level prospect who surely will be at least a top ten pick.  On top of his versatility on the defence to play corner, safety, nickel, or even down in the box as an additional linebacker, he also excels on special teams coverage units and as an occasional kick returner.  His off-the-charts athletic abilities are so good that he is aiming to make the US Olympics team at long jump.  Despite teams deliberately keeping away from his side of the field where possible, the playmaking DB still managed to put up 22 pass break ups and 3 interceptions in the last two seasons.

2. Vernon Hargreaves, Florida, Jr.  5ft 11, 199 lbs.

1st Round Hargreaves likewise shone early, stepping in to the Gators starting lineup as a true freshman, instantly taking on the top receivers the SEC had to offer and often taking them out of the game.  Corners are better with a confident demeanour and a bit of that indefinable swagger, something that Hargreaves has plenty of.  Trusted out on an island, he doesn’t flinch at taking on the most talented threat an opponent has to offer.  His size has been brought in to question by some scouts and writers, but he’s certainly not too small, and regardless plays bigger.  That has resulted in being chosen as an all-conference corner in each of his three seasons in college.  Hargreaves is excellent in man coverage, with the ability to play both press man and off coverage, as well as lining up inside or outside.  He is an impressive athlete, with the fluidity and balance to stick tightly to his man, and the speed to cover deep.  His route recognition means he is rarely caught out of position, and his superb anticipation results in frequently jumping in front of receivers to make plays on the ball.  That awareness and vision has resulted in ten career interceptions.  Though he’s prone to the occasional bad angle, overall Hargreaves offers an all-round game by impressing in run support as well.  His closing speed and physicality to hit hard is consistently effective.  He may not have the same measurables and upside of Ramsey, but his film is arguably as good if not better, and won’t last on the board too much longer either.

3. Eli Apple, Ohio State, rSo.  6ft 1, 200 lbs.

1st Round Apple will enter the NFL as a redshirt sophomore, but one with 27 starts over two seasons.  He earned a starting job in 2014 and immediately looked as if he’d been playing for years, proving to be an impact player on the team’s way to a national title that year.  His ability to position himself relative to the receiver he is covering and field awareness are clearly very natural to him, in particularly showing good understanding of situations such as when he has safety help over the top or to utilise the sideline as an extra defender.  Despite that, Apple still needs to improve the use of his hands and how he applies his ideal size and physicality.  He does tend to be a bit of a pass interference threat, more so than he actually ends up being called on.  He’s young though at just 20 years old, and can improve on that area.  Vikings corner Xavier Rhodes had similar issues at a similar size as Apple when entering the league, and has improved as a pro.  Apple likely isn’t going to time among the fastest at the combine, and probably doesn’t have the true top end deep speed desired.  He shouldn’t be considered slow by any means though; he won’t be seen getting beat bad often.  An area that could use work, slightly surprisingly given his physical style, is his tackling.  Apple is disappointingly inconsistent in the run game and at wrapping up when in position, whiffing badly at times on his attempts.  Most redshirt sophomores entering the NFL are a bit behind either in their physical development or their experience, but Apple has next-level size, two years of playing at a high level against good opposition in the Big-10, and big game experience with his success in the post-season playoffs.

4. Mackensie Alexander, Clemson, rSo.  5ft 10, 195 lbs.

1st Round Alexander has taken a similar path to this point as Apple.  Taking a redshirt year initially in 2013, he earned a starting role in 2014 and has put together two excellent years before declaring for the draft as a redshirt sophomore.  He doesn’t have the ideal height desired, but is about as solidly built on that frame as he probably could be.  What he does have without question is fantastic athleticism, with both the straight line speed and short area quickness to excel in man coverage.  As a result, Alexander was rarely tested all season long in 2015 with quarterbacks choosing to avoid he side of the field as much as they could.  While it’s still slightly disappointing as he’s had opportunities, it does partly explain the unusual stat that will see Alexander enter the NFL as a possible first round corner without a single interception over his college career.  While his ability to stick tightly to receivers is very impressive and scares off QB’s from throwing his way, on the occasions they do, Alexander can give up some completions.  He rarely actually makes a break on the ball, and could do with working on getting his head around and become the receiver.  It’ll be interesting to see what his hands are like in practice drills at the combine given that we’ve yet to see him ever snag one out of the air to this point.  He’s not going to be an ideal fit for every team, including many who look for more height for their outside corners.  He’ll therefor be looked at as a nickel only on some boards.  Few however can match his coverage skills, and this is a hard working player both on and off the field with an aggressive, tenacious game.

5. LeShaun Sims, Southern Utah, rSr.  6ft 0, 201 lbs.

2nd Round I’m fully trusting my gut on this one.  Nothing I’ve seen so far tells me anything that says Sims shouldn’t be right up there in this year’s cornerback class.  He does come from the FCS level, but played superbly over his career and in particularly his senior season.  He was an East-West Shrine player as opposed to a Senior Bowl player, but stood up and stood out in practices there too.  He’s going to surprise a few people and open some eyes at the combine soon as well.  At 6ft tall and 200 lbs, he could well run in the 4.3’s in the 40 yard dash at that size, a time he’s achieved before.  Sims has all the measurables desired in an NFL corner, but importantly has the skills on film to back it up; the athleticism translates to the field.  Sims can play both man and zone comfortably, as well as press and off coverage.  In press, he is physical at the line, gets his hands on his receiver early to attempt to disrupt the route then can turn and run stride for stride down the field.  His reactions to breaks in routes are quick, not allowing separation very often.  His overall demeanour and presence on the field is one of confidence and control, looking composed.  It’s clear in his play that he fully trusts his own skills.  When he is targeted, Sims has the ball skills to make break ups, with 10 in his senior year to go with a pair of interceptions.  He uses his size well in run support, hitting hard and consistently wrapping up well, chipping in with 54 tackles in total in 2015.  Awarding him a second round grade is high, but everything in his abilities both mental and physical suggest a future starting NFL corner.  Josh Norman was likewise a small school Shrine game player and an eventual day 3 pick who is now proving a bargain.  Sims could be next to follow suit.

6. Kendall Fuller, Virginia Tech, Jr.  6ft 0, 197 lbs.

2nd Round The baby of the family is headed to the NFL, the last in a long line of Fuller brothers.  Vincent (retired), Corey (Lions) and Kyle (Bears’ 2014 1st pick) all entered the NFL via the Hokies, but Kendall has been touted by some as the best of the bunch.  He certainly impressed early on, with his size, speed and ball-hawking skills on show his true freshman season, piling up the stats with 11 pass break ups and 6 interceptions.  He followed that up with another big season statistically in 2014 with 54 tackles, 15 break ups and 2 INTs.  Though the numbers again looked good for that sophomore season, the film tells a slightly different story overall.  Interspersed between the big highlight reel moments were far too many busted plays and bad beats.  Fuller is very hit or miss, and as a result considered him to be a bit over-rated with too much being read in to his impressive numbers and turning a blind eye to the glaring errors he continued to make all year.  On top of that, Fuller has a tendency to panic when beaten early in the route, grabbing and jumping all over the receiver for obvious pass interference penalties.  His junior season in 2015 was a bit of a disaster all round.  Despite having a meniscus knee injury to start the year, Fuller played but struggled.  Against Ohio State in the season opener, he was schooled on multiple occasions by Buckeyes receiver Michael Thomas, including giving up an embarrassing TD.  Two games later against a poor Purdue offense, he again had a number of instances where he was out of position and only bad throws prevented those errors from being exploited.  After that, Fuller conceded defeat and was forced to undergo surgery on the injured knee, ending his season.  Despite that, the junior corner chose to enter the 2016 NFL draft regardless.  It was a disappointing way for his college career to end.  Even though his film shows a lot of issues, there is no question what Fuller has in spades: traits.  The foundation skill set to work with and develop is all there in terms of his physical skills and speed, along with his ball skills.  The awareness, play-reading ability and consistency need a lot of work, but there is a high ceiling potentially.

7. KeiVarae Russell, Notre Dame, Sr.  5ft 11, 196 lbs.

3rd Round It’s been quite the rollercoaster career with the Irish for Russell.  After impressing early on, Russell found himself suspended due to an academic dishonesty incident.  He had to await reinstatement by the NCAA, and was eventually allowed to return to play in the 2015 season.  He could have attempted to petition the NCAA if he wanted to try and return for another season, but chose not to do so and instead enter the 2016 draft.  Even after being allowed to return for this past season, it was a year not without its own problems.  He had some struggles getting back into game sharpness early on, and later admitted that he didn’t work hard enough during his year off and initially after his reinstatement.  That has to be a bit of an additional concern, to keep him motivated to put the work in, which he’ll need to do to make it in the NFL.  Add that on top of the academic incident, and he’s going to have to impress in his interviews to alleviate concerns about his character.  He did get back to some good form mid-season, and had a particularly standout performance vs USC, in which he was matched up regularly with their excellent receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster.  Unfortunately, his season came to a premature end, breaking his right leg and missing the last two games of the year.  If he can’t get healthy in time to work out for scouts pre-draft, then that will be another thing working against him.  Looking past all these various issues though, there is a really talented corner with a lot of potential.  Had he been able to build on his first couple seasons, he might have been pushing for a top 50 pick.  Russell is a very well built athlete with both the speed and quick change of direction movement.  He runs fluidly, both in his back pedal and when flipping his hips to run deep.  While his work ethic during his time off was in question, it’s not on the field.  So many times in his film, Russell can be seen flying on to the screen from the other side of the field to bring down receivers who have broken away, preventing touchdowns with his excellent hustle.  He keeps good contact with his assignment, and rarely falls for double moves.  He’s a strong tackler, totalling 60 tackles and two forced fumbles in his 11 games this year.  There is a risk element with Russell, but he has day 2 talent.

8. Eric Murray, Minnesota, Sr.  5ft 11, 198 lbs.

3rd Round There’s no real wow-factor about Murray and his game, but this is about as steady a player as you could find to select in the third round or so.  Murray fits the “low ceiling, high floor” category, as someone who will likely not ever threaten to be one of the top corners in the league, but does everything well with no obvious weaknesses to his game, and should be around as a pro for a long time.  He is a smart, high football IQ player with the versatility to play outside or over the slot, in press or off coverage.  He has outstanding field awareness and route recognition that makes him difficult to shake in coverage.  He may not come with blazing speed, but has more than sufficient athleticism and uses his anticipation and polished technique to win more often than not.  As well as the reliable, disciplined play in coverage, Murray is strong in run support too.  He has long been known as an impressive special teams player, an area where he’ll continue to excel for an NFL team, and he brings that physicality to his tackling as well, with 135 tackles in the past two seasons.  Murray brings a strong work ethic and competitive intensity, who will step in immediately as an asset on special teams, and should work his way into the defensive rotation before long too.

9. Taveze Calhoun, Mississippi State, rSr.  6ft 0, 182 lbs.

3rd Round An experienced three-year starter in the SEC, Calhoun is an under-valued prospect with excellent pedigree.  His teammate on the other side Will Redmond receives more attention for his highlight reel plays and high-energy style, but arguably it’s Calhoun who offers more when projecting to the next level.  He may be a little light and skinny, but he has good height for the position and is a smooth athlete.  While the weight on his frame is in question, he plays exceptionally tough, always getting stuck in to the run game and hitting hard like a linebacker.  His reactions and closing speed are a strong part of his game, and few corners in this class can match his love to make a big hit.  His coverage work needs some better consistency, but he has the movement, speed and anticipation to make plays with some room still for improvement.  Working against him a bit is his potential durability.  Calhoun may play physical, but his thin body seemed too often to be carrying minor injuries and niggles, and he required off-season surgery on his ankle ligaments prior to his senior season.  This is a high character guy who works hard on and off the field, regularly being awarded for his academics as a student athlete, and brings a nice all-round skill set to the position.  I’m surprised to see how under-the-radar he has been this year.

10. Artie Burns, Miami (FL), Jr.  6ft 0, 193 lbs.

4th Round From a football perspective, it would have been preferred for Burns to return to college for his senior season and continue to improve a very raw game as it stands right now.  However, it is understandable given his personal situation away from the field to look to begin earning from a pro contract.  With his dad incarcerated and his mother having passed away, Burns not only has custody of his two younger brothers, but a son of his own that he is raising as well.  As mentioned, Burns’ game is very raw.  He’s an outstanding athlete who will run one of the fastest times at the combine, as he has true world class speed and is a track star in the hurdles.  At the moment, that speed doesn’t fully translate to the field in pads.  Without knowing he has that ability, it would be possible to miss it while watching his film.  The straight line speed is good, but he negates it at times by taking poor angles, roundabout routes to the ball carrier and lacking sharp quick-twitch changes of direction.  He doesn’t really look like a natural out there at corner, and might just lack the ideal football IQ and feel for playing the position that could always leave him as a perennial prospect.  What he certainly has is superb ball skills, like that of a wide receiver.  Burns does a great job when in position to attack the ball in the air, adjust his body, and grab the ball at full stretch.  That resulted in Burns being one of the leaders in the nation for picks, with 6 interceptions in 2015.  Given that he’ll need some work to develop, it’ll be interesting to see who ends up drafting him, and how high.  His rare athletic traits might push him up further than his play on the field truly warrants.  

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Rebecca Rennie

Hello all, I'm Rebecca, also going by Bex, and I am the RealSport College Football Editor, as well as writer and NFL Draft analyst.  I also edit other sports including the CFL, cycling and golf, while occasionally contributing to the NFL section as well.  I'm a fan of most sports and enjoy discussing with fellow fans, so do please comment on articles and interact.  A big fan of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and of the Central Florida Knights in college.

2016 NFL Draft: Top 10 cornerback prospects

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