By Russ Lande
With the Seahawks winning the Super Bowl behind a great defense with a big secondary, many have pointed to NFL teams now wanting to find tall cornerbacks. However, NFL teams have always been searching for cornerbacks who are more than six feet tall and have the hips and speed to cover NFL receivers.
Richard Sherman was a raw cornerback prospect coming out of Stanford, but at 6-foot-2 ½ and 194 pounds with athleticism usually seen only in smaller cornerbacks, he has evolved into a star. If you look at the cornerbacks selected in the first round over the last 10 years, you see many who were drafted because they were over six feet and very athletic despite not being great college players. NFL teams hoped they could coach their size and athleticism well enough that they would become productive starters, but all too often they failed. As the search continues, here are the 2014 draft's best bets to follow Sherman's path:
1. Stanley Jean-Baptiste, Nebraska, 6-foot-2 3/8, 215 pounds.
Possessing great cornerback height and good all-around athleticism, Baptiste was an up-and-down player at Nebraska until his final season, when the light seemed to go on. Blessed with better agility and hip flexibility than most tall cornerbacks, he is able to flip his hips to turn and run with receivers from press alignment and can stay on their hip in trail coverage. Most impressive is his ability to change directions and close quickly on passes from off and zone alignments, as this is usually a weakness for tall corners.
While not a burner, Baptiste eased many concerns about his quickness and speed with a strong week of practice at the Senior Bowl, where he was able to adjust to receiver's cuts easily and displayed the speed to run with them down the field. Although his body of work at Nebraska is that of a third- or fourth-rounder, with his height, athleticism and performance at the Senior Bowl, I expect him to be off the board by the end of the second round at the latest, even though he turns 24 in April.
2. Pierre Desir, Lindenwood, 6-foot-1 1/8, 195 pounds.
A big fish in a small pond at Lindenwood, Desir strutted his stuff in Tampa with a great week of practice at the East-West Shrine Game, which definitely grabbed the attention of the NFL as he was then invited to participate in the Senior Bowl the following week. Although he came to Mobile after a long week in Tampa, he picked up right where he left off and was one of the best corners all week. His footwork needs a ton of work, as he tends to be flat-footed in his backpedal, gets wide and takes extra steps when he transitions. However, he is a quick and explosive athlete, so despite bad footwork, when he reads the pass/route well he can close very fast, although it will be harder to get away with in the NFL.
No one will ever mistake Desir for a violent hitter, but he will fight through blocks to make tackles, which is not common amongst cornerbacks. He will need work on his jam and footwork, but in terms of talent I would be surprised if Desir is not selected on the second day of the draft.
3. Walt Aikens, Liberty, 6-foot-0 5/8, 205 pounds.
After he had two excellent weeks of practice at the East-West Shrine Game and the Senior Bowl, I was surprised when Aikens was not invited to the combine, as he is definitely a better prospect than many of the cornerbacks who were invited. However, based on what I saw on game film and the practice field at those games, Aikens has the talent to start in the NFL. Tremendous foot quickness and agility help him to close explosively on passes in front of him, and he uses his length extremely well to reach in front of receiver to break up passes.
Aikens consistently displayed a willingness to play physical in tight coverage and did not hesitate to bump with receivers during their routes to throw off timing, but he needs to improve his strength so that he can be more effective jamming the stronger receivers he will face in the NFL. While I believe his talent warrants being a second-day draft pick, the fact that he was not invited to the combine likely means he will be a great value pick in the fourth or fifth round.
4. Keith McGill, Utah, 6-foot-3, 214 pounds.
McGill is the most frustrating cornerback on this list because he is bigger and more athletic than any of them, but in the games I evaluated he did not display the competitiveness, aggressiveness or instincts necessary to make it in the NFL. With his height/length he was surprisingly good at flipping his hips to turn and run with receivers off the line after jamming them, but he did not jam consistently and too often allowed an easy release, and I rarely saw any burst or explosiveness from him despite an occasional flash. His backpedal is choppy and raw, and combined with what I perceive to be questionable instincts, he was usually a beat late reacting to passes in front of him.
When in good coverage position, he has good ball skills and showed the ability to reach in front of receivers to break up passes without committing penalties. Although a cornerback's ability to cover receivers is most important, it is always a big red flag when a big cornerback does not fight to get off blocks and shows little interest in making tackles. McGill will likely be drafted in the fourth or fifth round because of his combination of size and athleticism, but I do not get the impression that he will develop from an athlete to a cornerback and become more than a backup, especially because he is this raw and already 25 years old.
5. Dontae Johnson, North Carolina State, 6-foot-2, 199 pounds.
While finishing his career playing safety in 2013 would normally be a concern, not only did Johnson play cornerback earlier in his college career, but he was often asked to step up and cover in man coverage from his safety alignment in his final season. Naturally instinctive, Johnson is able to read and react quickly to plays, which helps him overcome his lack of quick-twitch athleticism and top-end speed. He knows how to use his size and length to cut off and shield receivers and has the ball skills to break up passes.
Unlike the corners listed above, he does not have the hips and flexibility to change directions in a flash to adjust to sharp routes, which is why I think he would struggle at safety and in playing a lot of off and zone coverage in the NFL but would be ideal for a team that plays a lot of press man coverage. What gives Johnson a better chance to develop is his experience and production on special teams. I do not expect Johnson to be a high draft pick, but a team will take a chance on him on Day Three.
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Russ Lande writes about college scouting and the NFL draft for Sports on Earth. He is GM jr. scouting and college scouting director for the CFL's Montreal Alouettes and the Big Ten. Network. He is a former scout for the Cleveland Browns and former scouting administrator for the St. Louis Rams. You can follow him@RUSSLANDE.