Round-by-round ranking of 2016's best NFL CB prospects
PFF’s positional rankings move on to a examine cornerbacks — one of the most interesting areas of the draft. Last season we were not in love with the top of the cornerback class, but the overall depth of the group was very good. This year, if anything, the reverse is true. The top of the 2016 draft class is loaded with talent, but there isn’t a lot of depth for a team to capitalize on if they miss out on the top talent.
With PFF grading every snap of each of these players over the past two years, we see some intriguing names that won’t appear on most lists of top prospects. Furthermore, some of the more established names fall down and out of the rankings because much of their hype is based purely on fitting a size profile that the NFL chases, rather than legitimate play on the field.
Let’s take a look at the top CBs in the 2016 draft class:
- Jalen Ramsey, FSU
Jalen Ramsey may not be a pure cornerback, but he is the best defensive back in the draft. Whether he becomes more of a safety, hybrid, moveable chess piece on the defense or simply stays as a boundary cornerback, Ramsey has elite, high-level skills and potential. He has strong grades over the past two seasons of work at two different positions, and last year in particular was a wrecking machine against the run and against screens. In total, Ramsey was only beaten for 8.6 yards per reception and one touchdown all season, essentially his first playing at corner. Whatever his position his potential is sky high and he is in the conversation for the No. 1 overall pick in the draft and near enough any spot after that.
- William Jackson III, Houston
If Ramsey is more of a hybrid player, then I think William Jackson III may be the best pure corner in the draft. At 6-foot and 190-pounds, he fits the size profile that several of the other top corners in this draft do not, and he only added to that with a fine combine performance in Indianapolis. Jackson earned the 2nd-highest grade in the draft class both overall and in pure coverage terms. He either intercepted or broke up 18 passes this past season and allowed only 47.4 percent of targets into his coverage to be caught. There are occasional lapses and the odd mental error in his game, but Jackson has huge upside as a shutdown corner if he can smooth those rough edges.
- Vernon Hargreaves III, Florida
The 2014 version of Vernon Hargreaves III posted the best single-season coverage grade we have seen from this draft class over two years. He allowed only one touchdown (to Amari Cooper) and 222 yards all season long. He looked every bit a shutdown corner, albeit one that might occasionally struggle at the catch point against bigger, elite receivers. However, his 2105 season was far less impressive, ranking 30th in the draft class in terms of coverage. He still only allowed one score, but made far fewer plays on the football and was beaten for bigger gains than he had been a year ago. Hargreaves has shown elite play and is at home in man and zone coverage, but his dip in form as well as a less-than-ideal size profile (5-foot-10), will concern some teams.
- Mackensie Alexander, Clemson
There is no other corner whose perceived draft stock has been so all over the map. Once seen as the best corner in the class by many, he was then dropped to the mid rounds and back to the sharp end again. In man coverage he could lock down receivers and allowed just 33.0 percent of passes thrown his way this past season to be caught — the best figure in the nation. In zone he was less assured, and allowed too many free completions underneath, a problem magnified by Clemson’s strange coverages at times. Alexander may be more scheme-specific than the players listed above him (more adept at matching receivers in man coverage) but he’s still a clear first-round player.
- Eli Apple, Ohio State
Another corner benefitting from fitting the size and measurables profile that NFL teams look for in a draft, Eli Apple has been a man-coverage specialist at Ohio State. He can lock on to a receiver and follow him like nobody else in this class, but does so often at the expense of potentially making a play on the ball. Apple often doesn’t even attempt to turn and find the ball, but allowed only 44.6 percent of targets to be caught this season and fewer than 30 catches all year. He isn’t quite at the level of the players above him, but he should make it into the first round as well.
- Kalan Reed, Southern Mississippi
One of the most underrated players in the draft, Southern Mississippi’s Kalan Reed has big time potential, and shot onto people’s radars with an excellent performance at his pro day in which he jumped 41.5 inches in the vertical (which would have tied for the best mark at the combine) and ran a 4.38 40-yard dash time. Add to that the fact that Reed had the third-best PFF coverage grade in the class, notching four picks and 14 PDs over the season, and you have a player that ticks all the boxes. Reed made some of the best plays of the season among the cornerback group and has the potential to be a quality player at the next level
- De’Vante Harris, Texas A&M
There may be no player in the draft with a better break on the ball than De’Vante Harris. He had the fifth-highest coverage grade in the class, and only allowed one touchdown all season long. Harris has some of the slickest movement skills and change of direction of anybody in the class and plays zone coverage particularly well. Has some questions about his top end speed, which a 4.56 40 time at the combine didn’t exactly alleviate, but there is more than enough good in his game to counter any negative. At just under 5-foot-11 and 176 pounds, Harris isn’t the biggest corner around, but he held up against bigger receivers in college and his size won’t significantly drop him down NFL draft boards.
- Cyrus Jones, Alabama
Cyrus Jones is a small (5-foot-10) corner that makes up for his lack of size with feisty aggression. He plays the run better than most corners in this class and doesn’t just settle for position against screens. Jones is a very good corner on most downs with a lot to like about his game, but he has unexplainable lapses where he seems to switch off and ease up. He’s given up 10 touchdowns over the past two seasons and six in 2015 alone.
- Xavien Howard, Baylor
Xavien Howard is all about the potential. The highs in his tape make him look like Richard Sherman, and some team is going to think they can turn him into that kind of player, but the bad is very bad indeed. When he allows players a free release off the line he can be run right past and get in real trouble. His coverage numbers are incredible, but they represent a strange illusion of the tape. He was regularly beaten on plays that, for whatever reason, were either incomplete or the damage was minimized. Against NC State, Howard was beaten badly for what should have been a 75-yard touchdown, but the receiver stepped on the whitewash just 15 yards down field.
- Nick VanHoose, Northwestern
Nick VanHoose was one of the best-graded coverage corners of the past season at PFF, but there are question marks. He played a lot of zone coverage at Northwestern and when he was asked to play man was beaten badly at times, and some of his plays in zone relied on poor quarterback play or bad timing on throws. But the facts remain that he was able to break up 11 passes, intercept another three and only allow 43.8 percent of the passes thrown his way to be caught. A strange, awkward way of moving raises some questions about his athleticism, but he had no combine invite and missed Northwestern’s pro day due to personal reasons, so we have yet to see an answer at time of writing.
- Cre’von LeBlanc, FAU
Another corner in this class that is below the NFL’s watershed figure of 5-foot-10, LeBlanc plays bigger than his 5-foot-9 stature. LeBlanc packs nearly 200 pounds onto that height and is a strong, physical corner. He wasn’t out-muscled by bigger receivers and could run down field with them as well. He has a good feel for zone play, coming off his first man and identifying the second threat. He can move with receivers well, flowing with routes and then fights for the ball at the catch point. LeBlanc allowed only 39.3 percent of passes thrown into his coverage to be caught, and is a guy that could overcome height concerns at the next level.
- Kevin Peterson, Oklahoma State
Injuries blighted Kevin Peterson’s senior season, and that was reflected in his PFF grade (-3.6 coverage grade), but the previous season he performed well (+6.7) and looked like a legitimate prospect. He was a tough player to shake, and only really lost out by failing to look for the ball and trying to only play the receiver, losing out when they adjusted to the ball and he could not. He isn’t the biggest corner in the world, but should have enough size and ability to challenge for the ball in the air to perform at the next level.
- Tavon Young, Temple
Another player whose final season was potentially affected by injury, Young had knee surgery before his final season and was far less effective in 2015 than he had been the previous season. He has size concerns and can be easily outmuscled by bigger receivers and doesn’t necessarily have the fluidity of movement that you want to see in smaller corners. Young is a solid and accomplished corner in college, but how that will translate to the NFL against bigger, better athletes remains to be seen.
- Will Redmond, Mississippi State
In the midst of injury row, Will Redmond saw his final season torpedoed by injury after seven games when he tore his ACL. By that point he had allowed just one touchdown and a passer rating of only 41.0 when targeted by opposing quarterbacks. Through seven games he had allowed only 11 catches, and had three games where he didn’t allow a single reception. He has an exceptionally quick break on the ball, often on the move before the QB even throws the ball, opening himself up to the danger of double moves, but he has impressive upside if he can return 100 percent.
- Terrell Chestnut, West Virginia
Daryl Worley is the higher-touted cornerback prospect from West Virginia, but Terrell Chestnut is the player with the higher PFF coverage grade in 2015 (+5.4 to +4.7) as well as better coverage numbers in most areas. Chestnut allowed half as many touchdowns, was beaten for an average seven yards better than his teammate, allowed a smaller percentage of catches to be caught and surrendered a far better passer rating on those catches. Chestnut didn’t give up a catch longer than 28 yards all season long, and only injuries have really held back his draft stock and potential.
- Kendall Fuller, Virginia Tech
Kendall Fuller is far higher up the draft rankings of most other people, but on tape it’s difficult to see exactly why. Much is made of his bloodlines, as he will be the fourth Fuller brother to make it to the NFL, but none has yet had the kind of career that gets you excited for what Kendall can achieve. His 2014 season was better (with 2015 being injury marred), but even that season he was beaten for 14.5 yards per reception and had five negatively graded games. Fits best in a zone scheme, but might have a definite ceiling to his play.
- Artie Burns, Miami
Another player far lower in the PFF rankings than most other places, Burns has the size and speed profile that the NFL loves, but not necessarily the tape. He has excellent ball skills and can lock receivers down in man coverage, squeezing them to the sideline and at times right off the field, but he doesn’t have a good feel for zone coverage and is very raw and awkward in his technique. He is a player that has potential to be far better than this, but little evidence suggests it’s likely he will ever become that guy.
- Taveze Calhoun, Mississippi State
Plays well but struggles with quickness and fast movements. Had 12th-highest coverage grade in the draft class.
- Eric Murray, Minnesota
It’s impossible to find much to dislike about Eric Murray’s game or tape, but equally it’s tough to find anything he does that really stands out positively. Has decent physical tools but can struggle to change direction with quickness and fluidity. He didn’t allow a touchdown all season (having allowed five in 2014), but only broke up three passes himself and could only grade around averagely overall.
- DJ White, Georgia Tech
As is something of a trend with this draft class, White had a better 2014 than he did 2015 season. That season he was beaten for only 10.1 yards per reception and showed a very good nose for the ball. He has excellent ball skills, attacking the ball well most of the time. If he has a read on it, it’s in danger of being picked off rather than just falling incomplete. White loses his footing untouched at times, which raises concerns over his change of direction skills, and his feel for zone coverage could be more sophisticated. He’s often too late to understand where the threat is coming from.
- KeiVarae Russell, Notre Dame
Coming back from injury in 2015, but can play out wide and in slot. Gets shaken at times. Runs hot or cold.
- Corey Tindal, Marshall
Tindal had positive grades in all three major defensive categories (coverage, run support and pass rush) in both 2014 and 2015, and his film supports the grades. His toughness and versatility makes him an ideal late-round pick for teams needing help in the slot and on special teams.
- Donte Deayon, Boise State
Listed at 5-foot-9 and yet to be measured to prove that at a pro day having been snubbed by the combine, Deayon is the poster-boy for short cornerbacks in this draft. He has positive PFF coverage grades in each of the past two seasons and despite that size has graded well in the run game both years too. He has been an interception machine over the past two seasons and only allowed three touchdowns across 133 targets on the other side of that coin. His size will mean he may have to earn a roster spot with special teams as a return man, but his coverage skills suggest he deserves a chance to prove he can’t play at the NFL level rather than just assuming he can’t.
- Rashard Robinson, LSU
The hype machine on Robinson lost the run of itself when disinformation was put around that he would run a 4.2 40-yard dash time at 6-foot-3 at the combine. In the end he measured at 6-foot-1 and ran a 4.43, which is good but unspectacular. He does have speed to burn, and showed some incredible make-up speed when beat, but was beaten enough that he needed it. Robinson is very raw and inconsistent with his technique, getting too high and losing his balance and footing, but there are few better athletes and measurables profiles in this draft class.
- Trey Caldwell, ULM
Another player at only 5-foot-9, Caldwell shows up pretty lightweight on tape. He is often fended off too easily by bigger receivers and can fall off tackles. He does have the speed and quickness to latch on to receivers and prevent separation and had only one game this season in which he allowed more than 37 receiving yards. Caldwell is another player that may have to prove he can play, or move inside at the next level, because the NFL doesn’t trust 5-foot-9 corners outside.
- Ian Wells, Ohio
Ian Wells is an interesting under-the-radar prospect who doesn’t fit the NFL’s size profile, but put together some very nice play at Ohio. Played both man and zone coverage and had a pretty good feel for both, often falling off his first route to take up the second man in zone coverage and making plays on the ball. Was a little too conservative with his play trying to prevent big catches and could be exploited for cheap yards underneath, and athleticism may be a limiting factor, he but could make an interesting slot corner at the next level.
- Ronnie Harris, Stanford
Ronnie Harris didn’t have a single interception in his college career. In fact, if you include his senior year in high school, he has three picks in five seasons of play. He is only 5-foot-10 and 172-pounds. Both of these pieces of information are not good, but if you look simply at how he covered down-to-down you see a player that can prevent catches. He allowed only one score over the past two seasons and though he didn’t have a pick in 2015, he did break up ten passes and didn’t allow a reception longer than 36 yards all season.
- Jonathan Jones, Auburn
Jones is one of the fastest DBs in this class, and is at his best running deep down the field with receivers. He’s earned positive coverage grades in each of the past two seasons, but not standout marks in either year. Jones loses his footing a lot and falls to the ground completely when changing direction rapidly. He has the athletic talent and big-play ability to make people fall in love with him, but at his size with the bad that’s on his tape, there are better players available.