The NFL is a passing league and more than ever the need for very good defensive backs is essential. When you, as a team, have to go up against elite quarterbacks such as Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Eli Manning, Joe Flacco, Big Ben and others you have to have — at a minimum — three good corners. The nickel cornerback, a rotation guy in the past, is now a starter in reaction to the proliferation of three- and four-wide formations; the evolution of the tight end, safeties have also had to evolve from just playing in the box to playing there as well as moving out and into coverage. Even now, guys are asked to cover receivers one play and move in as an extra linebacker the next, a la Charles Woodson.
All of that being said, defensive back is the easiest position to transition to from college to the pros. So why an NFL Combine for them when everyone is a lock down defensive back at the amateur level?
A slow 40-yard dash could show that a prospect would not be able to stay with the faster receivers in the NFL. Conversely, a player with a great vertical jump could make more plays in the air.
Finally, the on-field drills allow scouts and coaches to see if a defensive back has quick enough feet to play in man coverage.
On Tuesday, a few top stars lived up to their expectations, while some lesser-known prospects turned some heads. Here are the top performances, reactions and results from the sixth day of the combine.
The Tide Keeps Rolling
If you ask NFL analysts who the best defensive back in the class is, almost down to a man the answer would be Dee Milliner.
Although he will undergo surgery on a torn labrum in the next couple of weeks, he still impressed at the combine with a blazing time of 4.37 seconds in the 40-yard dash.
Although the Alabama cornerback struggled catching balls in drills, cornerbacks are not generally asked to catch passes, but simply to make sure the receivers they cover don’t either. While players at this position are not routinely selected early in the draft, Milliner should be taken in the top 10 in April. That is how good he is.
Honey Badger Looking Hungry
One of the biggest question marks in the draft this year is former LSU cornerback Tyrann Mathieu.
After finishing the 2011 season as a Heisman finalist, he was kicked off the team after failing multiple drug tests. On Monday and Tuesday, he was looking to redeem himself in order to be selected at some point in the draft.
He appeared apologetic for his mistakes during the interview process earlier in the week, but the player formally known as “Honey Badger” still had to prove himself out on the field.
Mathieu did that on Tuesday with a solid 40-yard dash time of 4.50 seconds.
The cornerback is small for the position at 5-foot-9 and only put up 225 pounds four times, a disappointing total. He makes up for his lack of size with his speed and the ball-hawking, play making ability that he showed at LSU.
All it takes is one team to fall in love with his potential and draft him early, although ultimately I think he could be a 4th or 5th round pick. In any case, he is certainly someone to watch over the next couple of months.
Stock Up/Stock Down
While film shows how fast players are on the field, the 40-yard dash is the equalizer among all prospects. The Combine’s showcase event is completely independent of the level of competition players faced in college.
When the official times were released, there were some surprising results at the top of the list.
Johnthan Banks likely had the worst day, finishing with a 40-yard dash time of 4.61. While the physical cornerback should still be a high pick, this slow time will certainly hurt his stock and may suggest a move to safety. He has a chance to redeem himself at his pro day.
Banks was actually overshadowed on Tuesday by his Mississippi State teammate, Darius Slay. Slay is not as highly rated as Banks, but he had the best 40-yard dash time of the day at 4.36 seconds.
Other notable cornerback times are Xavier Rhodes of Florida State with a solid 4.43, and Desmond Trufant of Washington, who had a great mark of 4.38.
The top safety prospects were nowhere near as fast, but both Kenny Vaccaro and Matt Elam posted acceptable times. Elam was better with a 4.53, while Vaccaro should be satisfied with a 4.63. This position requires less pure speed and more lateral quickness, which was on display in the drills.
Safety T.J. McDonald looked very stiff, but for his size it’s not as big of a concern. After running a solid 4.53 in the 40 yard dash, he has cemented his standing as a 2nd round talent.
Dwayne Gratz (UConn), Jamar Taylor (Boise State) and Leon McFadden (San Diego State) all showed they could hang with the big boys and are all making a good case for 3rd round spots.
Still Fight Left The Dog
N.C. State CB David Amerson came into the season as an almost certain lock for a 1st round selection. Those aspirations went in the wind after a disastrous game against Tennesse and the Vols’ high flying offense. Amerson has been questioned ever since. Running a 4.38 has given analysts, scouts and even myself a reason to revisit the tape.
Overall, this has been a great and deep defensive back class and whatever team takes one of these young men will get a great guy, both on and off the football field.