2017 NFL Draft Preview: Defensive Backs

Writer’s Note: This is the last in a series. As I mentioned before, I don’t try to pretend to know what order guys are going to be drafted. I only know what’s in Bill Belichick’s heart and have predicted at least a half a dozen of his picks over the years. But with the Patriots not having a pick in the top 70, instead of doing a Patriots-centric preview like I’ve done in the past, here’s more of an overview and I’ll be The Belichick Whisperer at the end. Today, it’s defensive backs.

Earlier previews: Quarterbacks, Running backs, Wide receivers, Tight ends, Edge, Inside linebackers

Positional overview: I’m not telling you anything you don’t know when I say that as the NFL morphs into Arena Football, defensive back has become arguably the most important non-QB position in the game. Pro offense has become essentially an 11-personnel base, meaning one back and one tight end, which has turned “slot corner” into an actual position and put an emphasis on safeties agile enough to stay with wideouts like corners and big enough to cover tight ends. It might be a little easier to project their college tape into the pro game than some of the other positions I’ve covered the last few weeks. But the trick is the same as it’s always been: You have to be able to tell the difference between a guy’s freakish athleticism and his actual football skills. Because as we’ve seen time and again with blue chip DB prospects who fail miserably, being an athlete and being a player are two very different things.

I’ll talk about the corners and safeties separately here. But both groups are being given A grades, making this one of the most solid DB corps the draft has ever had.

The Consensus Top Corner:

Marshon Lattimore, Ohio St. 6-0, 192 lb, 4.36 40-time

Compares to the active ingredients in: Janoris Jenkins
DC Comics would call this guy a Meta-human. He can run like The Flash. He’s as competitive as Batman. And for all we know can summon fish with this mind. He’s also got a Kryptonite, which would be his hamstring. He’s been battling chronic problems with his since high school. It’s said that sometimes he plays small, and when route runners make the initial contact they can knock him off his coverage. But he’s still developing. He was a prep recruit and last year was only a sophomore. And still had 13 passed defensed in 13 games. Guys with his prototype size, compete level and ridiculous speed don’t come along very often. And if you’re not selecting in the top 10, he won’t be coming along to you, either.

The Runner Up:

Marlon Humphrey, Alabama. 6-0, 196 lb, 4.41
Compares to the active ingredients in: Xavier Rhodes
Another product out of Nick Saban’s Defensive Stud Droid Factory, Humphrey is the son of ‘Bama/NFL running back Bobby. But this isn’t Flounder getting into Delta House because he’s a legacy. He’s the most physically imposing CB in this year’s class. And a perfectly blended scotch of height/weight/speed. He’ll stick his nose into blockers to blow up screens. He’s durable, having started every game since his redshirt year. The downside is that he showed a tendency to give up big plays. And at the next level, if you do that you don’t stick around long enough for it to become a tendency. He might also have benefited from playing behind such a killer Front-7. But he’ll go high.

Best Slot Corner:

Tre’Davious White, LSU. 5-11, 192 lb, 4.47
Compares to the active ingredients in: Patrick Robinson
White can play outside, but he’s got enough experience playing in the slot for a great CB feeder program that he should be a plug & play guy on the inside from Day 1. He’s got good man coverage skills, can play press/mirror and stay with his guy to prevent separation. And he broke up 36 passes. Where he struggles is against size, where he loses those 50/50 balls. But put him inside the numbers and you have your slot guy for the next 10 years.

The One Scouts Have Bar Fights Over:

Cordrea Tankersley, Clemson. 6-1, 199 lb, 4.40
Compares to the active ingredients in: Dre Kirkpatrick
Every year there’s a guy like Tankersley the pundits can’t seem to agree on. Some see him as a borderline first rounder. Others don’t have him in their top dozen corners. He’s a Tracklete for sure. But he plays stiff. He’s not “fluid in his movements” or “sink his hips” or any of those other things scouts love to say but you and I never notice when we’ve got our mouths stuffed with Doritos on Sundays. For the right system though, for someone who can figure out how to use a 200lb corner who can jam receivers and has his straight-line speed, they might get a steal.

The Priuses:

Jabril Peppers, Michigan. 5-11, 215 lb, 4.46
Compares to the active ingredients in: Troy Polamalu
By Priuses, I mean the hybrids. The guys with the position versatility (good), that makes personnel people not sure where they fit (bad). In Peppers’ case, he was as much a linebacker at Michigan as a safety. And played offense. And special teams. And basically played more positions than Prince played instruments. But weird as it sounds, not every pro coach sees that as a positive. Your more conservative, traditional guys think “Since you can’t do seven different things in the pros, what good is it?” And they’re making a mistake with Peppers. He’s the best tackler in this group. A bigger hitter than the Lama. He’ll get overly aggressive sometimes, thus the comparison to Polamalu. And his stock might drop due to a “diluted” drug test last week. But he can doctor his urine sample for me anytime.

Desmond King, Iowa. 5-10, 205 lb, 4.53

Compares to the active ingredients in: Hank Baskett
Peppers is a hybrid safety/linebacker. King’s issue is no one can decide if he’s a big corner or a free safety. He’ll also return a ball however you kick it at him, off a tee or dropped from your hand. He pinged everyone’s sonar in his junior year with 8 INTs and 21 passes defensed. He’s also arguably got the most experience of any DB in this draft, playing a Cal Ripkenish 94 percent of the Hawkeyes’ defensive snaps, in variations of both man and zone. He’s the best read & react prospect, more of an instinctive ballhawk than someone who’ll outrun you. But the lack of speed is a problem. Florida’s Antonio Callaway took a flamethrower to him. Still, he was All American for a reason.

Best Pure Free Safety:

Malik Hooker, Ohio St. 6-1, 205 lb, 4.47
Compares to the active ingredients in: Earl Thomas
Hooker is just an incredible all around athlete. In high school he led his team to the state championship in hoops. He’s an agile change-of-direction mover. A playmaker who had three pick-6s and 7 INTs total. He takes great angles to erase the mistakes of others. He lacks experience though, with only one season as a starter. Still, he projects as a guy you can trust to be your single high safety right away. And while he wasn’t asked to play down in the box much, a guy with his natural gifts can develop that over time.

Best Pure Strong Safety:

Jamal Adams, LSU. 6-0, 214 lb, 4.56
Compares to the active ingredients in: Eric Berry
Now here’s the guy you wouldn’t put alone at the back end of your defense, but would slide into the box (do you even hear yourself, Thornton?) nicely. Adams is multidimensional, with the ability to blitz, come up in run support, and generally be a disruptive, downhill pain in the ass. He hits like a linebacker with cornerback agility. And while he’s maybe a little small to play up at the second level consistently, he’ll give up his body to blow plays up.

Captain Intangibles:

Budda Baker, Washington. 5-10, 192 lb, 4.52

Compares to the active ingredients in: Tyrann Mathieu
Baker is a three year starter and an undersized, intense, borderline deranged crackpot who brings an infectious energy on every snap. He’ll get swallowed up at times by blockers he’s giving away 125 lb to. And occasionally get ragdolled by tight ends in coverage. But in the blitz game he’ll come off the edge like one of those five-bladed flying Ninja stars from Krull. His lack of size will scare teams off. But the one that is willing to roll the dice will be drafting their next folk hero.

New England’s Finest:

Obi Melifonwu, UConn. 6-4, 224 lb, 4.46
Compares to the active ingredients in: George Iloka
Early in the off-season I was prepared to call Melifonwu a “sleeper.” But when Mike Mayock has you among his top five safeties, it’s hard to sneak up on anyone. And even harder when you’re goddamn 6-4, 224. That is a rare size/speed combo he’s coming into the league with. And he’s got the wingspan of a C-130. His ball skills aren’t the best, but he’s got the length to correct a lot of mistakes. He’s a solid run-stuffer, with a ripped physique and the burst to take on blockers. He excelled in the zone game, which might be what he’s limited to in the pros.

The Perfect Patriot:

Kevin King, Washington. 6-3, 200 lb, 4.43

Compares to the active ingredients in: Brandon Browner
Frankly it’s been hard the last 10 or so years to get a handle on what Belichick’s defensive back “type” is. Mainly because I think it’s evolved. I think that once the league started outlawing pass coverage, he started swiping right on smaller, quicker guys. Ones who gave away size but could shuffle step and get into a baseball turn and stay squared up with receivers. Which is why I predicted he’d take Darius Butler. Successfully. And unfortunately. Because he was a disaster o Roland Emmerich proportions here. As were so many of those other 5-10 finesse corners. But I think the signings of bigger, more physical backs like a pre-sucky Darrelle Revis, a pre-out-of-football Browner and Stephon Gilmore, signal a return to an aggressive, jamming style as opposed to the off-coverage of the bad years. Which brings us to Kevin King. He’s also considered a hybrid S/CB tweener. He’s got the skills to play press or zone. He aggressively goes after the ball to try to rip it out. The biggest knock on him is always that he lacks agility, which makes me LOL because at the Indianapolis Kennel Club 3-Cone Drill, he won Best in Show, with a remarkable 6.56. Belichick loves the 3-Cone like he loves old Paul Brown stories. King could stand to add some mass, but he’s got the frame for it. And with the secondary in good shape for at least one more season, it makes sense to draft a developmental guy like King with an eye toward replacing Malcolm Butler down the road. Assuming King doesn’t come off the board too early, he just checks every box.

P.S. These draft write ups take a lot of time and work, but I love doing them. Even in a year the Patriots might not even have a pick until the third (for now). So if you’ve been reading them consistently, I appreciate it.