Editor’s note: Dane Brugler — senior NFL draft analyst for NFLDraftScout.com — will break down all positions of the upcoming draft. A full series schedule can be seen at the conclusion of this post.
NFL DRAFT PREVIEW: CORNERBACKS
Position strength: 8/10
Cornerback is one of the positions on an NFL depth chart that is never complete as teams are always looking to upgrade at a demanding, difficult position. That is part of why cornerback is generally one of the most drafted positions each year, and that won’t be any different this April.
The 2018 crop of cornerbacks is loaded from top to bottom, with blue-chippers in the top 10 (Minkah Fitzpatrick and Denzel Ward), quality depth on Day 2 and intriguing prospects on Day 3. The safe bet is at least five cornerbacks will be drafted in the first round and 15 to 18 will come off the board in the top 100 picks.
Mike Hughes, Central Florida
America loves a redemption story. And Hughes is on the path from disgraced cornerback to potential first-round pick.
After a prolific high school career, Hughes passed on offers from Ohio State and Clemson to stay close to home in North Carolina, where he made an immediate impact as a true freshman for the Tar Heels. However, he was involved in a 3 a.m. fight at a fraternity house that left a victim unconscious with a broken nose. Hughes left UNC after the 2015 season and resurfaced at Garden City Community College, where he earned All-American honors as a do-everything athlete.
Hoping to return to the FBS level, Hughes enrolled at UCF last August and enjoyed a productive five months in Orlando. Despite joining the program just two weeks before the season opener, he quickly found the field and developed into one of the best cornerbacks in the country, posting 15 passes defended and four interceptions. Hughes also shined on special teams as the first player in school history to return a punt, kickoff and interception for a touchdown in a season.
The Cowboys invested premium draft picks in the cornerback position last season, but there is a realistic scenario where Hughes might be the best player on the draft board at pick No. 19. And although he does his best work in press coverage, Hughes has the mentality and athleticism to mirror receivers and be a lock-down corner in zone or man, making him tough to pass up for the Cowboys.
Minkah Fitzpatrick, Alabama
Similar to Jalen Ramsey out of Florida State in the 2016 draft, the debate surrounding Fitzpatrick will be his position fit in the NFL. And while scouts appear split whether he is a safety, cornerback or hybrid of both, there is no wrong answer, just like with Ramsey.
The linchpin of the Alabama defense, Fitzpatrick didn’t have gaudy stats in 2017. He had one interception, but his impact is clear on tape as offenses opted to throw away from him. While he has the requisite athleticism to play the position at a high level, his football intelligence and awareness are his two best traits, serving as an extension of Nick Saban on the field.
Playing primarily as a nickel corner in the Tide’s scheme, teams will need to make a projection to play him at outside cornerback, but he has the size/speed combination to mix-and-match receivers anywhere on the field. Fitzpatrick is a top-five player in the 2018 draft class.
Rashaan Gaulden, Tennessee
For whatever reason, there currently isn’t much buzz on Gaulden, but that will soon change. A Swiss Army knife in the Volunteers’ secondary, he was the starting nickel defender at Tennessee, playing an inside cornerback role.
Gaulden is dripping with natural talent, displaying the athletic twitch and coordination to match wide receivers. Although his emotions get the best of him at times, his fearless, infectious energy is received well among his teammates. He needs to improve his discipline, but his playing speed, toughness and heart belong in the NFL, providing pro coaches a foundation worth developing.
BEST OF TEXAS
Josh Jackson, Iowa
A three-sport star at Lake Dallas, Jackson didn’t have many options out of high school and went overlooked by most Texas programs. He signed with Iowa and was buried on the depth chart for a few seasons before blossoming at cornerback in 2017, leading the FBS in passes defended (26) and interceptions (eight).
For a cornerback, it is a fine line between reading the eyes of the quarterback and maintaining spacing, but Jackson is outstanding at this balancing act. Although tackling tends to be optional for him on tape, he has outstanding football intelligence and ball skills for an outside cornerback, and his desire to make plays is his best trait.
Brugler’s top 10
Rk., player School Ht. Wt. 40 Notable 1. Minkah Fitzpatrick Alabama 6-0 201 4.52 Cornerback? Safety? Nickel? He can do it all. 2. Denzel Ward Ohio State 5-10 191 4.38 Undersized, but twitchy cover skills with plus speed. 3. Mike Hughes UCF 5-10 194 4.42 Physical press corner with dangerous return skills. 4. Jaire Alexander Louisville 5-11 192 4.45 Gives off Joe Haden vibe with his toughness. 5. Josh Jackson Iowa 6-0 193 4.48 Spotty run defender but great ball skills as a zone corner. 6. Isaiah Oliver Colorado 6-0 190 4.56 Classic press-man corner with his physical traits. 7. Carlton Davis Auburn 6-1 203 4.52 Unrefined, but NFL loves his height, length and speed. 8. Rashaan Gaulden Tennessee 6-1 195 4.53 Playing speed and toughness are on an NFL level. 9. Donte Jackson LSU 5-11 174 4.35 Rare speed and athletic burst help mask other flaws. 10. Anthony Averett Alabama 6-0 185 4.49 Read/react athleticism to play sticky coverage.
Feb. 25: Linebackers
March 4: Defensive tackles
March 11: Edge rushers
March 18: Quarterbacks
March 25: Running backs
April 1: Tight ends
April 8: Offensive linemen
April 15: Wide receivers
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