Today, our voyage through the mysterious lands where potential future Cowboys reside takes us to a glittering football citadel in Tuscaloosa, Alabama where cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick has plied his trade of late. Kirkpatrick, an early-entry junior, has started for Nick Saban's bunch more or less from the moment he stepped on the Alabama campus. In 2011, he culminated his starry collegiate career by garnering first-team All-American honors by multiple organizations after a season in which he was instrumental in the Tide leading the nation in pass defense (116.3 ypg) and pass efficiency defense (83.9).
The 6'2" Kirkpatrick will be one of the NFL's tallest cornerbacks in 2012. Although there was some speculation earlier in the draft process that his best position might be safety, where some teams might see his length and ability to play in zone more transferable, most teams. after reviewing the tape, reportedly see him as a corner. This is due in part to the recent success that tall defensive backs like the Seahawks' Richard Sherman and Brandon Browning have enjoyed against the league's tall wideouts--especially in the end zone. Their success has turned his height from a potential liability to a desirable commodity at the position.
Kirkpatrick has the best combination of size and athleticism of any cornerback in this year’s draft. He boasts hip flexibility, foot quickness and agility to turn and run without losing a step after transitioning out of his pedal, which is rare for such a tall corner. In addition, he uses his long arms in combination with excellent ball skills to break up passes. And Rob Ryan will certainly like his aggressiveness; Kirkpatrick attacks the play in front of him, fights through blockers and is willing to make hard hits. Want evidence? Here he is in action against Arkansas; in this clip, he faces off against Penn State.
On the other hand, Kirkpatrick too often loses focus or gets sloppy with his technique, thereby giving up catches to lesser receivers. He struggles to close on passes in front of him because he gets straight-legged in his backpedal, and too often allows receivers easy releases because he doesn't use his hands aggressively enough when he attempts to jam them. And, he's sometimes too aggressive, causing him to overreact to pump fakes and double moves, which is a problem because, despite having elite speed, Kirkpatrick lacks an explosive closing burst.
In short: like so many other mid- to late first rounders players in this draft, Kirkpatrick is a mixed bag, a good player with a couple of dings. Where should I slot him on my Cowboys "little board"? Before answering that, let's see what our esteemed panel of scouting types has to say - after the jump, naturally.
National Football Post (Wes Bunting): 2nd-rated CB; 11th overall
Possesses elite size and overall length for the position. Showcases a long, angular frame with some natural muscle tone through his arms and lower half. Demonstrates an impressive combination of patience, instincts and physicality off the line in press coverage. Displays the ability to sit low into his stance, and slide his feet laterally, mirroring off the line and funneling his man toward the sideline. Extends his arms well into contact with the ability to routinely re-route or disrupt the timing of the play Stays balanced through contact and can use his length to extend and get his hands on the football in the three step game. Doesn't possess great lateral quickness though and can be out quicked off the line at times. Uses his length to arm bar and force defenders to the sideline. However, lacks a great first step and will allow receivers to get behind him vertically. Plays fast and long when closing on the football and uses his length well to make throwing windows small around him and down the field. However, looks like a 4.5 guy when asked to turn and run vertically. Exhibits natural balance when collecting himself vertically in order to high point the football. At times will get caught drifting on the play, but showcases "plus" coordination down the field.
Is at his best however in zone coverage. Demonstrates "plus" instincts and feel in coverage, keys off the quarterback well and quickly is able to decipher routes developing around him. Exhibits impressive change of direction skills for a bigger guy in space. Can drop his pad level quickly, keeping his feet under him and is able to come out of his breaks and close on the route. Takes good angles toward the football, maximizes his length and showcases good ball skills when breaking on the action. Also, is fluid for a taller corner and can cleanly turn and run when asked to close on throws behind him. Closing speed is only solid for his size, but again uses his length to get his hands on a lot of footballs.
In off man will struggle to quickly change directions and get out of his breaks. Needs to have his hands on receivers and be physical off the line in order to consistently limit separation. Gets a bit leggy at times in space when his zone coverage turns into off man and doesn't look as natural finding the football and limiting separation.
Is the best tackling cornerback in the draft. Does a great job using his length to fend off contact, takes excellent angles toward the action and locates the football quickly. Drops his pad level well into contact, wraps and bring his legs through the man. Is an impressive open field tackler as well with the lateral quickness and range to extend his arms and get into ball carriers bodies off his frame. An ideal zone corner who deciphers run/pass keys quickly and isn't afraid to jump into run support and win on the edge.
Impression: Will be an ideal zone corner at the next level because of his size, instincts and physicality. However, he can also press off the line and consistently re-route receivers. Isn't a dynamic quick-twitch athlete, but showcases good balance, can keep his feet under him and looks like a "plus" caliber starting cornerback in the NFL. Reminds me some of Chargers cornerback Quinton Jammer physically.
CBS Sports (Rob Rang): 2nd rated CB; 16th overall
Man Coverage: Possesses prototypical size and strength combination to lock down NFL receivers on the outside. Long arms and attitude give him a chance to be very good in press role. Plays with natural bend and fair foot quickness in his backpedal. Hips are fluid for his size, opens them up quickly out of pedal to keep inside position while running down the sideline. Recovery speed from double-moves and pick plays is more than adequate, does not give much ground trailing on crossing routes. Can be overaggressive landing his punch in press, giving up inside position, losing his balance, or even falling down.
Zone Coverage: Mainly used in man, but flashes playmaking ability in zones, as well. Uses his size and length to close and wrap effectively after the catch. Reads quarterback when playing off, baits him to make the underneath throw then closes to make the interception or a big hit to dislodge ball from receiver. Uses length to knock away touch passes behind him and in front of the safety.
Ball Skills: Strong enough to win jump balls down the sideline or 50-50 balls over the middle. Good hand-eye coordination to knock away passes in front of receivers with off hand. Does not find the ball quickly when receiver turns to look, overruns plays too regularly. Gambles on interceptions instead of securing the tackle.
Run Support: Very physical outside, pushes aside smaller wideouts easily and does not back down from confrontations with larger players. Willing to add himself to piles. Good hustle and chase downfield to help teammates. Typically keeps outside leverage but will get aggressive, leaving the sideline vulnerable. Needs to consistently break down and keep his feet outside or NFL backs will evade him.
Tackling: Flashes pure strength to stop receivers and running backs in their tracks on the outside, should get stronger over time. Likes to throw his shoulder into receivers to force them out of bounds. Resorts to duck-and-swipe when unnecessary, which may work against college ballcarriers but will cause problems at the next level. Used on corner blitzes due to size/speed combination, forces a lot of quick throws. Willing to go for the strip, especially if ballcarrier already engaged. Negates special teams gunners on punts, stays with them with effort, physicality and speed.
Intangibles: Well-liked teammate who got the nickname "Swag" for his quiet but confident demeanor; referred to Texas as not having "swagger" during his college announcement press conference. Likes to talk on the field to teammates and get the crowd involved when at home. Praised for his strong will and work ethic. Won the team's Bart Starr Most Improved Player Award in the spring of 2011.
Pro Football Weekly (Nolan Nawrocki): 3rd-rated CB; 25th overall
Positives: Exceptional body length to match up against size. Good short-area quickness and burst, confirmed by very good 10-yard splits (1.56 seconds) at the Combine. Good balance and coordination. Sticky cover skills—reads the hips of receivers and can mirror and trail. Good eyes and zone instincts—quick to sort combo routes, diagnose and jump what he sees. Fills fast in run support and hits with some pop—seeks blow-up shots and will lay the lumber (on unsuspecting receivers). Aggressive playing the ball in the air. Plays with confidence. Excels as a jammer on special teams. Proven vs. top competition.
Negatives: Has short arms and is extremely lean. Modest overall career production. Lacks elite speed to carry receivers vertically. Freelances too much and lacks discipline. Can do a better job coming to balance in space—overruns the ball and arrives out of control. Average recovery burst. Gave up two TDs against Arkansas. Has only three career interceptions. Not dependable. Has identity and entitlement issues. Can be lured by the trappings of the game and easily distracted. Will need to be managed closely. Has been injury-prone and body is not built to withstand contact—long-term durability could be an issue. Average Combine workout and interviews.
Summary: Long-limbed, cocky, aggressive, sticky corner best suited to man short areas in zone coverage. However, his body is not built to handle the physicality of his game and a lack of dependability could limit his ceiling to a difficult-to-manage No. 2. Has some bust potential and will require a demanding positional coach to reach his potential. Dependability issues could drive down draft value.
ESPN/ Scouts, Inc. (Gary Horton): 4th-rated CB; 25th overall
Instincts/Recognition: Shows good recognition skills in zone. Does a fine job of reading QBs eyes while maintaining proper leverage. Has a natural sense of surroundings and routes developing. Got picked on at times in 2010 (see: 2nd QTR vs. Arkansas QB Ryan Mallett) but 2011 tape is much better than 2010 tape in this regard. He no longer lets mistakes compound. Has learned his limitations and playing much more within himself. Shows more confidence and plays with much more swagger. Biggest knock here is his lack of big-play instincts. He's the type that consistently gets in position to break up the pass or wrap up immediately after the catch, but not to make the play on the ball. "
Cover Skills: Excellent size for cornerback position and shows good overall balance. Possesses adequate-to-good top-end speed but change-of-direction skills are below average. Shows a little bit of stiffness in his hips when asked to flip and run. At his best in zone coverage. Very good zone instincts. Shows closing burst when driving on the ball in front of him. Also can be effective in press-man. Did not play as much press as other techniques in college but flashes ability to reroute receivers'. Needs to be conscious of staying square and not 'opening the gate'. But has the size and long arms to improve in this area. Most struggles occur when he's in off-man and forced to make sudden breaks or change directions.
Ball Skills: Has long arms and good defending radius. Can be late getting head turned around and occasionally is late to find ball over his shoulder. Does not appear to have great leaping ability (i.e., missed INT: 13:58 2nd QTR vs. TEN 2010). Also will play body when he instead should be playing the ball.
Run Support: Big, physical corner. Aggressive and active in run support. Works hard to keep fend off blockers and uses long arms to keep separation. Shows a very good motor and will make play in pursuit. Is a reliable and strong tackler for the position. Flashes ability to jar the ball carrier with initial pop. Improved his discipline with outside leverage in 2011.
Intangibles: Arrived in Tuscaloosa in May of 2009 but was forced to return home to get his academics in order. He eventually was cleared by the NCAA and returned to camp in July of 2009. No off the field issues to our knowledge. Solid work ethic. Football intelligence is improving.
Here's a very thorough profile on Kirkpatrick by Bob Sturm who, for my money, is the best sports media guy in the DFW metroplex.
A SBN Draft Profile video on Kirkpatrick:
These scouts agree on Kirkpatrick, at least in terms of the broader issue: he's a clear-cut first rounder. The range here goes from picks 11 to 25, suggesting he's likely to be picked up in the middle third of the round, which I think is just about right for him. Certainly the Cowboys could justifiably select him at # 14. To my mind, however, that feels a bit high, so I think he's another excellent candidate should Dallas trade down from four to six spots, and that's where I'll put him on my Cowboys "little board." And I've already got a short list of good prospects (Cordy Glenn, Courtney Upshaw) who should be able to keep Kirkpatrick company at that spot. But more on that in the next few days...
Next up: South Carolina CB Stephon Gilmore