The final cornerback prospect we'll cover in our pre-draft profile series is LSU's Ron Brooks, who never secured a starting role in the Tigers' stacked defensive backfield (consider that Brooks may well have been competing for a starting gig with three top-five draft picks: Patrick Peterson, Morris Claiborne and the Honey Badger). That's not to say that Brooks spent his college career riding the pine; on the contrary, he played in every one of LSU's 52 games since 2008, usually as the first guy off the bench in nickel and dime packages.
Just because Brooks couldn't crack the Tigers' starting lineup doesn't mean he doesn't boast elite athletic skills. At the NFL Combine, he tore off a blistering 4.37 40-yard dash (5th-best overall), broad jumped 10 feet and recorded a 38-inch vertical. As these numbers suggest, he's got electric speed and explosion. And, something NFL teams are sure to value: on tape, Brooks repeatedly makes plays, whether it be working as a nickel corner, an edge blitzer, or as a special teams gunner. As evidence, here's a career highlight video (watch him lay some wood on special teams!) and here he is in action in games he started against Ole Miss and Arkansas.
The knock on Brooks primarily focus on his inexperience; he has started only two career games, both when filling in for injured teammate Tyran Matthieu. In his limited opportunities, however, he has, frankly, been awesome: in 2011, he returned both of his interceptions for touchdowns (and is 3 for 3 in his career). And check out his stat lines for the two games I linked to above: against Arkansas, he notched six tackles, adding a sack and a fumble recovery; in the Ole Miss game, he returned an interception 46 yards for a touchdown, recorded a sack, forced and recovered a fumble and finished with four tackles, earning SEC Defensive Player of the Week laurels for his efforts.
As Brooks's game lines attest, he has been a big-time playmaker during his college career - when he's been on the field. Scouts now are faced with the unenviable task of extrapolating impressive production in limited game time into some reasonable assessment of pro performance. What might be the results of this exercise? Where might Brooks be slotted on teams' boards?
Before attempting to answer these questions, lets take a quick peek at our superscouts' assessments of Brooks's game. Make the jump; you'll be glad you did.
Three starts. Played in 52 games. Top reserve and was in all the nickle and dime secondary packages. A good athlete who has been overshadowed by the outstanding group of corners for the Tigers. He showed up big when Tyan Mathieu was suspended for a game. Then he opened up more eyes with his speed and athletic workout at the Combine. He returned both his interceptions for touchdowns last fall. Good football intelligence. Not afraid on run support. Will play off blockers and tackle. Good ball reactons as a returner and a defensive corner. Gets in good position and makes a tackle. Excellent range with good deep speed. Takes good angles on run support. Good timing on blitz packages. Wil upgrade a current need backup. Plays gunner on the punt team and has downed several kicks inside the 20-yard line the past two years. Was the Sec defensive player of the week in 2011 versus Ole Miss.
Pro Football Weekly (Nolan Nawrocki): 18th-rated CB; 131st overall
Positives: Rare timed speed and outstanding leaping ability (38-inch vertical). Good size and balance. Flashes ball skills (soft hands) and playmaking ability. Aggressive wrap tackler. Durable and productive in limited opportunity. Special-teams standout ("gunner" and jammer experience). Lined up inside and outside and is an effective blitzer. Hustles and has a team-first attitude—took pride in his role on a premier team. Mature and motivated.
Negatives. Has short arms and small hands. Could struggle matching up with bigger receivers. Limited experience—part-time player never held a full-time starter job. Bench-pressed 225 pounds only 12 times at the Combine.
Summary: Talented, versatile cornerback who was overshadowed in college football’s deepest secondary full of NFL draft picks but was productive on special teams and has ample translatable physical traits. Sub-package player and standout "gunner" who could be a value selection.
ESPN/ Scouts, Inc. (Gary Horton): 16th-rated CB; 101st overall
Instincts/Recognition: Possesses above-average instincts and diagnostic skills. Find and reacts to the ball quickly. Displays good field awareness to mark targets in underneath coverage when aligned in the slot. Route recognition and anticipation skills are still developing at this point. Opportunistic and capitalizes when given the opportunity to make the play. Does the little things well on the field and is assignment sound.
Cover Skills: Displays quick feet and good short-area quickness. Changes directions laterally extremely well. Needs to take a few extra steps to gather at the top of his pedal when breaking forward. Also has a little bit of tightness in hips when having to make sudden 180 degree turn. Can be too physical at times and will need to adjust accordingly to the NFL rules in coverage. Possesses an above-average closing burst when pointed in the right direction and can make up ground when the ball is in the air. Lack an elite extra gear to recover when caught off position.
Ball Skills: Doesn't have elite playmaking ability or ball skills. Turns, locates and can play the ball when caught in trail position. Displays adequate hands and pull in routine interception. Has trouble adjusting and pulling in acrobatic catch though. Can create with the ball in his hands and looks to score (Returned all three career INTs for touchdowns). "
Run Support: Active, tough and scrappy in this department. Although undersized, has ample experience playing near the line of scrimmage in the slot and is effective in run support. Slips blocks well and avoid traffic to find the ball carrier. Display very good body control in the open field to adjust and secure tackle. Can have problems discarding blocks once engaged.
Intangibles: Father Anthony Brooks had a short stint with the Chicago Bears after playing collegiate football at Texas A&M. Brings added value as a strong special teams contributor. Selfless and played a key role as reserve throughout career instead of transferring elsewhere where he could have started for most FBS programs.
According to these scouts, Brooks rates as a fourth or fifth-rounder. Given his limited experience and the resulting dearth of game tape, this makes sense. That said, he makes too many plays for me to be comfortable rating him below the fourth round; I just don't think he'll last until the fifth, as he'll be snatched up by a team who wants an athletic special teams ace with experience as a slot corner zone blitzer. That's too enticing a package; I'm going to put him in the fourth round on my "little board."
The Cowboys will almost certainly draft two cornerbacks later this week. The second of these will need to excel on special teams from the jump and be capable of playing in nickle and dime packages. Ideally, he'll have sufficient athletic ability to develop into a solid nickle corner in time to replace Orlando Scandrick--or at least to give him some real competition. Like Rob Ryan, I've combed the draft for DBs, and I've yet to find a late-round cornerback candidate that fits this bill as well as Brooks. I hope the Cowboys see things the same way and and will, by hook or by crook, do what it takes to ensure that he's wearing the star in 2012 and beyond.
Next up: Notre Dame SS-FS Harrison Smith