Our series on strong positions in the 2016 draft continues with a look at the top cornerback prospects who should be showing their wares on gridirons across America on Saturdays this fall. Last time around, we offered a list of defensive ends for your delectation; today, its cornerback. Given that 2015 is likely Mo Claiborne's last season in a Cowboys uniform, and the likelihood that the cap savings created by releasing Brandon Carr will outweigh the cap hit, it appears the Cowboys will once again be in the market for a top-rated corner, even after spending a 2015 first-rounder on Byron Jones.
As was the case with the pass rushers, most of the better cornerbacks are juniors, which makes sense given that corner is a position that relies on raw athleticism moreso than strength developed over the course of several years. That said there are some very intriguing senior candidates as well, guys who have been seasoned for four years in elite, major conference programs. So, while the top prospects in terms of pure athleticism maybe juniors, remember that senior corners with a lot of starts can provide scouts with a deeper sense of who they are as men and as players. For evidence of this, look no further than Byron Jones, who comes to Dallas with four years of positive reports in his portfolio.
Note: Juniors are designated with an *
Vernon Hargreaves III*, Florida (5-11, 192):
Hargreaves made an impact immediately upon his arrival in Gainesville and hasn't looked back. As a true freshman, he recorded interceptions in his first three college games while totaling 11 pass breakups and 38 tackles for the year, enough for SEC coaches to make him a First-Team All-SEC selection; he also garnered All-American nods. In 2014, Hargreaves totaled 50 tackles, three interceptions and 13 passes broken up. At season's end, he received All-American laurels for the second consecutive year.
Hargreaves boasts natural cover skills and the raw speed and athleticism to run with speedy receivers; he was the only corner in 2014 that could run with Alabama's Amari Cooper. Although doesn't have ideal length, Hargreaves has enough size to handle big receivers. His best asset is his advanced ball skills; Hargreaves is capable of baiting quarterbacks and using his elite burst to pick off passes to seemingly open receivers.
Sources with NFL teams said that if Hargreaves were draft eligible in 2015, he would have been a top-10 pick. He could well end up being the best cornerback prospect to enter the NFL since Patrick Peterson or Joe Haden.
Kendall Fuller*, Virginia Tech (5-11, 195):
The younger brother of the Bears' 2014 first-rounder Kyle Fuller, Kendall saw the field immediately as a freshman and, after tallying six interceptions and 58 tackles in 2013, received Freshman All-American and the ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year honors. The following campaign, he had 17 passes broken up and two interceptions, as well as 50 tackles (4.5 TFLs).
Like his older brother, Fuller is fast and instinctive and plays with tremendous confidence. He displays terrific start/stop quickness, which allows him to close quickly on short and intermediate throws. The primary knock on him is his lack of elite length or long speed. As a result, he appears to be ideally suited to a NFL team that plays predominately zone.
An NFL-looking talent since he stepped on the field as a freshman, scouts think Fuller may well be the best of the Fullers, which is high praise indeed.
Cameron Sutton*, Tennessee (6-1, 190):
Like Hargreaves and Fuller, Sutton was one of several superb freshman cornerbacks in 2013, when he recorded 39 tackles, seven passes broken up and two interceptions playing for the Volunteers. As a sophomore, Sutton recorded 37 tackles with three interceptions, 13 passes broken up and four tackles for a loss.
Sutton has good size and speed for the position - better, in fact, than Hargreaves and Fuller. He uses his size to muscle opposing wideouts, and plays with a chip on his shoulder. Sutton certainly has all the earmarks of a lead dog; he allowed the lowest QB rating last season (51.6) among SEC cornerbacks with 400-plus snaps.
When all is said and done, Sutton's ideal NFL size might well vault him to the top of this list - and into the first half of the first round.
Best of the Rest
Will Redmond, Mississippi State (6-0, 185):
After sitting out his freshman season and playing in eight games as a sophomore, Redmond became a starter in 2014, emerging as one of the SEC's top cornerbacks, racking up 51 tackles with five passes broken up and three interceptions. Redmond is a physical defender who has good length and good ball skills. In 2015, Scouts hope to see him become more consistent and to develop sufficient strength to compete with NFL receivers at the line. If he can manage that, Redmond could be one of the top five corners drafted next April.
KeiVarae Russell*, Notre Dame (5-11, 190):
As a freshman in 2012, Russell broke into the starting lineup, starting all thirteen games, logging 58 tackles with two interceptions and two passes broken up, and helping the Irish reach the National Championship. Russell continued his strong play as a sophomore, recording 51 tackles, one interception and eight passes broken up. He failed to build on his early success, however, after being suspended all of 2014 due to academic dishonesty. With good size and superb footwork, Russell has the toolkit to make a big splash in 2015, securing his status as an early-round pick come April.
Tre'Davious White*, LSU (5-11, 191):
White might be the most talented collegiate cover corner available. As a freshman in 2013, he recorded 55 tackles and batted away seven passes; during his sophomore campaign, he made 33 stops and logged six PBUs. White uses his elite foot quickness, long arms and NFL-caliber speed to crowd receivers; he allowed a ridiculously low 23.4 percent completion rate, giving up a meager 4.2 yards per target. In addition, White's a dangerous punt returner. He's another guy who, with a god season under his belt, could hear his name called on the draft's first two days.
Jonathan Jones, Auburn (5-10, 181):
After a broken ankle at the outset of 2013 cost him some developmental time, Jones really came on in 2014, when his 36 tackles, six interceptions, 12 PBUs, and 18 passes defended were among the nation's leaders, and earned him Secodn Team All-SEC honors. Jones boasts NFL-caliber athleticism, hips, instincts and ball skills; what he doesn't have is ideal size: he looks more like a slot corner than a guy built to challenge big receivers on the outside. If he can stay healthy, Jones is likely to see his draft stock rise.
Brandon Facyson*, Virginia Tech (6-2, 191):
As a freshman in 2013, Facyson was an impact player for the Hokies, recording 27 tackles with five interceptions and eight PBUs. However, he only played in three games in 2014 after struggling with a lingering knee injury suffered in spring practice. Facyson is an instinctive corner, with excellent length and good size, which he parlays into a physical game. Like Jones, good health in 2015 will go a long way toward determining Facyson's eventual draft position.
Eric Murray, Minnesota (6-0, 194):
As a sophomore in 2013, Murray recorded 10 passes broken up and 52 tackles; the following season, he logged 69 stops with seven PBUs and an interception. He also blocked two kicks - all enough to earn him Second Team All-Big 10 honors. Although not the most athletic specimen, Murray is a tough, gritty man corner with NFL size who can press at the line and ride receivers down the field.
William Jackson, Houston (6-2, 175):
Jackson started his career at Trinity Valley Junior College before transferring to Houston, quickly becoming a starter for the Cougars. In 2013, he had one pick, 35 tackles and seven passes batted; the following campaign, he recorded two interceptions, 37 tackles, and 10 PBUs. Jackson possesses the height and quickness that NFL scouts love; however, he'll need to continue to fill out and get stronger to succeed against NFL receivers.
Zach Sanchez*, Oklahoma (5-11, 175):
After a solid freshman campaign in 2012, during which he picked off two passes and batted away 13, Sanchez struggled mightily as a sophomore, when he was consistently picked on by rival quarterbacks. He bounced back in 2014, however, becoming an All-Conference pick after logging 43 tackles with six interceptions and eight passes broken up. Another sold season could boost his draft resume - although his size limitations will serve to limit how high he can go next April.
Fabian Moreau, UCLA (6-0, 195)
Moreau, a former high school running back, converted to corner in 2013, registering 51 tackles with four passes batted away. In 2014, Moreau had 53 tackles with an interception and eight passes broken up. He is well-built, a smooth athlete, and a physical, willing tackler. As his resume suggests, Moreau is still a work in progress; scouts would like to see him develop his man-to-man cover skills
As I noted in this series' opening installment, the Cowboys can benefit from positions that promise rich yields in a given draft. When a position is strong, and the majority of teams are drafting for need (which they are), it means that players at these strong positions will fall. When pursued over the long term, therefore, a strategy of drafting to positional strength yields greater value. In terms of cornerbacks, therefore, the controlling idea shouldn't be that they must, or will, draft one in the first round; rather, it should be that CB presents the desirable combination of need, opportunity and value that allows smart teams to improve their roster in an environment wherein resources are limited.
Next: the 2016 safety class