News & Analysis

2021 NFL Draft cornerback rankings

Nov 16, 2019; Atlanta, GA, USA; Virginia Tech Hokies defensive back Caleb Farley (3) returns an interception for a touchdown against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in the second quarter at Bobby Dodd Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

The 2021 NFL Draft class includes a diverse and talented group of corners, and this list doesn’t even incorporate the guys currently listed as safeties but could plug into the slot right away at the NFL level.

The value of the class will be found on Day 2, as there’s not a ton of top-tier options but a lot of promising film to develop.

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1. Patrick Surtain II, Alabama

Surtain is about as polished a college cornerback as you’ll see in press-man coverage. It is of very little surprise, given who his father is. His 277 snaps in press-man coverage over the past two seasons are more than anyone else in the draft class. His ability to maintain contact along the route without grabbing or being overtly physical is something many top-flight NFL corners haven’t even mastered.

Making it all the more impressive is the fact that Surtain wasn’t flagged once in all of 2020. We’ve seen steady improvement from him ever since he started as a true freshman in 2018. He earned a 78.7 coverage grade that year before recording an 84.6 in 2019 and an 88.6 in 2020. That said, Surtain simply isn’t the caliber of athlete that some others on this list are. That’s no death knell, but we’ve already seen it show up with him getting stacked downfield.

2. Jaycee Horn, South Carolina

Horn is an absolute animal at the cornerback position. He plays every snap like the man across from him personally offended him. It’s why you see reps, like the one below, of him demolishing guys fairly regularly.

That is the mindset you want from a press corner. His 240 snaps in press-man coverage over the past two seasons are second-most in the draft class.

Horn’s game will have to undergo an evolution of sorts once he gets to the league. He pushed the boundaries of college football's lack of illegal contact penalties and was flagged five times in only seven games this past season.

3. Greg Newsome II, Northwestern

Newsome is a super-long and super-smooth cornerback who makes the not-so-easy look easy. His hip-flipping ability is truly second to none in the draft class. It’s that ability to alter course on a dime that led to him allowing only 12 catches from 34 targets for 93 yards in six games this season.

While we’d have loved to have seen more of Newsome against top competition — he left midway through the Ohio State game this year — we saw enough to know he has the movement skills to be a top-flight corner.

4. Caleb Farley, Virginia Tech

Farley has the combo that every team is looking for. From size to speed to length to ball skills, he has already displayed it all. His tape shows a player who could make up any cushion down the field. Unsurprisingly, he’s reported to run in the 4.3s, which shows on tape repeatedly.

But he’s not solely an athlete playing corner. Farley has legit instincts for the position. While he’s been known to get caught with his eyes in the backfield, he has some amazing breaks from off-coverage on his tape.

While he’s not the most fluid and doesn’t have much of a proven history in press-man coverage in Virginia Tech’s defense, Farley has the uncoachable aspects of the position in droves.

5. Asante Samuel Jr., Florida State

Samuel doesn’t have the size or the length most look for from an outside corner, but he’s got pretty much everything else. He may be the single most gifted mover in the cornerback class when you consider speed, burst, agility, change-of-direction ability and leaping ability. He could be described as “plus” in all of those categories.

He undoubtedly got his instincts from his old man as well, as he produced three picks and five pass breakups in eight games this season. What he didn’t get was the elder’s tackling aversion — the Florida State prospect will come up and lay a lick if asked to.

He’ll be a perfect fit in zone-heavy schemes or in the slot with the skill set he brings to the table.

6. Jevon Holland, Oregon

Holland was Oregon's starting safety as a true freshman in 2018 before manning the slot for the Ducks in 2019. He's graded exceptionally well at both, as he's been tremendously assignment sound. The biggest question mark with him will be his athleticism.

He doesn't have any one special trait to hang his hat on. That's no death knell by any means, but likely keeps him out of the early-round conversation. It didn't stop him from picking off nine passes and breaking up 11 more in his two seasons of play. That type of slot/safety versatility is perfect for today's NFL.

7. Aaron Robinson, UCF

Robinson is the second-most ferocious press corner in the class after Jaycee Horn. While it showed on his tape from the slot at UCF, it really won us over when that continued against the competition at the Senior Bowl practices.

Robinson has 15 pass breakups over the past two seasons. And while he played primarily in the slot, the skill set and role he showed were akin to that of an outside corner. He played 323 snaps in press over that span and allowed a completion percentage of 56.3%.

8. Tyson Campbell, Georgia

Campbell is still far more unrealized athletic potential than he is polished product at cornerback. The Georgia cornerback has been starting ever since his true freshman year for the Bulldogs and came to campus heralded for his blazing speed. He was going stride for stride with Auburn’s Anthony Schwartz — the fastest man in college football — back on the camp circuit.

Even with all those tools, Campbell has never quite been a playmaker. That interception above was the only one of his career, and he racked up only nine pass breakups on 869 career coverage snaps. Still, someone will fall in love with what he can do physically and hope they can mold him into more.

9. Tay Gowan, UCF

Gowan was certainly a surprise opt-out, given that he only had one year of FBS football on his resume. For us, though, that one year was good enough to justify this slot. Listed at 6-foot-2, 185 pounds, Gowan is one of the fastest cornerbacks in the country. In 2019, he was going step for step with Stanford’s Simi Fehoko, who has been timed in the 4.3s. That speed is a big reason why he only allowed one 25-plus-yard catch all season. Playing a good deal of press coverage, Gowan only allowed 20 catches from 50 targets for 274 yards.

10. Ifeatu Melifonwu, Syracuse

The younger Melifonwu already plays the position that many thought his older brother and second-round pick, Obi, should switch to. While both brothers are physical freaks, each suffers from a distinct lack of physicality.

One would think a 6-foot-3, 213-pound corner like Melifonwu would be a dog at the line of scrimmage, but that couldn't be further from the case. He excelled because of his smooth hips and long speed, not because he wanted to engulf receivers at the line.

While it's far less of a concern at corner than it is at safety, the question remains: Can you coach that mentality?

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