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.
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.
Patrick Surtain Jr vs Josh Palmer was a fun matchup to study.
-Patience to mirror & match
-Reads the wr down on vert stem
-Stays in phase & squeezes to the sideline
-Locate & make a play on the ball
Clean rep, entertaining battle between the two. pic.twitter.com/7EDTSf0Q8o
— The Crocker Report???????? (@CrockerReport) February 16, 2021
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.
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.
Jaycee Horn was absolutely lights out against Seth Williams — he played out of his mind.
(and bodied him on the play below for good measure) pic.twitter.com/dd5kShccQI
— Austin Gayle (@PFF_AustinGayle) October 19, 2020
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.
Jaycee Horn allowed the lowest completion % in the SEC, which holds more weight to me than any division pic.twitter.com/R2XgLNeRFy
— #BounceBeatBaby (@NFLMaliik) February 19, 2021
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.
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.
Greg Newsome is a fascinating CB prospect…
— Ben Fennell (@BenFennell_NFL) February 22, 2021
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.
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.
The Miami game (2019) gives you a great idea of who #VirginiaTech CB Caleb Farley is as a prospect.
Two of his better traits are how competitive he is through the route stems of WRs and how he’s always able to get his head around and find the ball in flight to make a play. pic.twitter.com/Mu3Mk4Jmul
— Jordan Reid (@Jordan_Reid) December 22, 2020
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.
This plant and drive.. or click n close.. wtv you want to call it.. this is why teams will like Caleb Farley. 6'2" 207 pounds closing from off coverage like this. One step and out. I think he's very explosive out of his brake. pic.twitter.com/h2QyPBbOuE
— Crocky (@eric_crocker) January 23, 2021
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.
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.
Asante Samuel Jr. is listed at 178 pounds.
AJ Dillon is listed at 245 pounds.
That little dude is freaking fearless. pic.twitter.com/OzyU0KjxzV
— Brendan Sonnone (@BSonnone) November 18, 2018
He’ll be a perfect fit in zone-heavy schemes or in the slot with the skill set he brings to the table.
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.
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.
Watching senior bowl practice tape – UCF CB Aaron Robinson is constantly giving WRs problems at the LOS in these 1v1s pic.twitter.com/m1VCNuo8Sj
— Connor Rogers (@ConnorJRogers) January 27, 2021
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%.
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.
It’s been a long time coming , but we see you Tyson Campbell ???? pic.twitter.com/MET7QmzQ4I
— ????LEE Ring???? (@HBTFD1) November 29, 2020
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.
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.
— The Breakshot (@TheBreakshot) December 19, 2019
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?