News & Analysis

2021 NFL Draft: Preseason cornerback rankings

This year's cornerback class has some serious box-checkers at the top. Size, speed and physicality are near necessities to get drafted highly in the NFL, and multiple guys in this class possess that combination. There's a group looming outside of this one with traits but a lack of on-field production. The only question is, will they get that chance?

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1. Caleb Farley, Virginia Tech, Redshirt Junior

While there are holes in Farley’s game that he won’t be able to shore up after opting out this fall, the Virginia Tech cornerback is elite in all the right places. His combination of size (6-foot-2, 207 pounds), speed (reportedly in the 4.3s) and production (90.5 coverage grade in 2019) is unrivaled in the draft class.

That size and speed combination helped put a cap on the left side of Virginia Tech’s defense last season. Farley allowed only five catches on 24 targets on passes 10-plus yards downfield in 2019. I didn’t see a single receiver all year get a step on him downfield that he wasn’t able to make up.

While Farley has the profile of a press-man corner, he doesn’t quite have the experience, seeing only 65 snaps in press-man coverage in his college career. He doesn’t exactly profile great to a zone-heavy scheme, though, as tackling has been a major problem. He’s missed 21 tackles on 80 attempts in his career.

2020 Outlook

While Farley has CB1 traits, it may not be easy for him to retain the top spot on the sidelines this fall. This is an immensely talented cornerback group at the top with a lot of physical boxes being checked. Still, Farley’s floor is comfortably a first-rounder.

2. Shaun Wade, Ohio State, Redshirt Junior

Wade returned to school in 2020 to show he could mirror Damon Arnette and Jeffrey Okudah's production at outside corner for the Buckeyes last year. Now, it’s up in the air whether he’ll have that opportunity. At 6-foot-1, 195 pounds, Wade has the length and athleticism to get the job done outside. Having the tools is one thing, but knowing how to use them is the challenge. If he doesn’t get a chance to play this season, NFL teams might ultimately decide he was physical enough over the middle of the field as a slot cornerback to play safety in the league.

It’s an assessment that I’d agree with at the moment. He was terrific as a blitzer and in run support for the Buckeyes, earning a 77.7 grade in the latter facet last season. For his career, Wade has missed only six tackles on 60 attempts. If Minkah Fitzpatrick can go top-15 after being pretty much a slot-only corner at Alabama, I don’t see why Wade can’t go in Round 1.

2020 Outlook

Wade has a lot of money hanging in the balance after his 2020 season was canceled — so much so that his father is flying out to Big Ten headquarters this week to lobby on his behalf. I can’t say I blame him, as it’s a crowded 2020 cornerback class, and Wade could get lost in the shuffle without a fall season.

3. Patrick Surtain II, Alabama, Junior

The last Alabama defensive back to start as true freshman and grade out well from Day 1 was Minkah Fitzpatrick. Surtain has a chance to go even higher than Fitzpatrick (11th overall) when it’s all said and done. The 6-foot-2, 202-pound junior is already one of the best press cornerbacks in the country. He locks up guys at the line while also maintaining leverage throughout the route and locating the football at a high level.

The impressive thing is that he doesn’t simply lock opposing receivers down on just his side of the field. He tracked receivers into the slot 152 times this past season and allowed only five catches on 12 targets for 51 yards. Cornerbacks his size typically don’t possess the versatility to move around like that.

The current issue with Surtain is just how reliant he is on his press coverage ability. He doesn’t have near the top-end speed of someone like Caleb Farley, and when he loses contact with wideouts, he can get stacked downfield.

2020 Outlook

Of the top corners in the class at the moment, Surtain likely possesses the highest floor. He has an NFL-ready skill set at a young age. The irony is that he’s scheduled to play this season despite needing it the least from a draft perspective. I’d like to see him continue to improve his upper body strength. He could easily get into the 210-pound range and take his press game to another level.

4. Asante Samuel Jr., Florida State, Junior

Even in a class chock full of talented athletes, Samuel moves differently than the rest. His blend of agility, burst, speed and leaping ability is everything you could want at the position. He makes breaks on passes that others in this class could only dream of.

That has resulted in 18 pass breakups through his first two seasons in college football and a completion rate allowed of 49.5%.

The obvious red flag with Samuel is his size. Listed at 5-foot-10, 184 pounds, he’s not going to be every scheme’s cup of tea as an outside cornerback. It’s far from a nail in the coffin, though, as he has the athleticism to overcome it. He’s also a physical player and, unlike his father, there’s no hesitancy to junior’s game as a tackler.

While he may never be elite in that regard because of size, it’s not something I’d worry about at the NFL level.

2020 Outlook

While Samuel — and usually all rising juniors — could still stand to fill out his frame, I'd like to see him turn some of those pass breakups into picks in 2020. While I know there’s a good deal of randomness to them, one pick in two seasons isn’t what you’d quite expect from Asante Samuel's son. I think that changes this fall.

5. T.J. Carter, Memphis, Senior

Carter is another corner with size concerns. So far, though, that hasn’t hindered him from being one of the most productive cornerbacks in the country throughout his career — especially in press coverage. On 139 coverage snaps from a press alignment last season, Carter allowed only six catches on 21 targets for 70 yards. Much like Samuel, Carter possesses easy movement skills that should translate to the slot well if teams don’t think he can hold up on the outside.

Holding up on the outside is precisely what he’s done ever since his freshman year. He had five picks and 11 pass breakups as a true freshman in 2017. Quarterbacks finally wised up this past season, and after seeing 171 targets his first two seasons, Carter faced only 41 last year.

2020 Outlook

While the AAC is slated to play this year, there’s not much Carter can do against that level of competition to further prove himself. The biggest thing he would likely need to do is keep his same production while cleaning up his 17 penalties from the previous two seasons. His proving ground will be whichever showcase game he gets invited to.

6. Elijah Molden, Washington, Senior

Molden is unequivocally a slot cornerback at the next level, but his ranking here should tell you how darn good he is in that role. This past season, he had 13 forced incompletions and four picks en route to a 90.9 coverage grade in his first season as a starter. Molden has the combination of short-area quickness and physicality that you love from a slot cornerback. He missed all of nine tackles on 90 attempts last season.

The worry when drafting a slot-only corner is value. Can Molden be an every-down player as a safety at 5-foot-10, 191 pounds? With the way he plays the game and how smooth his hips are, I wouldn’t put it past him. Still, the slot cornerback position is becoming more and more valuable each year, and teams should be willing to invest in quality options there.

2020 Outlook

With the Pac-12 canceling its season, Molden is in a difficult position with only one year of tape at what’s seen as a less valuable position. The good news is that he was tested enough to put himself firmly in the Day 2 mix.

7. Deommodore Lenoir, Oregon, Senior

Lenoir is another player who may be without a true position in the NFL and could ultimately end up at safety. He’s a conundrum because his best skill at the college level, far and away, is his press coverage. At the same time, he has nowhere near the length or speed you’d want from a press-man corner in the NFL.

I still believe his physicality can be harnessed, though. Lenoir just may have to end up as a slot or safety in the league. It’s difficult to argue with his career production, as his 35 career forced incompletions are the second-most of any returning player in the country. He’s also an exceptional tackler, missing only eight on 137 attempts in his career.

2020 Outlook

At this point, it looks like Lenoir only has a showcase bowl game and a scouting combine to look forward to with his draft stock. Proving he can stick with the better receivers at the Senior Bowl on the outside could go a long way toward convincing NFL evaluators he can do the same.

8. Eric Stokes, Georgia, Redshirt Junior

Since taking over down the stretch in 2018, Stokes has been one of the stingier corners in college football. He’s allowed only 469 yards and two scores on 639 coverage snaps in his career. Georgia’s scheme has made him well-versed in press coverage, with 341 such snaps over the past two seasons.

Stokes often relies too heavily on that physicality at the line of scrimmage and takes advantage of college football’s lack of illegal contact penalties along the route. He has good speed but eschews proper technique to keep him in phase for holding on for dear life. A lot of that is just how Georgia is coached, as we saw similar things from DeAndre Baker, and it made for a rocky transition to the NFL.

2020 Outlook

Stokes has to add muscle to his frame. 185-pound corners do not get by on the outside in press coverage in the NFL. Giving up 15+ pounds to most receivers you face is a recipe for disaster. If press is what he’s going to hang his hat on, Stokes has to add the requisite mass.

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