• Penn State's Joey Porter Jr. comes in at No. 2: Porter is clearly the best press-man cornerback in this draft, and you can see a good feel for zone coverage in his game, too.
• Minnesota's Terell Smith deserves more hype: He looked like a player with elite potential in 2022 and wasn’t beaten for a pass longer than 35 yards all season.
• A sleeper to watch: UAB's Starling Thomas V allowed a catch on just 37.9% of passes into his coverage in 2022, one of the best rates in the country.
Estimated Reading Time: 5 mins
Over on the PFF NFL Podcast we have been running through our 2023 NFL Draft rankings at various positions. They are also in article form, starting with wide receivers and quarterbacks, and continuing here with cornerbacks.
The cornerback group is one of the strengths of this draft class. Maybe no player can rival Sauce Gardner and Derek Stingley Jr. as prospects — though you could argue that case — but this position class' depth is excellent and there are players of all varieties available throughout the draft.
1. Devon Witherspoon, Illinois
One prospect stands well above the rest when you work through the tape. And the numbers back it up for Devon Witherspoon, who allowed just a 25.3 passer rating into his coverage in 2022, more than 10 points lower than if opposing quarterbacks threw the ball into the turf on every play.
His ability to be ahead of the play is remarkable and jumps out relative to other prospects. His biggest knocks are average size (5-foot-11 and 181 pounds) and less-than-stellar measurables, though a low 4.4 40-yard dash at his pro day certainly helped his case. He also had just one year of truly elite play. Though he recorded four seasons of playing time, the previous three were closer to average than elite.
2. Joey Porter Jr., Penn State
3. Deonte Banks, Maryland
4. Cam Smith, South Carolina
5. Emmanuel Forbes, Mississippi State
6. Christian Gonzalez, Oregon
This is where my rankings will deviate the most from the consensus. I am very high on Joey Porter Jr.’s ability to be an elite NFL player but also far lower on Christian Gonzalez than most. Porter is clearly the best press-man cornerback in this draft, and that’s what he was asked to do most often, but you can see a good feel for zone coverage in his game, too. If he can develop that side of his game amid more exposure to those coverages in the NFL, he could end up a star. Porter allowed just 15 catches in 10 games in 2022.
Gonzalez has incredibly slick movement skills and an athletic profile that will have NFL teams drooling, but it hasn’t translated to on-field production to the same degree as other players in this class. The lowest passer rating he allowed in a single season in college was 74.7 this past season, and that was the result of an outlier year in interceptions. He is visibly a step behind Witherspoon during plays in terms of reading what’s unfolding and has a lot more work to do to tap into his elite potential than most analysts articulate.
Deonte Banks and Emmanuel Forbes each have an excellent athletic profile and movement skills, though Forbes’ rail-thin frame will scare many. Cam Smith is an undersung name in this cornerback group. His 2021 tape, before his role was adjusted within the South Carolina defense, was as good as that of any cornerback in this class. That year, he allowed a low 36.5 passer rating and a catch on only 46.9% of passes thrown his way.
7. Brian Branch, Alabama
8. Clark Phillips III, Utah
9. Tre’Vius Hodges-Tomlinson, TCU
I have Brian Branch ranked significantly higher than this, but for ease of grouping these slot defenders, I have dropped him a little. Branch has elite ability, and whether he plays in the slot or at safety in the NFL, he is one of the safest players in the draft.
Clark Phillips III may not have elite measurables, but he is a quick-twitch player and very good at sticking with receivers horizontally and over the middle. He has an eye for the football, as well, recording eight interceptions and 13 pass breakups over the past two seasons.
Hodges-Tomlinson was an outside cornerback in college but is projected as an inside player in the NFL due to his size. He has slot quickness as well as an incredible fight that offsets those size disadvantages.
10. Terell Smith, Minnesota
11. Mekhi Blackmon, USC
12. Kelee Ringo, Georgia
13. Julius Brents, Kansas State
14. DJ Turner, Michigan
15. Darius Rush, South Carolina
I don’t understand why Terell Smith isn’t getting more hype — much more hype. His prior seasons of play weren’t good, though that had more to do with inactivity than outright terrible play, but in 2022 he looked like a player with elite potential. He wasn’t beaten for a pass longer than 35 yards all season. Smith has the size and ability to be a starting NFL cornerback.
Mekhi Blackmon is another underrated prospect. His knock is a lack of size (5-foot-11, 178 pounds) but he has three straight years of good coverage and last season was elite. His PFF coverage grade in 2022 was 91.1 and he allowed a passer rating and completion rate into his coverage below 50.0.
Kelee Ringo has struggled to disprove the opinion that he has too much stiffness in his hips and lacks the requisite lateral change of direction to rank among the elite. With a big frame and fast in a straight line, Ringo still gave up more than 13 yards per catch over the past two seasons in the best defense in the nation.
16. Garrett Williams, Syracuse
17. Jakorian Bennett, Maryland
18. Riley Moss, Iowa
19. Eli Ricks, Alabama
20. Tyrique Stevenson, Miami (FL)
There is still plenty to like about this group, even if their flaws might have them projecting more as role players or backup options at the next level. Jakorian Bennett may have a role as a slot cornerback in the NFL, given his size, but has some elite plays on tape, as does Garrett Williams from Syracuse.
Starling Thomas V, UAB
Thomas has a tendency to get beaten for a big play every now and then with a lapse, but his down-to-down coverage is excellent. Last season, he allowed a catch on just 37.9% of passes into his coverage, one of the best rates in the country. Three of the 22 catches he gave up did go for touchdowns, though. He still has enough size and tenacity to become a player at the next level.