2023 NFL Draft: Defensive back prospect superlatives

Tuscaloosa, Alabama, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide defensive back Brian Branch (14) pursues Vanderbilt Commodores running back Ray Davis (2) during the first half at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

• Alabama safety Brian Branch garners two superlatives: He wins both “best tackler” and “best slot.”

• Oregon's Christian Gonzalez is as versatile as they come: There’s truly no weakness to his game athletically. He’s a big, explosive defender with the hips of a smaller cornerback.

• The underrated Ronnie Hickman wins “best two-high”: His ability to break out of his stance from a pedal or while flat-footed is exactly what you want from a two-high safety.

Estimated Reading Time: 4 mins

Defensive back is becoming such a versatile position at the NFL level that it only felt right to lump the corners and safeties together for this one. While this is a loaded class of corners on both the outside and in the slot, the same cannot be said about the safety position.

Best Make-Up Speed: DJ Turner, Michigan

If you run a 4.26-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine, chances are this superlative was made for you. Turner has such easy gas that he can play without fear of getting beaten deep. That’s a skill that translates into every NFL defense.

Best Man Cornerback: Devon Witherspoon, Illinois

Witherspoon playing man coverage is exactly what the elites at the position in the NFL look like. He approaches every rep with an uncoachable edge. Simply put: He’s gonna try to kick your ass. More often than not, he did that last season. On 303 man coverage snaps in 2022, Witherspoon allowed only 13 catches on 46 targets for 115 yards with two picks and 13 forced incompletions.

Best Zone Cornerback: Clark Phillips III, Utah

Phillips may not tick all the physical boxes you want from an NFL cornerback, but there are two distinct facets of cornerback play where he’s as good as it gets in the draft class: his ability to read through receivers to the quarterback, and his ability to work back downhill from off-coverage. Those two skills translate to ball production, as Phillips picked off three passes in zone coverage last season.

Best Press Cornerback: Joey Porter Jr., Penn State

Porter is a pterodactyl at the line of scrimmage with 34-inch arms that pack a serious punch. On 106 press snaps last season, Porter allowed only eight catches on 17 targets for 68 yards with seven forced incompletions. Something tells me he’s going to a scheme where that 106 number at least triples next season.

Most Versatile: Christian Gonzalez, Oregon

Gonzalez's versatility stems from his high-end, all-around, physical skill set. There’s truly no weakness to his game athletically. He’s a big, explosive defender with the hips of a smaller cornerback. That allows him to stick in any scheme or any role in the secondary and perform.

Best Tackler: Brian Branch, Alabama

Branch may not have the long speed to be drafted too early in the draft, but make no mistake: Whoever drafts him will be getting the single most sound defensive prospect at the moment. He won’t make mental mistakes in coverage and won’t miss plays in front of him. Branch missed four tackles on 174 attempts in his career. 

Best Hips: Tre'Vius Hodges-Tomlinson, TCU

Having a lower center of gravity obviously helps with change-of-direction ability, but that doesn’t solely explain how special THT is in this regard. The man is one of the smoothest movers you’ll ever see on a football field and loses almost no speed when forced to flip his hips. That's why he broke up 29 passes in his college career despite his size.

Best Ball Skills: Emmanuel Forbes, Mississippi State

The FBS leader in pick-sixes (six) may have a knack for locating the football. He combines those ball skills with a 6-foot-7 wingspan and a 4.35-second 40-yard dash that help him get to footballs in the air in a hurry. With 14 career picks and 17 pass breakups in three seasons, Forbes is likely going to find some footballs at the next level, too.


Best Slot: Brian Branch, Alabama

Branch is the best defensive back in this class when it comes to matching route concepts in underneath zone coverage. He was targeted a ridiculous 54 times in the slot this past season. Only 14 of those resulted in conversions. Branch also led all slot cornerbacks with 14 coverage stops at the position. If you need an every-down slot, look no further.

Best Single High: Sydney Brown, Illinois

This was a difficult superlative to hand out because there are not too many true deep safeties in this class. Brown has all the traits to be one of them, but that wasn’t even his role at Illinois. On the 40 snaps he played at true deep safety this past fall, though, Brown still excelled with a 90.4 grade. His range and willingness to come downhill at full speed will be well-served in such a role. 

Best Two-High: Ronnie Hickman, Ohio State

Hickman is one of the more underrated safeties in the draft class. His ability to break out of his stance from a pedal or while flat-footed is exactly what you want from a two-high safety. He earned an 85.0 coverage grade in middle-of-field-open coverages last season.

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