• The latest in a long line of star Alabama CBs: Kool-Aid McKinstry, the No. 1 cornerback prospect as of now, possesses NFL-caliber mirror ability and recovery speed.
• Kalen King, Cooper DeJean round out the top 10: King earned a 90.6 coverage grade in 2022, while DeJean is known for his ball skills and size.
• Keep an eye on the overlooked Max Melton: The Rutgers cornerback was up to the task of defending Marvin Harrison Jr. last season.
Estimated Reading Time: 6 minutes
There are just a few positions left in our summer scouting series for the 2024 NFL Draft before we kick off the 2023 college football season. We’re saving two of the better ones for last, starting with cornerbacks.
Alabama’s Kool-Aid McKinstry, Penn State’s Kalen King, Iowa’s Cooper DeJean and TCU’s Josh Newton have first-round tape and data, while the rest of the class isn’t far behind. It could be a great year to need a cornerback. Here are our top eight draft-eligible cornerbacks heading into the season.
More Early 2024 Draft Rankings
1. KOOL-AID McKINSTRY, ALABAMA
McKinstry is the next Nick Saban cornerback prodigy. He is the ideal athlete at 6-foot-1 and 195 pounds to play as an outside cornerback and has been starting since his true freshman season. In 2022, he played 796 snaps out wide, all of which came as a right cornerback. His mirror ability and recovery speed are NFL caliber for how much press coverage he plays (427 of his 518 total coverage snaps were in press).
His hips are fluid and explosive. He also has a ton of production on the ball in the form of forced incompletions (18) due to his great instincts with his back to the ball. He needs to get stronger to mitigate separation and penalties called on him, but the rest is there as a projected first-rounder.
2. KALEN KING, PENN STATE
King is a high-ceiling cornerback with ideal athletic ability. His 90.6 raw coverage grade and 93.4 grade in single coverage were both the highest for draft-eligible cornerbacks. Those numbers came from his incredible quickness and explosiveness to mirror cornerbacks. When he gets in a footrace with receivers down the sideline, he rarely yields separation — sometimes he’ll even beat the receiver to where the ball is going. His 16 forced incompletions and three interceptions also point to great ball skills.
King also plays with a ton of visible passion in the form of trash talk and celebration with his teammates (a big plus for defensive backs). An area of improvement for 2023 is his timing and placement of his hand strikes when in press coverage. He has NFL written all over him.
3. COOPER DeJEAN, IOWA
Wide cornerback, slot cornerback, safety, linebacker — Cooper DeJean can do it all, and he has been even beyond football. He holds high school records in football, state records in basketball and state championships in track (long jump and 100-meter). At 6-foot-1 and 207 pounds, he places above the 80th percentile for both height and weight for the cornerback position (if that’s where you want to play him). He is such a smart player in his awareness, spacing and ball skills, and that shows up in his five interceptions (with two more dropped) and six forced incompletions.
DeJean is a bigger player, so his heavier feet and slower build-up speed might be a reason some teams project him best as a safety. But make no mistake, this is one of the best and most natural football players you’ll watch this season.
4. JOSH NEWTON, TCU
Newton plays like the type of cornerback you draft in the top 50, which is why I’m shocked we didn’t hear more about him in last year’s draft cycle. He has adequate size, measuring 6-foot and 190 pounds. His feet and hips are lightning quick, and that shows up well in his 71.8 coverage grade in single coverage assignments. He boasts good recovery speed, as well as the instincts and awareness to know when to give space and when to stay tight, as evidenced by his three interceptions and 14 forced incompletions in 2022.
I’d like to see Newton bring as much focus and intensity to run defense as he does locking down receivers. Ultimately, this is a player who can succeed in man or zone, inside or out.
5. MAX MELTON, RUTGERS
Melton is the most overlooked cornerback in early draft rankings, in my opinion. First and foremost, he’s a highly competitive player. Turn on the Ohio State tape, and you’ll see he is up to the challenge of guarding Marvin Harrison Jr. He is feisty in press coverage and shows good athleticism all around — long speed, quick hips, fast feet.
He’s also good at reading the body and eyes of wide receivers to know when to put his hand up when his back is to the ball, as you can see from his nine forced incompletions. He also happens to be the brother of Green Bay Packers wide receiver Bo Melton.
6. NATE WIGGINS, CLEMSON
Wiggins has the potential to be a high-impact outside cornerback. At 6-foot-2 and 185 pounds, he brings a lot of versatility to play both left and right cornerback, as well as zone or man coverage. His experience right now is in off-coverage when he can keep his eyes on the quarterback and bait them into throws (only 80 of his 481 coverage snaps came in press). He moves fluidly and with explosiveness for a taller cornerback, which makes me think he can improve in press if he had the reps. His receiver background gives him good ball skills, as evidenced by his 10 forced incompletions.
There is even more left in the tank for Wiggins, though. His raw coverage grade of 78.9 and single coverage grade of 67.8 can both be higher with more consistency, mainly in the strength category (likely has to put on weight for better contention at the catch point and in run support). He also had three dropped interceptions last season, a figure that could have been even higher due to how well he can read the quarterback and play the ball. This is the type of player who can be a turnover machine.
7. D.J. JAMES, AUBURN
James is slender at 5-foot-11 and 170 pounds, but he’s very sticky in coverage. In his first season in the SEC after transferring from Oregon, he recorded an 85.7 overall coverage grade and a 73.1 single coverage grade. He also racked up 10 forced incompletions due to how often he is in receivers’ hip pockets. As you would expect from a player who ranks in just the 1st percentile in weight, he lacks some strength in his game, but he doesn’t show that in his demeanor.
James also has fantastic change-of-direction ability with lightning-quick feet, fluid hips and the long speed to open up down the sideline. His favorite trait of mine is how calm and patient he is in his backpedal, hardly fooled by the hand and shoulder deception of receivers out of their releases.
I’d love to see if he can maintain his sticky coverage athletics at around 180 pounds.
8. T.J. TAMPA, IOWA STATE
If big cornerbacks are your cup of tea, you'll like Tampa. He's a legit 6-foot-2 and nearly 200 pounds. He has a good strength profile at the catch point and when tackling and defending the run. His issues are typical for big guys — somewhat slow hips and having a tough time cutting on a dime and changing direction. But the long speed is adequate once he can open up, and he has the mentality of a lockdown type of receiver (137 of his 319 coverage snaps came in press). He recorded an 81.6 overall coverage grade with a 77.2 single coverage grade in 2022. Those long arms also proved to be useful at the catch point, leading to 12 forced incompletions.