Take a peak at various big boards around the internet and you’ll find the 2016 NFL draft has no clear consensus top player. While the same names generally occupy the top handful of spots on the list—Laremy Tunsil, Myles Jack, Jalen Ramsey, Joey Bosa, DeForest Buckner, Ezekiel Elliott, and perhaps one of the top quarterbacks—the order of those names is shuffled from draftnik to draftnik.
If you absolutely had to pick the closest thing this draft class has to a consensus top prospect, however, that player would be Florida State’s Jalen Ramsey. Few big boards have him lower than the No. 3 slot, from what I’ve seen, and many others have him residing in the top spot. There aren’t many concerns when it comes to the Seminoles defensive back; the biggest question mark doesn’t revolve around how well he’ll perform at the next level, but where he’ll line up exactly.
Much like Myles Jack, Ramsey is one of the truly special athletes in this draft class. His pSPARQ score—a measure of athleticism developed by Nike and believed to be used by the Seahawks in their scouting process—was one of the highest at any position and puts him in the 99th percentile of NFL cornerbacks. More importantly, Ramsey’s incredible athleticism translated to the field, where it permeated all areas of his game and allowed him to do a little bit of everything during his time in Tallahassee, filling the role of boundary cornerback (outside cornerback on the side of the field closest to the sideline), slot cornerback, free safety, sub-package linebacker, and edge rusher at various points over the past two seasons. Let’s go to the tape and find out how Ramsey could fit with his next team.
Where he wins
Great strength. That was my first note on Ramsey as I started to watch his cut-ups on Draft Breakdown. It’s one of the things that allowed him to be so effective in the hybrid role he played in 2014, which saw him spend a good chunk of time in the box or as an alley defender. Ramsey will be an immediate plus in the run game, regardless of where he lands positionally, and at times can singlehandedly neutralize the screen game to his side of the field.
When lined up as an outside cornerback, which was his primary role in 2015, Ramsey’s combination of size and strength give him the potential to be an excellent press corner in the NFL. He didn’t press quite as often as I would have hoped—Ramsey frequently aligned up near the line of scrimmage, but played bail coverage more often than true press in the games I viewed—but was effective when he did. Ramsey does a nice job of disrupting the wideout’s release by using his length to quickly get his hands into their frame and using that strength to redirect, which he often does with just one arm. When things really come together, Ramsey can eliminate an option from the play outright with his press.
Should receivers make the mistake of taking an outside release up the sideline with Ramsey in coverage, he’s already a master of using his frame to widen the receiver, use the sideline to his advantage, and maintain ideal position to make a play on the ball, something we’re accustomed to seeing from Richard Sherman on a regular basis. And with excellent top-end speed, even if the receiver manages to overcome these obstacles, few of them will be able to leave Ramsey in the dust.
Defending deep routes is unquestionably Ramsey’s strength in coverage. According to Pro Football Focus, Ramsey allowed only four completions on "go" routes across 17 targets (23.5 percent) in 2015, and gave up just 7-of–26 targets (26.9 percent) on passes traveling at least 10 yards in the air regardless of the route.
Ramsey is at his best on these routes playing from a trail technique, where he can use his off-the-charts athleticism to mirror the wideout’s movements on comebacks and other deep out-breaking routes, or as he’ll often do, bait quarterback into a throw by allowing a little separation and then accelerating to close the gap. On deeper in-breaking routes, you can almost bank on Ramsey daring the quarterback to challenge him by presenting the illusion of a throwing window before undercutting the route and making a play on the ball.
The bounds of Ramsey’s athletic prowess extend beyond just coverage and make him a disruptive blitzer off the edge. For evidence, look no further than the 2014 Miami game. Ramsey effectively took over the fourth quarter of that contest, impacting several throws as a pass rusher before sealing the game with an interception (shown in the play above). If his next coaching staff dedicates the time toward polishing up his technique in this area, Ramsey’s speed and bend turning the corner as an edge rusher, plus his knack for finding the ball, could be devastating.
Where he struggles
If there were a chink in Ramsey’s athletic armor, you would point to his short-area change-of-direction ability. When tracking a receiver vertically down the field, Ramsey has little issue throttling down and sticking with the wideout through the break. But on underneath routes, Ramsey can lose to the quicker, shiftier types, particularly if he’s unable to get his hands on the receiver in press. It’s not something that pops up frequently, but it’s not difficult to envision him struggling to stick with the league’s better route runners.
Ramsey also has poor hands, something that comes as a bit of a surprise for a player rightfully carrying that Tyrann Mathieu-like playmaker reputation.
You’ll often see Ramsey’s lack of interceptions in 2015 cited, and while there are several possible explainers you could point to, he simply dropped what should have been easy picks on several occasions. This shouldn’t be confused with poor balls skills, however, at least by my definition. When I think of ball skills, I think of a player’s ability to locate the ball and make a play on it in coverage. Generally, Ramsey is good in that area, he just struggles sealing the deal at times.
The bottom line
Depending on who you talk to, the lack of a clearly defined position for Ramsey at the next level is either one of his greatest weaknesses or greatest strengths. Is he an outside press corner? How about a free safety? Or maybe, does he fill that Charles Woodson-in-Green Bay role as a hybrid slot corner that occasionally blitzes off the edge or plays linebacker?
Perhaps an enterprising defensive coordinator will see a player equally suited for all of these roles and will deploy him differently from week to week depending on the matchup. (This option gets my vote.) Regardless of how Ramsey winds up being utilized, it’s difficult to take much issue with his game. Safe is a word that doesn’t really exist when it comes to the NFL draft, but it feels as safe as safe can be in this context to say Ramsey’s worst-case scenario is that he turns out to be a Pro Bowl-caliber safety. Best case? He’s a wipe-the-opponent’s-best-weapon-from-the-face-of-the-earth defender who can shadow top wideouts and tight ends wherever they go.
For the 49ers, Ramsey is the least likely candidate to still be on the board when the No. 7 pick rolls around among the top defenders. So if Trent Baalke has his sights set on the Florida State product, he would almost certainly need to trade up, and that seems as unlikely as Ramsey falling out of the top five.
If you’re trying to rationalize a scenario in which that actually happens, you’re probably telling yourself something along the lines of: This is the NFL draft and crazy [site decorum] happens all of the time! I mean, the top two picks have already been traded, what’s stopping a team (or two) from getting infatuated with Paxton Lynch or Zeke Elliott. Then maybe one of the tackles goes, it could happen!
It probably won’t, but should Baalke find himself with the opportunity to select Ramsey, he won’t be able to turn in his draft card quick enough.