The San Francisco 49ers finished 2017 with the likes of Ahkello Witherspoon and Dontae Johnson roaming the secondary. Witherspoon came on strong towards the end of the year, as did just about everyone else. If there’s any hope at making a run at the playoffs in 2018 and beyond, though, upgrades at the cornerback position are necessary.
The Niners still have lots of salary cap space to work with despite the amount of money that was just used on Jimmy Garoppolo’s extension; all signs point to them adding talent through both the draft and free agency - especially with the likes of Malcolm Butler, Beshaud Breeland, Kyle Fuller, E.J. Gaines, and Patrick Robinson set to be available in the coming weeks.
For the time being, though, we are going to identify some of the top prospects at corner while also shedding light on some potential sleepers that could contribute to the team if given the chance.
Top 5 Cornerbacks
Minkah Fitzpatrick - CB/S
Minkah Fitzpatrick - University of Alabama Height/Weight: 6’1”, 202 lb. Age: 21 Projected 40 time: 4.53
Minkah Fitzpatrick is widely reagrded at as the number one corner/safety prospect in the 2018 NFL Draft, and rightfully so. Fitzpatrick strengths include being instinctive, versatile, well-rounded, having superb over-the-top coverage, and is a willing run defender. Honestly, it is difficult to pinpoint glaring weaknesses; if he starts at corner in the NFL then I could see him being knocked for not having “ideal speed.” I believe many will overlook that, though, as someone will fall in love with his ability to play safety and corner at high levels and he will end up being taken somewhere in the top ten. Robert Saleh’s defense seems to be littered with players who can be utilized at multiple positions so, while he most definitely will be gone by the 9th or 10th pick, Fitzpatrick would be a perfect fit for the 49ers.
Draft Projection: Early 1st round
Denzel Ward - CB
Denzel Ward - Ohio State Univiersity Height/Weight: 5’10”, 191 lb. Age: 21 Projected 40 time: 4.46
A name that has been linked to the 49ers over the last few weeks and someone who I personally wouldn’t mind seeing in red and gold come training camp. Many look at Ward as the best pure corner in the draft and someone who, despite his size, will be able to blanket any receiver he is matched up against. Also of note is his gifted footwork and how he is able to match changing route speeds stride for stride. Over the last two seasons he allowed just over 30% completions when targeted. Ward’s only conceivable weakness seems to be his height as he stands at 5’10” - he makes up for this, though, by having a Pro Bowl-caliber skillset: he has the necessary speed, ball skills, and a high defensive IQ. Whoever ends up drafting Ward in the first round will reap the benefits of a player who is highly talented and ready to contribute
Draft Projection: Early 1st round
Josh Jackson - CB
Josh Jackson - University of Iowa Height/Weight: 6’1”, 192 lb. Age: 21 Projected 40 time: 4.51
I’m glad I don’t have to make decision like this on draft day because it’ll be hard to choose between Ward and Iowa cornerback Josh Jackson. He came on strong in 2017 as he accumulated a whopping 8 interceptions to go along with his 18 passes deflected (also of note: he did not allow a touchdown against him after week 4). He’s been lauded for his work ethic and positive attitude in the locker room. Jackson has everything you’d look for in a shutdown corner: size, length, speed, ball skills, high defensive I.Q., and “big playability.” He plays the ball and not the man and his instincts are, as some say, top notch. There will be those who will express concern about his lack of fluidity which potentially make it hard for him to limit separation at the next level. A coaching staff may see that as something that can be worked on, though. I’m high on this guy - consider it an official draft crush.
Draft Projection: Early/mid 1st round
Isaiah Oliver - CB
Isaiah Oliver - University of Colorado Height/Weight: 6’1”, 190 lb. Age: 21 Projected 40 time: 4.51
The Colorado Buff, who actually was a teammate of Ahkello Witherspoon in college, will look to make some noise at the combine. He’s just scratching the surface of what his talent could let him do at the next level. Oliver is legitimately fast and is an incredibly explosive leaper. Those attributes, paired with his lengthy arms, will translate well in the NFL. Has soft hands. Requires touch and precision to drop downfield throws over his rangy frame. Oliver will benefit greatly if he finds himself on a team where his role will be limited initially as he will have to learn how to get better at planting his foot and redirecting quickly, but his ceiling is high as a lockdown corner.
Draft Projection: 1st/2nd round
Jaire Alexander - CB
Jaire Alexander - University of Louisville Height/Weight: 5’11”, 192 lb. Age: 21 Projected 40 time: 4.55
After missing half of the 2017 season due to injury (sprained knee, broken hand) Alexander managed a stat line of 19 tackles, 1 interception, and 4 pass breakups. He is as athletic and tough as they come and carries traits of a playmaker: smooth mover with plus acceleration to chase down receivers, aware and instinctive, and has a real knack for staying connected to routes being ran by opposing receivers. Aggressive attacking catch point. Climbs on top of receivers and rips arms through potential catches. Has decent recovery burst on the deep ball. Scouts could potentially get worried about his habit of being too grabby in man coverage, along with the fact that he did give up too many redzone touchdowns over his career.
Draft Projection: 2nd round
Isaac Yiadom - CB
Isaac Yiadom - Boston College Height/Weight: 6’1”, 187 lb. Age: 22 Projected 40 time: 4.48
Based on tape alone Yiadom had himself pegged as a mid round selection - a nice week at the Senior bowl and hopefully-continued momentum heading into the combine will only help his draft stock. He is a good-sized athlete who stands out most during one-on-one and press coverages. He shows patient feet to match receivers’ and tends to stay “attached at the hip” vertically and does a good job of turning his head to find the ball. Again, if he can have a solid offseason, look for him to climb teams’ draft boards.
Draft Projection: 4th round
Jamarcus King - CB
Jamarcus King - University of South Carolina Height/Weight: 6’2”, 185 lb. Age: 21 Projected 40 time: 4.50
Jamarcus King is a player who could hear his name called on day 3 of the draft. He has the range and ability to play in the slot or one-on-one on the outside against any receiver. His size allows him to also line up at either safety position, if need be. He is as solid a tackler as he is in coverage and has the speed to hang with most receivers. One of my favorite words to describe football player is “gritty” and King is just that. When you watch him on tape you can tell he has a love for the game and a tendency to always be around the ball. Depth in the secondary is something that teams are always keen to add and I think King stands a good chance at carving out a nice role for himself at the next level.
Draft Projection: 5th round
(player measurables courtesy of team pages and All-Star games; 40 times are projections)