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Ranking the 15 best cornerbacks in the draft

This year’s class is much, much stronger than last year’s class

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College Football Playoff Semifinal at the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

There are some similarities and differences between this year’s class of cornerbacks and the 2019 class. To me, there was only one cornerback worthy of a first-round pick last year. That’s the case this year, too. Last year, there were some unknown names and small school players that were more talented than the same three or four names the media were talking about. If you look at Pro Football Focus’s top-50 rookies’ list, these are the cornerbacks that made it. Auburn’s Jamel Dean was fifth. The Jets Blessaun Austin was 18th. Austin was the 196th pick of the 2019 NFL Draft. Fifth-round selection Marvell Tell III of the Colts was 31st. Sean Murphy-Bunting was 38th on the list and the Bucs 38th overall selection. The two other players, Rock Ya-Sin (46th) and Trayvon Mullens (50th), were both Day 2 picks.

While the majority of evaluators and fans hyped up the likes of Deandre Baker, Greedy Williams, and Byron Murphy, the top cornerbacks were outperformed by lesser names. It happens every year, but especially at cornerback. Don’t be surprised next year when cornerbacks drafted on Day 3 outperform the defensive backs drafted in the top two rounds. As with any pre-draft rankings, landing spot matters. Also, it’s rare that names routinely brought when discussing positions end up being the top performers. That makes it fun and forces you to dig a bit deeper.

The biggest difference in this year’s class is the talent. It wouldn’t be surprising to see double-digit cornerbacks drafted on the second day of the draft. There may not multiple lockdown cornerbacks in this draft, but you can find several high-quality No. 2 and slot cornerbacks. I believe that “feel,” and anticipation are superior to physical traits at cornerback, and these rankings will reflect that. That’s not to say athleticism doesn’t matter. There are baselines and thresholds for every position. Here are the top 15 cornerbacks in the draft. I’ll give one reason you should feel confident, and one reason to be worried.

Tier 4

In this tier, each player can play but don’t expect much success in the first year barring drastic improvements. The talent is there, but the refinement is lacking.

15 - Reggie Robinson, Tulsa

Robinson is 6’1”, 205, and has the length and speed to get the job done as a press cornerback. Robinson ran a 4.44 40-yard dash, but his shuttle times were below-average, and that shows up when you watch him, especially on comebacks. Robinson competes against the run and the pass, though, and you can’t take that away from him.

14 - Bryce Hall, Virginia

Hall was recovering from an ankle injury, so he didn’t get a chance to test at the NFL Combine. Someone will fall in love with his 32” arms, and for a good reason. Hall uses his length to disrupt wideouts at the line of scrimmage, and his gangly arms show up in zone coverage as well. Hall not participating at the combine may have been a blessing in disguise, as it gets ugly when he has to change directions. Most players have some sort of hitch when it comes to changing directions. Hall has a legitimate pause, and that allows receivers to easily gain separation at the top of the route.

13- Troy Pride Jr., Notre Dame

Pride running a 4.4 at the NFL Combine was hardly surprising if you’ve seen him run before. Speed is far from his issue. I do think he plays too high, and that hurts him when it comes to breaking on timing routes. If Pride had any sort of ball skills, he’d be in tier 3. The next time Pride plays the ball well in the air will be the first time. I can’t rank someone high that is in position but can’t find the ball, despite being in phase consistently.

12 - Josiah Scott, Michigan State

Scott is 5’9”, 185 pounds, and had one of the smallest wingspans at the NFL Combine. Because of that, he’s likely going to be stuck inside in the NFL. Scott did run a 4.42 40-yard dash. The best part about him is Scott doesn’t get beaten deep. He allowed some underneath throws for minimal yards, but only allowed only eight receptions on 31 targets over ten yards last season. Scott is smart, sound, and quicker than fast, which is saying something. Scott did hurt his knee and missed all but five games in 2018 due to the injury. The downside to Scott is he does play small, and that showed up against bigger receivers. Scott is the “safest” pick in this tier.

11- A.J. Terrell, Clemson

Yes, Terrell is fast. There is a lot more to playing cornerback than pure speed. After seeing his targets, I can’t understand why in the world he’s considered a first-round pick. Terrell struggles to change directions. I saw so many times where he was going to break, and he lost his footing. When you don’t play with your feet underneath you, that’s going to happen. Terrell was beaten in coverage a lot more than just in the National Championship game.

Terrell was consistently out-muscled, whether at the catch point or the top of a route. It’s harsh, but I’d steer clear of him knowing how high Terrell is going to go in the draft.

10 - Trevon Diggs, Alabama

Diggs didn’t have any testing numbers, so, like a few of the receivers, I’m not going to give him the benefit of the doubt. Unlike the receivers, it was evident when watching Diggs that he lacks top-end recovery speed or change of direction. His positive traits are all elite, though. Diggs is strong, and it shows up. He’s also one of the top zone cornerbacks in the draft. The best area of Diggs’ game is his ball skills. Elite is an understatement.

It’s clear, however, that Diggs doesn’t have a great feel for the routes coming at him when he’s in pure man coverage. Do you think Nick Saban would have run so many two-high safeties if he trusted his cornerbacks? I don’t. That says a lot, but it also showed up in games. LSU was rough, but the down-to-down plays showed Diggs has a ways to go:

Tier 3

This tier shows the strength of the class. A lot of names here would have been in the top-five last year. This tier is reserved for quality No. 2 cornerbacks that are unspectacular, but you are comfortable with them on the field. Every player in this tier is neck and neck. The ninth CB is right there with the sixth cornerback.

9 - Jaylon Johnson, Utah

Johnson can play. Don’t let this ranking fool you. The best way to describe Johnson is “solid.” Johnson’s best traits are his confidence, physicality, and route recognition. He’s going to play in the NFL for a while. Johnson can be too grabby, and lunging puts him out of position. He’s not on the same level of “athlete” as some of the top cornerbacks, and that showed against the better receivers Johnson faced. When the competition got better, Johnson didn’t, and that’s concerning. My biggest issue is when it comes to Johnson opening up and running. Take a deep breath. That’s what Johnson does when he has to turn and run. He stands up, and that takes away from his fluidity.

8 - Damon Arnette, Ohio State

I ended up liking Arnette a little less on the second round of viewing. Arnette’s age has to bee considered. He’ll be 24 during his rookie season. Arnette ran a 4.56 40, but you never felt that speed was an issue watching him. Go back to 2018, and TCU’s Jalen Reagor shows what Arnette looks like against an NFL receiver. I’d be concerned about his lack of length and second gear, and losing separation underneath:

With that said, Arnette doesn’t have bad plays in coverage. He’s not the most physical, but he’s aggressive against the run. Arnette is one of the better cornerbacks at the catch point, and that makes me believe he’ll be around for a while.

7 - Jeff Gladney, TCU

It’s odd to say this, but Gladney plays faster than a 4.48, which is already fast. What I love about Gladney’s game is how he competes to the very last second. You’ll see Gladney doing everything he can to fight for the ball. That and his transitions are top-notch. Gladney’s 7.26 3-cone was a disaster, and, unfortunately, it shows. When Gladney is in his backpedal and has to change directions, he’s going to lose the rep:

Even with Gladney’s top recovery speed, his tightness puts him at a disadvantage. This tightness showed up enough to keep him out of Tier 2.

6 - Amik Robertson, Louisiana Tech

Robertson didn’t run at the NFL Combine, but he ran a 4.45 40-yard dash at his pro day. Robertson finished his junior year with eight tackles for loss, a sack, five interceptions, and a ridiculous 16 pass breakups. From a competitive standpoint, Robertson is as good as it gets. He measured at 5’8” 187, which will likely cause Robertson to fall in the draft. If you think size is his issue, Texas tried to challenge him with their supersized receivers and found out the hard way that size isn’t a skill.

Robertson is fiesty, can play inside or out, and has the football smarts you look for at cornerback. I know I have a starter at cornerback in Robertson, whether that’s in the slot or on the outside.

Tier 2

This tier is reserved for players that have upside to be No. 1 cornerbacks but aren’t there yet. If you need a cornerback, take one of these guys—good football players with the potential to be great.

5 - C.J. Henderson, Florida

Henderson is likely going in the first ten picks Thursday. If you were to create a cornerback in a lab as far as how they run, move, and recover, you’d build Henderson. From press coverage, he can stay on top of posts and deep routes. In off coverage, Henderson stays in phase against double moves. I saw one time where Henderson came from the other side of the field to contest a post route. None of that is normal, so it’s easy to understand why a team like Atlanta may trade up for him.

Henderson plays like a player that’s never been taught fundamentals or had to really “study” the game. Can that change? Easily. Will it be easy? Not as much as you think. Too often in 2019, there was separation from receivers on routes that Henderson, based on his physical traits, should be in phase making a play. Instead, Henderson was a step slow due to his lack of route recognition. Henderson’s physicality is lacking as well. He has good intentions and an incredibly quick trigger, but finishing was an issue. Both tackling and at the catch point.

Because of that, Henderson got beat. A lot. Both down the field and in the intermediate part of the field. Supremely gifted, but a lot is being overlooked when discussing Henderson.

4 - Kristian Fulton, LSU

Fulton is safe, skilled, technically sound, and continuously in phase. Fulton erased Alabama’s Henry Ruggs in 2019. They matched up against each other 14 times and Ruggs was only ablee to shake free once. It was clinic. Quicker receivers can give Fulton fits, and 50/50 balls are an issue with his wingspan and leaping ability. Those traits keep Fulton out of the first tier, but boy does he make a ton of plays:

Fulton is even better in zone coverage. He’s who people mean when they hype up Johnson from Utah.

3 - Noah Igbinoghene, Auburn

Igbinoghene is the high-upside prospect I’d be willing to bet on in this draft. I keep seeing people say he’s raw. If you watch a reel of his press-man snaps and nothing else, you wouldn’t have that takeaway. Noah’s anticipation for a player that is so young and green at the position is remarkable. He has patience, length to ride receivers into the sideline, and patience that helps him stay in phase.

2 - Cameron Dantzler, Mississippi State

I understand how much you are rolling your eyes right now. If you’re unhappy with the ranking, all I ask is you show me the plays where Dantzler was beaten in coverage. After going through his targets in 2019, you won’t find many. Dantzler allowed four completions on 13 targets over ten yards. Three of those were contested, and two came when the game was well out of hand. Factoring in the emotional side, players check out during blowouts. When the game is close, Dantzler was lights out. The catches he gave up underneath weren’t worrisome as Dantzler was generally in a position to make a play. His physicality, awareness, anticipation, and recognition are superb. Here is a non-target against the best receiver in college football:

Ja’Marr Chase doesn’t even get into his route. Against the best receivers in college football, Dantzler didn’t just hold his own; he won those matchups. You’d have no idea he ran a 4.64 at the NFL Combine because he’s in position whether it’s against Ruggs, Jeudy, Chase, or any SEC receiver. Why would I not give him credit for that?

Dantzler’s lack of muscle didn’t help on those passes he lost out on. That will be the reason Dantzler fails in the NFL, not his speed. Dantzler also doesn’t have a second gear or burst, which is concerning because everyone gets beat in the NFL. Still, it was a rare occurrence at the highest level of college football, where Dantzler wasn’t in a position to make a play. It didn’t matter what type of receiver, route, or area of the field. He gave up one touchdown in his career at MSU, and it was against a future star at Auburn when the game was well out of hand. Put him in an NFL offseason workout program, and Dantzler has a better chance of being a star than anyone else that’s listed. How he won in college translates to the NFL.

Tier 1

And then there was one.

Jeff Okudah, Ohio State

There is no panic in Okudah’s game. Ohio State played a lot of press bail coverage, and Okudah has it mastered. Makeup speed, playing the ball in the air, an elite trigger to close on the ball, and strength that’s unparalleled in this class. I did have questions about Okudah’s change of direction, but he’s so good at everything else that it may not even matter. Okudah has the ideal mentality you want at cornerback. He’s going to be a stud.