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Ranking the top 15 cornerbacks in the NFL Draft

Arizona v Stanford Photo by David Madison/Getty Images

This may surprise you, but there is more than one position in this draft. One of those positions is cornerback, where the San Francisco 49ers re-signed Jason Verrett and K’Waun Williams, but only on one-year deals.

It feels inevitable that the team will select a cornerback in this upcoming draft. The question is will the Niners select more than one?

As always, you can hold me accountable by looking at my old rankings. In 2019, I had Jamel Dean as the top cornerback, followed by Byron Murphy, Nik Needham, Sean Murphy-Bunting, and Greedy Williams.

Last year, I had Trevon Diggs, and A.J. Terrell ranked ninth and tenth, while Cameron Dantzler came in at second. You’re going to see the rankings today look different than what you’re used to seeing from other pundits. I’m going based on what I believe, not the consensus.

Cornerbacks and wide receivers have been the most drafted positions in the NFL Draft. That’s not going to change any time soon. This year, you could make an argument for about 15-20 cornerbacks that deserve to be selected on or before Day 2.

Just because you run fast doesn’t make you a good player. 4.3 guys can get beat in coverage just as easy as a 4.6 cornerback. Recovery speed is far more critical at the position. Speed, in general, is overrated. Dantzler excelled as a rookie because he has good feet, eyes and understands route concepts.

My rankings will reflect players who have the best traits, technique, disciplined, aware, and the players who I believe translate the best to the NFL.

Tier V

15) Shemar Jean-Charles - App. St.

Jean-Charles came it at 5’10”, 184 pounds. His pro day numbers were “fine,” but Jean-Charles has the ball skills and aggressive mindset to flourish in the slot at the next level. Let’s not act like this is some “sleeper” as Jean-Charles was a first-team All-American. His shuttle times (4.27/7.19 3-cone) were below average. But Jean-Charles can close quickly enough on underneath routes and had enough wingspan to be disruptive, even if he’s a step behind in coverage.

Jean-Charles is the type of cornerback that will let you know after every incompletion he forces, and that type of confidence translates. He only allowed 35% of his targets to be completed last season while breaking up 16 passes on 53 targets. Bet on players who make plays on the ball.

14) Eric Stokes - Georgia

Stokes didn’t do the shuttle/3-cone at his pro day, but he tested like a superb athlete as he ran a 4.25 40-yard dash and jumped 38.5” in the vertical with a broad jump just north of 10’. Stokes can run, but that shouldn’t be a surprise.

On the field, Stokes gives up too much separation throughout the route for my taste. I often thought he could have done a better job at “squeezing” the space between him and the receiver instead of running parallel. Stokes comes off as closer to stiff than anything when asked to change directions, which is why he’s in this tier. His lack of aggression, in general, could prevent him from becoming anything more than a competent starter.

13) Elijah Molden - Washington

Molden is small and slow. That’s not a great combo. He measured in at 5’9”, 192 pounds while running a 4.59 40 with only a 1.61 10-yard split. For reference, Northwestern’s Rashawn Slater ran a 1.68 10-yard split.

Molden played a bit of safety for Washington this past season, and I bet that’ll be more of his role at the next level. He’s sound when coming downhill to make a tackle and plays with good technique against the run and in coverage, but it’s tough to hide his deficiencies in man coverage.

Molden doesn’t have the requisite recovery speed when he’s beaten, nor the strength to contest throws in 50/50 situations. He’s an intelligent player who wins with his mind, but at the top of the route and when it came to tackling, Molden left a lot to be desired.

Tier IV

The following three players are likely to begin their career as slot cornerbacks but have proven they can play outside. Each of these players could be taken anywhere from the late second round to the middle of the third round, and you’d feel comfortable with that value.

12) Zech McPhearson - Texas Tech

The Red Raiders played a bizarre scheme that didn’t allow McPhearson to showcase his skillset. His pro day is on Wednesday, but it’s evident that McPhearson is a premier athlete. His closing speed is impressive, as are his transitions.

McPhearson will likely measure on the smaller side of — Tech listed him at 5’11/195, but I have my doubts — which could pigeonhole him into the slot. He had four interceptions this past season to go with six pass breakups and two forced fumbles. McPhearson played inside, outside, and sometimes at safety. He was good in all spots and made plays at each level, including man and zone coverage.

I’m a big fan of the Penn State transfer and would feel confident about him starting as a rookie, though he does play small, and that could be a concern on the outside/when asked to tackle the running back in the open field.

11) Aaron Robinson - UCF

When I watch Robinson, that’s what I think people mean when they are talking about Molden. I’ll mention mentality a lot in this article, and Robinson fits the mindset needed to a tee. Robinson played in the slot at UCF, and he’d end up as a linebacker at times. Seeing him thrive in the box among offensive lineman proved that Robinson could play in the NFL.

It doesn’t hurt that Robinson ran a 4.38 40-yard dash with a 1.51 10-yard split. At 5’11 and 186 pounds, he plays like he’s 215 pounds. Robinson wants to be physical and get his hands on you on every snap. He ran a 4.31 short shuttle, which shows up when he has to change directions on the field. There are wasted steps when changing directions, but Robinson’s closing speed is so good that he can make up a step or two.

Robinson did allow four touchdowns this past season, per Sports Info Solutions. But his competitiveness and aggression make for a high-quality slot cornerback.

10) Darren Hall - San Diego St.

Hall is the one cornerback outside of the top-5 who I could see outperforming everyone else. The former Aztec is a player. At 5’11”, 188 pounds, Hall ran a 4.47 40-yard dash with a 38.5” vertical and an 11’ broad jump. That is explosive.

Robinson and Molden struggled to relate to wideouts in zone coverage underneath, which wasn’t an issue for Hall. He’s clued in and constantly “finding work.” Hall may have a better closing burst than the corners mentioned above, as well as transitions out of his breaks. Hall’s footwork is cleaner, which allowed him to make plays on the ball.

My biggest resistance for Hall was finding the ball in the air when he had to turn and run. They didn’t always end up as completions, but Hall had a hard time playing both the man and the ball. That, plus he primarily played off-coverage. With better ball skills, Hall would be higher on this list.

Tier III

This next tear features four cornerbacks who can start on Day 1, and all should be top-50 picks. There’s one trait that prevents them from being first-rounders, but they’ll be reliable starters in the league for a long time.

9) Asante Samuel Jr. - Florida St.

How old does that name make you feel? We’ve reached a point where some elite players from the 2000s have sons entering the NFL Draft, and I’m not happy about it.

Samuel Jr. came it at 5’10”, 180. Outside of his 4.45 40-yard dash, Samuel’s testing numbers were underwhelming. He tested like an average athlete, and, honestly, he plays like one as well.

Samuel Jr.’s mannerisms are a lot like his dad, where he jumps routes and has an insanely quick trigger. That speaks more to Samuel’s route recognition but shouldn’t be confused with superb athleticism.

When facing bigger wideouts, you get to see where Samuel Jr. could potentially struggle at the next level. Samuel Jr. had an issue staying in phase when he had to turn and run with speedy wideouts. He also struggled to get around bigger-bodied receivers or get off blocks. Size and strength were an issue in college, and I’m not sure that’ll change in the NFL.

8) Ifeatu Melifonwu - Syracuse

We had a great interview with Melifonwu last week. Size, strength, and speed are the furthest things from issues for Melifonwu, who tested like an elite athlete, despite his poor shuttle times. The 6’2” 204-pound cornerback jumped 41.5” in the vertical and over 11’ in the broad jump.

Melifonwu’s closing speed is arguably his best trait. He ran a 1.48 10-yard split, which shows up when you watch him. Technique-wise, Melifonwu gets to the correct shoulder as well:

Melifonwu had a handful of impressive reps at the Senior Bowl that showed he understands route patterns.

In that podcast, we talked about not playing as high in his backpedal and becoming more efficient in that sense. If Melifonwu can clean up some slight technical issues, he could be a top cornerback. He’s a willing tackler who has a few highlight plays where Melifonwu throws receivers out of the way en route to the running back.

It’s a strong class when Melifonwu is the eighth-rated cornerback.

7) Kelvin Joseph - Kentucky

The LSU transfer measured at 5’11, 197 pounds, and ran a 4.34 40-yard dash. Joseph’s agility scores were poor, as he ran a 7.21 3-cone and a 4.22 short shuttle, but speed isn’t a problem.

Joseph projects as a strong CB2 in the NFL. Joseph is one of the few cornerbacks who remain physical throughout the route, and it throws off the receiver’s timing. He competes, is tough, and wants to hit you. That could lead to Joseph playing inside.

Eye discipline is an issue in off-coverage, but Joseph does an excellent job of using his body and pinning receivers to the sideline. He held his own against Alabama this past season, including a nice interception. There aren’t many flaws to Joseph’s game, though there aren’t many plays that make him stand out above the guys ranked higher.

6) Paulson Adebo - Stanford

Adebo is the ultimate wildcard in this draft. He has the potential to be a special player at the next level. Adebo seems to be an afterthought since he didn’t play during the 2020 season. At his pro day, Adebo came in at 6’1, 198 pounds, and ran a 4.45 40-yard dash. The rest of his testing numbers were considered average, but his 3-cone of 6.69 was stellar.

I love Adebo’s trigger and aggression. He can come up and be a bit reckless at times, but you can’t ignore how Adebo puts himself in a position to make plays on the ball.

Adebo had eight interceptions in two years, and SIS had him dropping an additional four passes. Pass breakups are a better determination for ball skills, and Adebo broke up 33, yes, thirty-three passes, per SIS on 114 targets. That type of production is obnoxious.

Adebo’s recklessness pours into his tackling. He’s a willing run defender who puts his foot in the ground. Play strength and open-field tackling could be a concern, but you won’t find too many better true cover corners than Adebo.

Tier II

These next four players are all first-round picks that can play right away, and you wouldn’t have any worries with them starting day 1.

5) Patrick Surtain - Alabama

Another familiar last name.

I know, I know. He’s everyone’s No. 1 CB. When it comes to understanding what an offense and a receiver want to do, you’re not going to find a better cornerback than Surtain. He runs routes for receivers.

Surtain has great size and was explosive in the vertical, broad jump, and 40. His 10-yard split was barely above average at 1.57, and it shows up. I imagine Surtain avoided doing the agility drills for a reason, too.

There are enough plays on film where Surtain struggles to turn, run, and stay in phase on vertical routes. When it comes to staying in phase on intermediate out or in-breaking routes, Surtain had issues. This showed up on non-targeted plays. Surtain was too often a step behind at the college level, which is why I’m not as high on him as most.

He’s good and deserves to go in the first round, but Surtain isn’t a player I’d consider “special.”

4) Caleb Farley - Virginia Tech

Speaking of “special,” Farley ran a 4.28 at his pro day. Unlike most of the 40 times this offseason, Farley plays that fast. There are plays where it looks like Farley is beaten in coverage by a couple of steps. A split second later, he’s made up the ground. It’s fun to watch.

For as big of a player as Farley is, he’s exceptionally fluid. Everything about his game is quick, which is why he had 28 pass breakups and six interceptions on 95 targets in college. If you were to build a cornerback, it would look like Farley. Physically, there are no limitations.

Farley tends to play out of control and doesn’t have the most remarkable technique. He’s over-reliant on his athleticism, and that won’t work in the NFL. He gave up enough big plays and missed more tackles than he should have that make you worry.

Farley underwent a microdiscectomy at the end of March, which wasn’t the first time he’s had a procedure to try to relieve back issues. That might take him off other teams’ boards. Farley is still raw in coverage, but there’s no denying his ceiling.

3) Greg Newsome - Northwestern

Newsome is a nuisance. He doesn’t make anything easy on the receiver and his “bad habit” of being grabby works in his favor as he often disrupts the timing of routes for opposing offenses.

Newsome’s explosiveness was supposedly an issue, but he ran a 4.39 40 and jumped 40” in the vertical. It’s safe to say he put those questions to bed.

Where changing direction with an extra unnecessary step could be a concern, Newsome has the anticipation to make up for that. Whether he’s in your face or off, man or zone, Newsome is one step ahead of the receiver.

When your best traits are quickness, ball skills, route recognition, and transitions, you’re going to be a good player at the next level. That’s Newsome.

2) Tyson Campbell - Georgia

Campbell did not test well. Neither did Dantzler. I’m sticking to my guns, as was the case last year. At 6’1, 193 pounds, Campbell ran a 4.4 40-yard dash but was below average in the vertical and agility drills.

When you watch him play, nobody else made Devonta Smith work harder. Or Kyle Pitts. Sure, they caught a couple of passes on him, but they were so late in the play that it didn’t bother me. Campbell is the ultimate competitor that makes you earn it on every play.

To me, Campbell is Marlon Humphrey all over again. He excels both inside and out and is a fiesty pain in the you know what.

Campbell made plays in every coverage Georgia played. He’s much more physical than you’d expect, as he can be seen taking on a pulling lineman. Campbell has a high football IQ, with terrific closing speed.

The big plays he gave up in 2020 are 50/50 balls that go the other way the next time a play happens. While some worry about his change of direction, that can be worked out by playing lower in his backpedal. I’m betting on Campbell’s process and not the results.

We’re betting on traits, and Campbell has those. I think he’ll be a star in the NFL.

Tier I

1) Jaycee Horn - South Carolina

Horn is the guy. He’s what you want at the position in every aspect, from the trash-talking to the speed, to understanding how to play cornerback.

Horn is a dog. He’s what it should look like. If I’m a team that needs a cornerback, I can imagine passing on Horn. He’s the best cornerback to come out of the draft since Marshon Lattimore in 2017. Horn is that good.