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NFL Draft 2014: The defensive backs

Posted Mar 14, 2014

The debate over who are the best cornerback and safety in the 2013 Draft Class starts with the obvious comparisons to the best in the league – the Seahawks’ duo of Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas.


Mirror, mirror on the draft-preparation wall, who is the best cornerback and also safety of them all?

Not currently in the NFL, of course, because the answer to that is the Seahawks’ tandem of cornerback Richard Sherman and free safety Earl Thomas. Says who? Those who have voted Sherman and Thomas All-Pro in each of the past two seasons, and also the statistics – as Sherman led the league with eight interceptions in 2013 and also has the most picks in the NFL since 2011 (20); while Thomas was the only player in the league last season with 100 tackles and five interceptions.

If more proof is needed, there were the number of times coaches, scouts and draft-eligible players evoked the names of Sherman and Thomas at the NFL Scouting Combine last month – the coaches and scouts in regards to the type of cornerbacks and safeties they’re looking for; the players in regards to the types of cornerbacks and safeties they pattern their games after.

But what about that 2014 NFL Draft Class, those players who are being discussed and dissected in draft rooms around the league in preparation of the first round on May 8, the second and third round on May 9 and the remaining four rounds on May 10?

Well, that depends on who you ask.

Mike Mayock, analyst for the NFL Network and NFL.com, ranks Michigan State’s Darqueze Dennard as the No. 1 cornerback and Louisville’s Calvin Pryor as the best of the safeties. Rob Rang, senior analyst at NFLDraftScout.com, agrees on Dennard, but just barely over Oklahoma State’s Justin Gilbert; while his top safety is Alabama’s Ha Ha Clinton-Dix.

And what do these players have to say about the obvious speculation?

“I'm one of the best safeties in the draft because I played in (coach Nick) Saban's system,” Clinton-Nix said. “I feel like I'm prepared for the next level. I'm a fast learner. I play fast. I study a lot of film. I study the opponent a lot. And that's about it. I fly around.”

Others weren’t as diplomatic.

“I do feel like that,” Pryor said when asked if he was the best safety in the draft class. “I’m very confident in my game and my film speaks for itself.”

Why does Pryor feel that way? “Just all the things I can do,” he said. “I can play strong safety, free safety. I can come up and hit. I feel I can cover. Just a playmaker. And I’m a leader.”

Gilbert shares that assessment when it comes to the corners, despite what Mayock and Rang might say.

“Do I think I'm the best corner and why?” Gilbert repeated. “Do you think I'm the best corner? I don't even know who that is. Yeah, I think I'm the best corner in the draft. If I didn’t think that, I wouldn't be in the position I am. I'm not going to let anyone take that from me.”

It’s hard to argue with that logic. As Gilbert said, how can you be the best if you don’t think you’re the best?

Here’s a look at the defensive backs that Mayock ranks in his Top 5, with analysis from Rang and the players’ take:

CB Darqueze Dennard, Michigan State

Mayock’s ranking: No. 1 among the cornerbacks
Rang’s take: “The three-year starter enjoyed his finest season, allowing just three receptions (on 31 attempts) of 15 yards or more to be completed on him all year long, while recording 14 passes broken up, including four interceptions. These numbers are similar to the production he enjoyed in 2012 (10 PBUs, three interceptions), speaking to the consistency with which he's become so highly regarded by NFL scouts. Perhaps most impressive is that Dennard's competitiveness extends to the running game. In an era of cover corners, Dennard plays with reckless abandon, taking on would-be blockers and filling in admirably in run support.”
Dennard’s take: “It’s definitely different, but I’m still the same ol’ guy. I’m always going to be a country, quiet boy. It’s just a blessing just to be in this place I’m in. A lot of guys dream and wish they could do this. It’s a blessing, and I just wake up every morning and thank God.”

FS Calvin Pryor, Louisville

Mayock’s ranking: No. 1 among the safeties
Rang’s take (he ranks Pryor No. 2 among the safeties): “Has prototypical size (5-11, 207) and athleticism for the position and is one of the most well-round safeties in the class with explosive downhill reaction to the run, strong awareness in coverage and versatility to hold his own on the outside or in the slot. Pryor has elite tools and potential if he can harness his sledgehammer playing style with disciplined intensity.”
Pryor’s take: “I became a huge fan of (Seahawks strong safety) Kam Chancellor after this past season, just seeing the things that he does on the field and how he can affect the game so much.”

CB Justin Gilbert, Oklahoma State

Mayock’s ranking: No. 2 among the cornerbacks
Rang’s take: “Given the way that the passing game has taken over the NFL, the value of defenders capable of creating turnovers has never been higher – and no one is better at this than Gilbert, a dynamic athlete who led the Big 12 with seven interceptions in 2013 (two of which he returned for touchdowns) and has returned six kickoffs for scores over his career in Stillwater, as well. That mark put him just one kickoff return touchdown shy of the NCAA career record of seven, held jointly by Clemson's C.J. Spiller (2006-09) and Houston's Tyron Carrier (2008-11). While scouts will certainly appreciate Gilbert's big play prowess (as well as his size and speed), it is important to recall the struggles with consistency that he suffered through as a junior after a breakout 2011 season.”
Gilbert’s take (when asked what makes him the best corner in the draft class): “Dedication to the game and the work that I put in, day in and day out – off the field, watching film; making guys around me better; younger guys when I was Oklahoma State, always talking to them and bringing them in and watching film.”

FS Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Alabama

Mayock’s ranking: No. 2 among the safeties
Rang’s take (he ranks Clinton-Dix No. 1 among the safeties): “While he posted respectable numbers as a junior (51 tackles, two INTs, four pass breakups), he wasn't the consistent big-play finisher he was in 2013, and his season was clouded by a two-game suspension in October for a violation of team rules. Clinton-Dix's rare combination of size, speed, ball skills and football instincts give him a chance to be one of the best at the next level. … Few free safeties possess the blend of agility, closing speed and ball-skills of the Seahawks’ Earl Thomas. Should Clinton-Dix continue to improve, he could soon join Thomas as a Pro Bowler.”
Clinton-Dix’s take: “There are a lot of good prospects out there, but I think what separates me from the rest of them is the system I played in. Like I said, coach Saban’s system is very hard. It took my entire freshman year to learn that system. And I think that’s what separates me.”

CB Kyle Fuller, Virginia Tech

Mayock’s ranking:  No. 3 among the cornerbacks
Rang’s take (he ranks Fuller No. 4 among the cornerbacks): “An All-ACC performer the past three seasons, Fuller is rangy and light-footed with quick movements, long arms and can play man or zone coverage. Fuller is a string bean with limited room to get much stronger, but he plays bigger than he looks with the confidence and instincts to make plays wherever he lines up.”
Fuller’s take (his brother Corey is a wide receiver who was on the Detroit Lions’ practice squad last season; while his brother Vincent also played in the NFL): ““It means a lot. It definitely makes you want to get to that level. It definitely keeps you humble to continue to work hard to get there. I believe it just shows all the hard work all of my brothers have had to get to this point and we’re just thankful and blessed for that.”