SEATTLE—So far, so good.
Marcus Peters has said and done all the right things, and it's been paying off for months. The talented cornerback was kicked off the Washington squad during the 2014 season after several arguments with coaches, most significantly with head coach Chris Peterson. At first, Peters went back home to Northern California and tried to put his thoughts together, eventually reaching out to Peterson with an apology. That led to an invitation to the Huskies' pro day on Thursday.
Peters's attendance was crucial, more than anything, to prove that he'd smoothed things over with his former head coach, because in the cornerback drills the 6-foot, 197-pound defender again showed every bit of the skill that has many around the league saying he's the best cornerback in this draft class. Had Peters kept his head through last season, he'd most likely be a lock to go within the first 15 picks. Peters was quiet after his workout, but it was easy to see how much this second chance meant to him.
“I felt good. It's excitement,” Peters said. “It's a wonderful process that we all get to go through, and I just got a chance to come back home and get it all in with my brothers. ... Now we finish up the visits, and April 30 is the day. It's a lifelong dream that I've been working for, and some of those dreams are coming true now. Everything I went through, I was meant to go through.”
Peters is rumored to be visiting about half the NFL's teams in the next few weeks.
Whether Peters' answers were scripted or not—they were certainly brief—he did his talking on the field at the Dempsey Indoor practice facility, and his work there spoke volumes. Comparisons have been made to Aqib Talib, on and off the field, and on tape, Peters is a fast, aggressive, sticky cornerback who can run with just about any receiver. Arizona State's Jaelen Strong, who also has a chance to go in the first round, said at the scouting combine that no defender gave him more of a headache than Peters. On Thursday, Peters proved to be the player who delivered migraines to his opponents, while trying to put the Excedrin moments he'd given his coaches behind him.
Peters didn't endeavor to improve on the 4.53 40-yard dash he ran at the combine, focusing on cornerback drills led by coaches from the Saints' and Steelers' staffs. He exhibited a crazy-good backpedal (Peters runs as quickly backward as some players do forward) and he was very flexible when turning his hips to cover. Perhaps the most startling aspect of Peters's skill set is his closing speed, which shows up on tape and which was even more readily apparent a few feet away in person.
The aforementioned date of April 30 would put Peters in the first round of the draft, and he did nothing here to damage that possibility. He needed to do two things: show up humble and blow it up in drills. He did both impressively.
• That said, this pro day was just as impactful for two other members of Washington's defense. Linebacker Shaq Thompson has been projected to multiple positions in the NFL. Some would like him to play running back, where he gained 456 yards and scored two touchdowns on just 61 carries last season. Others would like to see him flip out to safety, where he could use his electrifying speed and 6-foot, 228-pound frame to be a real downhill enforcer. Thompson insisted at the combine that he would be a linebacker and nothing else at the NFL level, but something changed his mind over the last five weeks.
On Thursday, Thompson did all the linebacker drills and then surprised a lot of people by working out with the defensive backs as well. And Thompson showed compelling evidence that he could indeed make that switch over time. His backpedal speed is outstanding, his hip-flip is completely natural and he can transition and recover to areas of the field as well as you'd like for any linebacker.
Still, I would like to hope that the team selecting Thompson will keep him as a base linebacker. He's a smaller player, and bulking him up would take away a lot of the quick-twitch speed that makes him special, but he's also a dynamic downhill player who tackles very well. And in an NFL where many teams play nickel and dime defenses more than half the time, there's more of a need than ever for true half-field defenders who can move back into coverage on passing downs. Thompson would seem to have that on lock, and I believe he improved his draft stock by agreeing to bend on his linebacker insistence and showing just how versatile he can be.
• Linebacker/end Hau'oli Kikaha has been a relatively undervalued prospect through the pre-draft process for a number of reasons. He's one of just two NCAA players with double-digit sacks in the last two seasons (Clemson's Vic Beasley is the other) and it was Kikaha who led the nation with 19 sacks last year. But knee injuries suffered in the 2011 and 2012 seasons have dropped his stock, as has the perception that he's a bit of a one-trick pony: a player who is very good when rushing the passer in space, but one who has limited power and doesn't drop into coverage.
Kikaha told me on Thursday that he's been working on the coverage aspect of his skill set over the last few months, and all in attendance were hyper-focused when he participated in linebacker drills that forced him to backpedal, get to a spot and catch passes. He proved able to do so with a surprisingly smooth backpedal and a couple of one-handed catches, seeming to indicate that he was out to prove a point.
Where I would say Kikaha still raises concerns is that outside of his short-area pass-rushing, he's not especially sudden in any dimension. His 40 time was clocked by some in the 4.8-4.9 range on Thursday, and he looked stiff at times when trying to change direction. But in the radial and blocking drills, he reinforced what he's really good at: bending the edge in a hurry, using his hands to leverage his inside counter and getting around blockers with a very quick first step. I'm not sure whether Kikaha's coverage improvement pushed his draft stock up or not, but among teams playing a 3-4 base defense, there has to be a lot of interest, especially in the second and third rounds.
• The guy who really didn't have anything to prove on this day was defensive tackle Danny Shelton, but Shelton did the defensive line drills anyway (dressed in a Polynesian skirt called a Lava-Lava) and did nothing to hurt his stock. Shelton weighed in unofficially at 338 pounds, but showed his outstanding short-area quickness just as he has on the field. If Shelton doesn't go to the Bears with the No. 7 pick, he won't last much longer, especially among 3-4 teams looking for a pure nose guard with speed, leverage and power. Shelton is a special player, and he showed that just a little more at Dempsey Indoor.