Elaine Thompson/AP (Peters); Mark Cunningham/Getty Images (Waynes)

The draft's top cover men are the soft-spoken Trae Waynes and the brash Marcus Peters. How much does personality play into a corner's draft stock? Plus, meet the punter who walked away from the game to join the military, only to return to the gridiron years later and become the draft's top leg

By Robert Klemko
March 19, 2015

EAST LANSING, Mich. — As the months leading up to the draft become weeks, there is one question Trae Waynes is tired of hearing: Who is the best corner?

Sigh.

“I’m just trying to be the best I can be,” he says. “With Marcus or whoever else, if they go before me? Great. If they’re the better overall corner? Cool. I’m competing against myself, and hopefully it all works out in the end.”

Funny he should mention Marcus Peters. The former Washington cornerback, who was kicked off the team last fall, had no problem answering the same question when I met him in February.

“I’m the best corner in the draft for a reason,” Peters said. “I’ve got three years worth of tape. You go watch it and tell me I’m not the best out there.”

More from Peters in next week’s draft column, including a look at his relationship with Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch. But for now we have to ask: Are there two more disparate personalities at the top of the draft, at the same position, than Marcus Peters and Trae Waynes? And is it a requirement for today’s NFL cornerback, who so often finds himself on an island, to be brash, cocky, even arrogant?

“I don’t want a meek guy playing that position,” says former NFL scouting director Greg Gabriel. “The way the game is now, you know they’re going to get beat. So I think you want them to be cocky in the sense that you don’t want them to sulk and let the bad plays affect them.”

Peters, who became a starter at Washington as a freshman, oozes West Oakland swagger. He has an answer for everything, including why he didn’t fit in new coach Chris Petersen’s locker room last season. Waynes is soft-spoken with a self-deprecating sense of humor when it comes to his home state (said Waynes on Wednesday: “We're not known for speed in Wisconsin”). And he appreciated the opportunity to sit and learn during his first two years at Michigan State. He played behind 2014 Bengals first-round pick Darqueze Dennard and under the tutelage of secondary coach Harlon Barnett. Dennard saw him in practice as a freshman and told Waynes he could be the best corner to ever play at MSU.

“I think he really started to believe that around his third year, and he took off,” Dennard said after watching Waynes’ pro day workout on Wednesday.

Waynes says he’d like to improve his lackadaisical body language on the field, if anything, but he doesn’t put much stock in the notion that you have to be overly confident or cocky to play corner.

“I’m not that kind of person,” he says. “And I get it all the time from people and teams: You’re not a typical corner. I don’t have to be that way to play well. Me being who I am, just being laid back, has gotten me this far.

“Maybe it might help on the field. I have thought about how I carry myself a little bit. I might switch up my presentation a little bit.”

While Gabriel says he has never seen or heard of a corner being removed from consideration for being too laid back, he has seen guys with undesirable personalities slide. Richard Sherman and Pete Carroll like to say Seattle’s secondary is made up of “dogs.” Rabid, Waynes is not.

Mental makeup aside, two impeccable skillsets make it difficult to crown Peters or Waynes the top corner in the draft.

In a league trending toward man coverage (there’s no hard data on this, but Pro Football Focus analysts share anecdotally that zones are fading, with the Patriots, Cardinals, Colts, Chiefs and Jets leading the way), both Waynes and Peters are as good as it gets in press-man. Waynes has the edge in terms of technique with so much experience in Michigan State’s system, but Peters is as well-rounded as college corners come. So experienced and audacious is the former Washington corner, he appears to bait quarterbacks when he’s playing off the ball (his 11 career interceptions trump Waynes’ six).

Waynes is less patient, despite his 4.3 speed. But that doesn’t mean he lacks confidence.

“I talk about The Incredible Hulk,” says Barnett. “He has it. He doesn’t have to be an a-hole off the field. The Hulk can’t go to class. The Hulk can’t hit on girls. But when he’s on the field that other guy comes out, that guy his mom doesn’t even recognize. He’s a competitor.”

Five Things You Need To Know About The Draft

Cornerback is one of the weakest positions in the 2015 draft, yet you can count on at least three being taken in the first round as nickel becomes the new base defense across the league...

1. Trae Waynes, Michigan State (6-0, 186 lbs., 4.31 40, 4.01 shuttle)

Waynes possesses elite speed, with rare nuance in his man technique, such as the ability to press bail and survey the entire field.

Best fits: Saints Dolphins, 49ers

2. Marcus Peters, Washington (6-0, 197 lbs., 4.53 40, 4.08 shuttle)

Looking solely at the product on the field, he’s a top-five overall talent. Rare is the college cornerback who thrives off the ball and in press, can tackle, blitz and create turnovers. How long Peters survives in the NFL depends on his acclimation to structure.

Best fits: 49ers, Rams, Seahawks

3. Jalen Collins, LSU (6-1, 205 lbs., 4.48 40, 4.27 shuttle)

Long and fast, Collins could, with proper coaching and time to hone his craft, end up being the best corner in his class.  After starting just 10 games in college, he can be shaky on technique. He also occasionally struggles to change directions.

Best fits: Steelers, 49ers, Eagles

4. Kevin Johnson, Wake Forest (6-0, 188 lbs., 4.52 forty, 3.89 shuttle)

The most experienced corner available, Johnson started 41 games without missing a start due to injury. He doesn’t appear to love tackling but shows excellent ball skills and the ability to play nickel in the NFL.

Best fits: Eagles, Steelers, Cowboys

5. P.J. Williams, Florida State (6-0, 194 lbs., 4.57 forty, 4.28 shuttle)

A prototypical press corner, Williams is physical and confident after playing on an island often in Tallahassee. He lacks exceptional recovery speed, though, and keeping his hands to himself downfield is likely to be an issue early on.

Best fits: Patriots, Eagles, Cowboys

Photo by John W. McDonough/SI Greg Jennings. (Photo by John W. McDonough/SI)

Draft Season Do-Over

Every week, we’ll ask a current NFL player what he would have done differently in the time between his final collegiate game and the day he was drafted…

Greg Jennings, wide receiver (2006, 52nd overall). “I think I would’ve relaxed and taken some time to look around and enjoy the process. I was so stressed out about being absolutely 100% prepared for everything the team would throw at me, from a physical and mental standpoint, that I think it overwhelmed me. You have to be able to contribute to the team in any way they’re envisioning, but at some point to have to relax and let it all happen.”

Better Know a Prospect

Photo courtesy Portland State Athletics Kyle Loomis. (Courtesy Portland State Athletics)

The consensus top punter in the draft, Portland State’s Kyle Loomis took a winding path to the doorstep of the NFL that included two ankle surgeries and U.S. Army jump school. Now 27, Loomis left Oregon State after his freshman season and served in the military from 2008 to ’12. He earned All-America honors in each of his two seasons with the Vikings.

The MMQB: Why leave Oregon State, and what was the biggest eye-opener about the military?

Loomis: I think I just got burned out on school. The football side of things never bothered me, but I didn’t love football enough to stay in school. I enjoyed my time in the Army. I joined when I was 20, and I turned 21 in basic [training] in Georgia. You kind of have to grow up on the spot. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done in your life before that or what you want to do after; in the military everyone’s the same.

I actually never had a tour. I was 11 Bravo [infantryman], and I ended up having two ankle surgeries, the first right before we deployed. They reconstructed it and fixed it so I could do everything except jump out of planes. That made me non-deployable. It was kind of a letdown because you want to do your job with the guys you trained with.

The MMQB: How did you end up at Portland State?

Loomis: When I got out, I was thinking about finishing school, and I got offered a job in my hometown as an entry-level engineer for the Oregon Department of Transportation. I took that and started looking around for places to get a criminology degree. A family friend, my next-door neighbor, was punting at my old high school and asked me to give him some pointers. After a while I realized I could still punt at a high level. I had 30 months of eligibility left, so I emailed Coach [Nigel] Burton at Portland State, and he sent an email back a couple hours later and said we need a punter. I won the job in spring 2013.

The MMQB: How’s the ankle, and which leg is it?

Loomis: It’s my kicking leg. At the combine the doctors said it was a great surgery. It’s nice to get that validation. The only time it ever really bothers me is lateral movements left and right and long-distance running. Hopefully I never have to run nine miles in a football game.

Quote of the Week

“He’s been quite introspective. He’s reasoned it out on his own. The thing he’s repeated is the decision itself was simple. You’re just not made to take that kind of contact, that kind of trauma to our heads. If this goes on, it can’t be good.”

Player Roundtable
 
 
Nine NFL players discuss the Chris Borland's surprise retirement, their thoughts of football’s long-term effects and where the game is headed.
 
FULL STORY
—Jeff Borland, to Fox Sports’ Mike Garafolo, on his son’s decision to retire from football at age 24

Chris Borland’s decision will have many implications for a league and a sport that is completely unaccustomed to this scenario. Never before has a budding star retired out of concern not for his imminent health but for long-term brain health. The social consequences for the future of the game could be significant.

For now, from a competitive standpoint, the concern for teams trying to win football games is this: How do we avoid drafting the next Chris Borland? The linebacker had told his entire family before he stepped on an NFL field that he might be one-and-done in the NFL, according to Garafolo. Obviously, the Niners had no idea, or else they wouldn’t have spent a third-round pick on the Wisconsin product. You can expect teams to take a harder look at the motivations and intentions of prospects who come from well-off backgrounds and clearly don’t need football to be successful.

Stat of the Week

4.48 seconds, Devin Funchess 40-yard dash redux

That was the time, according to the University of Michigan, that Funchess achieved on his second go at UM’s March 12 pro day, three weeks after bombing at the combine with a 4.70.

How did he do it?

The ex-tight end and hopeful NFL wide receiver told Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press that he worked for just a couple of weeks with Jim Kielbaso of Total Performance in Wixom, Mich., a consultant for Michigan.

Kielbaso attacked the problem from two fronts. Physically, the potential first-rounder was short-stepping the start and over-striding later. Emotionally, Funchess wished he never had to run the 40 in the first place.

“Specifically to Devin, and really anybody in that situation, I have to get to know them a little bit.” Kielbaso says. “I have to understand how things feel, what the athlete has been told and what he thinks he’s supposed to do. Then you can start to make changes and reinforce them.

“Mentally, I could tell he really didn’t want to run the 40. He’s saying, I’m a football player. I said, look, all I need you to do is try as hard you can, make these changes and you’ll never have to run the 40 again.”

That’s how you go from 4.7 to 4.48, the difference between Tyrann Mathieu and Aldon Smith. Makes you wonder why anybody puts so much into the darn thing.

Scorching Hot Take of the Week

The fact is, after a college career marked almost as much by off-field controversy as on-field highlights, the former Florida State star isn't close to completing his sorely needed image makeover. Performing well on a big stage is a good way to show growth. In professional sports, few stages are bigger than the NFL draft… Top prospects aren't merely invited to participate in photo ops and receive red-carpet treatment. They're expected to do their part in the process that helps the NFL maintain its bedrock-strong bottom line.

—Jason Reid, ESPN.com

Wut.

So Jameis Winston should attend the draft because… he needs to show that he’s grown up? Yep, I’m sure that’s just what his future employer would like to see. That’s what the Bucs are worried about, more than the dozens of interviews with family, friends, teammates, coaches, next-door neighbors, and local grocers. Right after Lovie Smith watches the Florida State-Louisville game for the 10th time, he’s got to know his quarterback will show up for important things like overblown photo shoots and NFL Network green room drama. How dare impetuous young Jameis impinge on the NFL’s bottom line.

Whether the NFL even wanted Jameis there or not is another question. Thing is, Jameis’s illustrious and ignominious résumé has given us more than enough talking points for this time of year. His decision to skip the draft is low-hanging fruit.

And the sober take...

 


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