Justin Gilbert (left) boosted his draft stock with an impressive combine. (J.P. Wilson/Icon SMI)
How unusual a draft might this be for the cornerback position? For starters, there may not be a CB taken in the top 10 ... but a half-dozen or so prospects still could wind up as Round 1 selections.
The cornerback spot is well-stocked this year, deeper than it is overloaded with elite talent. There are a wide variety of players, too, from those fitting the Richard Sherman bill as tall, imposing defenders to slighter, more versatile options. Below, we break down the top 10 corners, as we see it.
1. Darqueze Dennard, Michigan State: One of the centerpieces on a Michigan State team that came within a few plays of a national title berth, Dennard proved time and again to be an absolute force in the Spartans' secondary. The 5-foot-11, 199-pounder intercepted four passes, broke up 10 and compiled a career-high 62 tackles.
"He is an extremely competitive and gifted athlete," Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio said. "Darqueze has great ball skills, outstanding tackling ability, plays the deep ball well and a remarkable change of direction."
Most of Dennard's college success came out of aggressive, man-coverage looks. He showed an extreme willingness to get up into the face of opposing receivers, jamming them at the line of scrimmage and driving them out of their routes. His play actually toed the penalty line, something that he will have to watch at the next level. Assuming he can avoid drawing repeated flags, Dennard has the technique to be an immediate starter.
Teams that show a lot of zone looks will have to determine whether or not his college experience translates into their scheme. Dennard might be talented enough to force adjustments into more man looks.
Draft projection: Top 20
2. Justin Gilbert, Oklahoma State: Gilbert was one of the stars of the 2014 combine, posting a sub-4.4 40 time and tossing up 20 reps on the bench press. At 6-0 and a bit more than 200 pounds, he fits the mold NFL teams are searching for at the cornerback position -- big, strong and athletic. Like 2011 first-rounder Patrick Peterson, Gilbert also put in some quality work as a return man. He averaged 26.3 yards per kickoff return during his Cowboys career, while taking six back to the house.
Gilbert, who shows a knack for making plays on the ball, picked off seven passes this past season. Though he does not play with the same edge Dennard shows, Gilbert has the physical tools to bother receivers -- both in terms of strength and speed. He also worked out of more varied coverage schemes than did Dennard.
By his own admission, Gilbert needs to continue working on his technique.
"I was a terrible backpedaller, especially when I first got [to Oklahoma State] because I was a quarterback in high school. So, defensive back was new to me," he said. "Being a good backpedaller and fluid with my hips was a big key.
"You have to be able to use great technique, because a guy like me, I have long legs, short torso. So, it's kind of hard for me to get my hips down and turn around and all that. But the more you work at it, the better you get at it.
No one would raise an eyebrow if Gilbert became the first corner drafted this year.
Draft projection: Top 20
3. Jason Verrett, TCU: Oh, but for another couple inches of height. That (and offseason shoulder surgery) is really all that is standing between the 5-foot-9 Verrett and being a lock in the top 20. Even though he may be undersized by NFL standards, Verrett thrived at TCU despite matching up with bigger receivers.
"I’ve been challenged with receivers that have been over 6-foot my whole college career," he said. "I played against Odell Beckham, I played against Mike Davis, Eric Ward, Antwan Goodley ... I played against a lot of good receivers in college that were over 6-foot. I feel like I’m this height for a reason, but I can compete with the best."
He may have to begin showing his wares as a slot corner at the next level, though it is far from out of the question that a defensive coordinator tries out Verrett as a top-two guy. Look no further than Verrett's stats for evidence of his ball-hawking abilities: 22 pass break-ups in 2012, 14 more in '13, plus nine career picks.
Draft projection: Late Round 1
4. Lamarcus Joyner, Florida State: Size is even more of an issue here -- Joyner stands 5-foot-8, one inch shorter than Verrett. Because of that, he too is seen mostly as a slot cornerback, though he also spent two of his Florida State seasons starting at safety. The team which drafts him then may envision Joyner in a Tyrann Mathieu-like hybrid role, playing safety on early downs and dropping into the slot against three-receiver looks.
The versatility should be a boost for Joyner's draft stock come May.
Draft projection: Round 2
5. Marcus Roberson, Florida: The raw traits may not be there in comparison to some others in this class, but Roberson very much knows how to play his position. He showed off more during 2012 (14 pass deflections, three interceptions) than during an injury-plagued, inconsistent 2013. The Roberson of 2012, though, might be worthy of a first-round pick, and he's definitely capable of holding his own in the NFL.
The injury woes will be a concern for NFL teams: Roberson missed five games last season with various ailments. At the 4.61 40 time he ran at the combine, Roberson does not have the quickness to make up for playing at less than 100 percent. But when he's on, he can frustrate the heck out of an opposing receiver.
Draft projection: Round 2
6. Kyle Fuller, Virginia Tech: Just how high can Fuller climb? Once a rather clear Day 2 candidate, Fuller's work at the combine (4.49 40, 4.19 short shuttle, 128-inch broad jump) put to rest lingering concerns over his health -- the Virginia Tech product needed sports hernia surgery in November, then sat out the Senior Bowl while rehabbing.
Now that he has made his way back on the field, Fuller has climbed into the Round 1 mix, even surpassing every prospect but possibly Gilbert in some eyes.
Draft projection: Late Round 1-Round 2
7. Bradley Roby, Ohio State: NFL teams are leery of players they feel they may have to motivate. Roby falls under that umbrella following a tough 2013, one that saw him regress from the dominant form he showed in 2012. He was not quite as bad as his reputation now tells -- a disastrous early matchup with Wisconsin's Jared Abbrederis sent his stock reeling. But can he rediscover his play from two years ago?
"Me not playing that first game, my mindset in camp wasn’t where it should have been," said Roby of his early 2013 issues (he was suspended for Ohio State's opener). "I knew I wasn’t playing the first game, so I might have maybe not gotten as many reps as I normally would have. At corner, reps is everything -- training your eyes, looking at the right places all the time, all those type of things. Kind of got away from that. Kind of undisciplined type of play I was playing at the beginning of the season."
Draft projection: Late Round 1-Round 2.
8. Bashaud Breeland, Clemson: Breeland may have benefited from another year at Clemson, but he nonetheless figures to be gone by sometime on Day 2. He projects, at least early in his career, as a very solid No. 2 or No. 3 cornerback, capable of matching up with secondary receivers. That is especially true if he lands somewhere that allows him to play bump-and-run coverage. He was at his best for the Tigers when pressing at the line, then using his athleticism to turn and track.
Draft projection: Round 2-3
9. Antone Exum, Virginia Tech: Another Hokies cornerback, another list of injury concerns. Exum blew out his knee playing pick-up basketball in January of 2013, then struggled with a bum ankle once he made it back late in the year. As a result, NFL GMs eyeing Exum have to rely on his 2012 tape to tell the story.
The 6-0, 213-pounder turned in a 4.59 40 at the combine, offering up evidence in his workout there that he will be ready to roll for training camp.
Draft projection: Round 3
10. Pierre Desir, Lindenwood: From the small-school ranks comes Desir, a long and lean cornerback at 6-foot-1, 198 pounds with 33-inch arms. Desir's size alone will earn him a shot in the NFL, though he has earned that opportunity with his play. Quarterbacks avoided Desir with gusto, a nod to his shutdown abilities. He did not open the door for those QBs at all, either, moving his feet well to stay with his assigned receiver.
There is a lot to like here, particularly if Desir can become more of a physically imposing defensive back. In the meantime, he will rely on his length and speed to get the job done.
Draft projection: Round 3