Michigan State's Trae Waynes, who threw down a 4.31 40-yard dash at the NFL combine, is considered by many to be the draft's top cornerback.
With the 2015 NFL draft fast approaching, it’s time for all 32 NFL teams to start getting their draft boards in order and ranking players based on their own preferences. At SI, it’s time for us to do that as well. To that end, Doug Farrar and Chris Burke have assembled their own definitive Big Board, consisting of the players they feel deserve to be selected in the first two rounds.
The prospects who landed in the top 10 are those we've deemed as close to can't-miss status as this draft has to offer. Sitting just outside that cutoff line is Michigan State cornerback Trae Waynes, who has established himself in the minds of many as the top available player at his position.
Bio: It took Waynes a mere 4.31 seconds to run 40 yards at February's NFL scouting combine, but in that brief time he all but cemented his spot among this draft class' top defenders. Waynes was a track star in high school and showed ample recovery skills throughout his college career, so it's a bit of a curiosity that anyone questioned his speed in the first place. He admits he was relieved, though, when he saw that 40-yard dash time.
"It was a great feeling, a lot of people didn't think I could run that fast," he said. "Being from Wisconsin (Waynes is a native of Kenosha), we're not known for speed. I took it as a challenge."
Waynes kept his draft momentum headed in the right direction with another strong performance, at his pro day. There, he knocked two-tenths off his short-shuttle time (4.19), which he said was hampered at the combine by a minor muscle pull.
For his work during the 2014 season, Waynes earned a first-team All-Big Ten spot and a third-team All-America nod. He finished his final year in East Lansing with 46 tackles, eight passes defensed and three interceptions, following up on a 50-tackle, three-interception 2013.
Back at Bradford High School in Kenosha, Waynes was a teammate of ex-Wisconsin running back and potential 2015 first-round pick Melvin Gordon. Waynes actually attended Wisconsin's pro day to show Gordon his support.
Strengths: While the speed burst is nice to have, Waynes mainly relies on his physical demeanor. As a field corner for Michigan State in 2013 and then even more so at the boundary-CB spot last year, Waynes made his presence felt. Playing the boundary, he excelled at boxing receivers in along the sideline—he accomplished that, and most everything else, with in-your-face coverage.
True to form for the Spartans' defensive backs, Waynes also stayed involved against the run. While not perfect as a tackler, Waynes does wrap up on most occasions and can deliver a jolt when busting downhill.
"He's an excellent press corner, who's often been isolated against our opponent's top wide receiver," Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said in a statement when Waynes announced his decision to enter the '15 draft. "He has great deep-ball judgment and the ability to tackle in space. Physically, Trae has length and great make-up speed."
Weaknesses: As was the case with Darqueze Dennard, a 2014 first-round pick out of Michigan State, Waynes faces a steep learning curve when it comes to avoiding penalties. College defenders are allowed to keep their hands on a potential receiver until the ball is in the air; the NFL offers up just a five-yard bump window off the line, and has made illegal contact downfield an emphasis of late.
Neither Waynes' strength nor change-of-direction footwork are off the charts. One of the main reasons teams were interested in his short-shuttle redo is that he did have some shaky moments—albeit a rather limited number of them—against shifty receivers. Physical NFL receivers might have more success fending off Waynes' press techniques and/or blocking him outside on run plays.
Conclusion: Waynes' performance at the combine really should have been the icing on the cake for any interested team—there was plenty of evidence from his Michigan State days that he had the talent to make a quick NFL impact. For a defense hoping to spend the majority of its time using press-coverage principles, Waynes ought to be at the top of the draft list.
His rookie season may come with a few hiccups (and penalty flags), but the extended outlook is phenomenal. Waynes makes offenses earn any yardage they get on his side of the field.