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  • As NFL passing games become more diverse, defenses are figuring out that they need a variety of DBs to fill different roles. It means more will be selected in April. But it also means teams might prefer to shop in the middle rounds rather than the top of the draft
By Conor Orr
February 27, 2018

Are cornerbacks going the way of the running back? This year at the NFL combine, a record 70 defensive backs will be working out for scouts and executives. That’s 10 more than last year and almost 20 more than back in 2011.

“Finally,” one NFL evaluator said. “It’s a product of college offenses—so many DBs need to be on the field to defend today.”

In short, like running backs, the position is specializing at a rapid rate. As one NFL agent said, the slot cornerback position is almost entirely different than outside cornerback, so you could think of the 70 players invited as a split not only between safeties and corners, but safeties, corners and slot players.

Another parallel to the running back position: Because of the specialization and market saturation, teams might be inclined to wait and sample from a mid-round smorgasbord than spend too much of their capital on one player up high. Jaguars star cornerback A.J. Bouye was undrafted. His teammate a year ago, Aaron Colvin (now a free agent), was a fourth-round pick in 2014 before becoming one of the NFL’s best slot corners. Logan Ryan, one of the prizes of last year’s free-agent class, was a ’13 third-rounder. Kendall Fuller, a ’16 third-rounder dealt from Washington to Kansas City in the Alex Smith trade, is another top-tier slot defender nabbed in the middle rounds. Seattle’s Shaquill Griffin, a third-round pick last spring, could be well on his way to becoming Richard Sherman’s heir apparent (a fifth-rounder himself) after getting tossed into the deep end during a productive rookie season.

Gone, seemingly, are the days when teams would break the bank for two premier outside corners without having an immensely diverse and talented supporting cast (think of the old Rex Ryan teams that relied heavily on Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie).

The trend also has parallels to the linebacker position, which went through its own period of significant diversification. We’re reaching a point where even the term “defensive back” is probably too broad.

It can all be summed up by looking at the valuation of Alabama’s Minkah Fitzpatrick, the crown jewel of the 2018 DB class. In order to stand out and earn a first-round grade from teams this year, DBs are going to have to be truly spectacular and truly diverse. All Fitzpatrick had to do was master about six different positions while he was in college.

“He is the only guy I could tell you that could start at all six positions in an NFL defensive backfield,” draft guru Mike Mayock told Peter King. “Both corners, both safeties, the nickel and the dime. Nick Saban played him at a lot of his nickel and dime linebacker stuff. So he was tough enough to tackle, he’s fast enough to play corner, the NFL is a matchup league.”

For more on the position, be sure to check out combine coverage from Monday where all 70 DBs will hit the field for workouts.

• THE PRE-COMBINE MOCK DRAFT: We ran our first-round projection by scouts from eight NFL teams to try to get as close as possible.


Michael Reaves/Getty Images

EXPERT ROUNDTABLE

A lot of people talk about the draft, but few actually put the work in and study these players. Every now and then, we’ll feature a panel of draftniks who will help us answer the pressing question of the day.

This week: There seems to be one player at every combine that comes out of nowhere and captivates us with a strong performance. Who will that be in 2018?

Dane Brugler, NFL Draft Scout: Washington DT Vita Vea is going to do some freaky things at his size, but I'll go with LSU corner Donte Jackson, who is my vote for this year's fastest 40-yard dash. He is a twitchy athlete with blur speed and change of direction skills and his impressive stopwatch numbers will get him drafted higher than his tape suggests. Jackson also ran track at LSU, including a personal-best 10.22 in the 100-meter dash at the SEC Relays (10.16 would qualify him for the Olympics).

Eric Galko, Optimum Scouting: Western Kentucky LB Joel “Iggy” Iyiegbuniwe declared early for the draft and, despite a productive final season, hasn’t received much attention since the end of the season. Rangy and consistently active on film, Iyiegbuniwe will not only interview well (he plans to go to medical school after his football career is over), but he’s a tremendous athlete with top end explosiveness and lateral burst. Expect him to test near the top of the shuttle drills and potentially be one of only a handful of linebackers since 2000 to run a sub-4.5 in the 40. Don’t be surprised if he rises to the top four rounds of the draft.

Josh Norris, NBC: The “other” N.C. State edge rusher will put on a show in Indianapolis, Kentavius Street. When considering every position on the field, pass rushers might benefit the most from an athletic advantage and expect Street to shine while weighing close to 285 pounds. Plus he is flexible, a valuable trait that is frequently overlooked when facing blockers inside and outside. The East-West Shrine attendee is not often listed among the top 10 edge rushers in this class, but he absolutely belongs.

• WHAT TO WATCH AT THE NFL COMBINE: From the workouts you need to keep an eye on, to the newsmakers—prospects, coaches and GMs—facing the press.

WHAT’S COMING

Do you love the draft so much that you’re coming to Indianapolis? Do yourself a favor and stop by the Sun King Brewery on Friday, March 2 from 7-8:30 p.m. for great brews and a conversation with Peter King. Tickets are $25, but all proceeds go to a great cause. Do yourself a favor and check out the event page.

PARSING THE DRAFT HOT TAKE DU JOUR

The always entertaining Angry Scout twitter account this week posted an email they received from Eugene Oldridge, an agent representing FAU wideout/quarterback John Franklin III. What made the angry scout angry? Oldridge promised scouts that Franklin, who will be working out at another combine (the National Scouting Combine, also in Indianapolis this week) “will post the fastest laser 40-yard time [this week] in Indy. Faster than any athlete at the NFL combine.”

We caught up with Oldridge to talk about Franklin ahead of his testing day Wednesday.

“He has no pressure,” Oldridge says. “When you get to know John, he’s all about the spotlight. John loves the idea, the fact that he’s been the underdog his whole life and that everyone is going to question his ability. That’s when he shines. So, he loves the fact that his back is against the wall, he’s got nothing to lose, he’s the underdog, he’s going to go in there and blow the doors off. He’s done his proper training.

“I’ve seen all the other DI players play. I’ve seen the kid at LSU play [Donte Jackson], his speed, and we really feel like—it was kind of funny. During the season we knew it was going to be between these two guys as to who would be the fastest in Indy. So, we spoke to some guys at LSU and they’re backing their guy and we’re backing our guy.”

Oldridge’s agency has posted videos of Franklin running what they’ve timed as a 4.19 40-yard dash on Twitter. My thought: If Franklin doesn’t run the fastest 40 in Indianapolis, so be it. There’s always his Pro Day in March. Oldridge seems to be doing his job. If it takes a little bit of marketing panache to get the spotlight on a player that might have slipped through the cracks, that’s part of the game these days. Franklin has switched schools (from Florida State, to Last Chance U. fame at East Mississippi CC, to Auburn, to FAU) and positions along the way. He’s looking for someone to amplify his greatest skill set (speed) and here we are talking about a kid that won’t even be allowed into Lucas Oil Stadium this week.

The 40-yard dash still has a strange allure for media and scouts alike. Just go back to a year ago this time when we were captivated by John Ross’ record-breaking run. Could this be Franklin’s ticket to the mainstream?

• THE BAKER MAYFIELD/RUSSELL WILSON COMPARISON: Long-time Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell broke down three hours of film on Mayfield to see how the QBs are alike.

YOUTUBE HIGHLIGHTS THAT MAY ONLY INTEREST ME

Minkah Fitzpatrick vs. the Georgia Bulldogs in the national championship game. Tell me this guy doesn’t remind you of a young Malcolm Jenkins.

• Question or comment? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.

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