Leinweber’s Top 22 Cornerbacks in the 2021 NFL Draft

Senior Scout Lorenz Leinweber gives you his top 22 cornerbacks in this class.
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An elite cornerback that can match up with alpha receivers can transform a defense, especially in a very pass-happy league. But depth can be just as important to prevent opponents from picking on weak links in the secondary. The 2021 NFL Draft class offers potential lockdown cornerbacks and valuable depth in the later rounds.

22. Bryce Thompson, Tennessee

The former four-star recruit has seen significant playing time as a starter since his freshman season. Thompson has long arms and the size required to be an outside cornerback. His length helps him to knock the ball out from behind. Thompson displays intelligence and spatial awareness in the condensed areas of the red zone, undercutting passes and making plays. In press, he is able to get his hands on receivers consistently and possesses the speed required to carry verticals. Thompson leaves foot speed and twitch to be desired when transitioning and breaking on routes. The South Carolina native gets grabby when he loses and panics with the ball in the air in man. He struggles to communicate with teammates in zone and lacks urgency, playing high with slow eyes and feet preventing him from being a playmaker. The junior has stretches of play in which he does not contribute in the run game, looking unwilling to take on contact. Thompson projects as a developmental cornerback who could potentially move to safety if he can get more disciplined in zone. He wins with physicality in coverage but lacks just that as a tackler. Contributing on special teams would help him stick on a roster.

Value: 7th Round

21. Ambry Thomas, Michigan

A 2020 opt-out, Thomas is a smaller cornerback who played bigger than his size in a press man-heavy scheme at Michigan. He is a fluid athlete when it comes to sticking with receivers, although he relies on his physicality too much. Thomas projects as a slot cornerback due to his size but some team might try him outside. He is a good enough athlete to play in the NFL but just makes too many mistakes, getting grabby and displaying inconsistent eye discipline. In order to stay on a roster, he will have to show the ability to contribute on special teams while he develops his game.

Value: 7th Round

20. Mark Gilbert, Duke

The former three-star recruit had his career taking off after a sophomore season that saw him earn first-team All-ACC honors with six interceptions. A dislocated hip, suffered in the following year caused him to miss much of 2018, all of 2019 and he only played in two games before opting out in 2020. When on the field, Gilbert is an athletic cornerback who can match and mirror receivers in tight man coverage and carry verticals. His feet are quick and clean allowing him to stay on balance. Length and soft hands make him a playmaker with the ball in the air, as he can knock it incomplete or come down with interceptions. This aggressiveness causes him to get flagged for pass interference at times. Gilbert does not have much experience in zone coverage and can get pushed around at the line due to his light weight. If healthy, Gilbert could be a playmaking contributor for a defense who has the skillset to translate into a slot role. His best fit is a man coverage-centric defense. Because of his talent, he would be worth a late-round flier for a team that has done their homework on his health status.

Value: 7th Round

19. Paulson Adebo, Stanford

Opting out after an up and down 2019 season, Adebo is a long cornerback who played in a zone-heavy scheme at Stanford. He plays with great effort in run support and coming downhill on screens. In coverage, he struggles as he does not have the feet or discipline to match and mirror in man, when he is in trail he panics and gets grabby. In zone, he has more experience but lacks the ability to click and close quickly to make plays in front of him. His ball skills leave a lot to be desired as he struggles to track the football, his length can bail him out at times. Adebo projects as a backup in a zone scheme that incorporates some press coverage as he lacks the movement skills in space to cover NFL receivers. His length and physicality should translate to special teams which should help him to stick on a roster. A move to safety can not be ruled out either.

6th Round Value

18. Keith Taylor, Washington

A two-year starter manning the right cornerback position for the Huskies, Taylor was deployed in many different coverages including cover three and four and press-man. In man he is confident to stay square and get his hands on receivers, doing well to take away fade routes. A lack of twitch can lead to him giving up separation to quick route runners. Taylor gets grabby even when he is in a good position and has to become more disciplined. As a zone defender, he is very conservative, gaining lots of depth even with help over the top, allowing for easy gains underneath. He lacks an overall playmaking instinct. Taylor contributes as a run defender having no issue with getting involved. He has to become a stronger tackler as runners slip through his arms. Athletically he is average in a straight line. Taylor projects as a backup outside cornerback in a press heavy defense. He is best when he can get his hands on receivers. In space, he struggles to be a playmaker due to slow processing and average transitions. His physicality should translate to special teams.

Value: 6th Round

17. Trill Williams, Syracuse

The nickel cornerback for the Orange possesses prototypical length and long speed. He is physical with receivers, managing to bump them and competes in the run game. Williams can play man coverage against receivers that lack suddenness and win in a straight line as he carries verticals and has good eye discipline. When tasked with covering quick slot receivers he lacks the twitch and feet to stick with them, which is why he was not a good fit in the slot. He has clean feet in zone and anticipates routes coming behind him but does not trigger downhill to make plays on the ball. Williams projects as a deep zone cornerback or even safety due to his long speed and length. There is plenty of untapped potential that could translate to a press bail scheme as well. He will be a backup early on and has to contribute on special teams but has a chance to develop into a starter later in his rookie contract.

Value: 5th Round

16. Tre Brown, Oklahoma

An undersized cornerback, Brown started on the outside for three seasons in Norman. He plays feisty despite his size, shooting both hands aggressively in press. This often pays off as he redirects wideouts to the sideline but also leaves him giving up big separation if opponents anticipate and counter it. Brown is best when he has his hands on receivers in man coverage. He possesses exciting speed and burst to make him tough to run by. His aggressiveness carries over to the catch point where he aggressively undercuts routes, trying to take the ball away. This leads to blown coverages in zone when he guesses wrong. Brown has bad feet that lead to off-balance play and clunky transitions despite his athleticism. Receivers are able to separate while he is collecting his feet. In run support, he only plays hard when he is needed to and takes plays off. Brown projects as a developmental nickel who is feisty and volatile, coming away with turnovers but also giving up big plays. If he can improve his feet and get more disciplined he has all the physical tools and the mindset to be a starting-caliber player.

Value: 4th/5th Round

15. Nahshon Wright, Oregon State

The former JUCO player decided to go to Oregon State and started two seasons for the Beavers. Wright has a skinny build with incredible length. Being deployed in cover four and cover three frequently, Wright defends deep routes very well, using his speed once he opens his long stride to stay with receivers. When the ball is in the air on deep passes, he turns into a receiver, tracking it and making a play at the highpoint. Using his length, he can come down with the ball in these situations. His feet are surprisingly quick as he does well to mirror receivers from off. Wright uses his length in press but lacks the physicality to be successful at this stage. He is a willing run defender who struggles to make tackles, lacking strength. His emphasis on protecting against deep routes and average close-quarter quickness, which is expected at his size, cause him to allow underneath separation. Wright projects into a zone-heavy defense where he can also be deployed in press. His length is rare and he has the movement skills to succeed. Getting stronger will be important for his NFL success.

Value: 4th Round

14. Rodarius Williams, Oklahoma State

The older brother of Browns cornerback Greedy Williams, Rodarius plays the same position for Oklahoma State. Williams is an impressive straight-line athlete with burst to catch up and long speed to carry routes downfield. His hips are fluid allowing him to stay square and flip them late. In man coverage, he likes to get his hands on receivers, playing feisty and trying to undercut routes. When in press he is inconsistent and susceptible to whiffing when he shoots his hands. Williams has impressive instincts in zone coverage, breaking on passes from depth and finding the ball with his eyes on the passer. He never panics when it is in the air, breaking it up rather than coming away with interceptions. He frequently arrives too early at the catch point, leading to penalties. In the run game, he competes, fighting hard to get off blocks. Slow feet that can not catch up with his upper body and hips limit his functional athleticism and lead to clunky transitions. Williams projects as a strong backup for a zone defense. He competes in all phases of the game and has starter upside if he can improve his feet.

Value: 4th Round

13. Shaun Wade, Ohio State

The former five-star recruit started his career in the nickel where he was very successful for the Buckeyes. With the departure of Jeffrey Okudah and Damon Arnette, Wade took over on the outside and struggled. Wade is an athletic defensive back who has speed when he opens up his stride, his burst is apparent when blitzing off the edge. In the run game, he is physical, setting the edge and shedding blocks. His tackles don’t always look pretty but he can be relied on when asking him to get ball carriers down. Wade flashes playmaking ability, mainly in zone, peeling off of routes and finding the ball. His backpedal is clunky and too slow, allowing receivers to run on his toes consistently. In press coverage, Wade often whiffs badly when shooting his hands. Hip stiffness and lack of trust in his technique led to ugly play on the outside as wideouts were able to turn him around by finding his blindspot. Wade projects as a nickelback who could even be a safety. His best deployment is in underneath zones where he has help over the top and can use his athleticism playmaking as well as contribute in run support. Wade has to continue working on his technique to develop into a reliable starter.

Value: 3rd/4th Round

12. Kelvin Joseph, Kentucky

The Baton Rouge native originally committed to LSU before transferring after his freshman season and redshirting. As a sophomore, Joseph got substantial playing time in the Wildcats multiple schemes, gaining experience in press, off and multiple zone schemes. Possessing quick feet and playing low, he is able to match and mirror the steps of receivers. Short area movement skills are apparent thanks to his fluid lower body and quick first step. Long arms allow Joseph to make plays on the ball at the catch point. He is a willing contributor in the run game who can make the occasional tackle. In man coverage, he stays square and confident in his ability to flip his hips and keep up in trail as well as alert to underneath routes in off. He is easily set up, driving hard on double moves and making false steps when receivers use jab steps. In zone he is disciplined, playing high to low and shows spatial awareness. His breaks on the ball are not dynamic in deep zones as he plays it too safely not showing a playmaking instinct. Joseph projects as a scheme versatile cornerback who can do a bit of everything at the desired size. He has plenty of tools to be a starter but has to improve his eye discipline and be more aggressive.

Value: 3rd/4th Round

11. Benjamin St-Juste, Minnesota

A native of Canada, St-Juste originally committed to Michigan and transferred to Minnesota after his freshman season. He started for two seasons at corner in the Gophers zone heavy defense. Despite his size at 6’3, he is very fluid in space, able to flip his hips and transitioning smoothly. A patient and confident cornerback, St-Juste never panics, displaying consistent feet and eye discipline. His long speed is more than sufficient, allowing him to carry vertical routes. At the catch point, St-Juste is able to use his length and patience, finding the football and knocking it incomplete. He is physical in support, shedding blocks and showing a willingness to come downhill and tackle. In man coverage, St-Juste finds success against bigger wideouts that he can match up with in press. Smaller, twitchier route runners give him issues as he struggles to mirror their movements. St-Juste projects as a future starting cornerback in a zone defense, who possesses length and plays disciplined. While he is not a playmaker on the ball, he is rarely out of position.

Value: 2nd/3rd Round

10. Eric Stokes, Georgia

Playing on a defense full of four and five-star recruits, Stokes made a name for himself, taking over a starting role at the end of his redshirt freshman season which he did not let go of. Stokes possesses the quick-twitch athleticism in feet required to match and mirror in pressman as well as the speed to carry vertically. His ball skills improved every season but he has to do a better job playing through the hands when looking at the receiver. In zone, he lacks the instincts and feels for space as well as the ability to quickly trigger on routes that would make him an asset. Occasional false steps and hips that are not oily leave him susceptible to giving up separation at the top of his routes. When asked to tackle he simply lacks size to do it reliably. Stokes projects as a potential starter who will match up against smaller wideouts and could move into the slot. His ability in press-man makes him intriguing for teams relying on such a skillset in their secondary. He will have to clean up some false steps and continued reps could make him more comfortable and efficient when playing off.

Value: 2nd/3rd Round

9. Tyson Campbell, Georgia

The former five-star recruit started at cornerback since his true freshman season in Athens. After an injury-riddled sophomore campaign, he regained his spot as a junior. Campbell is a great athlete with speed, foot speed and fluid hips. In man coverage, he gets his hands on receivers in press and stays in the hip pocket from there, playing tight coverage. He stays square in off, flipping his hips easily. Occasional inconsistencies with his eyes and feet cause him to get set up by hard jab steps at the top of the route. Campbell is smooth in space, allowing him to transition and break on receivers in zone. His spatial awareness and processing are not well developed as he often relies on his athleticism to bail him out. In run support, he competes showing no fear. He does tackle too high and struggles to wrap up. At the catch point, he often panicked in the past, showing improvement in 2020. While he plays the hands in man, he still gets beat frequently on contested catches. Campbell projects as a future starting cornerback who possesses the size and movement skills to succeed on the outside. He is best in press, showing potential in off man thanks to his athleticism. For zone teams, he is intriguing due to his length and movement skills. He has to improve at the catch point where he struggles to contest receivers, let alone come away with the ball. With more experience, he has all the traits to become a quality starting corner.

Value: 2nd/3rd Round

8. Aaron Robinson, UCF

The Florida native originally committed to Alabama where he saw action in 13 games before transferring to UCF. A two-year starter in the slot for the Knights, Robinson put his physicality on display as he flew around with his hair on fire. He is a strong tackler who wraps up and gets ball carriers down as well as any player of his size. With constantly bent knees and quick feet, Robinson is an effortless mover in space who has an explosive first step and changes directions with ease. He is better in man than zone as he can use his movement skills to mirror and carry receivers. In zone he is physical and a great communicator but lacks instincts, giving up openings at times. Due to a lack of length, Robinson is not able to consistently play the ball at the catch point, rather delivering a hit or playing through the catch to force incompletions. Robinson projects as a versatile defensive back who can play on the outside in a man-heavy scheme but also man the slot. Some teams might see him as a safety due to his physicality and tackling. Robinson should contribute as a rookie and become a quality starter.

Value: 2nd Round

7. Elijah Molden, Washington

A four-year contributor and two-year starter in the nickel, Molden racked up five interceptions for the Huskies. His mentality is perfect for his position as his eye discipline is great, in man coverage, he is glued to the hips and in zone he reads and reacts to runs very quickly. A physical run defender, Molden sets the edge at the second level and tackles strongly, holding on to anything he can grab in the open field. His lateral agility is fantastic as he plays consistently low and is very fluid, putting his close-quarter quickness on display. This also helps him change directions in the open field, adjusting angles suddenly at high speeds. He roams dangerously in underneath zones and undercuts routes that break in front of him, helping him to take the ball away. Molden does not have great speed having to make up for it with his technique. His burst when breaking on the ball is average and he is unable to make plays on the ball from behind consistently due to a lack of length. Molden projects as a day one starter in the nickel who is a quality run defender and takes the ball away. Limiting big plays is his biggest area of concern against NFL athletes and quarterbacks.

Value: 2nd Round

6. Asante Samuel Jr., Florida State

The son of former Patriots and Eagles star Asante Samuel has started for two and a half years at outside cornerback for the Seminoles. Samuel Jr is excellent in off coverage, displaying very quick feet, bent knees and fluid hips to cover space and change directions quickly. His transitions are sudden, displaying his twitch. Samuel possesses explosive burst to close on routes or catch up on verticals. His lateral agility is great as he stays in front of wideouts. The undersized corner is intelligent and processes quickly, avoiding picks and staying square when he anticipates the route to be snapped off. Samuel is highly competitive in the run game, fighting to get off blocks and getting ball carriers down reliably for his size. A lack of length hurts his ability to contest catches as bigger receivers come down with jump passes. Physical opponents can push off successfully at the top of their routes. When his instincts mislead him, he can get caught flat-footed or slightly out of position. Samuel projects as a future starting cornerback in a zone-heavy defense. His movement skills and instincts are impressive. Some teams may see him as a nickel due to a lack of size.

Value: 2nd Round

5. Greg Newsome, Northwestern

Only a 16 game starter for the Wildcats, Newsome played in a scheme that asked him to press, play off man and various zone coverages. He plays with great physicality, not afraid to cut off routes in zone. In man, he plays airtight coverage once he gets into the hip pocket of receivers. His physical playing style can cause him to get grabby. Newsome is very fluid and twitchy in space, transitioning quickly. He displays clean feet allowing him to move in space and mirror in man coverage, stopping his feet when countering physicality costs him in the rare occasions that he does it. In run support, Newsome is aggressive coming downhill in a hurry and limiting yardage on passes to the flat. He never panics with the ball in the air and gets his head around to find it often. His timing to play the ball or the hands of receivers is frequently off, leading to flags and missed turnover opportunities. Newsome projects as a starting cornerback who can succeed in any scheme and is perfect for a multiple defense that deploys press and zone defenses often. His physicality and movement skills will translate to the next level. Staying healthy and limiting penalties are the concerns with him as a prospect.

Value: 1st/2nd Round

4. Caleb Farley, Virginia Tech

Despite suffering from a back injury and opting out of the 2020 season, Farley has the length, movement skills and athleticism to be a shutdown cover corner in the NFL. He is very comfortable in off-man as he can flip his hips easily and has great explosiveness to make plays in front of him. A converted wide receiver, he is not instinctive in zone yet but his athleticism can bail him out when he makes mistakes. When healthy he can take the ball away with his coverage ability and ball skills. His effort in run support and press is worrisome, he does not play physically and looks soft at times. Farley projects as a rookie starter and high-level outside cornerback in an off-man heavy scheme by his second year in the NFL. He still has technique issues to iron out but his movement skills are rare and should help him develop into a pro bowl corner.

Value: 1st/2nd Round

3. Ifeatu Melifonwu, Syracuse

A corner with great size, Melifonwu shows surprisingly quick feet and oily hips. He can match and mirror in press, flip his hips when he has to get vertical and recover from occasional false steps. His physicality allows him to deal with bigger receivers without getting called for penalties. Melifonwu gets his hands into the hip pocket of receivers and has enough speed to carry them vertically. Perhaps his best trait is his ball skills, he does a terrific job knocking passes incomplete in man and zone. His timing and length help him to prevent receivers from catching the football. A competitive run defender, he could work on his tackling to get ball carriers down more consistently. In off man, he is guilty of giving up underneath catches as he plays too upright. Melifonwu projects as a starting cornerback in a single high scheme. He is best when he can press bigger receivers at the line of scrimmage but can be used in zone thanks to his athleticism and ball skills.

Value: 1st Round

2. Jaycee Horn, South Carolina

The son of former Saints wide receiver Joe Horn is very physical at the line. He can be trusted to guard tight ends and has shown no fear of bigger opponents in college. When he is square with receivers at the line he has quick feet and a quality punch to redirect and not allow free access. Horn has fluid hips to turn and run with vertical routes, staying in the receivers hip pocket throughout. When the ball is in the air he attacks it aggressively, making plays through the catch point. His long arms help him get hands on the football but he has to be careful to not get called on as many penalties. Horn competes in run defense, getting off blocks and making tackles. In his few plays in zone, he showed instincts as well as sudden click and close to make plays ahead of him. The sometimes grabby defensive back occasionally plays with his upper body ahead of his feet allowing receivers to disengage at the top of the route. Horn projects as a starting cornerback in a press man-heavy scheme. His skills at the line and with the ball in the air will translate to the next level. Ideally, he wants to be matched up with bigger, physical receivers as quickness can give him issues at times.

Value: 1st Round

1. Patrick Surtain II, Alabama

The son of former NFL cornerback Patrick Surtain has started at outside corner since his freshman season at Alabama. Surtain II is as sound technically as they come out of college, rarely taking false steps and displaying tremendous eye discipline. He is physical and sticky at the top of routes and can reroute opponents in press. With his smooth hips and athleticism, he recovers quickly. In zone, Surtain moves easily and shows the ability to anticipate routes. He is a communicator, passing off routes successfully. At the catch point, Surtain rarely panics, playing the ball or, if he is unable to turn around, contesting the catch by playing through the hands. He is a willing contributor in the run game. At the top of the route, he can give up occasional separation as he lacks elite twitch. Surtain projects as a quality starter in the first season of his career. He can step into any scheme and be successful thanks to his prototypical size and versatile skill set.

Value: 1st Round

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