Need a playmaker? Look beyond the first round

Rick Gosselin

Ronde was the other Barber in the 1997 NFL draft. His twin brother Tiki was the prize.

Tiki was the All-America running back at Virginia, the ACC Offensive Player of the Year. Ronde was an All-ACC cornerback but his size (5-9) and speed (4.63 40) didn’t excite NFL talent evaluators. So Tiki was selected high in the second round with the 36th overall selection by the New York Giants. Ronde slid into the third round where he went on the 66th overall pick to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The Giants didn’t miss on Tiki. He went to three Pro Bowls and retired as the franchise’s all-time leading rusher. But the NFL missed mightily on Ronde. He wound up playing 16 seasons, intercepting 47 passes, going to five Pro Bowls and helping the Buccaneers win a Super Bowl. Ronde has been a Hall of Fame semifinalist each of the last two years.

In Ronde’s case, NFL talent evaluators placed too much emphasis on the measurables and not enough on the game tape. Ronde was a playmaker in college – and there is an NFL premium on defenders who either can sack the quarterback or come up with the football. Barber came up with the football at Virginia, intercepting eight passes in a single season at Virginia and 15 in his three-year career.

That’s why Meiko Dotson intrigues me in the 2020 NFL draft. And Amik Robertson. And Isaiah Rodgers.

Why? Because only one team can draft Jeffrey Okudah, only one team can draft C.J. Henderson and only one team can draft a Trevon Diggs. Those are the diamonds at cornerback in this draft. They are the defensive playmakers who will find NFL homes in the first round. That should intensify the search for ballhawks by the 29 NFL teams that do not land an Okudah, Henderson or Diggs. And some really need the help.

The Dallas Cowboys intercepted a league-low seven passes in 2019. Only four of them were by defensive backs. The same with the Arizona Cardinals – seven interceptions, four by defensive backs. Detroit also intercepted just seven passes, including five by defensive backs. But the Lions have already traded away two of those interceptions (Darrius Slay) this offseason.

All three of those teams expect to contend for playoff spots in 2020 – but not if they don’t find some playmakers for the back end of their defenses.

With the coronavirus eliminating campus pro days and visits by prospects to NFL buildings, game tape likely will play a much larger role in the 2020 NFL draft than in the recent past. The better your tape, the better your chances of getting drafted. Tape doesn’t like – and there are players waiting to be found.

Watch the tape of Dotson, Robertson and Rodgers and you see plays. Dotson, a Georgia Tech transfer, led the NCAA with nine interceptions at Florida Atlantic last season. Robertson had more career interceptions (14) at Louisiana Tech than any defensive back in the 2020 draft and returned three of them for touchdowns. Rodgers intercepted 11 career passes at Massachusetts and also returned three for scores.

Only Robertson of the three was invited to the combine. Only Dotson of the three played in a post-season all-star game, the East West.

But in 2004, Jason David wasn’t invited to his combine, either. He was perceived as a flawed prospect. At 5-8, he didn’t look like the NFL wants a cornerback to look. But he intercepted 16 career passes at Washington State, so the Indianapolis Colts drafted David in the fourth round. David went on to play six NFL seasons and intercept 16 passes. He started in a Super Bowl for the Colts and intercepted a pass in that victory over the Chicago Bears.

Ray Buchanan also didn’t fit the profile of an NFL cornerback. He stood 5-9 and ran a 4.58 at his combine. Too small and too slow are a bad combination at corner. But Buchanan intercepted 15 career passes in college at Louisville. So the Colts drafted him in the third round in 1993. Buchanan went on to play 12 seasons, intercept 47 career passes and go to a Pro Bowl.

Aaron Beasley had the size to play NFL cornerback at 5-11, 197 pounds but not the speed. He ran in the 4.7’s at his combine. But Beasley intercepted 19 career passes at West Virginia, so the Jacksonville Jaguars took a chance on him in the third round of the 1996 draft. He went on to play nine NFL seasons, start 105 of his 121 career games and intercept 24 passes.

Nathan Vasher was slight for a cornerback at 177 pounds. But he intercepted 17 career passes at Texas, so the Chicago Bears took a chance on him in the fourth round of the 2004 draft. Vasher became a starter as a rookie and intercepted eight passes in his second season. He played seven NFL seasons, went to a Pro Bowl and intercepted 20 career passes.

Watch the tape. Look for plays and you’ll find the playmakers.

Watch tape of Texas Tech’s Douglas Coleman, who played cornerback as a junior and safety as a senior. He intercepted eight passes last season and was a semifinalist for the Thorpe Award. He also didn’t get an invitation to the combine but did play in the Hula Bowl. Watch tape of Luq Barcoo, another combine snub. He shared the NCAA interception lead with Dotson with nine at San Diego State and joined Dotson in the East-West Shrine Game. Watch tape of Wake Forest’s Amari Henderson and Troy’s Will Sunderland, two more combine snubs. You’ll see plays.

There will always be a place for playmakers in the NFL – and you can find them in rounds beyond the first.

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