Scouts Not Sold on Quality of Defensive Backs in the NFL Draft

By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 19, 2009

As the NFL draft nears, the league's talent evaluators seem genuinely excited about the wide receivers. They appear far less enamored, however, with the available defensive backs who will spend the coming years trying to cover them.

That contrast was on vivid display during the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis in late February, when the wide receivers dazzled the coaches and front-office executives on hand with eye-catching times in the 40-yard dash while the cornerbacks generally failed to show similarly impressive speed.

Cornerback is a premium position in today's NFL, with the rule changes in recent years having made the sport perhaps the most passing-friendly in league history. Few defenders in the secondary are big and swift enough to cover wide receivers effectively without resorting to the clutching-and-grabbing tactics that were the subject of an officiating crackdown five years ago, so those cornerbacks who can succeed under the current conditions may be more coveted than ever.

When coaches and general managers look at the cornerbacks available in this year's draft, though, they said they mostly see players who would fit in as possible second or third cornerbacks on their teams, not front-line defenders capable of going to Pro Bowls. So while it is widely believed a half-dozen or so wide receivers could be taken in the first round of the draft Saturday, it seems generally accepted only a couple cornerbacks are likely to be first-round picks.

It is telling that the cornerback rated by many observers as the best available in this draft, Malcolm Jenkins of Ohio State, has sparked a debate about whether he belongs at cornerback at all in the NFL. There is some talk he will be moved to safety because of wariness about his speed after he failed to get his 40 time below 4.5 seconds at the combine or at his campus workout for scouts.

"Some of those hybrid guys have played corner and safety -- like Jenkins, for example, is a guy that's played both," New England Patriots Coach Bill Belichick said at the combine. "What his best fit is for a team, where he's most valuable, is certainly an interesting discussion for all teams."

Jenkins is almost certain to be taken in the first round, whether he ends up playing cornerback or safety. He's thought to be good enough to make some sort of impact at either position, and the nature of the sport means clubs increasingly are shying away from safeties with pass-coverage deficiencies.

"I think the safety position is becoming more and more of a corner position in the National Football League," Belichick said. "There were times when some of the safeties, particularly the strong safeties, fit more like linebackers than they did as defensive backs. I think that's changed gradually. . . . Your defensive backs, they either have to cover wide receivers, or they have to cover tight ends who are very good in the passing game. . . . I think the demands of that position have changed. I think that's changed the evaluation a little bit."

Said Atlanta Falcons General Manager Thomas Dimitroff: "I'm a lot more apt to evaluate a [safety] with the ability to cover as well as have the ability to come up and stick his nose in there and be an aggressive run-stopper guy. There are some great ones out there in Troy Polamalu and Ed Reed. Those guys are great football players who set the benchmark. It's not easy to find those guys year in and year out. But those are the type of guys that we are looking for ultimately at the safety position."

Other possible first-rounders at cornerback include Vontae Davis of Illinois, Darius Butler of Connecticut and Alphonso Smith of Wake Forest. No safety in the draft is regarded as a sure-thing first-rounder, unless some team drafts Jenkins as a safety.

Davis is a D.C. native who attended Dunbar High and is the younger brother of San Francisco 49ers tight end Vernon Davis, formerly of the University of Maryland. He very well could be the second cornerback taken after Jenkins, and he said at the combine that he fully expects to develop into an NFL standout.

"I feel I'm a physical corner," Davis said. "I can cover and come up and stop the run. I have an all-around game."

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