INDIANAPOLIS – What a difference a year makes. In the 2009 draft class, Malcolm Jenkins was one of the highest rated corners, in part because he was one of the few 6-footers available.
This year, however, there are several top-flight, mid-level, and lower-ranked corners who have that kind of rare size. There's also a good deal of youth, as several juniors have made themselves eligible, and, as usual, some talented prospects from smaller schools.
All of which could make this one of the more interesting cornerback classes in recent years.
* = underclassman
(Expected selection: Rounds 1-2)
- Joe Haden, Florida (5-11, 190)
Haden's not only one of the best corners, he's also one of the least experienced. He was a highly recruited quarterback in high school and actually committed to Florida thinking he'd be playing QB. But he was needed elsewhere and by the opening game of his freshman year, he was a starting corner for Urban Meyer's Gators – the first true freshman ever to do so for Florida.
He went on to start 40 games and become a consensus All-American. Last season, though, opposing teams elected not to throw in his direction as much because of his proven production.
One of the more important questions that corners get at the combine is how adept they are at playing man-to-man and press coverage at the line of scrimmage – a common scheme at the NFL level that isn't seen as much in the college ranks.
"I played it a lot," Haden told Combine reporters. "I like press coverage a little bit more than off because I can get my hands on them and try to throw them off routes. Once you do that, the quarterback will look the opposite sometimes. Getting your hands on them, disrupting them, being really physical with the receivers, that's what I like to do."
Patrick Robinson**, Florida State (5-11, 190)
What stands out when you first meet Robinson is his uncomfortable stutter. But once you start talking to him about football, he relaxes and becomes more confident.
At the Combine, he was asked when he last ran the 40-yard dash.
"When I was a sophomore," he answered clearly, "I ran a 4.25 on field turf."
And what did he expect to run at the Combine in front of the NFL scouts.
"I'm aiming for that 4.2," he said with a smile.
A number like that would solidify Robinson's elite status among this year's cornerbacks. He blends his speed with a fierce, hard-hitting attitude.
"If [NFL teams] say I need to be more physical, then that's what I plan on doing when I get to the next level. But if you couldn't tackle against the run you couldn't be on the field. That's the way it was at Florida State," he explained.
Consistency appears to be his biggest challenge, according to observers. Some have even compared him to former Patriot Deltha O'Neal, who was nothing if not inconsistent.
* Dominique Franks, Oklahoma (6-0, 192)
Aside from his physical characteristics, what makes Franks a tempting prospect is his experience. At Oklahoma, he faced QB Sam Bradford, a potential number-one overall pick in this draft, often in practice.
"Yes sir, I did," he explained. "Sometimes we did 1-on-1s, where it's the number-one offense against the number-one defense. So we got to go against each other a little bit ... Sam's a good quarterback. In my eyes, he's like a baby Peyton Manning, to me. So going against that guy, it was ideal for me. But I also asked him a lot of questions to be able to let me be a better cornerback."
He's fast, too, expecting to run a low 4.3 at the Combine, and is a punt returner, which could help boost his stock.
Franks decided to forgo his senior season at Oklahoma after starting every game for the Sooners the past two years.
* Kareem Jackson, Alabama (5-10, 196)
Jackson may be among the most talented corners of this year's crop. But if you're Bill Belichick, and you have a close relationship with Jackson's head coach, Nick Saban, you'd probably trust his opinion, right?
At the Combine, Jackson was asked to explain his decision to leave Tuscaloosa early.
"It was one of those decision that, going into the year, I wanted to do everything possible to put myself in that situation to be able to make that decision at the end of the year. I felt like I did that as a player and I proved myself as an all-around player that can cover and tackle. So I sat down with my family and I told them, 'That's what I want to do' and they supported my on my decision."
His family may have, but what about Saban?
"I had a couple of meetings with him. He thought I should come back, but I was pretty confident in my decision and I stuck with it."
Even though Jackson started nearly every game in his three years of college and posted decent numbers, Saban seemed to believe it would be better for Jackson to get another year under his belt.
Kyle Wilson, Boise State (5-10, 195)
Some draft observers have compared Wilson to one-time Patriots corner Jason Webster.
Wilson, a New Jersey native, wasn't highly recruited coming out of high school, but wound up making a name for himself in four seasons in Idaho.
His kick return abilities may give him an extra edge over some of the other top corners this year.
"Definitely. I feel like I can return with the best of 'em," Wilson proclaimed. "Didn't get too much of a chance this year – they wouldn't kick me the ball. But every time I get the ball I think I can score."
As a junior, Wilson intercepted five passes and returned three punts for touchdowns. Last season, he two of his three interceptions were pick-sixes. He's been part of the Broncos' biggest upset wins over the past few years, including their 2008 win at Oregon and Boise State's dramatic, last-second victory over Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl.
Devin McCourty, Rutgers (5-11, 186)
His identical twin brother, Jason, is a corner for Tennessee, drawing obvious comparisons to Ronde Barber. A three-year starter for the Scarlet Knights, McCourty was also a standout on special teams, having blocked seven kicks in his career.
MIDDLE OF THE PACK
(Expected selection: Rounds 3-5)
Perrish Cox, Oklahoma State (5-11, 190)
It's not so much his skills that teams are questioning, it's his character. Last September, Cox was arrested for speeding while driving with a suspended license. Then, he was suspended for the Cotton Bowl after breaking team curfew not once, but twice.
"I just tell them straight up, 'It was my fault. I shouldn't have left. I take all the blame for it. If I hadn't left, it wouldn't have happened," Cox told reporters.
As for his press coverage abilities, Cox said he's played it about half the time in his career. He returned six touchdowns in his Cowboy career, but his tackling and coverage technique may prevent him from being a higher pick.
* Amari Spievey, Iowa (6-0, 190)
Poor academics forced Spievey to leave Iowa temporarily and play at a junior college, where he said he gained a better appreciation of the advantages he had in the Big Ten. He worked his way back to Iowa two years ago, where he made noticeably strides.
His size is an obvious advantage, which he uses to play physically in bump-and-run style coverage.
Javier Arenas, Alabama (5-9, 195)
Some have compared Arenas to former Patriot Ellis Hobbs, but Arenas may have more upside, having played in Saban's defense. Like Hobbs, Arenas is a skilled kick returner, with an SEC-record seven punt returns for scores. He capped off his 'Bama career last season with amazing statistics: 71 tackles (12.5 for loss), five picks, and five sacks.
Chris Cook, Virginia (6-2, 212)
Another player with college connections to Belichick (former Cavaliers head coach Al Groh), Cook has the added advantage of being the biggest corner in this year's crop, along with impressive speed. That could mean he's versatile enough to play safety as well. On the downside, injuries, maturity issues, and academics have raised questions about him.
Akwasi Owusu-Ansah, Indiana-Pa. (6-0, 205)
In addition to playing at a small school, "Kwaz" is also recovering from surgery to his left shoulder – two issues he's having to overcome at the Combine. In his favor are his size and his love of (albeit limited experience with) playing press coverage.
"Yeah, definitely, because I'm a bigger, more physical corner. It's not that I wasn't able to, I just wasn't given the opportunity much … But absolutely, I like the more physical aspect of it."
It also helps him that he's a proven special teams ace (three punts and two kickoffs for touchdowns in '09), and that the NFL has seen a number of small-school corners make an impact in the NFL, such as Drayton Florence, Ricardo Colclough, and Danieal Manning.
Myron Lewis, Vanderbilt, (6-2, 205)
Great size/speed combo, plus the potential to switch to safety if needed.
* Donovan Warren, Michigan (6-0, 185)
(Expected selection: Rounds 6-7; undrafted rookie free agents)
A.J. Jefferson, Fresno State (6-0, 190)
Nice size, plus he has a relationship with former Bulldog and current Patriots safety James Sanders, who he says has given him advice on how to improve his game.
Kevin Thomas, USC (6-1, 190)
A big, aggressive player whose biggest question mark is his extensive injury history.
Patrick Stoudamire, Western Illinois (5-10, 207)
Chris Hawkins, LSU (6-0, 185)