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Combine Prospects: Corner market open to interpretation

OFFENSE: OL | RB | TE | WR

DEFENSE: CB | DL | LB | S

INDIANAPOLIS -- In less than two years in New England, Malcolm Butler went from a no one to No. 1. on the team's cornerback depth chart.

The former Div. II undrafted rookie exploded on the scene as a Super Bowl hero with his game-clinching interception against the Seahawks and followed that up with a second season in which he replaced Darrelle Revis as the Patriots No. 1 cornerback and shined, earning a trip to the Pro Bowl.

Presenting our favorite photos of Super Bowl XLIX hero and Patriots CB Malcolm Butler. 

Barring some unforeseen regression, Butler is poised to be the centerpiece of the back end of the New England pass defense for years to come.

But what is far less certain for Matt Patricia's troops is how the rest of the cornerback position will unfold moving forward. Logan Ryan started opposite Butler in 2015 and put forth a solid season after opening the summer seemingly fighting for his roster life. The third corner spot was a rotating cast of characters from veteran pickups like Leonard Johnson to unknown youngsters like Justin Coleman.

Johnson was released this winter. Ryan will be in the final year of his rookie contract in 2016. Coleman will be back, as will injured 2015 late-round pick Darryl Roberts.

That's not all that much depth, experience or even developmental potential at the cornerback position. As such, the area could once again be a top target for tweaking, augmenting or strengthening this spring either in free agency or the draft.

Given the significant money that even marginal corners generally get on the open market, the best way to secure cornerback talent with value is through the draft. According to NFLDraftScout.com somewhere in the range of 40 cornerbacks are worthy of drafting this spring.

Thirty-seven of the 59 defensive backs invited to this year's Combine are listed as cornerbacks. That includes Florida State's Jalen Ramsey (6-1, 202), who many believe will end up as more of a free safety at the NFL level.

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NFLDraftScout.com ranks three true cornerbacks with first-round grades at this point, the trio of early entries includes Clemson's Mackensie Alexander (5-10, 195), Florida's Vernon Hargreaves (5-11, 199) and Ohio State's Eli Apple (6-1, 200). Given that the Patriots aren't scheduled to select until No. 60 overall on draft weekend, the top prospects are likely out of reach even if New England were interested.

Alexander and Apple were two of the more confident, some might say cocky, players in Indy this week. Apple was one of 14 Buckeyes in Indy and his confidence in his team is as high as it is in himself.

"I think you could take the whole Ohio State defense, put that on an NFL team and you could win the Super Bowl like that," Apple said.

That obviously includes Apple, who says he plays press coverage "better than anybody." Hailing from the same high school as New England's Ryan, Apple has an explanation for his attitude.

"My preparation," he responds when asked for the root of his confidence. "I know how good I am. I think I'm a corner that can do it all."

So, too, does Alexander. Though he may lack ideal size, he makes up for it in an aura of confidence that may be unmatched. He put on one of the more charismatic press conferences in recent Combine history. But he's more than all talk. Alexander claimed he would watch film immediately after games in college to get better, while also taking part in coaching staff meetings and taking notes after practices. In theory he seems like a package destined to succeed at the next level.

"At the end of the day I'm gonna say it and you guys are will say it, I'm the best cornerback in this class," Alexander concluded. "I'm ready to compete with anybody."

Asked about his intensity at the podium, Alexander said, "This is me…imagine me on game day."

And he clearly takes his talking to the field with him.

"My job is to eliminate you," he says. "I don't talk trash. I speak facts."

Hargreaves considers himself a "natural" press cornerback and though he doesn't have elite height, he feels his competitive nature carries him past any shortcomings.

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"You gotta compete. At the end of the day it's about competition," Hargreaves said. "At the end of the day if you can play ball, you can play ball."

Though he admits he likes to watch guys like Darrelle Revis and Brent Grimes, he won't compare himself to any pros currently playing on Sundays.

"I think I'm going to develop into my own type corner and see how that works out," Hargreaves said, noting his success in the SEC manning up with opponents' top receivers, including past matchups with guys like Odell Beckham Jr., Amari Cooper and plenty of others. "I said I was the best corner in college football. I tried to live up to that. I think I did."

He also thinks he could be the highest defensive back taken, confident he can surpass Ramsey for that honor.

"I want to be first. He wants to be first. It's a silent rivalry," the Gator said of the Seminole. "He thinks he's the best. I think I'm the best."

Many of the prospects slatted to go in the second and third rounds offer decent size, something New England lacked last year after Brandon Browner was allowed to leave in free agency. The group includes Virginia Tech junior Kendall Fuller (6-0, 197), LSU's Jalen Mills (6-0, 194), Houston's William Jackson III (6-1, 195), Miami underclassman Artie Burns (6-0, 193), Mississippi State's Will Redmond (5-11, 186), Baylor junior Xavien Howard (6-1, 200), Southeastern Louisiana's Harlan Miller (6-0, 182), Oklahoma underclassman Zack Sanchez (5-11, 180), and Virginia's Maurice Canady (6-1, 191).

While a guy like Hargreaves proclaimed his natural abilities as the reason for his success, Jackson talked a very different game. The Houston star led the country in passes defensed last year and pointed to his preparation for that success.

"Film study," Jackson said. "I do a lot of film study, late at night in my room."

Jackson listed his press man coverage ability as his strength and his weakness as tackling, needing to, "stop going for the big hit all the time."

The senior corner already earned his degree, something he's proud of as he avoided continuing down a bad bath that he started on in high school.

"I was a knucklehead in high school," Jackson said of his academic issues prior to college. "I got in with the wrong crowd. Guys I was close to were going to jail. I knew I wanted to play ball, so I had to get on track."

While his work ethic and attitude are admirable, Jackson knows there are questions about his speed that he hopes to answer this week.

"I really don't like to talk about it," Jackson said of his 40 time. "I just want you to see it."

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Canady also faces questions about his speed, as well as concerns that he had basically no experience in the press-man coverage for the Cavaliers. He did show some of that ability with a decent week at the Senior Bowl, though. He also emphasizes his versatility, having played cornerback, safety and even some linebacker-like roles in certain sets.

"I have no projections but I'll play any defensive back position that a team would want me to play. As a longer-built corner, Canady models himself after a cover man familiar to fans in New England.

"I definitely look a lot at Aqib Talib. He's been great for the Broncos and back to his Patriots days," Canady said. "To me, he's the total package."

Pittsburgh GM Kevin Colbert joked this week that when he's evaluating cornerback prospects he asks himself if that guy could cover Steelers All-Pro receiver Antonio Brown. A number of corners were asked about that task and took different approaches to the response.

"That's the ultimate test," Canady said with a smile. "If you can cover him you will have a lot of money in your pockets."

Burns is at the Combine after a tough fall. He lost his mother to a heart attack in October and has taken custody of his two younger brothers, while raising his own son. He says his mother is with him in spirit as he works to achieve his NFL dreams.

"She's here too. Every move I make is for her," Burns said. "I'm just here to work. I just take everything one day at a time. Things are always going to be tough. It's just life."

As is often the case, there are a wide variety of cornerbacks destined for late-round picks, teams looking to find diamonds in the rough that have become a bit more frequent in recent years with guys like Butler or Seattle's Richard Sherman. Those types come in extremes in terms of size such as tiny Mississippi player Mike Hilton (5-8, 179) or longer LSU junior Rashard Robinson (6-2, 182).

North Carolina State's Justin Burris (6-0, 213) is another long corner who actually credits Sherman for opening up new roles and accepted body types for cornerbacks.

"He's helped longer corners," Burris says. "I thank him for that."

Alabama's Cyrus Jones (5-10, 196) is a mid-round prospect whose success in the SEC is usually a pretty good preparation for the game. It wasn't long ago that he was doing battle on the practice field with Raiders impressive rookie Amari Cooper.

"Me and Coop used to go at it," Jones said. "He's a great player and made me a better player."

In fact Jones got a lot of praise this week from SEC wide receiver in attendance at the Combine, noted a number of times as the best cornerback they'd faced on the college field.

"That's humbling," Jones said. "That's the greatest respect you can get is from your peers. That's the best thing in the world."

While Jones comes from a football factory with a fresh national championship, Samford's James Bradberry (6-1, 211) is coming from a lower level trying to prove himself. He had an impressive week at the Senior Bowl and has shown the size to play some safety as well.

"I feel like I showed them I'm ready to compete and improve every day," Bradberry said.

Colorado's Ken Crawley (6-0, 184) is seen as a potential late-round sleeper. The young player certainly doesn't lack confidence.

Crawley, who has some length and press-man capabilities, was posed the can-you-cover-Brown? question in his Saturday Combine meeting with the media.

"I can cover Antonio Brown," Crawley said with confidence. "Not to take nothing from him, he's a great guy, but I can cover him."

Crawley has similar confidence in terms of the 40 time he plans to run in Indy.

"Looking forward to it," he said. "I'm gonna blaze."

There are plenty of similarities between almost all the Combine cornerbacks. They are confident bordering on cocky. They idolize Revis. They think they are ready to do the job at the next level.

But there are also plenty of differences in the group. Some have more size than others. Some more reps and comfort in press than others. The levels of play and experiences are varied.

In the end as the Patriots and other NFL teams look to add potential youth and depth to the cornerback spot on draft weekend there are plenty of options available in this year's rather interesting talent crop at the position.

OFFENSE: OL | RB | TE | WR

DEFENSE: CB | DL | LB | S

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