Antoine Cason from Arizona addresses the media at the NFL Scouting Combine. AP Photo.
INDIANAPOLIS – There isn't exactly a set formula for teams looking for a top-flight NFL cornerback. Over the last decade-plus the Patriots had the good fortune of drafting two guys – Ty Law in 1995 and Asante Samuel in 2003 – that developed into All-Pro players. And while Law was a first-round selection with relatively high expectations, Samuel was a fourth-round pick who progressively evolved into one of the elite corners in the game while leading the NFL in interceptions over the last two seasons.
But Law's career in New England ended after the 2004 season due to contract issues and Samuel is set to hit the free agent market later this week. After playing last season under New England's franchise tag, and clearly reaffirming his status as one of the league's elite corners, Samuel's value on the open market could very well price him out of New England. As it stands, Sports Illustrated's Peter King told Patriots Today's Brian Lowe a the Combine that there is virtually no chance Samuel will be returning to the team where he's played his first five NFL seasons.
Throw in the fact that New England's nickel corner Randall Gay is also a free agent while No. 2 corner Ellis Hobbs failed to develop into a consistent player in his third season and the Patriots clearly head into April's draft with an eye on the cornerback position, possibly looking for both top-end talent as well as to add overall depth to the secondary.
The 2008 draft holds a deep crop at cornerback. According to NFLDraftScout.com's pre-Combine rankings more than 30 corners could go in the seven rounds of draft weekend, including as many as five in the first round and possibly 13 or more on the first day.
The top five prospects, all with a chance to go in the first-round, are South Florida's Mike Jenkins (6-0, 200), Troy's Leodis McKelvin (5-10, 190), Tennessee State's Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (6-2, 184), Arizona's Antoine Cason (6-0, 191) and Kansas' Aqib Talib (6-0, 202). The mix between big-school corners and playmakers from a lesser level of competition leaves the exact order of their draft value a bit up in the air.
Talib is one of the elite big corners available. He said he met with the Patriots on Saturday night at the Combine and that the meeting went well.
"It was just a good conversation," said Talib, who is a Cowboys fan and idolizes Deion Sanders. "A couple of the coaches were in there. When I left, I thought it went pretty good. We talked about football stuff, history, family, background. We talked about a lot of stuff."
Does Talib -- who depending on who you talk to could go from anywhere in the top-10 to late in the first round -- think he'd fit in New England?
"Yeah. I feel like I'd be a pretty good fit wherever I get picked up at," Talib said with confidence before listing his strengths as ball skills, man coverage and tackling.
Cason is a polished senior who won the Jim Thorpe Award as the best corner in the country last season while earning consensus All-American honors. Questions have arisen about his speed and he could have a lot riding on his 40 time when he runs for scouts on Tuesday in Indy. Regardless of what he runs, Cason is comfortable with his football abilities.
"People are going to think that (about his slow 40 time)," Cason said. "But as long as it's nothing playing related, that's what I feel confident about that no one has questioned how I play, if I can make plays or what I can do on the football field. So if that's the question of speed, that's OK with me. I'll go run Tuesday and we'll see.
"I'm a competitor. I'm ready to prove myself every time I step out on a national platform or just playing anything. I'm ready to prove myself again."
More than a polished player, Cason is praised for his overall makeup. He started a charity called "Cason Cares" to raise money for the American Cancer Society by selling bracelets after losing his grandfather and role model, Royce Rambo, to a form of leukemia. After getting past NCAA hurdles to the charitable endeavor he raised more than $7,500 and was wearing one of the bracelets at the podium while speaking with the media at the Combine.
"Antoine Cason is just one of the most amazing young men I've ever been around," Arizona athletic director Jim Livengood told the Arizona Daily Wildcat. "He's not just a gifted athlete, he's a very good student and a terrific young man. He's got great principles and values and he's just the kind of student-athlete that any coach in any sport would be so very proud of."
Rodgers-Cromartie has come out of nowhere in the draft process almost the way his cousin, San Diego Pro Bowler Antonio Cromartie, exploded in the NFL circles last season. The Tennessee State playmaker moved around to four different high schools and didn't get on the football field until his senior year. Tennessee State was then the only school to recruit him and offer a scholarship. But he's made plays since his first day at the school and really put himself on the NFL radar with a big Senior Bowl week.
But he knows he still has to continue to impress league decision makers if he's going to be one of the top corners taken.
"Ever since I've performed at the Senior Bowl, had a good week and an OK game, now people are starting to recognize and I'm starting to get more attention," said Rodgers-Cromartie, who credits a personal workout with new Redskins Hall of Fame cornerback Darrell Green with helping him take his game to the next level. "I feel like I have to go three out of three – the Senior Bowl, here and then at my Pro Day … if I'm going to have the opportunity to go high in the draft."
McKelvin might very well be the most confident smaller-school product to enter the draft. He played one year at Troy with DeMarcus Ware and considers himself the elite return man in the draft, several times drawing comparisons between himself and Bears playmaker Devin Hester.
"I'm the best return man coming into this draft," said McKelvin, who's remaining in school to finish his degree this spring. "I'll do the things that Devin Hester is doing right now. So that should help me a lot."
McKelvin acknowledges that many consider the Sun Belt the lowest level of college football and he's had to answer questions about his competition.
"There are athletes everywhere. It doesn't matter where you are at whether you are in the Sun Belt or the SEC, ACC they'll come find you," says the corner who claims to have held Calvin Johnson to just two receptions for 9 yards in a matchup with the current Detroit Lion. "You just have to go out there and show them and compete to the best of your ability."
Some of the corners who might be available in the middle of the draft in the second through fourth rounds include Indiana' Tracy Porter (5-11, 185), USC's Terrell Thomas (6-1, 197), Iowa's Charles Godfrey (5-11, 207), Virginia Tech's Brandon Flowers (5-9, 189), Boston College's DeJuan Tribble (5-8, 189), Penn State's Justin King (5-11, 192) and LSU's Chevis Jackson (6-0, 188).
Godfrey is a physical, man-to-man defender who played under former Bill Belichick assistant Kirk Ferentz with Hawkeyes. He patterns he's game after Green Bay's Al Harris and has a Houston Texans tattoo on his right hand. But he thinks his time under the former Belichick assistant has him well prepared for any system and he believes he could contribute immediately as a nickel back at the next level.
"Coach Ferentz is always bringing up the Patriots," said Godfrey, who says he has met Belichick and would be happy to get the call from New England. "He's always referring to the fact that Patriots are the great team and the reason why they are a great team is they do things right. It's not because they have all these super stars or all these guys with unbelievable talent. It's just that they are working hard and doing they best they can do and coming collectively so they can be the best they can be."
The undersized Tribble, who said he's often told he plays bigger than he is, also talked about his college team's admiration of the New England organization. The Eagles star said he watched a lot of Asante Samuel, Champ Bailey and Chris McAllister in an effort to improve his own game.
"They are a real classy group, a real respected team," Tribble said of the Patriots. "They get things done the right way. I feel like they prepare as well as any team can prepare. I feel like the players around the whole team there, they're well connected. I think that's team bonding, something we tried to follow after the Patriots. We did that a lot at B.C. If your guys are clicking on the team then that's just going to make the team that much better."
Some of the corners that could go in the later part of the draft include a diverse crop of players like UConn's Tyvon Branch (6-0, 198), Kent State's Jack Williams (5-9, 180), Missouri's Darnell Terrell (6-2, 200), LSU's Jonathan Zenon (6-0, 180), Eastern Kentucky's Antwaun Molden (6-1, 198), Arizona's Wilrey Fontenot (5-9, 176) and Oklahoma's Marcus Walker (5-11, 198).
Zenon is interesting in that he has decent size and obviously comes from a big-time program with the Tigers that's produced plenty of NFL defensive backs in recent years.
"I need to run a better 40, that's the main thing I need to do," Zenon said. "That way I can be projected in a great round. 4.3 would be the number that I'm going for."
Zenon has spoken with fellow Tigers like Joseph Addai, Dwayne Bowe, LaRon LandryandCraig Davis about the draft process and thinks it can help him.
"I think it gives you an edge because you are going to know what to expect when you come here," Zenon said. "They let you know what to expect and it gives you a heads up.'
But the biggest thing that can help any of the corners in the draft, from top prospects to late-round sleepers, is to run Tuesday's 40 in as fast a time as possible. After years of playing football, making plays, building a film library and doing everything their coaches have asked, running a fast 40 yards in shorts will go a long way in deciding the future for the 57 defensive backs in Indy for the Combine.
From a Patriots perspective it will be interesting if the team looks to the cornerback spot early in the draft to fill the potential void left if Samuel signs elsewhere. Either way the team will have to dip into the corner pool at some point on draft weekend in the hopes of developing another All-Pro like the franchise was able to do with Law and Samuel in recent years.