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NFL draft prospects on the rise: defensive backs

Note: Ray Ventrone's NFL Europe diary will be featured on Friday this week.

Michael Huff, Texas – It's hard for the best defensive back in this class to move up much further but Huff is that good. He may be the best overall safety prospect I've seen come out of college in years. Huff has great speed that allows him to patrol all over the field. He's very versatile and NFL teams will be able to do many different things with him. Huff's quickness and good lateral movement allows him to excel in coverage but he's also a very good tackler and effective blitzer – much like the Ravens Ed Reed.

He has the ability to play either corner or safety but with his speed and physical style of play, free safety may be his best fit in the NFL. After breaking down all the defensive backs on film, Huff isn't only the best player at his position but in my opinion, one of the top two or three defensive players in the entire draft. I see no weaknesses in his game at all. Unfortunately for Patriots fans, New England would have to trade up to the top ten area to get their hands on Huff. If they did, however, Bill Belichick would have the versatile defensive back sunbathing on a Hawaiian beach at the Pro Bowl in no time.

Tye Hill, Clemson – The speedy corner out of Clemson saw his draft stock rise after he burned a 4.30 40-yard dash at the Combine but he's not only fast, Hill is very good. His tremendous speed allows Hill to break quickly on the ball and get a lot of deflections. Hill is also the best corner in this draft at turning his head around and locating the ball while it's in the air. That's a big deal because finding the ball in the air is the toughest thing for a cornerback to learn.

The one thing I noticed on tape is Hill isn't just a cover corner; he's also physical against the run. He doesn't mind coming up and sticking a ball carrier if he has to. The only negative I saw with Hill is he tends to bite on plays every now and then but that's just the aggressive nature all great cornerbacks have. Hill has all the skills to be a shutdown corner at the NFL level.

The Patriots have signed some veterans to help add depth at the cornerback position but if the talented Hill is still on the board when they pick, they'll have to give him some consideration. Hill is a difference maker at corner and that's something the Patriots could use in their defensive backfield. Plus, it was reported earlier in the week that the team already had Hill in for a visit, so he's a guy the Patriots may have their eye on.

Richard Marshall, Fresno State – We've talked about Marshall quite a bit on Patriots.com but after watching film on him, I came away even more impressed. I think Marshall is the most complete corner in this draft. He's a tough, physical cornerback who actually led Fresno State in tackles last year with 78. On film, this guy made a ton of tackles. Whenever there was a running play, Marshall either made the tackle or was in the vicinity ready to make one.

The other thing I like about Marshall is he plays big receivers well. He has a knack for going up and knocking the ball away from taller receivers and that's something you just can't teach. Marshall made a lot of big plays for the Bulldogs – taking three interceptions back for touchdowns and also serving as a kick returner.

Don't worry about the level of competition either. Fresno State may not play in a big conference but they traditionally have one of college football's toughest schedules. Besides, Marshall's best game last year came against USC's Dwayne Jarrett – a future high first- round draft pick. I think Marshall is the second best cover corner behind Hill but his ability to play the run makes him the best overall cornerback in this draft. He's definitely the kind of player Belichick likes and playing for Pat Hill at Fresno State certainly improves the odds of Marshall becoming a Patriot on draft day.

A lot of people laughed at us when we came back from the Combine and said Marshall was a possibility for the Patriots at 21. While he may not go to New England with the 21st selection, Marshall has pretty much nailed down a spot in Round 1 of the draft.

Donte Whitner, Ohio State – After Huff, I believe Whitner to be the best safety in this draft. He has similar skills to Huff in that they both excel in coverage and play physical close to the line of scrimmage. Whitner has blazing speed and he'll make an excellent centerfield-type free safety because he's able to cover so much ground.

The thing that impressed me the most about Whitner is that even though he's more of a coverage safety, he's an extremely physical tackler. He fights off blocks well, makes a ton of tackles behind the line of scrimmage and in my opinion is the best blitzing defensive back in this class. What teams are getting in Whitner is a complete football player. He's the kind of player that can line up anywhere and he'll be able to do whatever is asked of him.

The Dolphins could really use a defensive back with Whitner's versatility, so expect him to be on their radar with the 16th pick but if he lasts until 21, he would make a heck of a selection for the Patriots. Whitner would solidify the Patriots uncertain safety position for the next decade.

Johnathan Joseph, South Carolina– Joseph is a little raw but the sky's the limit in regards to his potential. Like Hill, Joseph is blazing fast and that speed and quickness helps him break on the ball well. He showed very good coverage skills in the tapes I saw of him. He was fluid in his breaks and he has a knack of baiting a quarterback, then using his speed to close the gap and either knock the ball away or pick it off.

The thing that separates Joseph from Hill and Marshall is he's not as physical. He doesn't always like to take on blockers and mix it up in the running game. The two words I think of when talking about Joseph are speed and upside. He's the fastest defensive back I saw on film. With the right coaching and a little seasoning, Joseph has a chance to be a premier cornerback in the NFL.

Daniel Bullocks, Nebraska – I think Huff and Whitner have the ability to be future Pro Bowlers at the safety position but after those two, I like Bullocks as the next best safety in the draft. I don't think Bullocks is as good in coverage as Huff and Whitner are but he excels close to the line of scrimmage. He makes a lot of tackles behind the line and he's a good blitzer off the corner.

While coverage may not be his strength, I wouldn't say Bullocks is a liability in the passing game either. It's not like he's getting burnt all over the field. He jumps routes well and is always around the football. Bullocks gets a lot of interceptions off tipped passes, which means he's usually near where the ball is being thrown.

The one negative I noticed on tape is sometimes he takes bad angles on ball carriers. Other than that, Bullocks has very few holes in his game. He's also an excellent kick blocker on special teams, something that will help his stock on draft day. If the Patriots end up targeting a safety in round two, Bullocks would be a nice fit if he's still available.

Antonio Cromartie, Florida State – If Cromartie returned to Florida State, he probably would have been a top ten pick in next year's draft. He only had one start in college, missing all of the 2005 season after having surgery on his ACL, LCL and hamstring. Cromartie's injuries were serious but it appears that he's fully recovered and has his speed back. The former Seminole turned heads at his pro day by running a 4.38 40-yard dash and displaying a 42" vertical jump.

At 6-2, 210 pounds, he has the size teams look for in a cornerback. With those physical attributes, Cromartie could turn out to be a steal in this draft. On tape he showed that he's strong in coverage and he always has his head up looking back for the ball. Even though Cromartie didn't start a lot of games at Florida State, he made a ton of big plays for the Seminoles. He's the kind of player who is always around to scoop up a fumble or grab a deflected pass out of the air and return it for a touchdown.

Cromartie isn't quite as polished as some of the other corners in this draft due to his lack of playing time but if he can stay healthy, he has the athletic ability to be one of the best corners to come out of this class.

Sleepers

DeMario Minter, Georgia – Minter is a physical corner with good size and speed. He's 5-11 but plays bigger than that when you watch him on tape. Minter is very fluid in his backpedal and changes direction well. Gets beat off the line sometimes but has the skills to develop into a good NFL cornerback.

Danieal Manning, Abilene Christian – The small school star has the size, speed and quickness to excel at the pro level. Manning is raw but he breaks on the ball well and has great leaping ability. He really knows how to use his hands and he goes after the ball when it's in the air. Manning is a big-time sleeper at the corner position.

Anthony Smith, Syracuse – Maybe the most underrated safety in this draft. Smith doesn't have great size (5-11, 190) but he makes up for it on the field with his physical play. Smith made a number of big plays and had six interceptions last year for a terrible Syracuse team. He's the kind of player who would fit in well with the Patriots system because they could move Smith all over the place and do a lot of different things with him.

Bernard Pollard, Purdue – I'll be the first to admit that I didn't know a whole lot about Pollard before I watched him on tape but what I saw really impressed me. At 6-2, 225 pounds, he has good size and unlike a Darnell Bing - who misses a lot of tackles - Pollard is a big hitter who also tackles very well. When he hits someone, they go backwards. Pollard showed great closing speed on tape and while he struggled in man coverage, his overall coverage skills weren't horrible. Pollard also excels at blocking punts. He doesn't get a lot of publicity but after breaking him down on tape, Pollard appears to be the kind of safety that would interest the Patriots. He could be a possibility in the third or fourth round.

Next week we will look at the running back and linebacker positions.

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