INDIANAPOLIS - The Patriots need at cornerback isn't as big as it could have been after the team tagged Asante Samuel as its franchise player. With Samuel and Ellis Hobbs, the Patriots have to pretty good starting corners. The problem is New England has a lot of question marks behind its two starters. As of right now, the Patriots really don't have a consistent third cornerback they can depend on. The Colts exploited New England's lack of depth in the secondary during the AFC Championship Game. While the Patriots don't need a corner to come in and start right away, they do need a young player to develop at that position for the future.
There are no sure-fire top 10 selections at cornerback this year. However, there are four players who could be selected in the mid-late first round, depending how their workouts go. After those four, there are some interesting prospects for teams to consider but opinions are split on which players will go where in the draft.
"I think at the cornerback position, there are four good – not great – players and then you get into which players fit best into your system," NFL Network's Mike Mayock said. "Ross from Texas is probably the best cover guy of the bunch but Leon Hall has the best combination of skills in my opinion."
The four players currently battling to be the top corner selected are Hall (Michigan), Aaron Ross (Texas) Darrelle Revis (Pitt) and Daymeion Hughes (Cal).
Hall (5-11, 193) played in every game during his four-year career at Michigan. He saw time in a reserve role as a freshman before becoming a starter midway through his sophomore season. Last year, Hall led the Big 10 with 15 passes defensed and shutdown one-half of the field for most of the season. However, Hall's poor performance in the last two games against Ohio State'sTed Ginn Jr. and USC's Dwayne Jarrett has some people wondering about his ability to cover the elite receivers.
"I definitely had those two bad reps at the end," Hall said. "That one against Ted Ginn was a mental mistake on my part and then the one against Dwayne Jarrett was an alignment issue. I learned from them. I went back and watched the film. Those are the type of plays you don't want to have. That's part of the game. Going to the next level, you're going to go against a lot of great receivers. And one thing my coach, Ron English, told me is that you're going to go up against great players. They're going to make plays and you're going to make plays. You just want to make more than they do."
Despite ending his career on a sour note, Hall is still expected to be one of the top corners taken in this year's draft. He talked with the Patriots at the Senior Bowl where he had a solid week of practice. Known as a film junkie, most believe Hall's four years of good play will override two bad outings.
"I would say for any position you definitely have to watch a lot of film as far as learning the other team tendencies, how a player is, how he reacts in certain situations," he said. "I think that just gets you to that next level and makes you a better player."
Ross (6-0, 193) won the Jim Thorpe last year, given out to the nation's best defensive back. He's a big-play corner that likes to gamble and take chances. With Ross, teams will have to take the good with the bad. He might guess wrong and give up a long gain but could just as easily pick off the next pass and return it for a touchdown.
"It's not far-fetched," Ross said about his reputation as being a gambler. "I believe being a corner, you've got to take risks sometimes. If you don't, you'll end up with no picks and no plays. So you've got to take risks. Sometimes I tend to take too many and that's something that I'll have to balance out once I get to the next level."
So far, most of Ross' risks have been worth taking. He's coming of a 2006 season where he had 77 tackles, 18 passes defensed and 10 takeaways (5 interceptions, three forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries). Ross also has experience returning kicks and says he would like to continue doing that in the NFL. He could be the kind of young, athletic cornerback who could grow into the Patriots defense and become an elite defensive back for years to come.
Revis (5-11, 204) has seen his stock rise of late and some even have him as the first cornerback coming off the board in this draft. Revis is a physical shutdown corner who started 34-of-35 games at Pitt. He's played on both the left and right side of the defense. Revis only had two interceptions last year but one reason for that was most teams refused to throw his way. Both West Virginia and Louisville only tested Revis once throughout the entire game.
When asked how many times he was beaten last year, Revis joked, "None."
"I'm not a cocky guy, I'm just confident in my game," he went on to say. "When I want people to look at Darrelle Revis, I want them to look at how many categories in which he never gets beat. That's one of the things I take to heart and I work at."
Revis also returns punts, something that will add to his value in the NFL. The one question most scouts have about Revis is his speed. He's hoping to put those concerns to rest when he runs the 40 on Tuesday. Although, he believes people put too much stock on timed speed.
"I say I have field speed," he said. "People tell me I don't run fast, I don't look like I'm running fast but once you play against me and I'm out there on the field, you might not catch me. That's just how I feel about my speed.
Revis and former Patriot Ty Law come from the same hometown and talk to each other on occasion.
"Ty Law, man, he was a great player. I got his number, he told me to call him anytime," Revis said. "Basically, I'm learning. I'm trying to be a sponge. I'm trying to learn anything I can technique-wise coming into the NFL."
Hughes (5-10, 190) is a ballhawk who had an extremely productive senior season at Cal. He was named the Pac 10's Defensive Player of the Year after picking off eight passes and returning two for touchdowns. Hughes also showed he isn't afraid to mix it up after finishing second on the team with 72 tackles.
An art major, Hughes like to paint in his spare time to help relax. On the football field, however, he's all business.
"I feel I would be successful in any system they ask me to play in the NFL," he said. "I think I have good ball skills and can play physical with bigger receivers. In three years, Dwayne Jarrett never caught a touchdown pass against me."
Like Revis, the question about Hughes is his speed. He believes playing cornerback is more about technique and a feel for the game than it is just blazing speed.
"DeAngelo [Hall] won the fastest man competition but I've seen people run by him," Hughes said. "He's definitely a great corner but he can probably improve on his footwork just like everyone else. It's not just about speed."
If the Patriots don't draft a corner high, one possible sleeper is Michael Coe (6-0, 190) from Alabama State. Coe played his first two seasons at Arkansas before transferring. He's also played some safety and has the ability to return kicks. Coe was a late addition to the Senior Bowl but helped his draft stock by having a good week of practice and intercepting a pass in the game.
"I was shocked by it," Coe said about being invited late to the Senior Bowl. "I was working out and got a call to come down to the Senior Bowl. Everything happens for a reason and I think I made the most out of my opportunity and opened some eyes."
There's little doubt that the Patriots will bolster their secondary this offseason. Whether or not they do it through the draft is unknown but they have a lot of attractive options. Especially in Round 1, where New England currently holds the 24th and 28th overall picks.