The NFL has become a passing league which has placed a premium on cornerbacks. The more versatile a corner is, the more valuable they become as prospects given the variety of techniques and roles they can perform.
The ACC features several corners that will get drafted next spring, but none of them are currently projected as universal scheme fits. My top two corners on this list entering the season are reversible in order based on schematic fit.
Let’s examine my preseason top five draft-eligible cornerbacks in the ACC entering 2018.
1. Levonta Taylor, Junior, Florida State (5'10, 181)
The No. 1 cornerback in the nation and consensus five-star recruit coming out of high school, Taylor had a standout sophomore season. If you turn on his film expecting to see a lot of action his way, you won’t find it. Taylor is an assignment-driven player who is always in the right position. His guy is rarely open and quarterbacks found almost no success when testing his coverage.
According to Pro Football Focus, Taylor allowed the fewest amount of receptions per coverage snap in the nation. He was in coverage for 398 snaps and only 13 passes were caught against him on 35 targets for a passer rating of 26.1. On those 35 targets, Taylor had two interceptions and two pass breakups.
Those figures speak to how sound he is in coverage. Taylor mirrors patterns exceptionally well and has an astute understanding of layered coverage. He has excellent ball skills and does well to play through the receivers hands to disrupt at the catch point.
Taylor is undersized and it shows when he is tasked with playing off contact to get involved as a tackler. While he is often quick enough to play around blocks, he needs to get strong and develop more technique for shedding blocks.
Taylor has the makings of a top flight cornerback prospect and has a chance to be a high draft selection next spring.
2. Michael Jackson, Senior, Miami (6'2, 195)
After two seasons of special teams and spot duty on defense for Miami, Jackson burst onto the scene as a Junior as part of a standout defensive unit for the Hurricanes on defense. Playing in all 13 games and starting 10 in 2017, Jackson racked up 43 tackles, four interceptions and five pass breakups en route to second-team All-ACC honors.
For a team in search of a long, bulky, physical and athletic boundary corner (who isn’t?), Jackson is an ideal target. Whether it’s coming up in run support or making a tackle on a quick pass or being physical in press or at the catch point, Jackson has outstanding play strength that meets the expectations of his imposing frame. He excels playing close to the line of scrimmage and using his length and physicality to disrupt routes during the release.
While Jackson may not be an ideal candidate to be trusted on an island against a twitchy, speed receivers he is sound in zone coverage and knows how the read the backfield and squeeze throwing windows. He flashed impressive ball skills at times and competes at the catch point with an alpha mentality.
The concern with Jackson comes when he is tasked with duties in off man coverage where his lack of reactionary quickness and tight hips to turn and run can be exposed. Demonstrating growth in that area this season is critical to him not being labeled a scheme-specific prospect.
The ‘Canes defense is loaded with talent and Jackson is among the best players on the unit. He is primed for a big senior season as a clear-cut starter on the boundary.
3. Mark Gilbert, Junior, Duke (6'1, 175)
The nephew of former No. 3 overall pick Sean Gilbert and cousin of seven-time pro Bowl cornerback Darrelle Revis, Gilbert has impressive bloodlines and is among the best cover men in the ACC. Coming off a sophomore season in which he was the leading vote-getter among cornerbacks for All-ACC honors, Gilbert racked up 35 tackles, 15 pass breakups and six interceptions.
As evidenced by his ball production, Gilbert’s ball skills standout. The game slows down for him at the catch point and he does well to drive forward on the football and disrupt passes. He is equally adept at tracking the football over his shoulder and he has natural hands to secure turnovers. Gilbert does well to trust his technique and is experienced in man, zone and press coverage. Gilbert trusts his technique and has outstanding coverage awareness and route anticipation skills. While he has a thin frame, Gilbert does well to wrap up low despite modest contact power.
The concerns with Gilbert stem from a lack of play strength that impact his ability to get off blocks and defend the d-gap. He doesn’t have the power in his hands to truly redirect routes at the line of scrimmage. While GIlbert has enough athletic ability to play corner in the NFL, he isn’t overly impressive in terms of speed, quickness or fluidity.
Gilbert’s ability to play the ball, technique and coverage instincts are outstanding but a stronger and quicker version of him is needed to cement his draft stock.
4. Essang Bassey, Junior, Wake Forest (5'10, 185)
Starting every game as a true sophomore, Bassey tallied 75 tackles, 16 pass breakups and three interceptions and received honorable mention All-ACC honors. On a Deac’s defense that only returns six starters from 2017, Bassey has a critical season ahead of him as an experienced starter and leader on the defense.
Where Bassey stands out most is with his ball skills. Bassey sharply finds the football in the air and does well to play through the receivers hands to disrupt passes. He also tracks it well with his back to the line of scrimmage and stays connected with his man and he positions himself to make plays. Bassey also showcases quick, balanced footwork and fluid hips to turn and run in off man coverage. That allows him to remain in phase and be trusted to win when isolated against receivers alone in space.
Where Bassey needs to show more consistency is trusting and developing his technique when playing on the line of scrimmage. In addition, Bassey has moments where he appears the be a reluctant tackler and is guilty at nipping at ankles. He does have flashes of sound form tackles but he needs to be more consistent. Given his stature, his contact power and ability to redirect with his hands will always be something he has to overcome, but it's a notable limitation when projection and evaluating him to the next level.
Bassey should continue to develop and has a future NFL role most likely in the slot where his footwork and ball skills are accentuated.
5. Trayvon Mullen, Junior, Clemson (6'2, 190)
Playing behind one of the Nation’s best front sevens, Mullen is part of a veteran Clemson secondary primed to feast on desperate throws from pressured opposing quarterbacks. Given some of the inconsistencies from his fellow cornerbacks on the roster, Mullen is likely to fill the No. 1 corner role and tasked with lining up against opposing team’s top target on a weekly basis.
Mullen is a long and physical corner that functions best in press and zone coverage. It’s those techniques where his physicality, length and ability to read the backfield are accentuated. Mullen plays up to his frame in terms of play strength and assertiveness as a tackler and in coverage. He flashes moments of outstanding ball skills and his long arms allow for recovery and margin of error.
The concerns I have with Mullen are a lack of ideal short area quickness and tight hips. His ability to turn and run in man coverage and remain in phase can be problematic. On account of those shortcomings, Mullen is extremely grabby and has a tendency to arrive off-schedule at the catch point. A move to safety or a scheme-specific label appear likely when projection Mullen to the NFL as it stands.
Mullen is an intriguing prospect with appealing physical traits. He as a big opportunity ahead of him as a junior to showcase improvements while building on his strengths.
Others to keep an eye on:
Taj Amir-Torres, Boston College
Mark Fields, Clemson
Bryce Hall, Virginia
Nick McCloud, NC State
Amani Henderson, Wake Forest