2020 Senior Bowl Preview: Defensive Backs

Photo: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

When the Senior Bowl practices kick off in Mobile, Alabama, next week, it will be like Christmas morning — so many presents to open; so many one-on-one matchups to keep an eye on. As someone who enjoys watching defensive backs more than any position in football, I cannot wait to see which cornerbacks and safeties rise to the occasion.

The one-on-one matchups throughout the week are designed to be “exposer drills.” A lot of these cornerbacks and safeties aren’t comfortable in press and off coverage or just haven’t played a lot of man coverage in general. On the flip side, strong cover skills and fluidity will separate these players from the group early on.

Top Cornerback: Kristian Fulton, LSU

With TCU’s Jeff Gladney backing out of the event, Kristian Fulton is the undisputed top cornerback at the 2020 Senior Bowl. His ability to mirror and match routes in man coverage is top shelf. Fulton is one of the most difficult cornerbacks in the country to gain separation in one-on-ones. So, he has a chance to really stand out, especially considering the amount of big wide receivers that will be at the event. Fulton needs to get stronger and play with better positioning at the catch point to avoid getting boxed out by physical receivers, but he can erase a lot of those concerns in these one-on-one matchups.

Top Safety: Ashtyn Davis, California

A star track athlete, Ashtyn Davis’ athleticism immediately jumps out at the safety position. He has played deep middle and in the box for Cal throughout his career, showing an impressive blend of range and physicality. From just a tools standpoint, Davis might be the most intriguing safety prospect in the 2020 draft, but inconsistent outings in both man and zone coverage are littered on tape. He has all the traits you look for in a first-round safety, but can he put it all together into a dominant week in Mobile?

Sleeper Cornerback: Michael Ojemudia, Iowa

Michael Ojemudia was a late invite to the Senior Bowl. His physicality and length are the first standout attributes you notice in his film. Ojemudia is an all-around cornerback who has vast experience playing near the line of scrimmage in press man coverage, from a pedal in off-man coverage and reading the quarterback in zone coverage. His quick mental trigger and playmaking ability at the catch point could have scouts buzzing about his performance next week. The biggest worry with Ojemudia is his ability to mirror and stay in front of the wide receiver laterally, as I question his overall fluidity. The good news? He’s going up against a bunch of wide receivers next week who are big and struggle to separate. As such, I think Ojemudia has a prime opportunity to shine.

Sleeper Safety: Terrell Burgess, Utah

I’ve talked about the idea of “positionless football” to my colleague and co-host Jordan Reid on the Locked On College Football podcast several times. Essentially, your linebackers have to move like safeties, your safeties have to move like cornerbacks and your cornerbacks must have inside-out flexibility. It’s just how the game is evolving, and I think Utah’s Terrell Burgess fits that mold perfectly. He can play every position in the secondary — slot and boundary cornerback as well as both safety spots. He did that this past season, and of all the safeties in Mobile next week, Burgess will immediately separate himself as the top man coverage defender of the group. The best thing going for Burgess’ draft stock is his versatility. If he can show scouts next week just that, his stock is going to rise even higher.

Most Potential: Darnay Holmes, UCLA

Darnay Holmes will arguably be the fastest player in Mobile. He was the only player I watched who could run stride for stride with NFL star Marquise “Hollywood” Brown last year. If you watch his best 10-15 reps, Holmes is clearly one of the best cornerbacks in this draft because of how naturally talented and athletic he is in man coverage. However, he is still raw and inconsistent with his technique in both press and off coverage; and that showed up several times on his 2019 tape. I think Holmes is a perfect fit for today’s nickel defender, but he will look to show scouts he can play on the outside as well next week, going up against players like Chase Claypool, Collin Johnson, Bryan Edwards, and other mammoth-sized wide receivers.

Most To Prove: Kyle Dugger, Lenoir-Rhyne

Whether Kyle Dugger plays at outside linebacker or safety at the next level, I think he is another one of these hybrid players who will be highly valued by the NFL for his versatility. The first thing you notice on his tape? Explosiveness. Dugger is a heat-seeking missile with bad intentions coming downhill. At the same time, he has consistently shown excellent ball skills and range in coverage. The only question with Dugger is the level of competition. Going to the Senior Bowl against the best across the country is a huge step up from Division II, and it may take him a practice or two to adjust. While Dugger has the most to prove of any defensive back next week, he may have the most to gain. If he rises to the occasion and dominates next week like he’s done throughout his collegiate career, there will be top-50 rumblings.