Ten Days Out: Cornerback Class As Clouded As Ever

Photo: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The closer we get to the draft, the more expectations and predictions are supposed to come into clarity; however, the same can’t be said about the cornerback class

ESPN's Mel Kiper, who always offers a good glimpse into NFL teams' expectations and approaches in April, was on ESPN radio Sunday discussing cornerback prospects. ESPN's Courtney Cronin distilled some of the key talking points into a quick thread, which requires dissecting as we do our best to mock out the first round and place this thick tier of corners to their new homes.

Part 1: What To Do With Trevon Diggs?

It's worth noting before we dive any deeper into Trevon Diggs, Cronin clarified Kiper's reports in a follow-up tweet saying Diggs was a late second- or early third-round player; he's still expected to go squarely on Day 2.

This is far from the understanding most expert mocks have had for the majority of the 2020 draft cycle. The data on Benjamin Robinson's Grinding the Mocks had Diggs starting the cycle as a late Round 1 selection and topped out as the 20th-overall pick in early November — I had Diggs going 12th in my 2.0 mock.

But Diggs’ stock has been pointing down steadily since — he was my 61st-overall selection in January — and this report will only precipitate his fall out of first-round projections entirely. What led to the fall? Failing to test was a big deal. 

Diggs entered Alabama as a wide receiver/cornerback/athlete recruit and didn't find a home in his first season or so before settling into cornerback. Accordingly, athletic ability should have been a high point on his film at corner, but that's not so. Diggs is a smart corner with good instincts who understands his reads, but he's outmatched when transitioning off of press or turning and running with downfield routes.

Positive testing could have indicated that more growth was available for him in the NFL, but he didn't test at the scouting combine, only confirming what we already knew: he has big-time size. The PFF pegs Diggs as a press-heavy corner and I understand why. He was productive in his final season at Alabama but might struggle to deal with WR1s on a weekly basis in the NFL.

Diggs is a late-two grade on my big board. I think he's clearly in the third tier, not second, of cornerbacks in this upcoming draft.

Part 2: Which Teams Need CB Bad Enough In Round 1?

There’s Jeffrey Okudah, C.J. Henderson and then who knows who after. Even with disagreement with the identity of CB3, nobody expects just two corners to come off the board in the first round.

Damon Arnette as a Round 2 grade makes sense, given he’s had only one productive season and some off-field concerns. He's a late-one grade on my board because of his talent in press and aggressiveness downfield. He profiles well to Minnesota's need for man cover corners who can survive on the line of scrimmage. If he were the pick at No. 25, I wouldn't be shocked at all.

And that's the item of interest here: which teams need corners in Round 1 badly enough to go reaching? If they do, who will they take? Minnesota and Arnette is an obvious one; who would like Utah’s Jaylon Johnson?

I'm low on Johnson ( so it's tough for me to say what a Round 1 team would see in him but those who like him, do for his physicality. Johnson came into the combine with a surprising lack of length (31.375-inch arms) for his above-average height (6-foot-0), but his explosives and agilities came in way better than one would expect for a player who struggles to recover out of press. It's extremely tricky to say with confidence for what team Johnson could start on in Year 1, but he does have a similar build to the corners the Chiefs touted last season: decent size, good density plus explosiveness. They'd let him play man coverage on the line.

We should also keep an eye on the Cowboys (No. 17), Jaguars (No. 20), and 49ers (No. 31). San Francisco is looking to add players in the mold of Seattle’s cover 3 and accordingly a candidate to go reaching for a Diggs or Virginia’s Bryce Hall — the same players are of interest to Jacksonville which prioritizes length in its corners above all other traits. The Cowboys' proclivities are trickier to suss out with Mike Nolan stepping in as the new defensive coordinator, but Auburn’s Noah Igbinoghene looks like a scheme and culture fit with his physicality and explosive traits.

Part 3: Where Is Kristian Fulton? Jeff Gladney?

I left out a couple of big-time names in the discussion of fits for Round 1 corner-heavy teams. That's because Kiper did as well.

Clemson’s A.J. Terrell is a late Round 1 pick. He's smooth, admirably disruptive early in reps and has good off-cover ability in a class of mostly press players. He's my CB6 and a mid-two grade. Igbinoghene and Johnson are both lower on my board — Johnson is way lower — and while those picks are certainly possible and apparently likely, I'd still categorize them as reaches.

It's just shocking to see that neither LSU’s Kristian Fulton or TCU’s Jeff Gladney are acknowledged as even Round 1 possibilities. Kiper's quick ESPN Radio hit is far from comprehensive, and we'll keep our ear to the wires as we get closer and closer to the draft.

Fulton is a top-12 player and a mid-one on my board, and that's not just me. TDN’s Joe Marino has him 14th and Kyle Crabbs has him 24th; we all have him ranked in the first round. I'm the highest on Fulton, but our consensus is that he is a poised, efficient and smothering cover man from the press alignment with more than sufficient recovery skills, play recognition and ball skills to win in various alignments. Fulton is oozing with talent and steady as they come. On Gladney, again we're all fairly close: Crabbs and I both have him at No. 31, and Marino has him at No. 22. He's a fringe first- and early second-round player on our consensus board with tremendous foot quickness, great play recognition from off coverage and great fluidity.

I couldn't tell you where the disparity lies between our evaluations and teams' on Fulton and Gladney, but I will say this: Fulton picked after any of the first two corners and Gladney picked after any of the first three corners will likely be a big-time steal. 

Corner evaluations can vary from team to team as deployments at this position are about as different as they come. Fulton and Gladney can both do the most important thing better than most in this class; that's about where the book starts and ends for me.