The NFL's transformation into a passing league has thrust defensive backs into the limelight. Defensive coordinators are desperate for shutdown corners and playmaking safeties.
This year's class could appease some of the teams searching for difference-makers in the back end.
UCLA's Rahim Moore, Clemson's DeAndre McDaniel and Florida's Ahmad Black are universally considered the best of the safeties. Each shows remarkable ball skills and awareness, and their penchant for producing big plays sets the tone for the rest of defense.
With the league still trying to adjust to the proliferation of spread offenses, some of these draft picks are going to be asked to contribute as rookies.
1. Patrick Peterson, LSU: A polished cover corner with outstanding physical tools, Peterson has a rare combination of size (6-foot-1, 211 pounds), speed and athleticism for a corner. He shows smooth and fluid movement skills, and is a natural press corner. He plays aggressive at the line of scrimmage, using his superior arm length and frame to knock receivers around early in routes. He anticipates routes well and shows outstanding ball skills. Peterson doesn't frequently play "off" coverage, but his natural ability should allow him to easily transition into a system that features zone concepts. He's also a dynamic kick returner and thus has the potential to make an impact in two phases as a rookie.
Potential landing spots: Denver, San Francisco, Dallas
2. Prince Amukamara, Nebraska: He makes smooth transitions in space thanks to his speed, quickness and athleticism. He is a rare corner capable of excelling in press or "off" coverage. In bump and run, he shadows receivers at the line of scrimmage and maintains proper leverage throughout the play. Although he looks speed-deficient at times, he uses angles to stay with swift receivers down the field. Amukamara illustrates sound footwork and fundamentals in zone coverage. He relies on patience in his backpedal and rarely appears out of position. His discipline and awareness stood out on tape, which should help make his transition to the pro game seamless. Even though some will point to his struggles against Oklahoma State's Justin Blackmon as a potential red flag, his consistency over his career is a better testament to his talent and potential.
Possible landing spots: San Francisco, Dallas, Houston
3. Jimmy Smith, Colorado: An athletic press corner, he excels at jamming receivers at the line and shows athleticism shadowing their movements in routes. He challenges pass catchers at every turn and the persistence wears opponents down by game's end. In zone coverage, he displays adequate instincts and awareness, but is not as aggressive in coverage. The hesitancy allows a few unchallenged receptions in his area. His footwork and movement skills appear fluid, but he needs to remain disciplined and avoid the complacency that sets in when not challenged on a consistent basis. Even though Smith doesn't rate with Peterson and Amukamara, he's talented enough to become an elite cover corner.
Possible landing spots: Dallas, Detroit, Philadelphia
4. Aaron Williams, Texas: The long, rangy athlete possesses smooth movement skills. He glides in his pedal and shows explosive transition quickness. He breaks aggressively on underneath routes and established a strong nose for the ball. Although he only has four career interceptions, he has a knack for getting his hands on the ball and is effective in zone coverage. He anticipates throws and attacks potential pass catchers running through his zone. He still needs some refinement and polish, but Williams has the talent to succeed.
Possible landing spots: Philadelphia, Baltimore, Pittsburgh
5. Brandon Harris, Miami: A savvy cover corner with the poise and polish of an NFL veteran. He reads routes well and understands how to use subtle tricks to maintain proper leverage on receivers down the field. Even though he primarily plays from a press alignment on the outside, he has the quickness needed to seamlessly transition between man or zone techniques. Harris also brings extensive experience playing in the slot, which makes him a potential fit as the nickel or dime corner in a team's sub-packages as a rookie. His measureable speed will ultimately determine his draft position.
Possible landing spots: Baltimore, Pittsburgh
1. Rahim Moore, UCLA: Moore is a rangy, centerfielder-type safety. He shows great anticipation and awareness roaming the middle of the field and his ability to get over the top of deep throws limits explosive plays against the defense. He finished his three years at UCLA with 14 interceptions, which speaks to his ball skills. As a run defender, he is a solid wrap-up tackler with reliable instincts. He attacks runners in space and is capable of getting elusive playmakers to the ground. His lack of size (6-1, 196 pounds) will lead to some missed tackles against big running backs, but he is a dependable player with the toughness to excel as an extra defender in the box.
Possible landing spots: Jacksonville, New York Jets
2. DeAndre McDaniel, Clemson: McDaniel is big-time playmaker with the skills to make an impact against the run or pass. He played strong safety at Clemson, but his ability transcends that traditional role. He is a ball hawk and shows good route recognition. McDaniel used his vision and anticipation to produce 15 interceptions in college. However, he showed some tightness in his movements during the Senior Bowl, which makes scouts wonder if he can duplicate his productivity at the next level. He is an aggressive run defender with a big-hitter mentality in the hole and that physicality helps set the tone for the defense. There are better athletes, but McDaniel's skill set should translate well to the pro game.
Possible landing spots: Minnesota, Buffalo
3. Quinton Carter, Oklahoma: A tall (6-1, 200 pounds), rangy safety with good ball skills and awareness. He has enough speed to get over the top of deep throws and floats effortlessly from hash to sideline. He is at his best when playing in zone coverage, as he has problems shadowing tight ends and wide receivers in space. His coverage woes showed up at the Senior Bowl, so he must step up in individual drills to silence some of his detractors. Against the run, he attacks downhill, but struggles to make secure tackles in space. He fails to come to balance before contact and doesn't bring his arms to wrap up and finish the tackle. Carter's flaws will keep him from receiving high marks across the board, but he's a promising prospect with a lot to prove in Indy.
Possible landing spots: Washington, New Orleans
4. Ahmad Black, Florida: The slender safety (5-9, 190 pounds) has noticeable speed and athleticism. He is a natural ball hawk with great timing and anticipation in coverage. Black is dependable in man-on-man when isolated with tight ends and receivers in space. His speed, quickness and movement skills allow him to maintain hip pocket positioning down the field. His frame is an issue, though. It prevents him from winning jump balls against opposing pass catchers and also limits him against the run. He struggles getting away from blockers and that inability to separate prevents him from being a factor as an eighth defender in the box. When he gets a clean path at the runner, he is an aggressive tackler capable of packing a pop. Black will certainly be downgraded because of size concerns, but the film reveals a player capable of contributing at the next level.
Possible landing spots: Minnesota, Jacksonville, Denver
5. Deunta Williams, North Carolina: The deep middle player relies on solid instincts. He shows range in coverage and possesses the speed to get over the top of deep throws. He has a great feel for route recognition and quickly sorts through concepts. His knack for getting around the ball resulted in 12 career interceptions, including six in 2009. He did not add to that total last season as an NCAA suspension cost him four games. As a run defender, Williams is not aggressive filling the alley and fails to attack the line of scrimmage with force. His passive approach creates bubbles in the defense. He's an adequate tackler, but his finesse style will turn off some coaches and scouts. Throw in the fact that he is still recovering from a broken leg suffered during the Music City Bowl and Williams has a lot to prove between now and the draft.
Possible landing spots: Houston, Buffalo
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.