All coaches would love cover corners who can also be solid in run support. The same can be said for safeties who can match up with good wide receivers in deep coverages as well as make plays in the box when asked.
Coaches have created offensive schemes that put a tremendous amount of pressure on defensive backs. They use different formations, personnel groups, spread attacks and quick passing from the shotgun that neutralize the pass rush. Of course, there are also a number of rules that make it close to impossible for DBs to play aggressively. It is a very big challenge in the draft room to find the kind of men who can do the things asked of the defensive backs.
The 2010 NFL Draft may not have a Troy Polamalu in the safety class or a Charles Woodson in the corner group, but there are some solid candidates. There should be between 20 to 25 players selected in the first three rounds. There hasn't been a true safety drafted in the first round in the past two drafts, but that is about to change this year with possibly three or even four safeties going on Thursday night.
As for the corners, there were five selected in the first round in 2008 and only two last year. In 2010, expect that number to fall somewhere in between, with three or four prospects hearing their names called in the first round probably after the top-10 selections have been taken off the board.
Biggest boom-or-bust prospect
Taylor Mays from USC may have been a top-10 pick if he came out last year but since then has been under the microscope for his coverage skills. The 230-pound safety absolutely impressed everyone at the NFL Scouting Combine with unofficial times under 4.3 seconds in the 40-yard dash, but he had one interception last season, just three passes defensed, no forced fumbles and appeared to struggle in space. Some think he's the next Roy Williams, while others think he will be an intimidating force on an NFL defense. He may slip out of the first round, which would take some of the edge off the boom-or-bust label, but his measurables should get at least one team to take him in the first round and then the pressure is on to live up to the expectations. Other players in this category include Oklahoma State's Perrish Cox and Florida State's Myron Rolle.
Player with the most upside
Every team is looking for a player who can match up on that third wide receiver without forcing his team to use a sub defense. They also want the same guy to play the deep middle, blitz effectively, move into run support when there are two backs, and basically be the adjustor for every situation. This year, safety Eric Berry from Tennessee is that guy. He had 245 tackles and 14 interceptions in three years, while defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin used him all over the field. He has the football intelligence to handle all of the adjustments. Whatever team takes him gets an advantage over most offenses. Others in consideration are Earl Thomas from Texas and Boise State's Kyle Wilson.
Player with most to prove
Thomas, the hybrid safety/corner from Texas, comes into this draft with a solid first-round grade but the sooner the team that drafts him lets him settle into one position the better. Thomas has only played two years of college football and at 5-foot-10, 208 pounds, he is not the ideal size for safety, though it may be his best position. Thomas ran a 4.3 40-yard dash at his pro day and that will fuel the idea that he's a corner. My experience with moving players around early in their careers is that it leads to struggles. Thomas has excellent football instincts, and those traits have to help him while he gets stronger. Others considered in this category are LSU's Chad Jones and Alabama's Javier Arenas.
Small-school prospects with a chance
Last year, the Jacksonville Jaguars took CB Derek Cox from William & Mary in the third round and that proved to be a great move. The year before, the top two corners drafted in the first round were Leodis McKelvin from Troy and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie from Tennessee State. This year, there are two players from small schools who will not be early picks but will have a solid chance to make a team. Cornerback Akwasi Owusu-Ansah from Indiana University of Pennsylvania has the size (6-0 1/4, 207) and speed (4.4 in the 40-yard dash) to have a chance. A team that uses the Cover 2 will have interest in him during the middle rounds. As for a safety, keep an eye on Jeromy Miles from the University of Massachusetts as a possible late-round pick. Miles has excellent size at 6-2, 212 and can play some matchups. He did not go to the combine, but I watched his game against Delaware and he can play.
Late risers in the draft process
Defensive backs can take quantum leaps during the draft process. A guy thought of as a late-round pick back in December can fly up into the early rounds because speed at these positions matters and the combine features speed testing. Brandon Ghee from Wake Forest looked like a mid-round talent until he ran a 4.37 40 and a 3.98 short shuttle. Ghee is now perched in the second round. Cornerback Devin McCourty from Rutgers went to the Senior Bowl as a probable third-round prospect but demonstrated skills and toughness that caught the coaches' eyes. Then he went to the combine and ran under 4.4 on most watches, and he now sits ready to go in the bottom of the first round. Another cornerback who has gained momentum is USC's Kevin Thomas.
Teams with the greatest need
» At safety: Dolphins, Jets, Ravens, Bengals, Texans, Jaguars, Titans, Chargers, Eagles, Redskins, Saints, Bucs, 49ers, Seahawks.
» At cornerback: Ravens, Steelers, Texans, Colts, Raiders, Chargers, Bears, Packers, Vikings, Bucs, Seahawks.