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Darrelle Revis, Earl Thomas among top CFB DBs I've scouted

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With the thick of the offseason upon us, it's the perfect time for me to dig through my old notes to see if I can learn from my past scouting reports as I begin to evaluate the next wave of top talents in the college game. I've already taken a look at the top quarterback, running back, wide receiver and pass-rush prospects I've evaluated throughout my career based on how I graded their college film. This week, I'm taking a deep dive into defensive backs to reevaluate how I ranked them based on the way I viewed their potential during the pre-draft process.

The NFL's recent transformation into a passing league has prompted evaluators to covet defensive backs with size, athleticism and cover skills. Those traits have long been associated with cornerbacks, but the increased emphasis on throwing the ball over the middle of the field has made it essential for safeties to also possess outstanding instincts, awareness and ball skills to be effective players.

With that in mind, I've always placed greater value on defensive backs with the potential to create turnovers in the passing game. Whether it's through snagging errant passes that are overthrown or deflected in traffic or punching the ball out of an unsuspecting pass-catcher's hands, the ability to generate turnovers moves some defensive backs to the front of the line on draft day.

In reviewing my notes on the top defensive back prospects since I began my scouting career in 2001, I don't believe it's a coincidence that the athletic defenders with high-level instincts and ball skills are the ones who shine as pros. The perennial All-Pros flashed those traits consistently as collegians and their skills followed them to the next level. Given some time to reflect and re-rank the top players at the position based on their pre-draft grades, here's how I would stack the defensive backs that I personally scouted during my career.

Editor's note: Click through the tabs above to see rankings for other positions.

1. Sean Taylor, S, Miami

Drafted: Fifth overall, 2004, Washington Redskins

If you could make an ideal defensive back from scratch, you would want to build him with Taylor's physical dimensions, athletic attributes and his nasty disposition.

Measuring 6-foot-3, 230 pounds with 4.51 speed and a 39-inch vertical jump, Taylor was an athletic freak capable of dominating the game as a hit, run and cover defender with exceptional instincts and ball skills. He showed off those skills as a junior at "The U" when he led the nation with 10 interceptions as a ballhawking safety for the Hurricanes. While Taylor's penchant for playmaking jumped off the screen, it was his knack for delivering big hits as an enforcer between the hashes or near the box that made him so appealing for defensive coordinators looking for a tone setter in the back end.

As a pro, Taylor was absolutely sensational as a playmaking safety for the Redskins. The two-time Pro Bowl selectee snagged 12 interceptions in four seasons and made plenty of big hits in the secondary. Taylor's ultra-aggressive play made him one of the most feared defenders in the league, which is the title he held until his tragic death in 2007.

2. Patrick Peterson, CB, LSU

Drafted: Fifth overall, 2011, Arizona Cardinals

Whenever you can study a "big" corner with exceptional size, speed and athleticism, you hope that his cover skills and playmaking ability stand out on tape. That's why it was easy to get excited about Peterson's potential as a CB1 after watching him claim the 2010 Jim Thorpe Award as a ballhawking corner with outstanding anticipation and awareness.

He was a rare cover corner with the size to bully receivers utilizing bump-and-run technique while also flashing the speed, quickness and movement skills to effectively shadow from a distance. In addition, Peterson displayed impressive running skills as a dynamic punt returner for the Tigers.

As a pro, Peterson has certainly played up to expectations as a six-time Pro Bowl selection (five berths at corner; one at punt returner) with the Arizona Cardinals. He's become the premier playmaker at his position and he is the gold standard when it comes to "lockdown" corners. Peterson's ability to travel or shadow WR1s all over the field with exceptional effectiveness makes him arguably the best cornerback in the game, which is exactly what many expected from him based on his combination of size, athleticism and skill as a collegian.

3. Ed Reed, S, Miami

Drafted: 24th overall, 2002, Baltimore Ravens

The legendary safety from "The U" was a dominant playmaker in the middle of the field as a collegian. Reed not only displayed exceptional instincts and ball skills, but he flashed terrific range as a deep-half player in the Hurricanes' hybrid 2-Man scheme. While skeptics questioned his athleticism and explosiveness as a deep defender, it was hard to ignore his 21 career interceptions, particularly when he snagged 17 during his final two seasons.

Considering the role turnovers play in determining the outcome of games, I thought Reed's takeaway skills could make him an impact player as a pro. Now, I certainly didn't envision him snagging 64 interceptions or scoring 13 return touchdowns on the way to nine Pro Bowl berths and a Defensive Player of the Year Award (2004) or finishing his career as a three-time interception leader, but I expected him to be a difference maker between the hashes with his ball skills and instincts. As one of the best safeties to ever play the game, Reed raised the standard of play at the position and changed how scouts value ballhawks in the middle of the field.

4. Troy Polamalu, S, USC

Drafted: 16th overall, 2003, Pittsburgh Steelers

Every defensive coordinator in the NFL values a tone setter between the hashes, particularly one who excels against the run or pass as a deep defender. That's why there was so much excitement about Polamalu after scouts got a chance to watch him wreck shop for the Trojans as Pete Carroll's designated playmaker on a defense loaded with NFL-caliber talent.

The USC star recorded 29 tackles for loss, six interceptions, four blocked punts and three touchdowns as a box-area dynamo for the Trojans. Polamalu's aggressive style and non-stop motor made it easy to fall in love with his game, particularly at a time when teams were valuing strong safeties with playmaking skills at a premium.

As a pro, he was every bit as good as many expected as the centerpiece of Dick LeBeau's defense. He made plays at every level, as evidenced by his 32 interceptions, 12 sacks, 14 forced fumbles and three touchdowns in 12 seasons. Beyond the stats, he gave the Steelers a disruptive presence in the middle of the field and that completely altered the way that opponents attacked the defense during his tenure. With eight Pro Bowl berths and a Defensive Player of the Year Award (2010) on the resume, it's safe to say that his impact as a defensive playmaker certainly resonated with his peers around the league.

5. Eric Berry, DB, Tennessee

Drafted: Fifth overall, 2010, Kansas City Chiefs

One of my old defensive coaches told me back in the day that an ideal secondary would consist of three cornerbacks and a true centerfielder at free safety. He suggested that the new-school strong safety would possess cornerback-like skills, which would allow him to cover athletic tight ends and slot receivers as part of a base defense. With the game changing rapidly at the pro level, scouts paid close attention to any safety with exceptional cover skills and versatility in the college game. Thus, Berry was a highly touted prospect after tallying 14 interceptions and 18 tackles for loss during a three-year run with the Vols.

The 5-foot-11, 211-pounder with 4.47 speed and a 43-inch vertical jump intrigued scouts so much that he was considered a potential cornerback as a pro. While Berry didn't make the move to the island as a pro, he certainly has displayed spectacular cover skills and playmaking ability throughout his career. The three-time All-Pro defender has registered 14 interceptions, 50 passes defensed, 5.5 sacks and five touchdowns in 86 games while roaming the middle of the Kansas City Chiefs' defense. He's also shown impressive grit and toughness in overcoming Hodgkin lymphoma at the peak of his career. Considering Berry's overall impact as a leader on and off the field, it's possible that I underrated him when he entered the league in 2010.

6. Adam Jones, CB, West Virginia

Drafted: Sixth overall, 2005, Tennessee Titans

Before rolling your eyes at the sight of Jones on this list, you might want to Google some of his highlights from his days as a Mountaineer. The oft-troubled defender was one of the most spectacular playmakers in the country as a cornerback/return specialist. Jones earned Big East Special Teams Player of the Year honors (2004) and dotted All-American lists as a two-position playmaker (cornerback and kick returner). Although Jones' diminutive dimensions made some skeptics question his ability to be a CB1, the big-play specialist flashed impressive skills as a young player until his off-field issues forced him off the field due to a league-imposed suspension. To his credit, he bounced back to eventually lead the league in kickoff return average (31.3 yards, 2014) and earn Pro Bowl recognition (2015) as a corner. But Jones' epic emotional meltdowns (see playoff games from the 2015 season) and questionable off-field behavior prevented the West Virginia standout from fully maximizing his potential as a two-phase contributor.

7. Earl Thomas, S, Texas

Drafted: 14th overall, 2010, Seattle Seahawks

Before the electric centerfielder patrolled the middle of the field for the "Legion of Boom", Thomas was a playmaking safety with outstanding ball skills and instincts. The 5-foot-10, 208-pounder snagged 10 career interceptions in two seasons, including eight picks during a remarkable redshirt sophomore season that showcased his ballhawking skills. In addition, Thomas flashed impressive closing speed and reaction skills as a run defender from the deep middle. Despite his small stature, he threw his body around and was a solid run defender.

As a pro, Thomas has been exactly what he flashed as a collegian. He's one of the best ballhawks in the game and a perennial Pro Bowl selection based on his ability to close down the middle of the field as a centerfielder. With Thomas also adding some "thump" to the "LOB" as a run-through hitter, the Texas standout is unquestionably one of the best defensive backs I've graded in recent years.

8. DeAngelo Hall, CB, Virginia Tech

Drafted: Eighth overall, 2004, Atlanta Falcons

There is always a place at the top of draft boards for explosive defenders with exceptional speed, quickness and playmaking skills. After watching Hall shine as a dynamic cover corner with electric return skills, I was convinced he had all of the tools to be a star at the position. As a world-class speedster with remarkable burst and movement skills, the Virginia Tech star was more than capable of running with elite WR1s on the perimeter. Hall excelled in bump-and-run coverage but also flashed the agility and instincts to shadow pass-catchers from a distance utilizing a traditional backpedal or bail technique. With Hall also showing impressive skills as a punt returner (five career return touchdowns), it was easy to envision him playing at an all-star level early in his career.

With three Pro Bowl selections and 43 career interceptions on his resume, Hall not only played up to expectations as a top pick but he lived up to his big-play reputation on the island, as well. While some will suggest that his disappointing stint with the Oakland Raiders tarnished his reputation as an elite corner, I believe he's one of the best ballhawks that we've seen over the past 20 years and his versatility (corner, nickelback and free safety) is a testament to the explosive athleticism that made many scouts rate him as a sure thing at the position.

9. Darrelle Revis, CB, Pittsburgh

Drafted: 14th overall, 2007, New York Jets

Before you @ me on Twitter about Revis' placement on this list, I think it's important to note the questions that many scouts had about Revis' speed and quickness prior to the draft.

The 5-foot-11, 204-pounder was viewed as a rock-solid cover corner with outstanding technical skills but evaluators wondered if his 4.38 speed (unofficial time at Pitt's pro day) showed up on the field. While he rarely struggled to cover premier receivers as a collegian, Revis' rugged game didn't have the same pop as some of the other playmakers at the position and scouts placed conservative first-round grades on him due to that perception.

Needless to say, evaluators were not only wrong about his speed but they didn't fully appreciate his game based on how he exceeded expectations as a CB1 for the New York Jets, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New England Patriots during his career. He suffocated premier WR1s with his ultra-aggressive and physical style, and his ability to take pass-catchers out of the game prompted observers to redefine the term "shutdown" corner. As a four-time All-Pro selection with 29 career interceptions and 144 passes defensed, Revis outplayed his draft status as the No. 14 pick in the 2007 draft and reset the bar as the best cover corner in the game.

10. Aqib Talib, CB, Kansas

Drafted: 20th overall, 2008, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The ultra-versatile playmaker was one of the best athletes at his position as a collegian. He blanketed elite WR1s as the Jayhawks' CB1, while also flashing exceptional pass-catching skills as an occasional wide receiver (four touchdowns) for the squad. Talib's superb ball skills, athleticism and instincts made it easy to project him as a standout CB1.

As a pro, Talib has met those expectations. The four-time Pro Bowl selection has 33 career interceptions and nine scores. He has developed into one of the most polished cover corners in the game, exhibiting outstanding discipline and footwork in coverage. Although he has been involved in a few dust-ups that raise questions about his maturity and emotional control, it's hard to knock Talib for his play on the field. He has been a spectacular playmaker for each of his squads (Tampa Bay Buccaneers, New England Patriots and Denver Broncos), which is exactly what a CB1 should do when he earns big grades during the pre-draft process.

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.

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