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Top 10 defensive backs to pursue in free agency, 2018 NFL Draft

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Over the next several months, the rosters of all 32 teams will begin to take shape for the 2018 season. In this series, NFL.com writers and analysts look at the best players available via free agency or the NFL Draft at the following positions: quarterback, running back, wide receiver, defensive back, pass rusher. Today, Gil Brandt eyes the top 10 defensive backs worth pursuing.

1) Minkah Fitzpatrick, draft prospect

The extremely smart Fitzpatrick can play three different positions (safety, slot-corner or corner) and will make an immediate impact wherever he goes -- he's capable of producing at a near-Pro Bowl level from Day 1. The former Crimson Tide standout (nine picks in three seasons at Alabama, including a career-high six in 2016) will be a stabilizing defensive force for a long time in the NFL. Simply put, I love this player -- and so, it seems, does everyone else, given that he's projected to be drafted no lower than seventh overall by the mock drafts posted on NFL.com. If you're looking for a DB this offseason, you can't do any better.

2) Malcolm Butler, free agent

Butler's mysterious benching for Super Bowl LII is a blot on his resume, and it seems to be why he's dominating headlines now. But don't let that distract you. Butler remains a Pro Bowl-caliber player who helped cinch New England's victory in Super Bowl XLIX with that clutch interception on the goal line. He blossomed into a defensive cornerstone for the Patriots, contributing 44 passes defensed over the past three seasons (with eight interceptions). Whoever signs him will land a cornerback who is poised to return to the Pro Bowl in 2018.

3) Derwin James, draft prospect

After losing most of 2016 to injury, James picked up right where he'd left off as a freshman, racking up 84 tackles (5.5 for a loss), two picks and 11 pass breakups in his final season at Florida State. Checking in at 6-foot-3 and 215 pounds, the safety is probably one of the biggest and fastest defensive backs coming out of college this year. He'll start and contribute immediately in the NFL.

4) Kyle Fuller, free agent

Last offseason, the Bears decided not to pick up Fuller's fifth-year option for 2018 -- and he proceeded to enjoy the best season of his NFL career, recording 22 pass breakups, which was tied for second among all players in the league. I've always liked Fuller a lot, going back to when we invited him down to the 2014 NFL Draft, where the Bears selected him 14th overall. After a promising rookie season, Fuller lost all of 2016 due to a knee ailment. Where he truly stands out is in his ability to defend the pass, and while it might be obvious, that's crucial for a DB -- you can always teach 'em to tackle, but it's hard to teach 'em to play the pass. Fuller is a quality guy who can anchor a secondary as a cornerback. His departure would leave a gaping hole in Chicago.

5) Patrick Robinson, free agent

Eight seasons into his NFL career, Robinson seemed to have finally found his niche as a top-flight slot corner during the Eagles' run to Super Bowl LII. Robinson had been, really, just another guy before landing in Philly on a one-year deal last offseason, having spent time with the Saints, Chargers and Colts. But then, in 2017, he blossomed under Jim Schwartz, playing like one of the top cornerbacks in the league while matching his career high in passes defensed (18). It will likely be cost-prohibitive for the Eagles -- who are up against the cap and have 2017 second-round pick Sidney Jones waiting in the wings anyway -- to bring him back, opening up an opportunity for someone else to land a quality starter.

6) Denzel Ward, draft prospect

Ward follows reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year Marshon Lattimore as yet another elite cornerback prospect coming out of Ohio State -- and I like his chances to succeed Lattimore as the winner of that award in 2018. The first-team All-American has coverage skills, as reflected in his 15 pass breakups in 2017. He can also run and is athletic, and that makes for an imposing combination.

7) Trumaine Johnson, free agent

Johnson has been an outstanding cornerback for the Rams, but given that he's been franchise-tagged two years in a row (earning more than $30 million in the process), he's almost certainly headed for a big payday elsewhere. Some wondered if he was fast enough as a prospect coming out of Montana, but over the course of the past six seasons, he's proven himself to be a very tough defender against both the pass and the run.

8) E.J. Gaines, free agent

Gaines didn't arrive in Buffalo until August of last year as part of the trade that sent Sammy Watkins to Los Angeles -- but despite the compressed adjustment period with his new team, the cornerback played well. The one glaring concern stems from his injury history, as he's missed five games in each of the past two seasons. But the fact that he's only turning 26 this month works to his advantage -- as does the skill with which he defends the pass.

9) Lamarcus Joyner, free agent

It would be difficult for the Rams to lose both Johnson and Joyner. Joyner is a tough defender who excels at stopping the run -- one of those defensive backs who could almost function like a linebacker. Versatility is his strength; he can play safety and he's pretty good at slot corner. Joyner is not as much a cover guy, but he'll bring a physically imposing presence wherever he goes.

10) Josh Jackson, draft prospect

Jackson -- who played both receiver and defensive back in high school -- broke out in 2017 with eight interceptions (including two pick-sixes against Wisconsin) and 26 passes defensed, leading the country in both categories. He's an athlete and first-team All-American who has excelled at corner but could also play safety. Frankly, he'd be ready to go in the NFL tomorrow.

Follow Gil Brandt on Twitter @Gil_Brandt.

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