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NFL Draft: Denzel Ward leads DB class short on top-end talent

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Editor's note: NFL.com analysts Lance Zierlein and Chad Reuter will provide overviews for eight position groups in the 2018 NFL Draft (April 26-28 on NFL Network and FOX), continuing today with defensive backs.

A great cornerback with size and speed is always one of the most coveted players on the draft board, but this year's class doesn't have that type of player at the top. The consensus No. 1 CB is Ohio State's Denzel Ward, who offers similar coverage ability to that of former teammate Marshon Lattimore, the 2017 Defensive Rookie of the Year. Ward is undersized, but he's still a likely top-10 pick.

While last year's draft was heavy on tall cornerbacks, the next tier of corners after Ward includes Louisville's Jaire Alexander and UCF's Mike Hughes, who are shorter than 6-feet tall. However, they're talented enough to force teams to reconsider their height standards for first-round cornerbacks. Iowa's Josh Jackson was the hot name heading into the NFL Scouting Combine, but he failed to run as fast as teams would like (4.56-second 40-yard dash) and didn't look fluid in drills. Still, teams appear to be enamored with his ball skills, and rightfully so.

Minkah Fitzpatrick has been a spotlight player since his freshman season at Alabama, and he almost always wins. However, teams have to figure out where they will play him and how they value him based on his position fit. Florida State's Derwin James has all the physical tools, but doesn't have the production that teams typically like from an early-round safety. While those two safeties are the ones people talk about most often, guys like Stanford's Justin Reid, Southern Miss' Tarvarius Moore, and Wake Forest's Jessie Bates might have more playmaking ability.

Let's take a closer look at this year's class of defensive backs.

Teams with greatest need for help in the secondary

1) Houston Texans: The Texans' secondary performed poorly last season. The additions of Aaron Colvin and Tyrann Mathieu this off-season are only the beginning of a makeover on the back end.

2) Green Bay Packers: The Packers drafted Kevin King last year, but still finished in the bottom third of the league vs. the pass. They must add a cornerback (or two) and competition for safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix.

3) Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Tampa allowed 260 yards per game through the air last season (worst in the league). With Brent Grimes on his last legs, they need to find a cornerback with some size.

4) Carolina Panthers: When Bashaud Breeland's deal with the Panthers this off-season was voided after he failed a physical, Carolina moved back near the top of the list for teams with needs in the secondary. Expect the Panthers to target both a cornerback and a safety in the draft.

5) New England Patriots: The Patriots' secondary was unreliable during the season and with Malcolm Butler gone, things just got worse. Finding a playmaking safety and more cornerback depth could be early priorities for Bill Belichick.

6) Dallas Cowboys: Byron Jones has said he's moving back to his college position of cornerback, so the Cowboys might lock in on a safety in the draft.

Top 6 players at cornerback

1) Denzel Ward, Ohio State: Tremendously gifted athlete with plus speed and fluidity. He can mirror and match routes as well as any cornerback in this draft.

2) Jaire Alexander, Louisville: Lacks desired size, but Alexander has the ball skills to step in and play right away. He's brash and competitive -- teams like that about him.

3) Carlton Davis, Auburn: I'm a little higher on Davis than some teams, but he's big and extremely physical. Davis needs to work on his ball skills, but his performance against Alabama's Calvin Ridley last season was extremely impressive.

4) Josh Jackson, Iowa: Despite being a full-time starter for only one season in college, Jackson is universally considered the most impressive ballhawk of this year's group with outstanding leaping ability and the timing to own 50-50 balls.

5) Mike Hughes, UCF: Hughes didn't run as fast as most expected (4.53-second 40) and he's a little shorter than teams usually like (5-10 1/8), but he's strong and has the short-area quickness to stay connected to routes around the field.

6) Isaiah Oliver, Colorado: He's a long-armed press corner who appears to be much more comfortable crowding the route from snap to whistle than trying to play from a backpedal in off-man coverage.

Top 6 players at safety

1) Derwin James, Florida State: James' combination of plus physical traits, alpha leadership qualities, and versatility make it likely that he will be a much more impactful pro than his college production would indicate.

2) Minkah Fitzpatrick, Alabama: I have him listed as a safety here, but Fitzpatrick can play in the slot, as well. He has been a consistent performer on the brightest stage, but he might be closer to good than great in the NFL.

3) Justin Reid, Stanford: Reid was one of the most impressive performers at the combine, which isn't surprising because his speed and explosiveness show up on tape. Reid has high-end potential and can line up all over the field.

4) Jessie Bates, Wake Forest: Bates is a little lighter than teams might like (weighed 200 pounds at the combine), but he doesn't lack toughness. He has the cover talent that teams covet from safeties these days.

5) Tarvarius Moore, Southern Miss: An elite athletic talent with blazing speed, Moore has been flying under the national radar and wasn't even invited to the combine. However, he crushed his pro-day workout and has solid tape to build around.

6) Ronnie Harrison, Alabama: Harrison is a tall, angular safety who loves to hit and can play high or low safety. He's not as fast teams might like, which could end up hurting him in the draft.

Most overrated DB

Tony Brown, Alabama: From an athletic perspective, Brown looks as good as any cornerback in this draft with a tremendous combination of size, speed, and explosiveness. However, the tape shows a player who has some issues transitioning in space to stick with his coverage responsibilities. I love his physical traits, but I don't feel like they always translate to the field when I watch his tape.

Most underrated

M.J. Stewart, North Carolina: When I was studying Notre Dame wideout Equanimeous St. Brown, I watched the tape of his matchup against Stewart. The film showed Stewart moving St. Brown off the line of scrimmage time and time again. That game embodies Stewart's brand of play. He's a stout, physical press corner with average speed. He can rough up finesse targets off the line of scrimmage and make their first five yards miserable. Stewart's limitations could make him a target for zone cover teams or he could end up at safety. Either way, he's going to end up being a solid starter who probably won't be picked any earlier than Round 3.

Boom or bust

Donte Jackson, LSU: Jackson is a former track athlete with elite speed (tied for the fastest 40-yard dash at the combine with a time of 4.32 seconds) and plenty of confidence. He's very twitchy and has tremendous short-area burst to break on throws and challenge the catch. He's still undersized and likely to have his resolve tested by teams that run the ball his way. Some clubs simply don't believe in drafting lighter cornerbacks (Jackson weighed 178 pounds at combine) due to durability concerns. On top of that, Jackson is still a little behind in terms of route recognition and overall awareness in coverage. While he has a very high ceiling, his floor might be a little lower than some teams would like.

Sleeper alert

Mike Ford, Southeast Missouri State: Ford didn't come to my attention until his pro day, which included a 40-inch vertical leap and an 11-foot broad jump. Why does that matter? It matters because it shows explosiveness, as well as an ability to leap high and challenge the catch against taller receivers. Ford is a terrific athlete, but his coverage talent and ball skills are a little below the NFL standard. However, defensive back coaches have always preached to me that if you give them players with good size (Ford has it at 5-11, 196), speed, and athletic ability, they can coach them up and make them much better than they were when they entered the league. Ford is likely to be a late-round pick, but he has the potential to outperform his draft slotting.

Follow Lance Zierlein on Twitter @LanceZierlein.

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