It takes more than speed and quickness to play defensive back -- without the instinctiveness to play the ball in the air and be in the right place at the right time, athleticism isn't enough. The 2015 NFL draft isn't especially deep with secondary prospects, and is particularly thin at safety. Defensive backs instinctive enough to impact an NFL secondary this fall won't last long. Here are five ball-hawking defensive backs who, regardless of size, athleticism or draft status, have a reputation for finding the football.
The Alabama safety wouldn't be the top player in the draft at his position if he couldn't locate and anticipate the ball. There are questions about whether Collins is athletic enough to handle man coverage in the NFL, but there is nothing wrong with his ability to read the quarterback and track passes. He tends to use his instincts to set up big hits and pass breakups rather than interceptions, but the instincts are undeniable.
NFL fit:Pittsburgh Steelers. With the retirement of Troy Polamalu, Collins could signal a new presence in the Steelers' secondary who plays with some of the same reckless abandon that made Polamalu so popular with the fan base.
It's easy to make the assumption that with a word-record broad jump and some other NFL Scouting Combine results that were off-the-charts impressive, Jones is more of a track star than a football player. Nothing could be further from the truth. Jones has excellent recognition skills and the football sense required to be in the right place at the right time as a cornerback. He picked off two passes and broke up four others in only seven games last season.
NFL fit:Oakland Raiders. Jones could be a nice addition to a Raiders squad short on cornerback talent, and with an early second-round projection, the timing could be just right for Oakland's No. 35 overall pick.
Who can argue with 14 interceptions? Holliman tied the single-season FBS record last year and brings instincts to the safety position that are as good or better than any player in the draft. Scouts have been extremely critical of Holliman's tackling, and safety is the wrong position to have a shortcoming in that area. But no list of ball-hawking defensive backs in this draft should be without him -- that describes his game to perfection. Last fall, NFL Media analyst Bucky Brooks likened him to a young Ed Reed.
NFL fit:Washington Redskins. Expect the Redskins to draft more than one defensive back to bolster a secondary that was a mess last season. Holliman could be a nice mid-round addition to those efforts.
Ekpre-Olomu tore knee ligaments last December and hasn't been able to do much for his draft stock during "draft season," but while a serious knee injury can cost a player a step, it won't cost him any of the field awareness that helped make him a Thorpe Award finalist. His size is also a concern for NFL scouts, such that his NFL future probably lies in a nickelback role rather than as an outside corner. But at nickelback, his anticipation skills could serve him even better.
NFL fit:Detroit Lions. NFL Media's Lance Zierlein sees a need for a cornerback who can handle a slot receiver in Teryl Austin's defense. Ekpre-Olomu could be just the right man for the job.
5. Kurtis Drummond, Michigan State
Drummond figures to be a late-round pick and certainly the last of this group to be chosen, but that has more to do with his athleticism and tackling than his ball skills. Playing for one of the best defenses in the nation last year at Michigan State, Drummond led the Spartans in interceptions with four and also broke up a team-high 11 passes. Unlike Collins, a strong safety who excels inside the tackle box, Drummond is more of a rangy, free safety type. The Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year doesn't project as an NFL star by any means, but his instincts for the position will earn and keep a roster spot.
NFL fit:Jacksonville Jaguars. The Jaguars could use a safety who knows how to roam the deep part of the field, and Drummond can bring that at what could be a bargain, Day 3 draft price.