NFL.com analyst Lance Zierlein will reveal the top CFB players to watch in 2018 at six different positions with an eye toward their NFL potential, continuing today with defensive backs.
It's not unusual to see a "top prospects" list of defensive backs filled with underclassmen, but my tape study leads me to believe that the top two spots this year will be filled by a pair of redshirt sophomores.
While I have seen appealing traits from many of the cornerbacks and safeties I've studied this summer, it seems as though there are many more glaring weaknesses than I noticed in DB pools over the past three offseasons. This group appears to be much lighter on high-impact safeties than I can remember in recent years. Keep in mind: This is merely a snapshot of the prospects I've examined; some talented players might have slipped through the cracks of my studies.
The senior safety plays with an alpha demeanor that NFL evaluators are going to really love. When he stalks his targets, it's with clear eyes and a readiness to hit. He's well-built with good speed and has experience playing near the line and from a high-safety position. The one area that concerns me, however, is his size. This spring, he checked in at 190 pounds, which is light for being such a physical hitter. He'll need to carry more weight on his frame as a pro.
Holder possesses the combination of length and athletic ability that teams covet for outside cornerbacks. He primarily plays off coverage and has the foot quickness and quick-twitch ability to transition rapidly against route breaks. Holder is also an above-average tackler who is adept at using his hands to slip blocks and make stops. Scouts want to see him increase his passes defensed this season.
Rapp enters his junior year as an experienced, reliable safety who can handle deep-coverage responsibilities or mix it up around the box. Rapp has good size and shows no hesitation when it is time to come charging in to pop a ball carrier or wide receiver, but I'm still not 100 percent sold on his range as a deep safety, which is what I will be watching for this season.
The redshirt senior cornerback possesses a good combination of size and length -- and he's done a great job of utilizing both to the tune of 11 interceptions over the last two seasons. Brown plays with a fluid backpedal and doesn't have much of a hitch at the top when it's time to stop and break forward on a throw. He plays with above-average instincts and balances his attention between the route and the quarterback. I would like to see him play with better overall physicality this year.
If you are an NFL team looking for a help on the back end, chances are that you have spent substantial time watching Ohio State defensive tape over the last few years. The Buckeyes have reloaded in this area with yet another enticing pro prospect. Arnette is bigger and stronger than his 2017 teammate Denzel Ward, but he lacks Ward's foot quickness and long speed (most cornerbacks do). Where Arnette shines: his physical play from press coverage and his ability to disrupt the early stages of a route.
An ascending prospect and notoriously hard worker, Blackmon enters his junior campaign on a high after a strong sophomore season that saw him grab four interceptions and take home MVP honors in the Heart of Dallas Bowl win over West Virginia. Blackmon is a plus athlete with the strength to excel in press coverage. His toughness in run support is an added bonus.
The junior corner brings just one year of starter's experience to the field this year, but it was a really impressive campaign. With passes defensed on almost one out of every three ball thrown his way, Hill has developed a reputation for being a pesky press-man cornerback who is able to shadow receivers on all three levels. Hill's long speed allows him to crowd into the receiver's chest and eliminate the catch space. Once it comes time to play the football, Hill's timing and superb leaping ability make it extremely difficult to throw over the top of him. He's a little lighter than teams usually want, so it will be interesting to see if he can carry more weight on his frame.
Thin but feisty, Baker has the athletic ability and technique to stay connected to routes throughout the duration of the play. Baker allowed a completion rate of just 30.5 percent last year and logged a pass defensed on 23.7 percent of the targets that came his way. Baker has the quickness and speed to bump-and-run with no issues, but he appears to be at his best when he's playing in off-man or zone and is allowed to lurk and pounce when he sees opportunities to ballhawk. Baker is twitchy and fast. Despite just average size, he is considered to be the top senior cornerback prospect.
Murphy played in just the first three and last three games of 2017, thanks to a broken foot, but in those six games he finished with 10 passes defensed (including three interceptions) on just 27 targets. Murphy combines elite instincts with plus short-area quickness, disrupting more throws than most cornerbacks in the country. He is also an unusually violent hitter for a cornerback and seems to cherish run-support opportunities. Watching Murphy is very reminiscent of observing former Husky Sidney Jones, and I think the redshirt sophomore's career trajectory will be similar.
In recent years, LSU has put out defensive backs like Patrick Peterson, Tyrann Mathieu, Jalen Mills, Donte Jackson, Tre'Davious White and Jamal Adams. Williams is the next big thing coming from the Tigers' secondary. The redshirt sophomore put together one of the best freshman years that you will see, with six interceptions and a completion rate against of just 34.3 percent. Greedy is a long-limbed speedster with disruptive ability, but he still needs to improve at finding the football quicker when his back is to the ball. Once he gets that fixed ... Look out!