The college football season is a few weeks away, but that doesn't stop NFL scouts from surveying the landscape to see which players have the potential to emerge as game changers at the next level. As a scout for the Seattle Seahawks and Carolina Panthers, respectively, I would frequently jot down notes and make preliminary lists of the top players in my region to help me plan my travel schedule for the fall. Although these lists were etched in pencil instead of pen due to the constant change in the evaluation process, the compilation served as a nice starting point for my draft rankings.
I have shared some of my preliminary lists this week to help pinpoint which college players to track this fall. Today, we will take a long, hard look at some of CFB's top ballhawks.
1. Sidney Jones, Washington, CB: After watching Marcus Peters take the NFL by storm as a rookie corner, NFL scouts are paying close attention to the development of the Huskies' young CB1 to see if he has the tools to make a similar impact at the next level. Based on his strong sophomore campaign, I believe he has the tools, competitiveness, instincts and IQ to be a "shutdown" playmaker as a pro. Jones exhibits rare polish for a young corner. He mixes in a variety of techniques (press, bail and off) in coverage, yet is rarely out of position when the ball is thrown in his area. He maintains hip-pocket positioning on receivers down the field, but also flashes the explosiveness to close quickly out of his breaks on short and intermediate routes. Most impressively, Jones shows outstanding ball skills and hands when the ball is in the air. With turnovers coveted at a premium, Jones' potential as a playmaker makes him the top prospect at the position.
2. Teez Tabor, Florida, CB: The long, rangy CB1 outplayed his counterpart (Vernon Hargreaves III) a season ago on the Gators' defense. This not only endeared him to scouts looking for a true CB1 in the 2017 or 2018 draft class, but it makes him a hot commodity for defensive coordinators searching for a "lockdown" corner to build a secondary around. Tabor has all of the physical traits (size, arm length, speed and agility) to match up with the big-bodied receivers dominating the game. He's also crafty enough to make plays on the ball without engaging in combat on the edge. Now, he isn't as polished as some coaches would like from "off" coverage (he frequently uses a side-shuffle technique that's rarely utilized in the NFL), but he has the athleticism and movement skills to quickly master the backpedal and transitions needed to play in a "see-ball, get-ball" scheme on the perimeter. Considering his physical traits, production and football IQ, Tabor will be a coveted prospect as a CB1.
3. Jourdan Lewis, Michigan, CB: It's rarely discussed publicly, but NFL coaches believe the team's best cover corner should be assigned to play the nickel-corner spot on elite defenses. While most have designated Lewis as an ideal nickel corner due to his size, I believe his skills as a sticky cover corner with a high football IQ would make him a perfect slot corner at the next level. The slender playmaker displays impressive change-of-direction skills and agility as a feisty bump-and-run corner. He's a fearless competitor with a knack for knocking the ball away at the last minute. Lewis' poise with the ball in the air is uncommon for an NFL veteran, much less a college player still mastering the nuances of the position. With another season to refine his game and polish up his backpedal, Lewis could be a nice fit for a team looking for a seasoned young corner.
4. Adoree' Jackson, USC, CB: One of the most explosive athletes in the country (Jackson is the two-time defending Pac-12 long-jump champion) is also the best three-way playmaker (cornerback-receiver-return specialist) in college football. Thus, scouts will spend a lot of time on USC's campus trying to determine the best way to utilize Jackson at the next level. After looking at the tape, it's clear to me that he should be groomed to be a CB1 as a pro. From his cat-like quickness and movement skills to his knack for making plays on the ball, Jackson is a potential game changer in a defense that allows him to sit off and clue the quarterback. Although his numbers don't necessarily validate his skills as a ballhawk (18 deflections and only one interception in two seasons), Jackson has all of the traits (instincts, movement skills and hands) to shine as a ballhawk as a pro. As he becomes more comfortable playing on the island as a CB1, the splash plays that scouts covet will start to appear this fall.
5. Desmond King, Iowa, CB: There are times when a talented playmaker isn't a household name, but that doesn't mean NFL scouts have ignored his stellar game. That's certainly the case with King after he captured the Jim Thorpe Award (nation's top DB) following a spectacular junior campaign that saw him snag eight interceptions. The 5-foot-11, 200-pounder is a savvy pattern reader (defender who quickly diagnoses route combinations to get early breaks on throws within his area) with solid footwork and fundamentals. King isn't the most explosive athlete, but he makes up for his deficiencies with his awareness and football IQ. He simply knows how the opponent is trying to attack the coverage and he puts himself in a position to make plays on the ball. It's hard to find cover corners with the King's instincts, awareness and hands, which is why he should emerge as a favorite of coaches around the league leading up to the draft.
Watch list: Tre'Davious White, LSU, CB; Cameron Sutton, Tennessee, CB; Marlon Humphrey, Alabama, CB; Cordrea Tankersley, Clemson; Gareon Conley, Ohio State, CB