It only takes a quick look at recent NFL passing statistics to understand why scouts trip over themselves to find quality defensive backs.
Four teams averaged more than 300 passing yards a game in 2011, more than the total of teams hitting that mark over the previous decade.
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The top cornerbacks in this year's class accomplished the task of maintaining their status during the NFL Scouting Combine. LSU's Morris Claiborne and Alabama's Dre Kirkpatrick did not put up great numbers, but did enough to prevent teams from questioning their athleticism. North Alabama cornerback Janoris Jenkins hit the 5-foot-10 mark at the weigh-in and ran 4.46 in the 40-yard dash, but his team interviews was where he really needed to excel. We probably won't know if he passed those exams until draft day.
The draft's top safety prospect, Alabama's Mark Barron, did not work out for teams in Indianapolis so he'll need to impress scouts at a March 29 pro day to keep his lofty ranking. But several other defensive backs, including Barron's main competition for the top of the safety board, made strong impressions on scouts.
Stephon Gilmore, CB, South Carolina:Not only has Gilmore been named first-team all-conference in the tough SEC the past two seasons, but also he made the Associated Press All-American teams both years (third team in 2010, second team in 2011). The speed he showed at the combine while running a 4.40 40-yard dash was a bit surprising, however. He also displayed excellent quickness by ranking second among defensive backs in the 20-yard shuttle (3.94), and fourth in three cone (6.61) and 60-yard shuttle (11.15). Combining those numbers with his 6-foot, 190-pound frame helps NFL general managers imagine Gilmore matching up well outside with taller NFL receivers.
Draft projection: Top 25
Josh Robinson, CB, Central Florida: The two-time first-team All-Conference USA selection had already impressed scouts with his 10 interceptions and 36 pass breakups in just three seasons. His combine performance really piqued their interest, however, as he ran the fastest 40-yard dash of the combine (4.33), led all defensive backs in the broad jump (11-1) and three-cone drill (6.55), finished third in the vertical jump (38.5). That sort of speed and agility is exactly what teams desire in their cornerbacks, even if his average height (5-10 1/8) and length (31 1/8) are not. General managers may not have had a chance to study the junior's tape, but certainly will make that time now.
Draft projection: Late first/early second round
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Harrison Smith, FS, Notre Dame: Coming into the combine, most scouts believed that Smith was an instinctual safety with just enough athletic ability to start in the NFL. They left Indianapolis, however, thinking that Smith could challenge Barron as the top safety. At a sturdy 6-1 7/8, 213 pounds, Smith ran a 4.57 40 and an impressive 6.63 three-cone (fifth among DBs). He didn't finish among the leaders in other categories, but showed good agility in position drills to match his workout. In a weak safety class, Smith's production (183 tackles, seven interceptions over the past two years) and athleticism will make him coveted for teams in need at the position.
Draft projection: Second round
Jamell Fleming, CB, Oklahoma: Fleming's straight-line speed did not turn heads at the combine (4.53 40), but his 10.75 60-yard shuttle led all defensive backs and his 3.97 20-yard shuttle and 6.71 three-cone drill illustrated the short-area quickness scouts require of potential starting NFL cornerbacks. Fleming also ranked second among defensive backs with 23 bench reps, which didn't surprise scouts who saw Oklahoma's two-time first-team All-Big 12 corner play physically against top senior receiver prospects at the Senior Bowl.
Draft projection: Second round
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Coty Sensabaugh, CB, Clemson: Though he was a first-year starter in 2011 due to the depth Clemson has had outside over the past couple seasons, Sensabaugh impressed scouts with his athleticism and physical play. At the combine he only confirmed their evaluation of his speed (4.42 40), explosive leaping ability (37-inch vertical) and quickness (6.60 three-cone rated third among DBs, also a solid 4.06 20-yard shuttle). With teams looking for solid reserves to battle four or five-receiver sets, the cousin of Dallas Cowboys starting safety Gerald Sensabaugh will be discussed in several draft rooms come the middle rounds.
Draft projection:Third/fourth round
Justin Bethel, SS, Presbyterian : There were a number of interesting small-school defensive back prospects at the combine, but Bethel had the most impressive overall performance among the safeties. He played corner and safety for the Blue Hose, but his 5-11 5/8, 200-pound frame and 4.58 40 will likely push him inside at the next level. Despite that size, however, Bethel led all defensive backs with a 39.5-inch vertical and finished second with a 10-11 broad jump. He also performed well enough in the other tests to show scouts they shouldn't be afraid of drafting him with the hope he can be an NFL contributor on defense and special teams.
Draft projection: Fifth round