Finding impact defensive backs is not easy. Combining the 2011 (3) and '09 (2) drafts, there were a grand total of five cornerbacks and safeties taken in the first round.
But with the aerial evolution of NFL offenses, defensive coordinators are pleading with their head coaches and general managers to get them better talent in the secondary. Facing elite receivers like Calvin Johnson, Andre Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald and Pro Bowl quarterbacks like Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Tom Brady makes finding fast, physical cornerbacks with at least decent size a major priority.
Brooks: Prospect tiers
There are three tiers of top-end prospects: elites, blue chips and red chips. Bucky Brooks breaks down the 2012 class.
As for safeties, they need to be able to help corners against those big, fast receivers going deep, handle emerging tight ends like Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski when they invade the second or third level and -- oh yeah -- be a last line of defense against powerful and fast running backs breaking through the front seven.
It's no wonder finding an impact player in the secondary is so difficult.
There are plenty of talented cornerbacks in this year's draft class, but it won't be easy to find starting safeties beyond the top 40 picks.
Below I've provided nine defensive backs in different tiers of this year's draft class who could make an impact at the next level. Scouts will tell you that they "earn their money" by finding talent late in the draft. The last six players on this list should help them cash their paychecks with a clear conscious.
Impact first-round cornerbacks shut down the opponents' leading receiver. Impact first-round safeties consistently create turnovers playing center field and/or deliver big hits over the middle.
Morris Claiborne, CB LSU: Comparisons between Claiborne and former Tiger teammate/2011 top-five pick Patrick Peterson are inevitable. Though not the physical specimen that Peterson proved to be at last year's NFL Scouting Combine, Claiborne has sufficient size, speed and length to man up the league's best receivers. The former wideout's elite ball skills are what truly separate him from the other cornerbacks in this draft -- putting up big interception numbers throughout a career (when tested) is the definition of an "impact cornerback."
Casserly: Draft's hottest prospect
Stephon Gilmore, CB, South Carolina: As six-foot cornerback with excellent foot quickness, 4.4 speed, solid ball skills and a feisty playing style, Gilmore certainly appears to have all of the characteristics necessary for success at the next level. If Gilmore gets a bit stronger with continued hard work in the weight room, his man-coverage skills and tackling ability will more consistent, making him an all-around playmaking talent capable of starring in any system.
Mark Barron, S, Alabama: In this weak safety class, Barron's combination of size (6-1, 213 pounds) and speed (4.5 40 at his pro day) stands out -- so much so that he could go in the top 15 picks. Though maybe not an ideal man-cover safety, his ability to play the run in the box and still break on balls to the sideline when playing center field gives him a chance to be a strong starter for years to come.
Friday night lights
Impact defensive backs selected in the second and third rounds earn starting positions early in their career with heady and tenacious play.
Jamell Fleming, CB, Oklahoma: Oklahoma cornerbacks don't always work out as scouts expect, but it is difficult not to appreciate Fleming's tenacity against bigger receivers. He put up excellent numbers in the combine agility tests, which wasn't surprising given his footwork on the field. Look for him to have a long career locking down receivers in a zone system.
Casey Hayward, CB, Vanderbilt: Fleming and Hayward are similar players in the respect that neither are elite size/speed prospects, but both can make quarterbacks pay for inaccurate throws. Hayward has been especially proficient at creating turnovers, intercepting 13 passes over the past two years (to Fleming's seven). Combining those ball skills with superior agility (he joined Fleming in the top 10 among corners in the shuttles) and a willingness to mix it up versus big SEC receivers gives him a chance to be a coveted NFL starter.
Brandon Taylor, S, LSU: LSU head coach Les Miles chose Taylor to wear the No. 18 jersey last fall, an honor annually bestowed on the player who best represents what it means to be a Tiger. His average overall athleticism might keep him out of the top 50 picks, but few players in this class are as competitive -- even at less-intense Senior Bowl practices in January, Taylor was directing his teammates in drills and team work. On the field, he can handle tight ends off the line and is a secure tackler against the run. He has the physical skill set and leadership abilities needed to take charge of an NFL defense. (In fact, some look at the group he led in Baton Rouge and say he has already been part of a professional-quality defense ...)
Impact late-round defensive backs become special-teams stars as rookies and work their way into sub-packages.
Asa Jackson, CB, Cal Poly: The undersized Jackson will have to prove himself capable of handling larger NFL receivers before receiving a lot of time on defense, though he is not contact-shy. He averaged 25.1 yards per kickoff return and 14.7 yards each time he brought back a punt during his career with the Mustangs; that will be his ticket to make an impact while coaches teach him to defend the slot.
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Brandon Hardin, S, Oregon State: Even though Hardin missed the entire 2011 season with a fractured shoulder, teams couldn't help but look back fondly at the missile-like hits he made on coverage units and solid play at cornerback for the Beavers in 2010. The 4.4 40 speed he showed at his pro day while measuring 6-2 5/8-inch, 222 pounds simply added to teams' thinking that Hardin will be a special teams ace worth a mid-round pick, if not a playmaker at safety.
Coty Sensabaugh, CB, Clemson: The cousin of Cowboys starting safety Gerald Sensabaugh did not become a full-time starter until 2011 -- just like Gerald with Dallas -- but impressed with his athleticism, quick feet and strong hands at the line of scrimmage. He also fights for the ball in 50/50 situations, despite his wiry 5-11, 188-pound build, giving him an excellent chance to be an NFL starter in man or zone schemes.