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Jenkins-to-safety talk heats up after cold times in 40-yard dash

INDIANAPOLIS -- Maybe this says it all about the cornerbacks in this year's draft: Malcolm Jenkins, widely regarded as the best prospect at the position, is getting equal attention as a possible safety.

"Wherever that came from, it's definitely snow-balled," the former Ohio State standout said.

Actually, the origin of the Jenkins-to-safety talk is easy to trace. When NFL talent evaluators watched his game videotape, they saw him run slower than they would prefer for a cornerback. Jenkins confirmed their observations by running the 40-yard dash in the range of 4.52 and 4.58 seconds during the NFL Scouting Combine. A sub-4.5 time generally is the norm for a cornerback to be chosen in the upper tier of the draft.

Now, Jenkins, who has started at cornerback the past four years and feels more comfortable there, might just find himself being selected as a safety. At 6-foot, 204 pounds, he is certainly large enough to play there. He covers well, has outstanding ball skills and is extremely tough, qualities that would make him valuable at safety or cornerback. But a defensive back who has good size and doesn't run exceptionally fast generally doesn't end up on the corner.

Speed isn't plentiful among the rest of the cornerback prospects, either, leading to questions about just how high any of them will be selected in the April 25-26 draft. Alphonso Smith of Wake Forest, Vontae Davis of Illinois and Darius Butler of Connecticut are considered the cream of the crop.

Early projections are that no more than two cornerbacks will be chosen in the first round, and probably none will be picked in the top 10.

The Buffalo Bills have a history of drafting defensive backs in Round 1. Last year, they used the 11th overall pick on cornerback Leodis McKelvin. Like many teams, their philosophy is that an abundance of cornerbacks are needed to match up against the proliferation of offenses using three-, four- and five-receiver sets.

"You need at least four," Bills vice president of college scouting Tom Modrak said. "You really need five, but that might be pushing it."

Said Atlanta Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff: "What you have is a really solid group of No. 2 and No. 3 corners. And we consider No. 3s starters in this league because of the (multiple-receiver) formations teams use. I don't know who's going to reach into the top 10."

Some cornerbacks, such as Smith, impress scouts and coaches with their tremendous production. Smith had 21 career interceptions at Wake Forest. He showed himself to be a playmaker during all four seasons of college.

"So I think, honestly, I'm the best corner in this draft," Smith said. "But I have certain things against me."

The biggest is the fact that, at 5-foot-9, he lacks ideal height for the position. Tall receivers, such as Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald and New England's Randy Moss, often are too much for shorter cornerbacks to handle, especially on fade routes in the end zone.

However, teams won't necessarily shy away from a cornerback who is under 6 feet if he has a good vertical jump. For instance, the 5-foot-10-plus Butler had the second-best vertical jump at the combine at 43 inches. Another cornerback and former Buckeye, 6-foot Donald Washington, had the best at 45 inches.

"If a guy has a great vertical jump -- Tyrone Poole comes to mind; he was 5-8, I guess, but his vertical jump was close to 40 -- that cuts down some of that difference between him and the wide receiver," said Indianapolis Colts president Bill Polian. "Cover ability is important. It's very difficult to find oftentimes a defensive back who's 6-foot-2 or 3 who can cover, move his hips, move his feet as well as a guy who's maybe a little more compact."

If Jenkins does end up at safety, it would make a position that usually isn't regarded as strong significantly better than it was at least a year ago. Safeties who have gotten most of the attention to date are William Moore from Missouri, Louis Delmas from Western Michigan and Patrick Chung from Oregon.

Moore is extremely physical, has strong run-support skills and tackles well in the open field. Delmas does a nice job of covering tight ends and running backs, has good instincts and is good at directing traffic in the secondary.

"It depends on what you're looking for in a safety," San Francisco 49ers GM Scot McCloughan said. "Are you looking for a big, physical hitter? Are you looking for a coverage guy? Are you looking for a smart guy to line guys up? Safety's one position that people kind of lose sight of, like guards, safeties and tight ends, because they're not flashy. But you can take guys in the mid rounds that people overlook because they're not flashy, and they end up being good players. (In 2007) we took a safety, Dashon Goldson ( from Washington in the fourth round), who has a chance to be a good football player. They're out there."

As Modrak pointed out, it isn't a particularly long list. But there are some "pretty good" players on it.

"Back in the day," Modrak said, "you would take the corner that couldn't run so much and put him inside."

With Jenkins, it could be a case of history repeating itself. It also could be as clear a sign as any that this isn't an especially good draft for cornerbacks.

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