I've long believed that cornerbacks are the best athletes in pro football.
Although that statement would appear to be self-serving based on my brief career as a nickel corner, the premise actually arises from watching several of the game's best master the nuances of the position.
During my time on the defensive side of the ball, I had the opportunity to watch Pro Bowlers like Eric Allen, James Hasty, Dale Carter and Charles Woodson hone their craft on a daily basis.
These guys possessed the speed of track stars, while also exhibiting the grace of ballerinas. They routinely blanketed the opponents' top receiver, and rarely conceded completions on their respective sides without making a play on the ball.
Although their combination of speed, athleticism and movement skills was breathtaking, it was their relentless pursuit of the ball that left the biggest impression on my mind. Each displayed an innate feel for making plays on the ball, and their penchant for creating turnovers forced quarterbacks and offensive coordinators to tread lightly when throwing in their direction.
Woodson, in particular, showed an unbelievable knack for getting around the football. As a rookie, he would routinely jump short- and intermediate routes without apprehension, and his instincts were often rewarded with errant balls flying right into his hands. I marveled at his confidence and swagger given his inexperience, but he repeatedly told me that he just knew what was coming based on his knowledge of "hash-split rules" (receivers occasionally tip off their routes based on their pre-snap alignments in relation to the hash marks) and his feel for the receiver's speed.
The combination of athleticism, intuition and ball skills that Woodson continues to display is still coveted by scouts and coaches across the league.
Given the combination of athleticism, intuition and ball skills that Woodson continues to display, it is not surprising that scouts and coaches are searching high and low for prospects with similar traits.
This year, LSU's Patrick Peterson has drawn comparisons to Woodson based on his sensational play during his final season in Baton Rouge.
At 6-foot-2, 219 pounds, he is an athletic freak with the skills to be an immediate impact player. He clocked a 4.32-second 40-yard dash, which is more than fast enough to run with the swiftest of NFL receivers. He also possesses the short-area quickness and movement skills to get in and out of breaks, and has some of the best hands in the draft. Throw in superior instincts, awareness and return skills, and you have a player who is poised to change the game when he steps on the field.
But Peterson is not the only potential game-changer in the draft. Prince Amukamara and Jimmy Smith have shown signs of being special in their own right, and teams are certainly intrigued by their talent and potential.
Let's take a closer look at each of these players, and the challenges that scouts face in making their evaluations:
Peterson might be the draft's top player based on his pure talent, production and potential. He is an impact player in multiple phases (defense and kicking game), and teams are salivating over his potential to develop into a lock-down corner. He possesses the size and strength to hold his own against the likes of Andre Johnson, Calvin Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald at the line, and his exceptional speed allows him to run with the league's swift receivers on the outside.
He is ideally suited to play press coverage based on his frame, but his movement skills and athleticism gives him a chance to blossom into a corner capable of excelling in "off" coverage as well. His instincts, awareness and ball skills shine when he has the opportunity to play with vision, and he shouldn't have any problem transitioning into a defensive system that features a diverse coverage system.
Peterson's game appears flawless in several regards, but questions about his ability to keep his weight down has led some to consider him as a future safety prospect. While it is easy to make that projection based purely on his size, scouts and coaches need to dig deeper into his profile to see if he has the football intelligence and leadership ability to act as the quarterback in the back end. Furthermore, his shoddy tackling on tape makes some wonder if he is tough enough to thump running backs as an eighth defender. If he can address those concerns in interviews and private workouts, he will certainly go into the draft as a "can't-miss" selection.
He is rated as the top cornerback prospect by some scouts and coaches due to his steady game and intriguing skill set. He brings outstanding size, speed and athleticism to the position. As a former high school running back turned college cornerback, he shows good movement skills and quickness in his turns and transitions. He easily flips and turns in zone or man coverage, and his ability to break downhill on short and intermediate throws rates near the top of the charts. He also shows good technique while playing "bump-and-run." He plays square at the line and his upper-body strength overpowers smaller receivers early in routes. With exceptional short-area quickness that allows him to maintain hip-pocket position throughout the down, he is tough to shake in tight coverage.
Amukamara's biggest weakness would appear to be his ball skills. He finished his career with five interceptions, but each of those picks occurred in 2009 and he had some issues playing the ball on tape. Against Oklahoma State, he surrendered a few long touchdown passes to a talented underclassman despite being in perfect position. His inability to accurately judge the flight of the ball led to big plays, and raised questions about his natural instincts. However, he has answered some of those concerns by performing well in workouts. Although shining in drills doesn't translate into game-day success, it suggests that he has the potential to become decent player on the ball in time.
Smith could wind up as the steal of this cornerback draft class. If not for a questionable character profile that has caused scouts to pause, he would rate as a top-10 talent based on his combination of size, athleticism and grit. He is a natural press corner with the length to disrupt receivers at the line. His at-the-line patience is outstanding and he shows active and accurate hands when he jams receivers after the snap. He maintains top shoulder position throughout the down and his aggressiveness makes it difficult for pass catchers to work free on intermediate routes. His ability to snuff out receivers led to few opponents throwing in his direction his final two seasons at Colorado, and indicates his potential to lock down half the field as a pro.
Smith challenges scouts in their evaluation with his suspect background profile. Although he doesn't have any major transgressions on his record, his reputation for being immature and irresponsible has damaged his value on draft boards. However, he has been forthright addressing those issues in meetings and an enticing talent will prompt a team to take a chance on his immense potential. If he can avoid trouble off the field, Smith is the game-changer every secondary needs.