Editor's note: NFL.com analyst and former scout Bucky Brooks will unveil his top five players at marquee positions this month to preview the 2017 college football season, concluding today with defensive backs. Click through the tabs above to see other positions.
The more the NFL moves toward a pass-heavy emphasis, the more teams view defensive backs with ball skills and disruptive ability as hot commodities in the draft. With that in mind, executives are already surveying the college landscape to see which defenders have the potential to be game changers in the back end. After studying the players in the pipeline, here are my top five defensive backs to watch this season.
5. Jaire Alexander, Louisville, CB
A versatile cover corner with a loaded toolbox, Alexander is one of the few cornerback prospects capable of lining up out wide or in the slot while also employing press, bail and shadow techniques. He displays outstanding vision, awareness and instincts as a ballhawking corner ideally suited to play in a zone-heavy scheme that allows him to "clue" the quarterback to get early breaks on throws within his area.
Alexander's superb ball skills resulted in five picks in 2016, which makes him a coveted prospect for teams looking for turnover producers. If he can show a tad more physicality and feistiness on the edge, he could work his way into the conversation as a premier CB1.
4. Marcus Allen, Penn State, S
Allen is a big, athletic safety with an old-school game. He's an enforcer between the hashes as a deep center fielder or as a box-area thumper. He's a reliable tackler who's capable of delivering the boom or wrestling runners to the ground with a lasso tackle. As a natural run stopper at the second level, Allen is aggressive and instinctive when it comes to finding runners in the hole.
Although he's best suited to play near the line of scrimmage as a pro, he's athletic enough to be a factor against the pass, which will entice defensive coordinators looking for a safety who can rock and roll in the back end. In a league skewing toward the pass, a long, athletic safety with pop could be a hot commodity when the draft rolls around.
3. Minkah Fitzpatrick, Alabama, CB/S
At a time when every defensive coordinator is looking for a hybrid defender to feature in the back end, Fitzpatrick's versatility and experience as a safety/corner/nickelback could make him a coveted player for NFL teams. The Crimson Tide standout is a high-IQ playmaker with the size, length and athleticism to thrive on the island or in center field at the next level.
With plenty of experience in a complex defense that features a number of checks and adjustments based on offensive formations and alignments, Fitzpatrick has the potential to enter the league as a "plug-and-play" starter from Day One.
2. Tavarus McFadden, Florida State, CB
Long, rangy press corner with A-plus size, speed and athleticism. McFadden is a polished technician with the patience, length and footwork to smother receivers at the line of scrimmage. He takes departure angles after his jams to squeeze receivers to the sideline, leaving little room for quarterbacks to drop the ball in on vertical routes.
With McFadden also displaying excellent ball skills and hands, defensive coaches will salivate over his potential as a CB1 with real "lockdown" potential. If McFadden can show a little more diversity in his game (backpedal/zone awareness), he has a chance to give his stock a big boost.
1. Derwin James, Florida State, S
It's hard to find 6-foot-3, 220-plus pound safeties with exceptional athleticism and playmaking ability but scouts might have found an avatar in Tallahassee. James has the size of a linebacker and the explosiveness of a "lockdown" corner. He's always on the attack, roaming sideline to sideline as a designated playmaker in the box. In addition, James shows outstanding skills and instincts as a rusher when used on blitzes off the edge. He overwhelms blockers with his combination of strength, explosiveness and power, which makes him a valuable asset as a potential "hybrid" linebacker at the next level.
With that in mind, James' value as a disruptive force could make him a player that defensive coaches want to build game plans around.