By Richard Cirminiello
Like a hockey goalie or a closer in baseball, the defensive back is the last line of defense. And with that monumental responsibility comes high risk and high reward. While the best can become the toast of the town, get burned too often, and, well, youâ€™re just plain toast. As the NFL Draft bears out, if you can cover like a double-digit home dog, pro teams will gladly back up the Brinks truck to your dorm room. Over the past decade, 41 cornerbacks have been plucked out of the first round, compared to only a dozen safeties, a trend thatâ€™ll prevail as long as receivers keep getting bigger and faster and the forward pass remains a popular mode of offensive transportation.
1. Jimmy Williams, Virginia Tech â€“ Cornerbacks like Williams come around as often as comets, which is why he might be the first defensive player drafted next April. Heâ€™s a fleet-footed, 6-2, 215-pound hybrid, who had 114 tackles as a free safety in 2003 and five picks and 14 breakups as a corner in 2004. Heâ€™s got the skill set and athletic instincts to play either position, which further increases his marketability. Williams can disrupt an opposing offense in so many ways, itâ€™s hard to imagine him not having an immediate impact in the NFL.
Shades ofâ€¦Bobby Taylor
2. Alan Zemaitis, Penn State â€“ At 6-2 and 200 pounds, Zemaitis has unusual size for a corner, yet sacrifices nothing in the areas of speed, quickness and reaction time. He loves to intimidate receivers and can be valuable in run support. One of this yearâ€™s team captains, Zemaitis is a quick learn and a ball hawk, whose numbers dipped last year because of the respect he was getting from opposing Big Ten quarterbacks.
Shades ofâ€¦Nate Clements
3. Ashton Youboty, Ohio State (Jr.) â€“ Fresh off a breakthrough sophomore year in Columbus, Youboty is primed to become one of the countryâ€™s top-tier cover corners. Heâ€™s a fluid, 6-2 and 185-pound athlete, who has exceptional recovery speed and appears effortless on film going stride-for-stride with his receiver. Youboty would benefit from more time in the weight room, but his slender frame hasnâ€™t caused him to get pushed around by bigger receivers.
Shades ofâ€¦Chris McAlister
4. Will Blackmon, Boston College â€“ Blackmonâ€™s taking his snaps at wide receiver this year, but thatâ€™s not where heâ€™ll earn his paycheck in the NFL. Heâ€™s a premier corner, who just happens to be unselfish and versatile enough to help one of the Eaglesâ€™ thinnest units. Blackmon has a favorable blend of size and speed, covers well and has shown a knack for making the big play on defense and special teams. Heâ€™s the type of player that looks good in practice, but even better on film.
Shades ofâ€¦Champ Bailey
5. Tye Hill, Clemson â€“ Hill came to Clemson as a running back and will leave at the end of this year a heralded defensive back. Heâ€™s a little undersized at 5-10 and 180 pounds, but literally has track speed and an explosive burst to the ball that helped him break up a school-record 21 passes in 2004. Hill is still learning the little details about his adopted position, however, if he develops as much in the next two years as he has in the last two, heâ€™ll be an NFL star before heâ€™s 25.
Shades ofâ€¦Ricardo Colclough
6. Kelly Jennings, Miami â€“ This time next year, youâ€™ll be able to add Jenningsâ€™ name to the growing list of Miami defensive backs on NFL rosters. While not all that big or physical, heâ€™s got top speed and the ability to blanket a receiver in man coverage that appeals to pro scouts and coaches. Jennings is also a strong character student-athlete, whose keen intellect has helped him in the classroom and when reading offenses on the field.
Shades ofâ€¦Aaron Glenn
7. Devin Hester, Miami (Jr.) â€“ No doubt Hester is a work in progress at corner, but when you possess his athletic ability and world class wheels, all 32 NFL teams will be willing to be patient and offer some on-the-job training. His acceleration and quickness reaching top gear is unmatched, which explains why the â€˜Canes concoct ways to get the ball in his hands. Hester is one of the nationâ€™s most lethal return men, and with more work on defense, capable of being a terrific defensive back as well.
Shades ofâ€¦Chris Gamble
8. Charles Gordon, Kansas (Jr.) â€“ Only a truly special athlete can lead a program in receiving and interceptions in consecutive seasons. Gordon is special, although thatâ€™s still a pretty well-kept secret. He caught 57 passes as a freshman and 22 more last year, 15 from Jayhawk passers and seven from opposing quarterbacks. At 5-10 and 180 pounds, Gordon struggles when engaged by a blocker, but is rapidly developing into a lockdown corner, who can also break open games on special teams.
Shades ofâ€¦Deion Sanders
9. Anwar Phillips, Penn State â€“ A one-time receiver with the Lions, Phillips has blossomed into a shutdown corner with ample room for growth as he learns the position better. Last year, he was the target of opposing quarterbacks, who quickly realized he was just as tough to pass on as teammate Alan Zemaitis. Phillips has good hands, anticipates well and makes a swift break on the ball. He was charged, and later acquitted, with sexual assault two years ago in a well-publicized case thatâ€™ll become topical to NFL teams again early next year. Shades ofâ€¦Brian Kelly
10. DeMario Minter, Georgia â€“ Minter used 2004, his first season as a starter, to propel himself out of the legions of the unknown and firmly on to scoutsâ€™ radar. In fact, he heads into the 2005 season considered a Top 5 corner by NFL scouting consortiums, BLESTO and National Scouting. Like all the Dawg DBs, Minter can really motor, and at 5-11 and 200 pounds, is able to get physical in pass coverage and run support. The senior is still a mild sleeper, but has a chance to change that with another productive season.
Shades ofâ€¦Dunta Robinson