OHARA'S DRAFT PREVIEW: Rating the defensive backs

Posted Apr 28, 2014

In the third installment of his draft preview series, Detroitlions.com columnist Mike O'Hara rates the top defensive backs available

In every draft year, Lions General Manager Martin Mayhew has a quality that he wants to see in cornerbacks.
Darqueze DennardCB Darqueze Dennard (Photo: AP Images)

In a word, it boils down to speed.

Mayhew expressed how he set the standard at the NFL Combine last year, and they ring true for this year’s draft.

Speed makes the difference in rating cornerbacks.

“I think we know what fast is,” Mayhew said a year ago. “We like fast. I think if you’re bigger, there may be a little bit of wiggle room in terms of your actual time.

“But we like fast guys. Guys that run sub 4.5 (in the 40) I would say are fast. And then guys that run slower than that have to have something else going for them.”

There are prospects at the top of this year’s class of cornerbacks who qualify as fast under Mayhew’s standard of 4.5 seconds for the 40.

Justin Gilbert of Oklahoma State, rated the No. 1 cornerback by many, is the fastest of the fast with a time of 4.37. Jason Verrett of TCU (4.38), Bradley Roby of Ohio State (4.39) and Kyle Fuller of Virginia Tech (4.49) all belong in the sub 4.5 club.

And Darqueze Dennard of Michigan State was timed in 4.51 at the Combine workouts in February, just outside Mayhew’s speed benchmark. But Dennard also has “something else going for him” to rank with Gilbert as one of the two best cornerbacks in the draft.

Gilbert’s ball skills and return ability might give him an edge with some scouts, but others like the physical presence Dennard brought to Michigan State’s defense.

This year’s draft has a good group of cornerbacks. It’s not as strong at safety, though. The talent level drops off after the first two or three prospects.

O'Hara's Top 12 cornerback prospects
1 Justin Gilbert Oklahoma State 6'0 202 4.37
1a Darqueze Dennard Michigan State 5'11 199 4.51
3 Jason Verrett TCU 5'10 189 4.38
4 Kyle Fuller Virginia Tech 6'0 190 4.49
5 Bradley Roby Ohio State 5'11 194 4.39
6 Lamarcus Joyner Florida State 5'8 184 4.55
7 Keith McGill Utah 6'3 211 4.51
8 Marcus Roberson Florida 6'0 191 4.61
9 Bashaud Breeland Clemson 5'11 197 4.62
10 Antone Exum Virginia Tech 6'0 213 4.59
11 Stanley Jean-Baptiste Nebraska 6'3 218 4.61
12 Pierre Desir Lindenwood 6'1 198 4.59

O'Hara's Top 6 safety prospects
1 Ha Ha Clinton-Dix Alabama 6'1 208 4.58
2 Calvin Pryor Louisville 5'11 207 4.58
3 Jimmie Ward N. Illinois 5'11 193 4.48
4 Deone Bucannon Washington State 6'1 211 4.49
5 Terrence Brooks Florida State 5'11 198 4.42
6 Craig Loston LSU 6'1 217 4.65



The best

It’s a close choice between two candidates:

Justin Gilbert, Oklahoma St.: He distinguished himself in his first full season as a starter in 2011 by intercepting passes thrown by Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Ryan Tannehill. They were the first three QBs drafted in 2012. Gilbert is the most athletic cornerback in the draft, and return skills add to the package. He had 8 career return TDs, 6 of them on kickoffs.

Darqueze Dennard, Michigan St.: He’ll hit, tackle and play tight coverage, which is why he won the 2013 Jim Thorpe Award as the nation’s top cornerback and fit so well in the Spartans’ defense. His first year as a full-time starter was 2011, and he set a school record that season for a bowl game with 2 picks vs. Georgia in the Outback Bowl. He had 38 starts in his last three seasons.

The rest

Jason Verrett, TCU: Without any scholarship offers coming out of college, Verrett went to Santa Rosa JC in 2009 but sat out a year. He played in 2010 and enrolled at TCU in 2011. He led the Big 12 with 6 interceptions in 2012, then played most of the 2013 season with a labrum injury that required surgery in March.

Kyle Fuller, Virginia Tech.: Two brothers have been with the Lions. Vincent Fuller played one game in 2011, the last season of a seven-year career. Corey, a wide receiver, was a sixth-round draft pick last year and spent his rookie season on the practice squad. Kyle started all 27 games in 2011-12 but missed four games in ’13 because of a hernia. He’s played cornerback, nickel back and linebacker.

Bradley Roby, Ohio State: Teams have to like the way he finds the ball and does something with it. In 2012 he scored TDs three different ways – 1-yard fumble return vs. Miami (Ohio), blocked punt recovery in the end zone vs. Indiana and 41-yard interception return vs. Nebraska. He scored 2 more TDs in 2013 – on a blocked punt vs. Northwestern and interception return vs. Illinois.

Lamarcus Joyner, Florida St.: Small in stature (5-8, 184) and big on production. An excellent return man with versatility in the secondary, he started 13 games at free safety in 2011, 14 at strong safety in 2012 and divided time between cornerback and nickel back in 2013. He led all NCAA defensive backs with 5.5 sacks in 2013. He never missed a game, starting his last 41 games.

Keith McGill, Utah: The clock is ticking faster on him than for most draft prospects. He turned 25 in March but has limited major-college experience. He was out of school a year before enrolling in JC in 2009. He got to Utah in 2011, and a shoulder injury sustained that year kept him out all of 2012. He played 12 games in 2013. Size, long arms and big hands are his assets, but he does not play big.

Marcus Roberson, Florida: He played at the same Florida high school (St. Thomas Aquinas) as Lamarcus Joyner and was an instant starter at Florida as a freshman in 2011. Injuries limited him to seven games in 2013, and he did not progress as might have been expected in his third and final season in Gainesville.

Bashard Breeland, Clemson: Lack of speed (only 4.62 in the 40) does not help his stock. A three-year player at Clemson after red-shirting in 2010, he left on an upswing with a good 2013 season – 13 pass breakups, 5 tackles for loss, 2 forced fumbles and 2 sacks.

Antone Exum, Virginia Tech.: He played safety and cornerback for the Hokies. After a red shirt year in 2009, he played 14 games in 2010 and led the team with 9 pass breakups. Exum made his mark in 2012 with 16 pass breakups and 5 interceptions. Injuries in 2013 – including one sustained playing pickup basketball – limited him to three games.

Stanley Jean-Baptiste, Nebraska: He played receiver in high school in Miami and spent a year each in prep school in North Carolina and community college in Kansas before landing at Nebraska for a red-shirt season in 2010. He was converted to cornerback early in 2011 and remained there. He had a strong 2013 season, with 12 pass breakups and 4 picks while starting all 13 games. His Combine workouts were impressive – 10-8 in the standing broad jump and a 41.5-inch vertical leap.

Pierre Desir, Lindenwood: He’s gone through a lot off the field to get on the field. A native of Port Au Prince, Haiti, his grandfather and an infant cousin were killed in the earthquakes that devastated Haiti in 2010. Desir emigrated to St. Louis with his parents when he was four. He began his college career at Washburn in Kansas in 2009 after a red-shirt 2008 season and finished up at Lindenwood. He had 13 interceptions in 2012-13 combined and won the Cliff Harris Award as the nation’s top small college defensive back.


The best

Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Alabama: Good size, range and tackling put him at the top of his position. He came up big in big games for Alabama in 2012 with five interceptions and one each in wins over Georgia in the SEC championship and Notre Dame in the BCS national championship. He needed surgery for a knee injury sustained against Auburn on Nov. 30 but returned to play in the Sugar Bowl.

The rest

Calvin Pryor, Louisville: His high school background in Florida was as a running back but he played safety at Louisville, appearing in all 13 games with seven starts in 2011 as a true freshman. Pryor was steady and productive for three years, capping his career in 2013 with 5 pass breakups, 3 interceptions and 5.5 tackles for loss.

Jimmie Ward, Northern Illinois: He was the defensive leader on a team that was 12-0 before closing out the season with a loss to Bowling Green in the MAC championship at Ford Field and to Utah St. in the Poinsettia Bowl. Ward had 10 pass breakups and 7 interceptions in 2013.

Deone Bucannon, Washington St.: A strong player and good leader, Bucannon had 384 career tackles and 15 interceptions to rank among his school’s leaders in both categories. He has good size and strength and reads the run well.

Terrence Brooks, Florida St.: Brooks is the fastest of the top-rated safeties. He stepped into the starting lineup in 2012 after getting regular playing time his first two seasons. In 2013, he started five games at free safety and eight at strong safety for the national champs. Among his stats were 8 tackles for loss, a sack and 2 forced fumbles. He missed one game and half of another because of a concussion.

Craig Loston, LSU: He has good size (6-1, 217) to play strong safety, and football runs in the family. A cousin, Russell Shepard, was with the Tampa Bay Bucs last year. Another cousin, Brodney Pool, played seven seasons with the Jets and Browns. He enrolled in 2009 but didn’t become a starter until 2012. He returned an interception 100 yards for a TD vs. Mississippi St. in 2012. In 10 starts in 2013 he had 3 picks, 4 tackles for loss and a sack.

Lions cornerback depth chart:

Returning: Starters – Rashean Mathis, Chris Houston. Backups – Bill Bentley, Jonte Green, Chris Greenwood, Darius Slay.

Newcomers: Aaron Hester, Nate Ness, Cassius Vaughn.

Lions safety depth chart:

Returning: Starter Glover Quin. Backups – Don Carey, DeJon Gomes, Akwasi Owusu-Ansah.

Newcomers: Likely starter – James Ihedigbo. Backup – Isa Abdul-Quddus.

Lions’ draft probability: Having four cornerbacks on the roster who were drafted in the last two years – - Darius Slay last year, Bill Bentley, Chris Greenwood and Jonte Green in 2012 – might make the Lions lean toward developing what they have instead of using a high pick on a cornerback.

However, Rashean Mathis back for a 12th season on a one-year contract and Chris Houston returning from a sub-par season might heighten the desire to add more young talent to the position.

Signing safety James Ihedigbo and re-signing Don Carey before the end of last season lessens the chance of drafting a safety.

Odds are that at least one cornerback will be drafted, but probably not in the first round.

Darius Slay: He might be the wild card in how the Lions’ plan to draft a cornerback. He started only four games, but Mayhew liked how Slay closed out the season.

“That was the best game he played,” Mayhew said last month. “We’re encouraged by that.”

The book on Slay entering last year’s draft was that his strength was as a man-to-man defender as opposed to zone coverage. If he steps up this year, it will be like adding a high draft pick to the roster.