O'Hara's Draft Preview: Rating the defensive backs

Posted Apr 18, 2013

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

Dee MillinerCB Dee Milliner
Whether it is Dee Milliner of Alabama or any other highly touted defensive back available in next week’s draft, history is working against the Lions drafting him in the first round.

It has been 15 years since they used a first-round pick on a defensive back, and only four have been taken in the first round since 1978.

That’s four picks in 35 years, and 39 first-round picks counting five years when they had two first-round picks (2010, 2009, 2004, 1999 and 1996) and one year when they had none (1993, traded to the Saints).

The Lions haven’t excluded defensive backs from their draft plans. In fact, three of their eight picks last year were defensive backs – Bill Bentley (third round), Chris Greenwood (fifth) and Jonte Green (sixth).

But in terms of the first round, the Lions have used their picks on other positions. Safety Louis Delmas got close. He was the first pick of the second round, and 33rd overall, out of Western Michigan in 2009.

The Lions’ last first-round defensive back was cornerback Terry Fair of Tennessee in 1998. He had a double distinction: being a college teammate of Peyton Manning’s, who was taken first overall that year by the Colts, and also of being the player the Lions took over Randy Moss, who went to the Vikings with the next pick.

Other first-round picks by the Lions were cornerback Bryant Westbrook of Texas in 1997, safety Bennie Blades of Miami (Fla.) in 1988 and cornerback Luther Bradley of Notre Dame in 1978.

Many mock drafts project Milliner to go to the Lions with the fifth pick overall. The Lions have other needs and options, with offensive tackle and pass-rusher at the top of the list, but Milliner wouldn’t be a bad choice.

Milliner underwent surgery on March 12 to repair a torn labrum. Before surgery, he impressed the scouts by doing all the drills except the bench press at the Combine workouts in late February. Whether Milliner’s draft status is hurt by the surgery, which will limit participation in offseason workouts, remains to be seen.

There are other good cornerback prospects, many of whom will be available in the second round and later. Typically, there is a lower premium on safeties, and that’s the cast against this year. Two or three cornerbacks – Milliner, Xavier Rhodes and Desmond Trufant – likely will be off the board before a safety is drafted.

Milliner did not lack confidence when asked at the Combine if he ranks himself at the top of this year’s cornerback class.

“I feel like I am the best DB in all of this,” he said. “No offense to all of them other DB’s, I just believe in what I can do and all the plays that I can make.”

Following are my ratings for the top cornerbacks and safeties in the draft, with comments on each player, and other issues involving where the Lions stand on the position. Each player’s height, weight and time in the 40-yard dash is included.


1. Dee Milliner, Alabama, 6-1/201, 4.35: The best cornerback in the draft, but technique is an issue, along with surgery for a torn right labrum in March. Started 11 games as a true freshman in 2010. Had 20 pass breakups his senior year, plus a blocked punt. Only six interceptions in three years. Answered any speed questions with a sizzling 40 time at the Combine.

2. Xavier Rhodes, Florida St., 6-2/210, 4.39: A high school running back and receiver, switched to defense at Florida State. Played two games on special teams as a true freshman in 2009 because of a hand injury, but was ACC defensive rookie of the year in 2010. A strong, physical defender who can run.

Desmond TrufantCB Desmond Trufant

3. Desmond Trufant, Washington, 6-0/190, 4.38: He has the bloodlines to play in the pros. Brothers Marcus (Seattle) and Isaiah (Jets) are NFL cornerbacks. Nine starts as a freshman in ’09. Desmond gets to the ball a lot. He started 45 straight games before missing the Colorado game in 2012 with a hamstring injury.

4. Jamar Taylor, Boise St., 5-11/192, 4.37: Red-shirted in 2009 because of a knee injury after playing every game as a freshman in ’08. Was suspended for one game in 2010 for violating a team rule but was a team captain as a senior and graduated after leading Boise St. with nine pass breakups and four picks.

5. D.J. Hayden, Houston, 5-11/191, 4.42: After two JC seasons, led Houston in 2011 with 11 pass breakups, plus adding eight tackles-for-loss, a sack and five forced fumbles. Suffered a life-threatening injury in a late-season practice and was rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery.

6. Johnthan Banks, Mississippi St., 6-2/185, 4.59: Played running back, quarterback, linebacker and defensive back in high school and played baseball on two state champions. As a true freshman in ’09 he started the last seven games at safety and had four interceptions – two coming off Tim Tebow and returning both for TDs. Tied with Walt Harris for the school interception record with 16.

7. Darius Slay, Mississippi St., 6-0/192, 4.31: Forced to play two seasons of JC ball because of grades after being an all-state running back and defensive back in Georgia. Used as a reserve in 2011, but moved up as a starter in 2012 and intercepted five passes. Good size and speed, with long arms and big hands.

8. Blidi Wreh-Wilson, Connecticut, 6-1/195, 4.45: Get used to pronouncing his name – Blee-dee Ray Wilson. He can help a team. He played basketball and soccer in high school in Pennsylvania and didn’t go out for football until his senior year. He had 21 career breakups and seven picks at U-Conn and returned two for TDs in 2010.

9. Robert Alford, Southeast La., 5-10/188, 4.34: Had 15 pass breakups, nine picks his last two seasons. Missed the 2010 season because of a shoulder injury. Also caught four passes and has a 75-yard punt return TD on his career log.

10. Tyrann Mathieu, LSU, 5-9/186, 4.46: The drug problems that got him booted from the team and out of school in 2012 are well documented, but he is a natural playmaker. He flashed that as a true freshman in 2010 – seven pass breakups, two picks, 8.5 tackles-for-loss and five forced fumbles. In 2011 he was SEC defensive player of the year.

Other cornerbacks: David Amerson, North Carolina St.; Dwayne Gratz, Connecticut; Jordan Poyer, Oregon St.; Leon McFadden, San Diego St.; Logan Ryan, Rutgers; William B.W. Webb, William & Mary; Brandon McGee, Miami (Fla.); Johnny Adams, Michigan St.

Free safeties:

Kenny VaccaroS Kenny Vaccaro

1. Kenny Vaccaro, Texas, 6-0/214, 4.63: A four-year player for the Longhorns and full-time starter the last two years. Posted 13 pass breakups, 12 tackles-for-loss and four picks his last two seasons. Speed could be an issue for Vaccaro. His position as the top free safety is not absolute.

2. Eric Reid, LSU, 6-1/213, 4.49:  Started part of the season as a true freshman in 2010 and had 167 tackles his last two seasons, including  91 in 2012. His father, Eric, was a track star at LSU and is in the school’s athletic hall of fame.

3. D.J. Swearinger, South Carolina, 5-11/208, 4.63: A four-year player, started four games at free safety and four at strong in 2010. Scored TDs in 2012 on fumble and interception returns.

4. Phillip Thomas, Fresno St., 6-1/208, 4.57: A gray shirt in 2007 and a red shirt in ’08. Maybe he needed a tailor? A solid, productive player who  missed all of 2011 with a broken leg sustained before the start of the season. Had a big year in 2012 with eight interceptions, 12 tackles for loss, four sacks, four forced fumbles and three TDs on interception returns.

5. Bacarri Rambo, Georgia, 6-1/211, 4.57: A red shirt in ’08, had five pass breakups and two picks in ’09 and showed promise of what was to come. A big season in 2011, with eight pass breakups, eight picks, playing free and strong safety. He was suspended for the first four games of 2012 after failing an offseason drug test.

Other free safeties: T.J. McDonald, Southern Cal;  Josh Evans, Florida; Tony Jefferson, Oklahoma; Cody Davis, Texas Tech.; Ray Polk, Colorado; Ben Ericksen, Illinois St.

Strong safeties:

1. Matt Elam, Florida, 5-10/108, 4.43:  His brother has played for the Chiefs, Cowboys, Jets and Browns. Matt Elam has endured family tragedy. A brother and sister were killed in a park in Miami in separate incidents. An outstanding high school athlete, he played safety and running back, scoring 27 TDs and leading his team to a state championship. Posted four interceptions, 11 tackles-for-loss in 2012.

2.  Jonathan Cyprien, Florida International, 6-0/217, 4.64: A four-year player whose stock has risen after a 2012 season with 93 tackles, five pass breakups and four interceptions. Showed well at the Senior Bowl when given a chance to perform against better competition.

3. Shamarko Thomas, Syracuse, 5-9/213, 4.37: Seven starts as a freshman in ’09 – one at cornerback and three each at strong safety and linebacker. Two career interceptions, both in 2012. Overcame family tragedy twice. His father died in a motorcycle accident in 2010 and his mother passed away n 2011.

4. J.J. Wilcox, Georgia Southern, 6-0/213, 4.51: Played wide receiver and slot back for three seasons at Georgia Southern before moving to safety in 2012. Had 88 tackles, three pass breakups and two picks. He set the school record for average yards per catch (25.0) in 2009.

5. Shawn Williams, Georgia, 6-0/213, 4.42: Caught five TD passes as a senior in high school and also made all state at safety. Started 13 games for Georgia in 2011 – 12 at safety, one at linebacker and 14 starts in 2012.

Other strong safeties: Duke Williams, Nevada;  Zeke Motta, Notre Dame; Robert Lester, Alabama, Earl Wolff, North Carolina St.

Lions depth chart: They addressed the secondary in free-agency by signing safety Glover Quin and re-signing  safety Louis Delmas and cornerback Chris Houston. Amari Spievey, who has starting experience at safety, also was re-signed.

Others with NFL experience competing for playing time or roster spots include Bill Bentley, Jonte Green and Chris Greenwood from last year’s draft class, Ricardo Silva, John Wendling, Don Carey, Ron BartellTyrell Johnson and Domonique Johnson.

Lions draft possibility: The bigger question isn’t if the Lions will draft a cornerback, but when. Greenwood is a wild card in the equation. He played at Division III Albion and spent his rookie season on injured reserve, but he has talent and size. Adding him to the roster in a meaningful capacity would be like adding a draft pick.