With the NFL an increasingly pass-heavy league and plenty of talented quarterbacks and wide receivers to go around, cornerback is an increasingly important position to get right. Luckily for NFL teams, this cornerback class is loaded with talent from top to bottom including a handful of first-round prospects with Day One high-level starting potential. In this article, I’ll take a look at my top cornerbacks in this class and provide some strengths and weaknesses for each player.
|Derek Stingley Jr.
|Andrew Booth Jr.
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#1: Ahmad Gardner – Cincinnati
Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner was an under-recruited three-star prospect but has consistently improved his game throughout his time at Cincinnati. Sauce has elite traits for the cornerback position. He never allowed a single touchdown in coverage at the collegiate level, and his elite production held up against the top competition – he allowed just 14 yards on four targets against Alabama in the CFP Semi-Final. With his experience as an island cornerback in press-man concepts, it’s easy to see him being a top player at his position in the NFL.
- Massive frame with elite top-end speed – rare combination
- Bullies receivers throughout the route and at the catch point
- Seasoned in press – 851 career press-coverage snaps per PFF
- Rapidly improving eye balance with great vision and anticipation
- Plays with a high pad level at times, can slow his transitions
- Consistency with tackling can improve
- Doesn’t always sink his hips in and out of breaks
- Limited zone reps, limited change-of-direction ability could hold him back there
Summary: Sauce plays with a level of confidence that you want from your alpha cornerback – he steps on the football field looking to embarrass opposing wide receivers. His physicality, elite wingspan, and top-notch speed translate to him being an ideal man-to-man cover corner. His continued upward trajectory could see him become an All-Pro cornerback in the NFL eventually.
Draft Range: Top 10
#2: Derek Stingley Jr. – LSU
At 18 years old, Derek Stingley Jr. entered the college football landscape and began to dominate upperclassmen receivers who are now in the NFL. Stingley’s freshman season was one of the best in recent memory, and if he continued to play that way through his three collegiate seasons, he would be a no-brainer top-three pick. However, after suffering injuries and playing just ten games over the past two years, Stingley has plenty of questions to answer about his draft evaluation.
- Prototypical cornerback with elite speed, physicality, length, etc.
- Closing burst to the football is electric – absolute playmaker
- Press pedigree – 49% of his collegiate snaps were in press per PFF
- Vision and anticipation should translate to zone coverage in the NFL
- Extensive injury history – still recovering from Lisfranc injury
- Tackling needs work – missed 17.9% of career tackle attempts per PFF
- Wasn’t bought in to the LSU program after his freshman season
- Run support is lacking at times and will be a focal point for improvement
Summary: Derek Stingley Jr. has the highest upside of any prospect in the entire 2022 NFL draft class. If all goes according to plan, he can become a consistent All-Pro player at his position with his remarkable set of traits. NFL teams will need to do their own medical evaluations and decide how much of a detriment his underwhelming 2020 and 2021 seasons are to his draft evaluation, but if he plays to the level he showed in 2019, the sky is the limit for him as a pro.
Draft Range: Top 10
#3: Trent McDuffie – Washington
As Washington’s 2021 season fell apart, the one position group that remained consistently productive was the secondary. McDuffie was the primary reason, as his relentless work ethic and football IQ set the standard for the team’s defensive backs. McDuffie may not meet some teams’ size and length standards for the cornerback position, especially with his sub-30 inch arms, but he makes up for it with incredible production as he has consistently been locking down receivers since arriving at Washington.
- Might be the smartest player in this draft – coaches have raved about his off-field preparation
- Incredible toughness in run defense, tackling, and blitzing
- Versatile player with man and zone experience
- Closing speed to the football allows him to make plays
- Limited length will impact his coverage against bigger receivers
- Has press coverage traits but minimal press coverage experience
- Ball production is lacking – just nine pass breakups on 100 targets per PFF
- Didn’t have quite the 40-yard dash people were expecting – long speed is good not great
Summary: It will be interesting to see how NFL teams view McDuffie as a prospect with his more diminutive stature, but I believe he has many of the traits teams look for in successful cornerbacks. He will win teams over with his intelligence and love for watching film, and he will be one of the hardest workers in the NFL. With a blend of toughness, acceleration, and versatility to boot, McDuffie is a lock to be a first-round pick.
Draft Range: 1st Round
#4: Andrew Booth Jr. – Clemson
Andrew Booth Jr. is a former five-star recruit, and he has five-star measurables at the cornerback position. Booth is an elite athlete who happens to play cornerback, but the level of consistent production on film is limited as he only spent one season as a starter. He has an ideal set of physical traits for man coverage, but he played mostly zone at Clemson and that versatility will serve him well in the NFL.
- Loose, fluid hips that allow him to mirror receivers downfield
- Explosive first step in and out of breaks
- Great positioning – doesn’t fall for eye candy and is always in the right spot
- Ball skills to match his great length despite lack of ball production at Clemson
- Long speed is lacking and his 40-yard dash likely wouldn’t have been outstanding
- Tackling needs to be more disciplined, leaves his feet too early – 21.8% career missed tackle rate per PFF
- Too physical with his hands past the line of scrimmage, will be a penalty magnet early
- Lack of long-term production – only one season as a full-time starter
Summary: Andrew Booth Jr. didn’t quite live up to the five-star hype at Clemson, but he steadily improved, and that upside didn’t disappear overnight. Booth has experience playing in both man and zone coverage, and his attributes suggest a future as a high-level starter in the NFL. If teams can clear up any medical concerns about his injury that kept him out of the combine, it’s hard to imagine Booth falling out of the first round.
Draft Range: 1st Round
#5: Kaiir Elam – Florida
Kaiir Elam has some of the best press-coverage and man-to-man traits in this cornerback class, and he was a three-year starter at Florida with great experience in coverage. Per PFF, Elam has almost 1,000 coverage snaps against high-level SEC competition, so he’s a battle-tested cornerback with a strong understanding of the game. Elam allowed just a 46% completion rate in coverage over the past three years per PFF, and his traits will be coveted by some teams picking towards the end of the first round.
- Devastating in press coverage with his size, strength, and wingspan
- 4.39-second 40-yard dash showed his elite long-field speed
- Sinks his hips very well for a larger cornerback, fluid movement
- Above-averge ball skills with elite closing speed and physicality at the catch point
- Flagged seven times in ten games at one point, could be a penalty magnet
- Technique with footwork and hand usage can be refined
- Eye balance between quarterback and receiver still a work in progress
- Knee injury kept him out of three games in 2021
Summary: Kaiir Elam is one of my favorite cornerback prospects from this class with his prototypical size, elite speed, and proven experience against top competition in the SEC. As Elam continues to refine his technique across the board, it’s easy to imagine a future where he is a Pro Bowl-level starting cornerback in the NFL who is near the top of the league in pass breakups and interceptions.
Draft Range: 1st Round
#6: Roger McCreary – Auburn
Roger McCreary was a three-year starter in a tough SEC for Auburn, and he consistently improved his abilities across the board. McCreary’s arms measured in at just 28 7/8″ at the combine, tied with Marcus Jones for the lowest in the class, and that lack of length could be a major problem for some teams looking to draft him. However, his extensive starting experience still puts him near the top of the class.
- Aggressive at the catch point with physicality to break plays up
- Plays with great leverage and fluid movement
- Impressive play strength boosts his press coverage
- Tough tackler, always drives through and finishes plays
- Arm length measured at the combine will be a major concern
- Make-up speed and closing burst are lacking
- Limited awareness and instincts hurt his zone capabilities
- Needs to learn to be more anticipatory than reactionary with his eyes and feet
Summary: There’s plenty to like about Roger McCreary’s game, especially with the physicality and fluidity he plays with on the field. Outside of his limited length, there aren’t many physical limitations with strength and short-area agility plus attributes. His long-field speed and instincts in zone coverage are limiting factors, however, and combined with the lack of length, he’s likely to be drafted in Day 2.
Draft Range: 2nd Round
#7: Tariq Woolen – UTSA
Tariq Woolen wasn’t a highly discussed name in the draft circuit before the combine, but his 4.26-second 40-yard dash and 42-inch vertical changed that seemingly overnight. Woolen has only played cornerback for two years, but he has elite athletic traits that suggest a future as a high-impact starter in the NFL.
- Massive frame and wingspan to make an impact at the catch point
- Closing burst is electric especially when combined with his length
- Smooth hips and fluid movement in coverage
- Long-field speed is some of the best in this class
- Plays too high with his pads, easily fixable
- Press coverage is sloppy far too often, takes himself out of plays
- Takes too many gambles in coverage, won’t work in the NFL
- Technique with eye balance, footwork, hand usage, etc. all needs work
Summary: Woolen is not a very experienced cornerback, and it shows up in his lack of technique across the board. Despite that lack of experience, Woolen showcases excellent awareness and vision in zone coverage. Whichever NFL team decides to take a chance on him will have a lot of work to refine his game. Woolen could be worth a Day 2 pick as a high-upside prospect combined with his rare set of athletic traits.
Draft Range: 3rd Round
#8: Kyler Gordon – Washington
Washington has produced some elite defensive backs in recent years, and while Kyler Gordon is the second-best Huskies cornerback in this class, he could still sneak his way into the back of the first round. Gordon is a dynamic athlete with the size and strength to play in the slot or perimeter.
- Explodes to the catch point with aggression and great hops
- Awesome ball skills to play through the catch point
- Knows how to match route pattern and undercut breaks
- Disruptive run defender from the slot
- Eye balance between QB and WR is often lacking
- Hip tightness and lack of quick feet make him rigid in press coverage
- Change of direction and initial burst are lacking
- Instincts and anticipation are still a work in progress
Summary: Kyler Gordon is a retired dancer with a background in Kung Fu, and he played as a wide receiver and defensive back in high school. That background highlights his excellent movement ability, as he’s an explosive player who is constantly looking to make plays on the football. He has plenty of traits to eventually become a high-level starter in the NFL.
Draft Range: 3rd Round
#9: Martin Emerson – Mississippi State
At 6’2″, 200 lbs, Martin Emerson has the size and length many teams covet at the cornerback position. A three-year starter at Mississippi State, Emerson never allowed higher than a 58% completion rate in coverage per PFF, and his high-level productivity came in a highly talented SEC. His 2019 tape against the eventual National Champions LSU is some of his most impressive work.
- Massive wingspan and elite length that he uses in run and pass defense
- Initiates contact with receivers without committing frequent penalties
- Scheme versatility with experience in man and zone
- Excellent at the catch point with timing, hand placement, and physicality
- Great acceleration but limited top-end speed downfield
- Short-area burst is limited and he doesn’t explode to the catch point
- Lack of strength could impact his press capabilities
- Tackling technique is lacking and needs refinement
Summary: Martin Emerson isn’t an elite athlete, and if you’re looking for a cornerback to shadow speedy receivers downfield, he isn’t really your guy. However, his massive frame is put to good use in coverage, and his scheme versatility and football IQ will make him a solid Day 2 pick for any team willing to put in the work in helping him improve his press technique and instincts.
Draft Range: 3rd Round
#10: Marcus Jones – Houston
Looking for a prototypical cornerback with size, length, and strength? Well, the 5’8″, 185 lb Marcus Jones probably isn’t your favorite prospect. However, Jones plays with much more physicality than you would expect for a player of his size, and he can also be an elite special teams player. Jones has been one of the best returners in college football over the past four years, and he will be a high-level return man in the NFL.
- Hard-nosed tackler who loves to play a physical brand of football
- Excellent tackle security – always finishes plays the right way
- Elite kick returner – 28.4 yards per return over his college career
- Smooth runner, fluid athlete who flips his hips easily
- Simply won’t meet the size threshold some teams have for the cornerback position
- Lack of strength will limit his coverage against bigger receivers
- Average ball skills, slower to locate the ball downfield
- Coverage is too often reactive instead of anticipatory
Summary: Marcus Jones has excellent instincts in coverage, and he plays much bigger than his stature would suggest. Nonetheless, he doesn’t have the ball skills that some of the bigger cornerbacks in this class do, and some teams will entirely rule him out due to his lack of size. Jones will be an elite kick returner in the NFL, but it will take a team committed to his talent to help him realize his potential on defense.
Draft Range: 4th Round
#11: Derion Kendrick – Georgia
Derion Kendrick has a bit of a checkered resume heading into the draft as off-field issues prevented him from realizing his five-star potential. Kendrick was a three-year starter at Clemson before transferring to Georgia, and he has been very productive at the collegiate level. Still, he has some detrimental attributes that may hold him back in the NFL.
- Anticipatory defender who constantly makes plays on the ball with quick reflexes
- Smooth hips in transition, sinks his hips in and out of breaks
- Great patience with excellent leverage, always in the right spot
- Experience in both man and zone coverage
- Lacks elite downfield speed, can get burned at times
- Limited strength can hold him back in press and at the catch point
- Heavily protected by an elite Georgia front seven
- Arrested in March 2021 on drug and gun charges, dismissed from Clemson in 2021
Summary: Emerson struggled in some of his matchups against elite receivers (LSU 2019, Ohio State 2020), but it’s hard to hold that against him thoroughly. Teams will need to determine how much they consider his off-field issues and the lack of elite speed or strength. However, Kendrick’s experience against top competition and five-star background makes him an intriguing prospect for the NFL.
Draft Range: 5th Round
#12: Coby Bryant – Cincinnati
With Ahmad Gardner playing at such an elite level, Coby Bryant was often tested at Cincinnati, and he held up remarkably well. Bryant’s overall progression at Cincinnati was very impressive, and he developed an excellent football IQ over his four years as a starter. Bryant’s tarting experience could translate to a substantial role in the NFL.
- Excellent length and size with great mobility to match
- Breaks on the ball with great timing and accuracy
- Ball-hawking traits – 10 interceptions over 5 seasons
- Excellent feel and awareness in zone coverage
- Average athlete overall – limited speed and strength
- Tigher hips limit his ability to turn and move in coverage
- Instincts need to improve to overcome athletic limitations
- Tackle balance is lacking when in pursuit
Summary: Coby Bryant doesn’t fly off the page with elite athletic traits, and there are some question marks about the translatability of his role at Cincinnati to the NFL. However, with his strong football IQ and competitive mindset, he can overcome his athletic limitations and provide solid depth as a role player in the NFL.
Draft Range: 5th Round