(A series looking at the top players at various positions leading up to the 2016 NFL Draft, set for April 28-30.)
Since the conclusion of the 2015 season, one that ended with their defense ranking 30th in the NFL in passing yards allowed per game, the Steelers have lost cornerbacks Antwon Blake and Brandon Boykin to free agency, and they cut Cortez Allen. Maybe some fans perceive the losses of Blake and Allen especially to be examples of addition by subtraction, but the Steelers still must have bodies to put onto the field as cornerbacks.
What they have right now are Will Gay, Doran Grant, Senquez Golson, Stephon Tuitt, and Isaiah Frey. That's not nearly enough, even for just training camp, and so the Steelers should be shopping for cornerbacks early and maybe even often during the three days of the 2016 draft.
Ramsey, 6-foot-1, 209 pounds, was a top-10 rated recruit coming out of high school in Tennessee, and he became the first freshman to start the opener at cornerback at Florida State since Deion Sanders in 1985. In 2014, Ramsey posted 79 tackles, including 9.5 for loss, two interceptions, and 12 passes defensed, and that was his most productive season of the three he spent with the Seminoles. Ramsey has played both cornerback and safety, and while he's considered a solid fundamental tackler, there are times when he's not necessarily aggressive enough attacking the running back. That's when he allows the play to come to him, which results in yardage gained. Because of the run-support issue, Ramsey's best position in the NFL figures to be cornerback, and he's believed by many scouts to have the Pro Bowl in his future.
Hargreaves, 5-10, 204, started 10 games at cornerback in the SEC as a freshman, and he contributed 38 tackles, three interceptions, and 11 passes defensed for the Florida Gators. A playmaker throughout his college career, Hargreaves had three interceptions in 2014, and then another four in 2015 to finish with 10 in 37 college games. Scouts report that Hargreaves is equally accomplished in press, off, or zone coverage, and that he's a competitor with soft hands. He works to free himself from blocks and is willing in run support. Hargreaves allowed 16.5 yards per completion this season, and some scouts worry about his height after he had his two worst games of the 2015 season in the SEC Championship game against Alabama and the Citrus Bowl against Michigan. Regardless, Hargreaves' competitiveness and consistency of production will make him an early pick and a good NFL player.
Apple, 6-1, 199, ran a 4.4 in the 40-yard dash at the Scouting Combine. He started 14 of 15 games as a redshirt freshman during the 2014 season that ended with Ohio State's run to a national title. Apple iced the outcome of the win over Oregon in the championship game when he intercepted Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota's final college pass. For the season, Apple finished with 53 tackles, including 5.5 for loss, plus three interceptions, and 10 passes defensed. His stats dropped in 2015 when he finished with 33 tackles, including two for loss, plus one interception, and eight passes defensed. On the plus side, Apple has the height, weight and arm-length to be worthy of a first-round pick, and he has good quickness and is competitive with the ball in the air. On the minus side, he's too grabby, and that will draw penalty flags in the NFL. Apple had four holding and seven pass interference penalties from 2014¬-2015.
Here are some of the top cornerback prospects in the upcoming 2016 NFL Draft according to NFL.com.
Alexander, 5-10, 192, took a redshirt in 2013 because of a groin injury, and then over his next two seasons at Clemson he started all 27 games, and he contributed 45 tackles and 11 passes defensed, but he had no interceptions. None. Alexander will enter the NFL without a lot of college playing experience, and his inexperience often manifested itself in the kind of inconsistency that drives NFL coaches crazy. Alexander can look vulnerable to quick receivers off the line of scrimmage, but then he would show himself to be consistent in man-coverage. Alexander's confidence sometimes crosses over into cockiness, and he's going to have to learn how to make that a positive for him instead of a negative for his team.
Burns, 6-0, 193, was somewhat Rod Woodson-like in college, because he was accomplished as both a cornerback on the football team and as a hurdler on the track team. Burns won All-America and All-Conference honors as a hurdler while simultaneously becoming one of the top cornerbacks in the ACC. Burns was a backup as a freshman in 2013, but he started 23 of 25 games the next two seasons while finishing with six interceptions (all in 2015) and 11 passes defensed over that span. Burns' six interceptions in 2015 were the most by a Hurricanes player since Sean Taylor had 10 in 2003. Burns is a special athlete, and he left Miami as one of the top 60-meter hurdlers in the NCAA, and he has fine balls skills as a defensive back, to the point of being able to bait quarterbacks into bad throws he then intercepts. But Burns also is raw and undisciplined, a guy flagged for four pass interference penalties and two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties. Burns' game video is often average, and he relies on talent instead of technique, which will get him into trouble in the NFL. But NFL teams often draft on physical skills at the cornerback spot and depend upon coaching to file off the rough edges, and Burns has length, speed, ball skills, and a potential that wasn't necessarily realized because of a full track schedule every spring.
WILLIAM JACKSON III
Jackson, 6-0, 189, started at Trinity Valley Junior College and became a full-time starter by the end of his first year with the Houston Cougars in 2013. He had two interceptions and 10 passes defensed, but then he sprained an MCL late in that season. Over the next two seasons, Jackson started 23 of 26 games and finished 2014-15 with seven interceptions and 33 passes defensed. Jackson allowed just 40 percent of passes thrown his way to be completed over last two years, but he also committed seven penalties for 73 yards. Cornerbacks with length who can run (Jackson ran a 4.37 at the Combine) and play the football (he led the nation with 23 passes defensed in 2015) are usually in high demand.
THE 2015 NFL DRAFT, DB STATISTICS
Number drafted: 47
Picks by round: 5 in the first; 8 in the second; 5 in the third; 6 in the fourth; 8 in the fifth; 7 in the sixth; 8 in the seventh
Highest pick: Trae Waynes, Michigan State, Round 1, 11th overall by the Minnesota Vikings
Biggest impact: Not even close. There may have been issues hanging over Marcus Peters' head in the run-up to the draft, but once the games started being played Peters seemed to have all of the answers. Peters was the 18th overall pick in the first round, and he was voted Defensive Rookie of the Year after starting all 16 games during which he had 60 tackles, 26 passes defensed, and eight interceptions, two of which he returned for touchdowns.