(A series looking at some of the top players at various positions leading up to the NFL Draft, set for April 27-29)
There were 60 defensive backs participating at the NFL Scouting Combine, more than any other position group.
It was a collection of quality as well as quantity.
"If you need a corner or a safety, this is the year to get healthy," NFL Network and NFL.com analyst Mike Mayock maintained during coverage of the NFL Scouting Combine.
They have size, speed and skills, and they're available for the taking.
"I've never seen more 6-foot-2-plus corners running around," Mayock continued. "That's kind of a reaction to the big wideouts in today's NFL."
Of the 36 cornerbacks at the Combine, 21 were 6-foot or taller (there had been seven such players in 2003, according to Mayock).
NFL Network and NFL.com analyst Daniel Jeremiah called the safety crop the best he'd seen since he started scouting in 2003.
And of the 60 defensive backs in attendance, 21 posted sub-4.5 times in the 40-yard dash.
"That's unbelievable, it really is," Mayock maintained.
Added NFL Network reporter Kim Jones: "One longtime NFL observer told me, 'This is the best cornerback and safety class I've seen in more than a decade.'"
A first-round safety with an asterisk, in Mayock's estimation: "He's a one-year starter at Ohio State, great year, seven interceptions, tremendous range. But after the one year, in January he had labrum surgery, he's got hernia surgery. He's not going to be able to work out before the draft. He's probably going to start the year on P.U.P. You're looking at a potential top-10 talent where teams are going to have to make a decision, 'How confident are we that this frame of his (6-1, 206) is going to hold up over time?'" NFL.com's Lance Zierlein quoted an AFC personnel director's assessment of Hooker as follows: "He's a player who will come in and look bad his first year and then be an All-Pro by his third year."
One year of starting experience at Ohio State was enough to push Lattimore (6-0, 193) into the conversion regarding the best cornerback available. "Everything he does on tape screams, 'I'm a Top-10 pick,'" Mayock said. Lattimore played primarily press-man coverage at Ohio State. The assessment in Dane Brugler's 2017 NFL Draft guide was glowing: "Play speed is critical for the cornerback position and he checks this box with a Sharpie, displaying the sudden movements and transitional quickness to match up with any type of receiver."
A linebacker in 2016 in order to plug a hole in the Michigan defense, Peppers projects as a safety in the NFL. But more than that he projects as a football player. Mayock loved what he saw of Peppers (5-10 7/8, 213) at the Combine. "I have him at safety," Mayock maintained. "He can be a nickel Day One. He can be a high free safety, he has that kind of range. In a sub-package, if you say, 'Hey, we gotta go cover Le'Veon Bell on third-and-6 and don't let him catch the football,' there's your matchup guy." Mayock added: "Some people think he's best as a running back (Peppers also played offense at Michigan). He's going to make a major impact Day One as a punt returner." NFL Network analyst Charles Davis said and NFL defensive coordinator maintained Peppers should be used "like a Troy Polamalu, all over the place as a safety."
Mayock sees the "instincts of Marcus Peters" in Jones (6-0, 186 pounds). Mayock described Jones as "not smooth," but added, "he's a long, press corner who competes his tail off who has great ball skills and tackles." Jones intercepted at least two passes in all three of his seasons at Washington (nine total). Zierlein reported Jones tore an Achilles tendon at his Pro Day and will require "an extensive rehab process." He'll fall as a result but might in turn provide great value in the second or third round for a team that's confident he'll recover well enough to regain his pre-injury quickness and speed.
At 6-3 7/8 and 224 pounds and with a posted time of 4.40 in the 40-yard dash, Melifonwu intrigues as a match-up defender. "Single-high (safety) teams will see a cornerback," Mayock said. "Part of the league will see a free safety with great range. Others will see a strong safety that can cover tight ends. This kid fills a need for every scheme in the league." Melifonwu started 47 of 48 career games at Connecticut. His broad jump of 11 feet, nine inches was the second-best recorded at the Combine since 2003. Melifonwu considers himself a safety but told Jeremiah, "I can play corner, nickel, in the box, in the post, it doesn't matter."
The 2016 Draft, DB
Number drafted: 52
Picks by round: 7 in the first; 7 in the second; 8 in the third; 9 in the fourth; 5 in the fifth; 11 in the sixth; 5 in the seventh
Highest pick: Safety Jalen Ramsey, Florida State, Round 1, fifth overall, Jacksonville Jaguars
Impact pick: Safety Sean Davis was drafted out of Maryland on the second round by the Steelers (58th overall). He wound up playing in all 16 regular-season games and starting nine, including the last seven in succession, as well as all three of the Steelers' playoff games. Davis, who played some slot-cornerback before settling in at safety, demonstrated a willingness to tackle and an ability to find the football.