(A series looking at the top players at various positions leading up to the 2011 NFL Draft, set for April 28-30.)
This year's crop of safeties lacks the star power of the 2010 group, and at cornerback there is one star seemingly shining brighter than all the others.
The cornerback with the potential to make draft history is LSU's Patrick Peterson. You see, it has been eight years since a cornerback was selected among the top five overall picks, and the guy to do that was Terence Newman. Only two cornerbacks – Bruce Pickens in 1991 and Shawn Springs in 1997 – have been drafted as high as third overall.
Peterson (6-foot, 220 pounds) has the talent to beat them all. And because he plays with a confidence that belies the fact he won't turn 21 until July means he just might be the first cornerback ever drafted with the first or second overall pick.
He sure looks to be worth it. Watch old film of a young Rod Woodson returning punts, and then watch Peterson, who averaged 16.1 yards per punt return in 2010 with a touchdown. He also averaged 29.1 yards returning kickoffs, and over the last two years as a starting cornerback Peterson had 19 passes defensed and six interceptions. In 2010, SEC coaches voted him Defensive Player of the Year and Special Teams Player of the Year.
There figure to be at least a few more cornerbacks picked on April 28, and if there aren't, well, it might only be because teams see how much depth there is in this class and figure on getting one later. But Nebraska's Prince Amukamara, Colorado's Jimmy Smith, Texas' Aaron Williams and Miami's Brandon Harris all have first-round potential.
Amukamara (6-0, 205) falls short of the standard set by Peterson in two areas: he isn't the kind of player who comes up with a lot of turnovers, and he isn't a factor as a return man. But for a team looking for a guy to become a No. 1 cornerback on a top-flight defense, Amukamara has a lot of what it takes. He can play man-to-man on the little quick guys, and he tackles and competes. Amukamara was a team captain and is described as receptive to coaching.
Smith (6-2, 210) might be the top boom-or-bust prospect in this entire draft. He has great size and was very good in press coverage, and he started all 24 games at cornerback over the past two seasons with 15 passes defensed and two interceptions. But there have been a couple of arrests for underage alcohol possession as an underclassman, plus enough other character red flags to knock him off some teams' boards altogether.
Williams (6-0, 205) started 22 games at cornerback during his final two college seasons, and he had 21 passes defensed and three interceptions over that span. Some believe he could have benefited from another year in college to improve his footwork and refine his technique, but Williams is attractive because of his aggressiveness, size and short-area quickness.
Harris (5-10, 191) also ran track in college and posted a 4.44 at the Combine. He had 27 passes defensed over his final two college seasons, when he was asked to line up over outside receivers as well as guys in the slot. He's confident, competitive and instinctive, and Harris will support the run.
Last year's safety class included Eric Berry (fifth overall) and Earl Thomas (14th overall) but no safety from this group has been attracting that kind of attention. This time the class is led by UCLA's Rahim Moore, and it's sufficiently thin overall that some team might consider picking a lesser cornerback prospect and move him to safety.
Moore (6-0, 202) will be a 21-year-old throughout his NFL rookie season, and he still had three seasons of starting experience in college. He started 12 games as a freshman and finished with four passes defensed and three interceptions. In 2009, Moore started 13 games and led the nation with 10 interceptions, to go along with seven passes defensed. He was a team captain in 2010 and had another interception to give him 14 over three seasons. Moore is a ballhawk, but the question is whether he can be more than just a finesse player, because free safeties in the NFL have to provide a physical presence in the middle of the field.
The best of the rest of the safeties is anyone's guess, but a couple of names to remember are Tyler Sash of Iowa and Jaiquawn Jarrett of Temple.
Sash (6-0, 211) had 13 interceptions during his college career and gained a reputation as a guy who is in the right place at the right time. There are worse things for an aspiring NFL safety, and Sash is another 21-year-old.
Jarrett (6-0, 198) is called a confident, competitive downhill safety who packs a punch as a tackler, and those qualifications will allow him to contribute on special teams right away. How well Jarrett fares with the coverage requirements will determine the length and quality of his NFL career.
THE 2010 NFL DRAFT, DB STATISTICS
Number drafted: Cornerbacks: 32. Safeties: 20.
Picks by round: Cornerbacks: 5 in the first; 2 in the second; 5 in the third; 4 in the fourth; 7 in the fifth; 2 in the sixth; 7 in the seventh. Safeties: 2 in the first; 3 in the second; 3 in the third; 1 in the fourth; 5 in the fifth; 3 in the sixth; 3 in the seventh.
Highest pick:* Cornerbacks: Joe Haden, Florida, Round 1, 7th overall, by Cleveland. *Safeties: Eric Berry, Tennessee, Round 1, 5th overall, by Kansas City.
Biggest impact: Cornerbacks: Devin McCourty, Rutgers, Round 1, 27th overall, started 16 games and finished with seven interceptions for the New England Patriots. Safeties: Eric Berry, Tennessee, Round 1, 5th overall, started 16 games and had four interceptions for Kansas City.