(A series looking at the top players at various positions leading up to the 2012 NFL Draft, set for April 26-28.)
For those college football fans who became a bit disgruntled at the lack of offense in the regular season matchup of LSU-Alabama, which had been billed as the Game of the Century, and then again in the rematch between the teams in the BCS Championship Game, just take a look at the number of defensive players from the two schools ranked among the top draft prospects at their respective positions. Suddenly, the reason why those games turned out as they did is more understandable.
The two teams could send as many as six players into the NFL via the first round of the upcoming draft, and an argument could be made that the best defensive player on either Alabama or LSU will be back playing college football in 2012.
Nowhere is the Alabama-LSU stranglehold on the top of the list of available prospects more evident than it is in the defensive backfield. At cornerback, two of the top prospects are LSU's Morris Claiborne and Alabama's Dre Kirkpatrick, while Alabama's Mark Barron figures to be the first – and possibly the only – safety picked in the first round.
Claiborne (6-foot, 185-pounds) arrived at LSU as a wide receiver but was switched to defense within the first week of his first fall camp, and when his third college season ended he had won the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation's best defensive back. Already considered among the best prospects available in this draft regardless of position, some scouts see Claiborne as having better ball skills than former teammate Patrick Peterson, a No. 1 pick by Arizona last April. Claiborne had five interceptions in 2010 and then bettered that with six in 2011, and he will come into the league with the instincts, toughness and ball skills necessary to excel.
Kirkpatrick (6-2, 190) was good enough to appear in all 12 games of his freshman season in 2009, and he then moved into the starting lineup the following year. As a sophomore, Kirkpatrick broke up seven passes and had three interceptions, but those would turn out to be the only ones of his college career. While scouts understand that Kirkpatrick is a proven commodity against some top competition, his lack of production when it comes to making plays on the ball is somewhat troubling.
Because of some of these issues regarding Kirkpatrick, South Carolina's Stephon Gilmore (6-1, 190) is making a run up many teams' boards into the No. 2 spot after Claiborne. Gilmore is a superior athlete, one who not only recorded eight interceptions and 17 passes defensed in three seasons as a cornerback, but he also played a little wildcat quarterback in his first two seasons. It's believed Gilmore is going to need some coaching, but he has a lot of the athletic skills to be a quality starting NFL cornerback.
The next level of cornerbacks includes North Alabama's Janoris Jenkins (5-10, 190), Nebraska's Alonzo Dennard (5-10, 205) and Central Florida's Josh Robinson (5-10, 199).
Jenkins had six total interceptions in two seasons at Florida before being dismissed from the team after two marijuana arrests within a four-month period during the ensuing offseason.
Dennard had 13 passes defensed and four interceptions during his final two college seasons, but his 2011 was ruined a bit by a muscle injury in his leg that sidelined him for three games.
Robinson had 10 interceptions and 36 passes defensed during his three college seasons, and he averaged 15.2 yards on punt returns in 2010.
Barron (6-2, 220) recorded 12 interceptions over his three seasons as a starter, with seven as a sophomore being his best. He probably would have declared for the draft in 2011, but he wanted to play another college season because he had missed Alabama's bowl game with a torn pectoral muscle. But then as a senior, Barron needed surgery to repair a double hernia, and the procedure forced him to miss the Senior Bowl and the combine. Barron excelled in the box at Alabama, but NFL teams can find ways to isolate those guys in coverage as well.
The next tier of safeties includes Notre Dame's Harrison Smith (6-2, 210), South Carolina's Antonio Allen (6-1, 200), LSU's Brandon Taylor (5-11, 200) and Boise State's George Iloka (6-4, 220).
Smith could work himself into the bottom of the first round, and if he does, it'll be because he showed an ability to make plays in the backfield as well as come up with interceptions. Smith had seven interceptions in 2010, and he set a Notre Dame record with three interceptions in the Sun Bowl against Miami.
Allen will earn a roster spot at first because he can contribute on special teams, and then his work ethic and willingness to be coached could make him a starter eventually.
Taylor is praised for his consistency, reaction and ball skills, and in 2011 he was chosen by LSU Coach Les Miles to wear jersey No. 18 because he exemplified what it means to represent the Tigers on and off the field.
Iloka might be the kind of player who finds that his height is a disadvantage, because he had some problems with taking the proper angles and missing tackles in college, and NFL receivers are faster and more elusive.
THE 2011 NFL DRAFT, DB STATISTICS
Number drafted: Cornerbacks: 36. Safeties: 17.
Picks by round: Cornerbacks: 3 in the first; 4 in the second; 6 in the third; 6 in the fourth; 7 in the fifth; 2 in the sixth; 8 in the seventh. Safeties: 0 in the first; 2 in the second; 1 in the third; 3 in the fourth; 5 in the fifth; 3 in the sixth; 3 in the seventh.
Highest pick: Cornerbacks: Patrick Peterson, LSU, Round 1, 5th overall, by Arizona. Safeties: Rahim Moore, UCLA, Round 2, 45th overall, by Denver.
Biggest impact: Cornerbacks: Patrick Peterson started 16 games for the Arizona Cardinals, and he recorded two interceptions and also returned four punts for touchdowns. Safeties: Chris Harris, an undrafted rookie by the Denver Broncos played in 16 games and made four starts.