NFL Draft 2012: Ranking This Year's Top Defensive Backs

Zac Sweeney@@sweeney_zacContributor IIIApril 19, 2012

NFL Draft 2012: Ranking This Year's Top Defensive Backs

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    This year, NFL teams get to sink their teeth into one of the best drafts for defensive backs in recent history. 

    The level of talent is so deep that elite-class prospects will be found in nearly every round, a notion that secondary-hungry franchises will be very pleased with.

    This upcoming season brings with it a unique need for elite defensive backs, as the league's quarterback landscape is changing dramatically. Topics like Peyton Manning to Denver, the continued rise of Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady's mere existence demand opposing teams to have All-Pro secondaries. 

    The same can be said about new quarterbacks such as Stanford's Andrew Luck, Baylor's Robert Griffin III and Texas A&M's Ryan Tannehill, who prepare themselves to go in the first 10 picks and take their elite skills with them to their new NFL teams.

    The opponents of whichever teams these players land on will surely require quality defensive backs if they wish to withstand the offensive onslaught that is sure to occur.

    Thankfully, this draft will provide any and all with the secondary weapons they will need. 

5. Harrison Smith: FS Notre Dame

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    Harrison Smith is a very athletic, read-and-react free safety who shows considerable skill against both the pass and the run. 

    Smith has a reputation for easily reading and anticipating where the ball will be thrown and possesses the athletic ability to move across the field to make plays, both in the air and on the ground.

    Though he isn't known to be the big-time hitter, he is consistent with his drag-down tackling style and rarely fails to make the play. Smith shows similar consistency when covering passes that are still in the air, and has gained a reputation for being able to pull off the big interception when needed the most. 

    Smith's drawbacks lie in his weak man coverage where his fluidity plays against him, as he is often beaten by more explosive and agile players. His weakness in man coverage also reveals weaknesses in his footwork and his dependency on pure athletic ability.

    To become the complete package at the NFL level, Smith is going to have to polish his game and put some serious work into his man coverage. 

4. Dre Kirkpatrick: CB Alabama

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    Dre Kirkpatrick is an interesting prospect due to the talk surrounding him about a possible move to safety, as noted by Joseph Person in the Charlotte Observer. Talks about the potential switch began after speculation concerning his physicality and overall strength surfaced.

    These concerns don't come out of nowhere, however. Kirkpatrick is small and underweight for the position and showed some weakness while defending against the more physical receivers he faced in college. These factors could be negated if he were to make the switch to safety.

    Setting these issues aside, Kirkpatrick possesses body control and footwork that is uncommon in athletes his height. His supreme athleticism and speed allow him to excel in zone schemes while also leading people to believe that he could be a solid man cover back if needed. 

    Kirkpatrick's issues will weigh heavily on his performance in the league. He will be under constant pressure to abandon the cornerback position until he either does in fact become a safety, or proves that he can defy the odds and be a physical NFL cornerback.

3. Stephon Gilmore: CB South Carolina

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    Stephon Gilmore strives on impressive footwork, size and strength, all of which play heavily into his natural ability in man coverage. 

    Gilmore shows talent at the line of scrimmage where he easily mirrors, jams and cuts off receivers in their routes, and he regularly puts himself in the best position to make plays shortly after leaving the line. 

    However, he tends to have trouble with zone and any type of play where he is tasked with a strict duty that does not allow him to play freely and off instinct. Gilmore will also have to become more technically sound and less reliant on his natural ability if he is to make it in the NFL. 

    He does possess all the makings of a Pro Bowl cornerback, but he needs to polish and improve before making the trip to Hawaii. 

2. Mark Barron: SS Alabama

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    It is said that Mark Barron is already very close to playing like a pro. He impressed the combine staff with his professional demeanor towards everything from his interviews to how he warmed up and carried himself around the facilities. 

    Barron possesses very sound footwork and is a very strong and consistent tackler, a skill that is priceless in today's NFL. Adding to this, Barron succeeds where others fail and shows a firm understanding of both zone- and man-coverage schemes. 

    Known to read and react quickly to both running and passing plays, Barron is in the action on nearly every down he's on the field. 

    His only drawbacks are that he tends to be sluggish while transitioning and tends to throw himself into ball-carriers, a practice that is heavily frowned upon by Commissioner Roger Goodell. 

    Other than that, Barron is an NFL-ready player who has a very bright and fulfilling career ahead of him.

1. Morris Claiborne: CB LSU

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    Claiborne topping this list should come as no surprise. As the most recent recipient of the Jim Thorpe Award, this young man has already established that he is the best defensive back in the country. 

    He is strong off the line and is known to be very good at jamming receivers right off the snap. His line play is followed up by superb speed, explosiveness and athleticism that allows him to easily out-play the majority of wide receivers he faced in college, and will prove to be a huge challenge to the receivers he will face in the NFL.

    In total, Claiborne is easily the most polished corner to enter the draft in a long time.

    The only thing he needs to work on is keeping his pads low. He has a tendency to pop up during various stages of plays, and it kills his explosiveness. Other than that, Claiborne is good to go.  

Other Noteworthy Defensive Backs

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    1. Alfonzo Dennard - CB Nebraska

    2. Jayron Hosley - CB Virginia Tech

    3. George Iloka- FS Boise St. 

    4. Trumaine Johnson - CB Montana 

    5. Jamell Fleming - CB Oklahoma