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2013 NFL Draft Preview: Ranking College Football's Top 15 Cornerback Prospects

Danny FlynnSenior Analyst IMay 27, 2012

2013 NFL Draft Preview: Ranking College Football's Top 15 Cornerback Prospects

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    An average of 33 cornerbacks have been taken in each of the past three NFL drafts, and there was a total of 34 that were selected in this year’s draft, which was the highest total for any individual position.

    That just goes to show how important cornerbacks have become in today’s pass-happy NFL.

    Not only is there a premium placed on pass-rushers that can consistently get to the quarterback; corners who are capable of matching up and restricting many of the league’s physically superior receivers are also considered to be valuable commodities as well.

    Since the turn of the millennium, there have been at least three cornerbacks taken in the first round of every single NFL draft with the exception of 2009. Given the type of cornerbacks that are returning to college football for the 2012 season, it does not seem like that trend is about to change any time soon.

    While we have had to wave goodbye to star corners such as LSU’s Morris Claiborne, Alabama’s Dre Kirkpatrick and South Carolina’s Stephon Gilmore, do not worry, because the next great wave of great cover men is (pardon the pun) waiting just around the corner.

    Here’s an early look at college football’s top eligible cornerback prospects for the 2013 NFL Draft.

1. Justin Gilbert, Oklahoma State

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    It is hard to define what separates truly elite cornerbacks from the rest of the crowd.

    Clearly, there are the basic keys that you look for such as prototypical size, explosive athleticism, top-notch coverage ability and great ball skills. However, some cornerbacks just seem to have that special "it" factor about them that is hard to describe. 

    Recent Top-10 picks like Morris Claiborne, Patrick Peterson and Joe Haden all had "it" as did other top cornerback prospects in years past such as Champ Bailey and Charles Woodson. 

    One current college cornerback who I think has that special "it" factor is Oklahoma State's Justin Gilbert. 

    Now, you may be wondering how a cornerback from a secondary which ranked 107th in the country in pass defense last season can be considered an elite player. Well, first and foremost, let's put the Cowboys' suspect 2011 pass defense numbers in proper perspective. 

    Last year, because opponents were often playing from behind, Oklahoma State's defense faced 541 total pass attempts, the highest total in the nation. So obviously the Cowboys were going to give up plenty of passing yards. Still, what is important is that they only gave up 6.5 yards per pass attempt, which was actually one of the lowest averages in the country in 2011. 

    Since teams tested the Pokes through the air so often last season, Gilbert had plenty of chances to make plays, and he certainly took advantage of the numerous opportunities, as he racked up five interceptions, 10 pass break-ups and notched 59 total tackles. 

    The 6'0'', 194-pound junior is probably the only player who can say that he intercepted a pass thrown from both Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III, the two top picks in this year's NFL draft. 

    Admittedly, Gilbert is still a bit of an off-the-radar player at this point, and you probably will not see his name on many preseason honors lists, but I have a feeling he is going to be one of the biggest breakout stars of the 2012 season.

    The former four-star recruit out of Texas' Huntsville High School is one of the fastest and most athletic corners in the country, and he has ideal size for the position. Plus, he has also shown that he can be a factor in the return game, averaging 27 yards on kickoff returns in 2011. 

    North Carolina State's David Amerson and LSU's Tyrann Mathieu may be the two cornerbacks that garner the most preseason publicity and attention this summer, but personally, I think Gilbert is the true premier cornerback prospect for the 2013 NFL Draft. 

2. David Amerson, North Carolina State

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    Judging by David Amerson's remarkable performance last season, it is highly doubtful that any team will try to throw anywhere near the All-American corner in 2012. 

    Last year, Amerson took the ACC by storm, setting the all-time conference record by picking off 13 passes, a number that ranks second all-time in FBS history. 

    After such an outstanding campaign, the 6'3'', 194-pound junior will now own a level of intimidation over opposing quarterbacks before they even step out onto the field with him this season. 

    While Amerson's interception total is sure to take a dip this season just due to the fact that no team is going to want to test him, that should not hurt him in the eyes of NFL scouts. 

    Amerson has the type of rare size-speed combo that will make any scout drool, and he possesses the kind of proven ball skills that you look for in a potential Pro Bowl corner.

    If he lives up to expectations as a junior in 2012, Amerson could easily end up becoming a Top-10 pick in the 2013 NFL Draft. 

3. Johnthan Banks, Mississippi State

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    Mississippi State CB Johnthan Banks could have joined fellow Bulldog DT Fletcher Cox in the 2012 NFL Draft, and if he had entered, he likely would have competed with Janoris Jenkins to be the fourth corner selected. 

    Ultimately, though, Banks' decision to return to Starkville for his senior year may prove to be a wise one, as he has now got the chance to solidify his status as a Top-20 pick for next year's draft. 

    At 6'2'', 185-pounds, Banks not only has the rare size that NFL scouts covet in a cornerback, he also possesses elite athleticism and a complete skill-set.

    Banks was a hidden gem when he was a lightly recruited three-star prospect at Mississippi's East Webster High School, but once he got to Mississippi State, he immediately made his presence felt in the SEC. 

    Since breaking his way into the starting lineup midway through his freshman season in 2009, Banks has continued to progress and get better each year, and he is now sitting on the doorstep of greatness. 

    Banks has the type of ball skills that only truly topflight corners can offer, and he has routinely displayed them by picking off 12 passes and breaking up another 19 throws during his career. 

    With Banks and his talented corner counterpart Corey Broomfield leading the way in the secondary this season, the Bulldogs should have one of the strongest pass defenses in the SEC in 2012. 

4. Tyrann Mathieu, LSU

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    LSU's defense is loaded with future high NFL draft picks but the Tiger defender that you are guaranteed to hear the most about this summer is CB Tyrann Mathieu. 

    Before the start of last season, Mathieu was considered to be an intriguing young player with a lot of upside, who was given the tough task of trying to replace his former mentor Patrick Peterson.

    It did not take long for Mathieu to rise to stardom in 2011. 

    After earning his snazzy “Honey Badger” moniker for his tenacious and relentless playing style, Mathieu’s popularity skyrocketed over the course of last season and he quickly became one of the most-discussed and recognizable players in college football. 

    Last year, the 5’9’’, 175-pound junior racked up 76 tackles, seven pass-breakups, six forced fumbles, two interceptions and scored four touchdowns. It was a performance which earned him unanimous All-American honors, the Bednarik Award and an invitation to New York City as a Heisman finalist. 

    There's no disputing that the breakout star had an extremely impressive season in 2011, but the question still remains: Does Mathieu have what it takes to be a No. 1 cornerback for an NFL defense?

    His small stature is an obvious disadvantage, as is his lack of elite athleticism, and his struggles in the BCS championship game against Alabama revealed some concerning weaknesses in his overall coverage skills. 

    Still, the bottom line is that Mathieu is a proven playmaker who has a nose for the football, and he’s certainly got the type of physical skills and football instincts that it takes to become the third straight LSU cornerback to be selected in the first round of the NFL draft. 

5. Johnny Adams, Michigan State

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    You can bet that a lot of NFL scouts are going to be making a trip to East Lansing this season, since Michigan State's defense is truly loaded with standout playmakers such as DE William Gholston, DT Anthony Rashad White, LB Denicos Allen and S Isaiah Lewis.

    The one Spartan defender that they will be paying the most attention to, though, is CB Johnny Adams.

    It seems like Adams has been wearing a Michigan State uniform for the past decade, but this will actually only be his fifth year at the school. 

    Since returning from a serious shoulder injury in 2010, Adams has established himself as one of the top cornerbacks in the Big Ten. 

    Over the past two years, the 5'11'', 175-pound junior has combined to rack up 101 tackles, 13 pass break-ups and six interceptions. 

    Adams is a well-coached leader of the secondary who possesses the natural athleticism, instincts, intelligence, toughness and coverage skills to be one of college football's standout cornerbacks in 2012. 

6. Dee Milliner, Alabama

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    Alabama's secondary may have just lost three starters who were selected in this year's NFL draft, including safety Mark Barron and cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, who were both Top-20 picks.

    Remember, though, this is Alabama. This is a team that does not rebuild on defense; it simply reloads. 

    Kirkpatrick, Barron and cornerback DeQuan Menzie will all be missed, but given the type of new talented reinforcements that are now entering the fold, Alabama should again have one of the most stacked secondaries in the country in 2012. 

    Senior safety Robert Lester will be the veteran captain of the defensive backfield, but the best NFL prospect might just be corner Dee Milliner. 

    The 6'1'', 199-pound junior is a former five-star recruit who is absolutely loaded with potential. All he has to do is prove that he can handle a full-time starting role in 2012. 

    Milliner still has to work on the fundamentals of his game such as taking better angles to make tackles and not letting receivers cross his face in man coverage. 

    There's simply no doubt, though, that he has got the complete physical package that NFL scouts are looking for. If he can step up and handle being Alabama's featured No. 1 corner this year, Milliner's got the chance to propel himself into the first round mix for the 2013 NFL Draft. 

7. Xavier Rhodes, Florida State

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    Xavier Rhodes is the type of impressive physical specimen that certainly passes the eyeball test.

    The 6'2'', 209-pound junior is one of the most gifted athletes in all of college football, and you just will not see many college players that are his size who can move as fluidly and effortlessly as him.

    After a breakout freshman campaign in 2010, for which he earned ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year honors, many people, including myself, expected Rhodes to have a sensational sophomore season in 2011.

    While he did not exactly become the national star many thought he would, the big, talented corner still had a respectable performance this past season. He was one of the top performers for a defense that ranked 20th in the country in pass defense last year. 

    Rhodes has a sky-high ceiling, and he is clearly one of the most physically gifted defensive backs in college football.

    All he has to do now is rise to the occasion in 2012 and show NFL scouts that he has got what it takes to be a true defensive difference-maker on a consistent basis. 

8. Jordan Poyer, Oregon State

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    Since Oregon State was just 3-9 last season, it was difficult for some of the Beavers' top players to garner much attention outside of Corvallis in 2011. However, just because the team's top defender, CB Jordan Poyer, flew under the national radar last year, that does not mean he did not have a terrific season.

    In fact, Poyer managed to earn second-team All-Pac-12 honors for his performance in 2011, as he racked up 57 tackles, notched four interceptions and broke up 12 passes. 

    The 6'0'', 190-pound senior also proved to be one of the most explosive returners in the conference, as he averaged 22 yards per kick return and 14 yards on punt returns. 

    Poyer ran into a bit of trouble recently when he was arrested for sneaking into a night club that he had been previously banned from. 

    Still, if he can manage to put that incident behind him and stay focused in his final season this year, Poyer's got the chance to be one of the Pac-12's most dominant defenders in 2012. 

9. Nickell Robey, USC

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    Senior safety T.J. McDonald will be the undisputed leader of the USC secondary this season, but McDonald certainly will not be the only Trojan defensive back that NFL scouts will be keeping a close eye on in 2012. 

    CB Nickell Robey will also be a major impact player for USC's defense this season, and he has got the chance to become a true breakout star in the Pac-12. 

    Robey arrived in Los Angeles back in 2010 as a heralded four-star recruit out of Florida's Frostproof High School, and it did not take long for him to live up to his high school hype. 

    The 5'8'', 165-pound junior has started all 24 games of his college career, and he has been a valuable contributor, racking up a combined 111 total tackles and picking off six passes in his first two years. 

    Robey may be a bit small, but he is a feisty and tough corner who definitely is not afraid to mix it up with some of the bigger receivers he has to face in the Pac-12. 

    The USC offense will get most of the publicity this offseason. However, if the Trojans want to make a legitimate run at a national championship this year, they are going to need a big effort out of their defense as well, and Robey will be one of the most vital pieces to the unit's success in 2012. 

10. Merrill Noel, Wake Forest

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    Merrill Noel may only be just a redshirt sophomore, but he has already started to create quite a buzz around the ACC after his fantastic freshman performance in 2011. 

    Last year, Noel played at an exceptional level and he locked down nearly every receiver he squared off with. 

    The 5'10'', 180-pound corner earned numerous freshman All-American honors after notching 66 tackles, picking off two passes and leading the ACC with 19 pass break-ups. 

    The former three-star recruit from Florida's Pahokee High School could have played for more prestigious programs such as Auburn, Florida, Florida State, Georgia or Michigan, but coming to Wake Forest seems to have been a wise decision, as he has already the standout star on the Demon Deacons defense. 

    Noel may still have three years of eligibility left, but if he can build on the success he had last season and put together another monster campaign in 2012, he may have to strongly think about possibly making the early exodus to the NFL. 

11. Desmond Trufant, Washington

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    If you broke out a thesaurus and looked up synonyms for words like horrible and dreadful, you would probably come up with a lot of apt descriptions for Washington's defensive performance in 2011. 

    Last year, the Huskies ranked 106th nationally in total defense and 108th in scoring defense, as they gave up an average of 453 yards and 36 points per game. 

    What made the disappointing defensive effort so surprising was that Washington actually had some quality talent on the defensive side of the ball last season. However, they could just never seem to play as a complete unit, which is why coordinator Nick Holt was promptly let go after the season. 

    The good news for Washington is that there is some intriguing defensive talent returning to Seattle for the 2012 season, and one of the unit's key playmakers will be CB Desmond Trufant. 

    Trufant, who is the younger brother of Seahawks CB Marcus Trufant, has been a starter since his freshman season and during his three years at Washington he has racked up 159 tackles and five interceptions. 

    Physically, the athletic 6'0'', 185-pound senior has everything that NFL scouts are looking for. However, Trufant is going to have to play with more consistency in his final season if he wants to solidify his status as an early-round pick for the 2013 NFL Draft

12. Kyle Fuller, Virginia Tech

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    Virginia Tech has had eleven defensive backs selected in the NFL draft since 2005, and the Hokies once again have two secondary players—CB Kyle Fuller and S Antone Exum, who are definitely going to attract the attention of pro scouts this season. 

    The two juniors flourished in their first season as full-time starters in 2011, and they both look like they are ready to become two of the biggest defensive stars in the ACC. 

    Now that CB Jayron Hosley, who was taken in the third round of this year's NFL draft, is gone, Fuller will be expected to step up and become the team's No. 1 corner this season. 

    Last year, the 6'0'', 181-pound junior racked up 65 tackles, including a team-high 14.5 tackles for loss, notched 4.5 sacks and picked off two passes while breaking up another seven throws. 

    Fuller is an extremely active and versatile corner who can make plays all over the field, and he has got the type of speed, instincts, tackling ability, toughness and coverage skills to be a major factor against both the run and the pass. 

13. Brodrick Brown, Oklahoma State

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    Before the start of the 2011 season, Oklahoma State CB Brodrick Brown was probably most well known for his remarkable highlight-reel interception tip to LB Shaun Lewis, as the play instantly became a viral sensation. 

    That may have been the most eye-catching play that Brown made in 2010, but it certainly was not the only big play he made that year.

    Brown finished that season second on the Cowboys with 77 tackles and he also picked off two passes and broke up another eight throws. 

    After establishing himself as a defender to watch in the Big 12 with a big sophomore campaign, Brown took his game to another level as a junior in 2011, as he notched 68 tackles, picked off five passes and finished with 15 passes defended.

    The 5'8'', 183-pound senior may not be the biggest cornerback in the country, but it would be tough to find another defensive back in college football that has the type of pure ball skills that Brown possesses.

    Brown does not have the size to be a top cornerback prospect for the 2013 NFL Draft, but he could end up being a mid-round steal for whichever team scoops him up.  

14. Rod Sweeting, Georgia Tech

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    Georgia Tech’s defense should be one of the strongest units in the ACC in 2012, and one of the defensive leaders who will be counted on to step up this year is CB Rod Sweeting. 

    Last year, Sweeting flourished in his first year as a starter, compiling 56 tackles, making three interceptions and breaking up 10 passes. 

    The 6’0’’, 184-pound senior has a big, intriguing frame and he possesses outstanding speed and athleticism for his size. 

    Sweeting really made some great strides in 2011, and now that he has begun to come into his own and gain confidence after a year as a starter, his name could really sneak up draft boards if he puts it all together in 2012.

15. Micah Hyde, Iowa

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    Iowa's defensive backfield was not exactly stellar last season, as the Hawkeyes ranked next to last in the Big Ten in pass defense in 2011, giving up 223 yards through the air per game. However, it is hard to blame the secondary's struggles on CB Micah Hyde, who performed at a high level throughout the season last year. 

    Hyde earned second-team All-Big Ten honors in 2011 after notching 72 tackles, picking off three passes and breaking up another eight throws. 

    The 6'1'', 190-pound senior combines the size of a safety with the speed and coverage skills of a corner into one unique physical package. 

    Hyde is the type of intelligent, tough and confident corner who should have no trouble handling a leadership role in Iowa's secondary this season.

    If he plays up to his potential, the Hawkeyes' pass defense should definitely improve in 2012. 

Honorable Mention: Greg Reid, Florida State

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    Greg Reid is the other member of Florida State's dynamic cornerback duo. 

    While he may not be as big as his counterpart Xavier Rhodes, Reid possesses as much physical ability and natural talent as his highly touted teammate. 

    The former five-star recruit out of Georgia's Lowndes High School arrived in Tallahassee with a lot of hype surrounding his name, but he had no trouble living up to the pressure and expectations. 

    After making his presence felt in a reserve role as a freshman in 2009, Reid became a reliable and dependable stalwart starter on the outside the following season. 

    The 5'8'', 185-pound senior may be undersized, but he makes up for his small stature with his tremendous speed and athleticism and his knack for making big plays. 

    Reid would be an ideal nickel cornerback for an NFL secondary, and he has added value as dangerous punt and kick returner. 

Other Senior Cornerbacks to Watch

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    Aaron Hester, UCLA

    Blidi Wreh-Wilson, Connecticut

    Branden Smith, Georgia

    Darius Winston, Arkansas

    Demontre Hurst, Oklahoma

    Kayvon Webster, South Florida

    Leon McFadden, San Diego State

    Nigel Malone, Kansas State

    Ryan Lacy, Utah

    Terry Hawthorne, Illinois

    Travis Howard, Ohio State

    Troy Stoudermire, Minnesota

Other Underclassmen Cornerbacks to Watch

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    Bradley Roby, Ohio State

    Carrington Byndom, Texas

    Cody Riggs, Florida

    John Fulton, Alabama

    K’Waun Williams, Pittsburgh

    Logan Ryan, Rutgers

    Marcus Williams, North Dakota State

    Marlon Pollard, Eastern Michigan

    Ricardo Allen, Purdue

    Shaquille Richardson, Arizona

    Terrance Mitchell, Oregon

    Tharold Simon, LSU

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