Certain positions carry a premium in the NFL draft. Quarterbacks. The left tackles whose job it is to protect said quarterbacks. And cover cornerbacks. Those positions dominate the first round. Teams covet them.
In 2016, the mantle of top cornerback prospect has been bestowed by most draftniks on Jalen Ramsey of Florida State. However, he is more than just an immensely talented young corner prospect. He's a hybrid player capable of manning any position in the secondary.
That sort of versatility carries an even higher premium in today's pass-wacky NFL of receivers sliding all over the formation and athletic, field-stretching tight ends.
And given that versatility and Ramsey's considerable gifts on the gridiron, the 6'1", 202-pounder may be more than just the top youngster in the secondary in 2016.
Ramsey may well be the draft's top prospect at any position.
On Sunday, the defensive backs will hold their interview session and hit the weights for the bench press. The latter isn't generally considered a big deal for cornerbacks. But you can bet that Ramsey will be one of the centers of attention in the former.
After all, that's what happens when you're a contender to be the first overall selection in the 2016 draft, as Bucky Brooks of NFL.com reports:
It's uncommon for a defensive back to rank as the best football player in the draft, but Ramsey is a legitimate difference maker with the skills to fill a variety of roles in the secondary. The 6-foot-1, 194-pounder is a rare talent as a cover corner with a high football IQ and nasty demeanor that makes him ideally suited to play inside as a box defender or slot playmaker at the next level. While most teams value quarterbacks and pass rushers as the premium players on their rosters, the potential to nab a Charles Woodson-like defender could prompt scouts and coaches to make a play for Ramsey with the top pick.
On Monday, when the defensive backs take the field, the spotlight is going to ramp up that much more, because that's when Ramsey will get to show off his wheels.
Not only does he have the size at 6'1" and around 200 pounds to hang with larger receivers (and even tight ends), but few wideouts are going to run past Ramsey in coverage.
In fact, NFL Network's Daniel Jeremiah listed Ramsey as a leading candidate to post the fastest 40-yard dash at this year's combine—perhaps even faster than Chris Johnson's record 4.24-second 40 back in 2008:
Ramsey is an elite talent on the football field, but he was also a track star at FSU. He won the ACC long-jump title in both indoor and outdoor track. He also placed seventh in the conference in the 100 meter, posting a time of 10.61. He might not run the top 40 time in Indy, but his overall workout will be outstanding. Bottom line: He's one of the most gifted players in this entire draft class.
Simply put, the "dash for cash" and many of the other drills at the combine are tailor-made for players as athletically gifted as Ramsey. As one NFC executive told Lance Zierlein of NFL.com, the belief isn't that Ramsey will fare well in Indy...he's expected to blow the roof off Lucas Oil Stadium: "Some scouts on the road think he's overrated and some think he's the next Richard Sherman. We all agree that he's going to win the combine and that (Mike) Mayock won't stop talking about him."
Wait, what? Overrated?
Just like with any other prospect, there are some bumps in the road with Ramsey's game. His lateral agility isn't as otherworldly as his straight-line speed. He displays some stiffness in his hips, which is draftnik-speak for saying he sometimes doesn't transition smoothly from his backpedal to a run.
That fraction of a second can be the difference between a pass defensed and a completion, folks.
And while it's essentially punishing Ramsey for his ability to smother receivers, some will point to his three career interceptions (including none in 2015) as a "lack of playmaking ability."
The cone drills and other agility workouts in Indy should afford Ramsey a chance to allay concerns about his lateral quickness. But it's how teams view him that will eventually determine just how early he hears his name called April 28.
Per Bob Ferrante of 247Sports, Mayock admits that whether Ramsey is deemed a better fit at cornerback or safety by NFL clubs is the $64 question:
We’re all trying to figure out what he is. Most teams would like to believe he’s a corner. There’s more value attached to that. Could he be Patrick Peterson? He has length, he has world-class speed. Even when he gets beat off the line of scrimmage in press coverage, it’s amazing to see his catch-up speed. It’s like 'beep, beep' and he’s there.
Can you invest a high draft pick in a defensive back that doesn’t turn the ball over regularly? He didn’t get a lot of interceptions. Everybody loves him, everybody believes in him. What about his on-ball production at the corner position. Will he be effective and turn the football over more frequently using that great speed at free safety?
If the Tennessee Titans, Cleveland Browns or any of the other teams at the top of the 2016 draft view Ramsey solely as a safety, forget it. In the past 25 years, only one safety has been taken in the top three: Eric Turner by the Browns at No. 2 in 1991.
Since Turner, only one safety (Sean Taylor) has gone in the top five. It can be argued that both men lived up to the pick (that both are deceased is an eerie coincidence), but the fact is safeties just don't get drafted that highly in today's NFL.
Of course, as draft analyst Mike Loyko points out, trying to figure out Ramsey's best fit might be missing the point:
Mike Loyko @NEPD_Loyko
With Jalen Ramsey I wouldn't even box him in as a CB or a Safety. I would let him play both, Nickel Corner, his versatility is what makes..2/22/2016, 4:14:27 PM
Mike Loyko @NEPD_Loyko
him more valuable in my opinion. Can use him like a Tyrann Mathieu or just move him all over during the game.2/22/2016, 4:15:25 PM
For a good portion of the 2015 season, Tyrann Mathieu of the Arizona Cardinals was in the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year as a Swiss Army knife in the Redbirds' secondary. Free safety. Slot corner. Mathieu moved all over the place.
And it's Mathieu who Dane Brugler of CBS Sports compared Ramsey to: "While some teams will like him better as a cornerback and others as a safety, like Mathieu, Ramsey is better categorized as a playmaking defensive back due to his rangy skill set and versatility."
Yes, Ramsey hasn't quite displayed the nose for the big play that's been Mathieu's hallmark at LSU and in the NFL, but he's four inches taller and every bit as fast. He's a Swiss Army knife-plus who can play everywhere from boundary corner to the back end.
Pete Prisco of CBS Sports told Jim Wyatt of the team's website he isn't sure that versatility quite rates the No. 1 overall pick. Of course, he didn't rule it out either:
The value for that position is so hard to justify at No.1. You have to ask yourself: If he is Earl Thomas, which is the high end of that position, is that worth the No.1 overall pick? Me personally, I think he is going to be a really, really, really good safety. Maybe a great safety. He could be a good corner, but a great safety. You have to ask yourself: Is that worth No.1 overall? To answer your question, the way the game has changed, and the way the free safety position has become more valuable, maybe. But if I’m the Titans, I want big people – somebody on the offensive or defensive line. I really like Ramsey. He has great ball skills. I think he has more range and more versatility than Eric Berry. He could play slot corner, he could play outside corner. But I think he’s going to be a great free safety.
So, while you're watching Ramsey tear through drills and burn up the track in Indianapolis Monday, bear this in mind.
What makes him so special isn't that Ramsey is the draft's top cornerback. Or the best safety in the class.
No, what might make Ramsey the top overall prospect in 2016 is the fact that in a day and age where defensive versatility is all the rage, he defies labeling at all.
Gary Davenport is an NFL analyst at Bleacher Report, a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association and the Pro Football Writers of America. You can follow Gary on Twitter @IDPSharks.