Why Jalen Ramsey Is Rare Defensive Back Worthy of Top-5 Pick in NFL Draft

Ryan McCrystal@@ryan_mccrystalFeatured ColumnistMarch 10, 2016

Florida State defensive back Jalen Ramsey is one of the elite prospects in this year's draft class, appearing as high as No. 2 on some media draft boards. 

ESPN's Kevin Weildl, for example, recently stated that he views Ramsey and Ole Miss lineman Laremy Tunsil as the two premier prospects in the draft:

As the draft class is starting to take shape it's Ramsey and Tunsil, then everybody else. Good bit of a drop after those two IMO.

— Kevin Weidl (@KevinW_ESPN) March 2, 2016

The fact that Ramsey is so highly regarded isn't a shock. He had a stellar career at Florida State, and we've seen similar prospects, such as Arizona Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson, earn elite grades and land in the top 10 in recent years.

But Ramsey has a realistic chance to accomplish something that hasn't been done in nearly two decades. 

No defensive back has been selected higher than fifth overall since future Hall of Famer Charles Woodson in 1998. 

In fact, dating back to 1970, only six defensive backs have had that honor—five of which went on to be selected to at least one Pro Bowl. 

So what makes Ramsey worthy of such a high pick while playing a position that is typically passed over early in the draft? Let's take a look at a few factors that make this possible.



Unfortunately, the first piece of this scenario isn't all that interesting, and it has nothing to do with Ramsey. 

Since the latest collective bargaining agreement set a rookie wage scale, the odds of a defensive back being selected inside the top five have skyrocketed. 

When Sam Bradford signed his rookie deal as the No. 1 pick in 2010, he was guaranteed $50 million and was set to earn over $10 million per year in the final years of the deal, according to Spotrac

That would be an absurd contract for even the best defensive backs in the league, let alone a rookie. As a result, cornerbacks and safeties simply weren't in consideration for these high picks. 

The rookie wage scale, however, puts all rookie contracts at a reasonable level, regardless of their position. 

For example, the Jacksonville Jaguars selected Dante Fowler third overall in 2015 and signed him to a four-year deal worth just $23 million. Even in the final year of his contract, Fowler's cap hit will only reach $7.4 million—compare that to a peak of $17.6 million for Bradford. 

With this wage scale, NFL teams can now safely select prospects at any position and be guaranteed to pay them a reasonable salary for up to five years (all first-round contracts come with a fifth-year team option). 



Ramsey enters the NFL with a rare level of proven versatility, having played at an elite level in college at both safety and cornerback. 

On a basic level, this increases his odds of being a top pick because it opens up more opportunities. Any team with a hole at safety or cornerback can consider him an option. 

However, it also makes him a safer selection. 

Draft picks who flame out completely often do so because they have no fall-back option once they begin to struggle in their initial role. But players who can shift positions can often extend their careers. 

Take former Oakland Raiders offensive lineman Robert Gallery as an example. 

Gallery was a first-class bust as a left tackle and appeared to be on his way out of the league before even wrapping up his rookie deal in Oakland. 

However, the Raiders shifted Gallery inside to guard, where he established himself as a quality starter. 

Despite falling well short of expectations as the No. 2 overall selection in 2004, Gallery ended up starting over 100 games in his eight-year career. 

Obviously no one hopes or expects Ramsey's career follows the Gallery path, but the fact that he can play multiple positions dramatically increases the odds of him being a productive player in the league. 


Elite Athleticism

The money and versatility are two major factors in making Ramsey a potential top-five selection, but obviously his raw talent is what really sets him apart. 

Ramsey went to the NFL Scouting Combine needing to prove he had the athleticism to play cornerback, and he came away proving he was in an elite class as an athlete, more than capable of playing any position in the secondary. 

Among all cornerbacks who performed the 40-yard dash and the vertical leap at the combine since 2004, Ramsey is the only prospect in this year's class who ranks in the 80th percentile in both categories. 

It's a remarkable feat, most recently accomplished by Buffalo Bills cornerback Ronald Darby in 2015 and San Diego Chargers cornerback Jason Verrett in 2014—two cornerbacks who each ranked among Pro Football Focus' top-10 corners in 2015.  

Two traits stand out when watching Ramsey, specifically during his time as a cornerback. 

The most noticeable of these traits is his ability to get physical with receivers in press coverage. This is a skill that typically sets the elite cornerbacks apart from the rest of the pack in the NFL, and Ramsey has shown flashes of ability to dominate in this area. 

The other favorable trait Ramsey possesses is his start-and-stop ability. 

This skill often goes overlooked when evaluating a cornerback, but it directly correlates to their ability to stay with a receiver in coverage. Inevitably the cornerback will take false steps in coverage from time to time—it's a receiver's job to make sure that happens—but the corners with elite start-and-stop quickness are the ones who can overcome these minor missteps. 

When looking at Ramsey the athlete and factoring in his versatility and the low-risk contract given to high draft picks, it's hard to make an argument that he isn't worthy of a top five, or even a top-three selection. 

Each of the five teams sitting at the top of the draft has room for Ramsey in its secondary, so it's likely a question of where in the top five he lands, not if he'll land there. 


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