As the 2011 NFL Draft approaches, mock drafts everywhere begin the futile effort of trying to predict where the nation’s top prospects will land in the NFL.
At this time, we don’t know anything about the soon-to-be NFL rookies who have declared for the draft in April—possibly the most meaningful offseason activity we may have for quite some time.
All anybody has to go on is recent history, spelled out by the 2010 regular season and postseason.
Of course, there is the NFL Scouting Combine, which begins Thursday in Indianapolis. Over the next six days, we will finally learn something significant about a lot of young players.
Nebraska cornerback Prince Amukamara is among them.
Say what you want about the 2010 Dallas defense, but I think we can all agree the unit was exposed in ways no one could have predicted. The combination of injuries, bad luck, and a pathetic offense had this unit accused of actually quitting by midseason. If you watched this defense play during its last few games under former head coach Wade Phillips, it's tough to argue with those accusations.
The defense looked nothing like it did during that heroic December 2009 stretch that started with a surprising win over the undefeated—and eventual world champion—Saints in New Orleans. This resulted in the franchise’s first playoff win since early 1997.
So, what needs to be fixed as we discuss a defense that went from borderline dominant in 2009 to borderline dormant in 2010?
Not too much, as far as I can see.
Depending on where you shop for mock draft fodder or who you listen to, the average theory seems to be that the Dallas secondary was most responsible for the carnage.
I don't agree completely, however, because the Cowboys' defensive line has no size and gives up too many quality runs against opponents who don’t face third-and-long situations nearly enough.
So based, I assume, on the age and salary of Terrance Newman, the idea seems to be that he’s damaged goods and can no longer play. Okay, but be careful what you wish for.
Amukamara is widely regarded as the second best cornerback prospect available come April. He had a nice career and solid reputation forged at Nebraska, despite not putting up too many flashy numbers. When you are an alleged “shutdown” corner, this can be a good thing.
My big problem with Amukamara, however, is the numbers he did put up, specifically on October 23, 2010.
Nebraska was visiting Stillwater, Oklahoma that day to take on the No. 17 Oklahoma State Cowboys. Watching this game, especially as a Dallas Cowboys fan, you would almost have thought that rookie Dez Bryant had been given a reprieve by the NCAA and suited up for one last “hoorah” against the Cornhuskers. However, Bryant was not the one lighting up the Big Red secondary.
By now, you have heard of Justin Blackmon. Since we're going crazy with 2011 mock drafts, we can just fast forward and start mocking the 2012 NFL Draft where Blackmon will almost certainly be the highest rated wide receiver available.
By the end of that game, a narrow 51-41 win for No. 14 Nebraska, Blackmon was officially on the NFL radar for 2012. And who was the guy who put him there?
Now, I am not saying that Amukamara is not going to make it in the NFL or that he is not worth a first round pick. I will, however, suggest that taking this defensive back at No. 9 might be a huge risk given what the Cowboys will be expecting.
There is essentially no such thing as a true shutdown cornerback anymore. There are two reasons for this.
First, NFL rules now heavily regulate what a corner can do from the snap of the ball. In other words, we’re pretty close to flag football philosophy regarding contact between receivers and defensive backs.
Second, today’s wide receivers are bigger, stronger and faster than ever before. Look at the measurements of guys like Terrell Owens, Larry Fitzgerald, Randy Moss and even Dez Bryant. Top corners can generally stay with these receivers, but they can’t always prevent them from getting the ball. NFL defenses rely mostly on schemes to either limit or take out opposing weapons in the passing game. Double-teaming is among the simplest of tactics.
The reality is that Amukamara was flat-out abused by Blackmon last season. The sophomore racked up 157 yards on just five receptions and added two touchdowns. That’s 31.4 yards per reception.
That has to make the Cowboys, or any other prospective team, think about what to expect from Amukamara. He is no shutdown corner.
In Amukamara’s defense, Blackmon became the first at his position to win the Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year award, and was named winner of the Fred Biletnikoff award as the nation’s top pass catcher.
There is no shame in not having your best day against an elite and rapidly emerging wide receiver. Nor should anything be taken away from Amukamara’s successful career at Nebraska, as he has clearly done far more right than wrong.
But the question is this: Is Amukamara really deserving of the ninth pick in the NFL Draft? Is he better in 2011 than Terrance Newman and Mike Jenkins? I’m not betting on it.
All I know is that Amukamara’s numbers took a dip once 2010 NFL Defensive Rookie Of The Year Ndamukong Suh was no longer in front of him. The senior corner does not possess elite speed and these are things to consider.
Would I like to have Amukamara in the Dallas secondary? Absolutely. I just think with the ninth pick you need to be trying to locate someone special, if that's possible. I’m talking about a guy who doesn't come around often, and this is expected to be a deep draft as far as defensive backs go.
If Patrick Peterson, the top corner in the draft, is available at No. 9 then I’m all over it. If not, go to another position, because there are more pressing issues on the Dallas roster than cornerback.