It is now less than a month until the 2011 NFL Draft on April 28th. Usually in the last few weeks preceding the draft, the first round starts to take shape as to who will probably be picked when. Granted, everything is fluid until the pick is actually made, but fans can start to determine what three or four prospects might be possibilities for their team's first-round pick.
One of those possibilities for the Houston Texans is Nebraska cornerback Prince Amukamara. Amukamara has become quite the polarizing figure amongst draft analysts, but especially Texans fans. Some swear he is a top-10 pick, while others wouldn’t take him before the second round.
Why the criticism, though? Amukamara was the Big 12 conference defensive player of the year. He has no red flags for character issues; in fact he has been lauded for his off-the-field demeanor. He passes the measurables test for corners with a 4.43 40-yard dash, a 38” vertical and 10’8” broad jump.
So why do so many fans of the Texans, a team with possibly the worst secondary in the league, not want him?
One of the principle reasons has nothing to do with Prince himself. Last season, Rick Smith, Gary Kubiak and former defensive coordinator Frank Bush touted Kareem Jackson as the most “pro ready” cornerback in the draft. After a season of seeing the first-rounder getting torched and eventually losing his starting job, some Texans supporters are leery of taking another corner in the first round.
I don’t see how this makes sense. Just because it seemingly didn’t work one year doesn’t mean it won’t ever be successful to take a player from the same position. That’s not even mentioning the fact that Jackson very well could bounce back from his rookie season and be a very productive player with good coaching, something that the Texans have admitted he didn’t have last year.
One facet of the above argument is a little more logical, though. Some stipulate that the Texans secondary needs veteran leadership that should be acquired through free agency, rather than another drafted rookie.
I don’t see why the two moves have to be mutually exclusive. For a position group so devoid of talent, what would be wrong with drafting another promising rookie for development AND signing a veteran free agent to assume the No. 1 corner role? This would not only be fixing the problem for now with just a free agent, but also fixing it for the future with young depth.
Assuming that this theory of drafting a rookie early and targeting a free agent is palatable, the question is now whether Amukamara is worth the 11th pick. Previously, the most frequent knock against Prince was that he did not have good enough recovery speed to excel at corner, and might need to play safety.
His previously mentioned 40 time at the combine was reassuring enough for some critics, but still there are others that are not satisfied. Remaining skeptics often point to the bad game that Amukamara had against Oklahoma State wide receiver Justin Blackmon as proof of his lack of game speed.
First of all, it is worth noting that if Blackmon had declared for the draft, he likely would be as highly ranked as the third wideout off the board despite being just a redshirt sophomore. That doesn’t excuse anything on Amukamara’s part—it’s just to say that a receiver who tallied 111 receptions, 1,782 yards, and 20 touchdowns got the best of quite a few corners.
Upon closer diagnosis of the game in question, it is certain that Prince had one of his worst games, but it is not as bad as you would expect. An 80-yard touchdown came when Amukamara and every other Nebraska defensive back bit hard on a flea-flicker that Blackmon sold perfectly.
The rest of Blackmon’s production came on more docile plays that I won’t kill Prince for. Prince committed one stupid pass interference penalty on a pass that was probably not catchable, and Blackmon himself caught a long pass after what looked like a blatant push-off on Amukamra.
Feel free to watch the video and come to your own conclusions, but personally it showed me more coaching deficiencies than lack of ability. Prince played almost the entire game without any safety help, that I could see, against the best receiver in the conference. Furthermore, when Prince was allowed to jam Blackmon, the receiver rarely gained any separation.
The other criticism of Amukamara is his lack of ball skills. His mere five interceptions came in his junior season. While teams often threw away from Prince in his senior season, I admit that better ability to create turnovers would be ideal.
Everything else is there with Amukamara, though. He is not an elite tackler, but a willing one that does not shy away from larger blockers or ball carriers. He is smart about knowing when he has safety help and using this advantage to jump underneath routes extremely well. His overall football IQ is apparent.
Still, some contend that he will be a better safety at the next level. While I don’t agree completely, that contention shouldn’t be a reason to drop him to the second round. Gone are the days when safeties are never taken in the first round.
Prince’s versatility might be his most valuable attribute. He will probably never be the type of corner that can line up on an island with the opposing team's best receiver, but he can play almost every other position in the secondary.
Last year, Eric Berry was considered ideal because of his ability to not only play free safety but also line up in the slot when needed. Amukamara can cover the slot, cover outside, and even play the deep half of the field if needed.
Prince would not be my first pick for the Texans at No. 11, but he would be high on the list. While he can cover off the line in zone, he is better in press-man. Wade Phillips will ask the Texans corners to do just that often because his defense is predicated on pressuring the quarterback, and corners need to be able to redirect hot routes.
If Prince was drafted by the Texans and they signed a free-agent corner, a woeful position group would immediately be better. Phillips could move Glover Quin to safety without fear of taking the best of the current corners, because the group would be left with the free agent signee, Amukamara and Jackson.
There is no perfect, one-year solution for the Texans secondary. The lack of a backup plan for Dunta Robinson and years of not drafting safeties have left the position group in shambles. Drafting Prince Amukamra, however, could be step one in fixing that group in 2011.
What do you think, though? Weigh in with your thoughts about the Texans drafting Amukamara in the comments below.