There's been plenty written about the quarterback run most anticipate will happen at the top of the 2021 NFL draft—as many as five signal-callers could be selected inside the top 10. A run on pass-catchers should also come early, which will likely include LSU's Ja'Marr Chase, Florida's Kyle Pitts, and Alabama's DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle.
There's a flip side to all that. With no consensus No. 1 edge-rusher or cornerback in the Class of 2021, quite a bit of uncertainty looms about who will be the first defensive player taken April 29 in Cleveland.
But there's a young defender who checks all the boxes to take that distinction. His talent is unquestionable. He plays a premium position. His production was elite at college football's highest level. And he even has an NFL pedigree, as his father played in the pros for 11 years and made it to three Pro Bowls.
Patrick Surtain II of Alabama has everything it takes to become a shutdown pro cornerback in short order.
He was a key component of a defense that helped lead the Crimson Tide to another national championship in 2020. His career stats at Alabama aren't especially eye-popping—116 total tackles, four interceptions and 24 passes defensed in three years as a starter.
But those stats don't tell the whole story. Opposing quarterbacks didn't exactly attack Surtain, and when they did, they didn't have much success. By the end of his final collegiate season, he was a consensus All-American and the SEC Defensive Player of the Year—the first corner to win the latter award since Morris Claiborne in 2011.
Surtain's father, Patrick, who played for the Miami Dolphins and Kansas City Chiefs and who coached his son at American Heritage High School in Florida, is admittedly biased. But he thinks his son is clearly the No. 1 prospect at his position in this draft, telling Stephen M. Smith of Touchdown Alabama Magazine:
"I am a cornerback connoisseur, so I study all of these guys. I try to watch all of their games. American Heritage is going to have three corners taken in the draft this year, so I take pride in studying them. I actually talked to Jaycee [Horn]. Really good dude. I know his father and I played against his father. The thing that separates Pat is probably everything. His athleticism, being at Alabama, being under Nick Saban, his understanding of the game, the defense they play at Alabama is the same way they play in the NFL. He has been training for this day for a long time, and all of those guys have natural, physical abilities. I think Pat separates himself by the level of competition at Alabama."
It isn't just Surtain's father who has high expectations for him. NFL.com draft guru Lance Zierlein talked up his strengths in most facets of the game, comparing him to one of the best cover men of his generation in former Raiders standout Nnamdi Asomugha:
"Lockdown, press-man cornerback with elite size, length and talent to match up with any brand of receiver from any place on the field. He was a five-star recruit coming in and he consistently competed for championships in high school and college. Surtain possesses elite physical and athletic traits with the rare combination of length and short-area quickness that allows him to play on a press-man island and phase routes on all three levels. He plays to his length with plus technique and cover skills that make winning downfield a very challenging proposition. He was beaten in true man-to-man battles for 29-plus yards just five times during his career. His ability to stay connected to the route allows him to shut down yards after catch very quickly as a strong, wrap-up tackler. Run support goes in the 'strengths' column, as well. He's been well-schooled at home and at Alabama. He's wired like a future All-Pro cornerback."
Surtain put on a show last year, and that festival of finery continued at Alabama's first pro day on March 23. Per Charlie Potter of 247 Sports, Surtain's unofficial 4.42-second 40-yard dash would have been the fifth-best time by a corner at the 2019 scouting combine. He also peeled off an impressive 18 reps of 225 pounds in the bench press and registered a vertical of 39 inches and a broad jump of 10 feet, 11 inches.
The performance only served to solidify his status as an early first-round pick, and it impressed NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah.
"It was really good," Jeremiah said in a Zoom call with reporters. "When you look at the testing stuff and start there, it's outstanding numbers. You kind of put him up, side by side, with Jalen Ramsey—just from a testing standpoint—it's eerily similar. I think they were a pound different. Very similar across the board in what they did there."
Being compared to Ramsey and Asomugha isn't terrible.
For all the things Surtain does well, he isn't flawless. His short-area quickness isn't elite—his 10- and 20-yard shuttle times at Alabama's pro day weren't great, and he didn't participate in the three-cone drill. It can be argued that he doesn't have the speed of South Carolina's Jaycee Horn or the raw athleticism of Virginia Tech's Caleb Farley.
But while Surtain may not have the highest ceiling of this year's top cornerback prospects, it isn't far off. His floor, by contrast, is exponentially higher. This is a young man who was watching film on receivers when many prospects were playing with Power Rangers. There are corners who have been in the league for three years who don't have Surtain's technique. He is as pro-ready of a collegiate corner as we have seen in several years.
Occasionally a defensive tackle will be the first defensive player drafted, but most years the first defender taken will be either an edge-rusher (Nick Bosa in 2019 and Chase Young in 2020) or a cornerback (Denzel Ward in 2018). There's talent on the edge this year, but no clear-cut top dog. And that opens the door for Surtain to shoot past them to the top of the proverbial heap.
More than a few mock drafts predict that is exactly what will happen. In his latest mock at CBS Sports, Josh Edwards slotted Surtain as the first defensive prospect off the board to Dallas at No. 10. Doug Farrar of Touchdown Wire also has him as the first defender chosen, one pick earlier to the Denver Broncos.
Frankly, the quarterback run so many expect in the top 10 could be a blessing to teams that don't have a glaring need under center. They might land a player who wouldn't fall that far most years. In three of the past five drafts, the No. 1 corner hasn't made it outside the top five.
In the class of 2021, Surtain is that top cornerback. He's got the total package of talent, technique and production. He's about as bust-proof as you can reasonably expect a prospect to be. And with no home run No. 1 pass-rusher, he's the best bet to be the first defensive player to hear his called at the end of the month.
Just ask the oddsmakers at DraftKings, who list Surtain as the betting favorite to be the first defender drafted.
You know, if you're into that sort of thing.
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