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2023 NFL Draft: Defensive Back NFL Combine Preview

Brian Branch, Safety, Alabama

To preview the 2023 NFL Scouting Combine, The 33rd Team’s experts are going position by position, breaking down what NFL teams look for when evaluating prospects in Indianapolis. 

The defensive backs take their turn in the NFL Combine’s on-field workouts on Thursday. There are a combined 59 cornerbacks and safeties expected to compete throughout the day.

With so many prospects competing at the same time it can be difficult to know what to look for. Here is a guide, highlighting the drills that matter most and how NFL teams use them to evaluate prospects.

Defensive Back Workouts

  • When: Friday, March 3
  • Time: 3-8 p.m. ET
  • How to Watch: NFL Network, NFL+

The 33rd Team's Top 5 Cornerbacks

Player  Overall Rank Grade
Christian Gonzalez No. 16 6.78
Emmanuel Forbes No. 19 6.75
Devon Witherspoon No. 24 6.72
Kelee Ringo No. 26 6.70
Joey Porter Jr. No. 28 6.70

The 33rd Team's Top 5 Safeties

Player Overall Rank Grade
Brian Branch No. 25 6.72
Antonio Johnson No. 36 6.40
Jammie Robinson No. 56 6.28
Sydney Brown No. 57 6.27
Ji'Ayir Brown No. 82 6.20

Drill That Matters Most

The drill I love the most is when they have to backpedal. They have to do what we call a "baseball turn" to open their hips and then show their range because they're throwing floater balls 40 or 50 yards down the field. But it's unbelievable to see how some of these guys can go up and high point and judge those balls and for other guys the ball just clinks off the top of their forehead. They have no judgment skills whatsoever. So for the defensive back drills, the ball skills and the ball instincts really can show up in these types of drills. 

A defensive back's 40-yard dash time was important, but what was more important to us is what we called the "Flying 20," which is how he finished the 20 yards at the end of the 40-yard dash. So the first 20 was fine, but he had to be faster in that second 20. We found out that defensive backs that were slower in the first 20 yards than the last 20 yards ended up not having as much success. — Rick Spielman

Hips Don't Lie

When watching individual defensive backs, you want to see how they come out of their breaks. You want to see how fluid their hips are. You want to see how great their hands are. I mean, it's so tough to play in the NFL these days. You can't really contact the wide receivers. So you want to look for guys that have a really great burst and have good acceleration from the start. Guys who have those swivel hips, the footwork that allows them to go in and out.  — Tank Williams

Ball Skills Are Key to Success

That brings me to guys who do really well catching the ball because the name of the game right now is turning the ball over. The guys who get highlighted and paid the most money in the NFL are those guys that come off the edge that can create direct pressure on the quarterback. Things like sacks, strip fumbles and pass deflections that lead to interceptions.

Then, when you're a defensive back, you have to attack the ball and stay on top of wide receivers, run the routes and make plays in that manner. If they have the speed as well, they're going to be some of the guys that get the hype for the NFL Draft because they're going to be a difference maker for that team. A playmaking defensive back allows teams to eliminate one of the biggest threats from the offensive side of the ball, which allows the other parts of the defense to work that much more efficiently. — Tank Williams

Tank Williams played five seasons in the NFL. Follow him on Twitter @TankWilliams13

Rick Spielman is a former general manager of the Dolphins and Vikings, and winner of the NFL Executive of the Year award by Pro Football Weekly in 2017. Follow him on Twitter @spielman_rick