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2022 NFL Draft Preview: Ben Fennell’s Top Cornerbacks

Top Cornerbacks
This is the 10th part of our 11-part positional breakdown of the April 28-30 NFL draft. Today: the cornerbacks.
Ben Fennell is an Emmy award-winning producer, editor and analyst across several sports and media platforms. He has been involved in the production of the last eight drafts for NFL Network and also is a producer for the NFL on CBS. You can follow Ben on Twitter at @BenFennell_nfl

Still need convincing that the NFL is a quarterback-driven league? Just look at the numbers.

Two years ago, the league broke all-time passing records in several significant categories, including touchdown percentage, completion percentage and passer rating.

Teams have averaged 34-plus pass attempts per game for 11 straight years now. They’ve averaged 220 or more passing yards per game in each of the last12 seasons.

The pressure is on defensive coordinators to find a way to slow down passing offenses. And the pressure is on GMs and player personnel people to find defensive linemen that can hurry quarterbacks and cornerbacks who can shut down their receivers.

As it happens this is a pretty good year to find corner help, both outside and inside. There could be as many as five corners taken in the first round later this month, and as many as 13 or 14 in the first three rounds.

“This is a good group of cornerbacks,” NFL Network draft analyst Ben Fennell said. “And they come in all sorts of shapes, sizes, ability and experience.

“Cornerback is another position in which the NFL is really dying for competent, capable depth. There are going to be a lot of opportunities to make rosters for these guys.’’

Cincinnati’s Ahmad Gardner and LSU’s Derek Stingley Jr. head the list of corners in this draft. Gardner could be a top-five pick. Stingley figures to go somewhere in the middle of the first round, followed by Washington’s Trent McDuffie, Clemson’s Andrew Booth and Michigan’s Dax Hill.

“There’s some top-heavy elite talent that people are excited about taking in the first round, and there are some big-body physical guys that are going to go on Day 2, like Gardner’s Cincinnati teammate Coby Bryant, Florida’s Kaiir Elam, Mississippi State’s Martin Emerson and Georgia’s Derion Kendrick.’’

Fennell said there are a few players that scouts had projected as safeties until they tested better than expected at the combine and/or their Pro Day. That group includes Nebraska’s Cam Taylor-Britt, Pitt’s DaMarri Mathis and Tennessee’s Alontae Taylor.

All three ran sub 4.4 forties at the combine – Taylor a 4.36, Taylor-Britt a 4.38 and Mathis a 4.39. Mathis added a spectacular 43 ½-inch vertical jump at his Pro Day.

Fennell’s top 5 corners (outside)

1—Ahmad Gardner, Cincinnati, 6-3, 190, Rd. 1

2—Derek Stingley Jr., LSU, 6-0, 190, Rd. 1

3—Trent McDuffie, Washington, 5-11, 193, Rd. 1

4—Andrew Booth, Clemson, 6-0, 194, Rd. 1-2

5—Kaiir Elam, Florida, 6-1, 191, Rd. 3-4

The Best

Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner

Cincinnati

6-3, 190

Arms: 33 ½ inches

40 time: 4.41 seconds

Vertical jump: N/A

Ben’s take: “Gardner is a tall, long ballhawk. A press corner with very good speed. He’s a bit unrefined with his technique, especially in press coverage. And he’s a little grabby at the top of routes. He’s a little raw with a lot of the way he plays. But he’s very quick-footed. Has excellent ball skills and is very, very fast. He consistently makes game-changing plays. Had nine interceptions and 27 passes defensed in 28 starts at Cincinnati. Also had three sacks last year.

“He’s a guy who I think has relied a little too much on his God-given ability. He has to figure out some technique stuff at the next level. He reminds me a little bit of Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. A tall, skinny, long-limbed ballhawk with terrific speed. Should be the first corner off the board, especially after the way he tested. A really good kid as well.’’

Round projection: 1

The Riser

Trent McDuffie

Washington

5-11, 193

Arms: 29 ¾ inches

40 time: 4.44 seconds

Vertical jump: 38 ½ inches

Ben’s take: “He played a variety of schemes and a variety of positions at Washington. Some press man with a lot of zone coverage. He’s really tough in run support and protecting the flat. Excellent tackler.

“He will do some bail side-saddle stuff where he keeps his eyes in the backfield. Played quite a bit of press coverage snaps in 2019. A lot of side-saddle stuff in 2020. It seemed like each year was a new technique or a new position for him. But he’s really fast.

“A good special-teamer as well. He’s played some punt coverage. He’s a guy who’s been stacking year after year. A true junior. Washington has been pumping out tons of pro defensive backs the last 5-6-7 years, including Kevin King, Sidney Jones, Budda Baker. Washington’s other corner, Kyler Gordon also is very good. McDuffie reminds me a lot of Tre White coming out of LSU. Really tough kid that I think can play in a variety of schemes. A leader on the field.’’

Round projection: 1

The Sleeper

Kyler Gordon

Washington

5-11, 194

Arms: 31 inches

40 time: 4.52 seconds

Vertical jump: 39 ½ inches

Ben’s take: “He’s slightly taller than McDuffie. This guy reminds me a ton of [the Saints’] Marshon Lattimore for a variety of reasons. Like Lattimore when he came out of Ohio State, Gordon is fairly inexperienced. He was a one-year starter for the Huskies. He doesn’t have a huge body of work. But every time he’s on the field, it’s really tough for the other team to get his guy uncovered.

“He’s tough in run support, tough against receivers trying to block him. Does an excellent job of staying on top of receivers. Forces a lot of back-shoulder throws because he’s always on top vertically. But he plays the back-shoulder well with his long limbs. Has excellent speed and burst. His footwork needs to be refined a bit. He’s. bit heavy-footed. Gets stuck in the mud at times. Will also be a significant contributor on special teams. He was an excellent punt-gunner at Washington.

“He didn’t test well at the combine. Ran a 4.52 at the combine. But Trent McDuffie told us that he was going to run in the high 4.3s and said Gordon regularly beats him in races. His slow 40 time at the combine was mainly because he didn’t have his technique down as far as getting out of his track stance. So, people need to not overreact to his testing. Watch him on special teams when he runs past everybody on the field as a punt-gunner. He stays on top of receivers on the field vertically easily. He plays some in the slot as well.’’

Round projection: 2-3

Fennell’s top 5 slot corners

1—Daxton Hill, Michigan, 6-0, 191, Rd. 1

2—Jalen Pitre, Baylor, 5-11, 198, Rd. 2-3

3—Jaquan Brisker, Penn State, 6-1, 206, Rd. 2-3

4—Roger McCreary, Auburn, 5-11, 190, Rd. 2-3

5—DaMarri Mathis, Pitt, 5-11, 196, Rd. 4-5

The Best

Daxton Hill

Michigan

6-0, 191

Arms: 32 ¼ inches

40 time: 4.38 seconds

Vertical jump: 37 inches

Ben’s take: “Hill is a very versatile, athletic nickel safety/corner. A five-star Oklahoma Gatorade Player of the Year coming out of high school. He’s the brother of Baltimore Ravens running back Justice Hill.

“He’s a very athletically-fluid player. He can cover slots and play on the back end. He can stick his nose in run-support and he can blitz. He gets from Point A to Point B incredibly quickly.

“I watched their bowl game against Alabama in 2019. He battled DeVonta Smith. Challenged the flat and the perimeter extremely well. His position coach said he’s the fastest player he’s ever coached.

“He’s played a variety of spots. Nickel, back-end safety, strong safety. He can run the alleys extremely well. He’s a guy I think can play outside corner if somebody wanted him to.

“He reminds me a lot of the Chiefs’ L’Jarius Sneed when he was coming out of Louisiana Tech a couple of years ago. Similar height-weight. Hill ran in the 4.3s and jumped nearly 40 inches just like Sneed did. For the Chiefs, Sneed has played corner, he’s played safety and he’s played nickel. I think Hill is going to fit that same type of role for somebody.’’

Round projection: 2

The Riser

Jaquan Brisker

Penn State

6-1, 206

Arms: 31 ¾ inches

40-time: 4.43 seconds

Vertical jump: 38 ½ inches

Ben’s take: “I’m putting him in this category but I’m not entirely sure where I want to play him yet. I don’t think he’s a true back-end safety. I don’t think he’s a sub-linebacker. I want to put him in space and find ways to tap into his freakish athleticism. I think that’s going to be the nickel, the slot, the big safety, the guy that’s hanging out in the alley, just a smidge out of the box where he can fly in and make tackles and make plays on the perimeter.

“He’s another guy with a cornerback background who could probably slide out and play on the outside if you wanted him to. He has extremely long limbs. Exceptional athlete. Speedy. Fluid. Can play in the box.

“He has some tackling issues at times as many former corners typically do. Last season, he lined up in the box quite often. He was a juco transfer. He’s a guy whose positional home and how somebody wants to use him may be different based on the team. But he has a lot of ability.’’

Round projection: 2-3

WATCH: Mike Tannenbaum’s Jaquan Brisker Scouting Report

The Sleeper

Jalen Pitre

Baylor

5-11, 198

Arms: 31 1/8 inches

40 time: 4.46 seconds

Vertical jump: 35 inches

Ben’s take: “Baylor had an outstanding defense last year, and this guy was a major reason why. I know it sounds crazy calling a guy who was the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year a sleeper. But he’s not getting the national level of buzz and hype that a lot of these other guys from Power 5 schools are getting.

“He’s just an absolute, scrappy nickel safety type. A really, really tough kid. He’s not a guy who’s an exceptional athlete or exceptional tester. But he plays so much bigger than his size suggests. He can take on blocks, whether it’s tight ends or offensive linemen. He can blitz. He’ll throw his body around in run-support. He’s really good in coverage.

“When he’s unblocked, he just plays 100 miles an hour. Has tons of huge hits in his career. He’s a scrappy, tough undersized nickel who’s just always around the ball. I don’t think there’s anything he can’t do. He reminds me of a guy like Jimmy Ward or the way Taron Johnson, the rocked-up nickel for Buffalo, plays. I can see him being that type of presence for somebody. He’s. really good player.’’

Round projection: 2-3