All the excitement surrounding the 2015 NFL Draft continues to revolve around where quarterbacks Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota will wind up when the first round begins Thursday April 30. Logically it makes sense. Quarterbacks are the focal point of a team’s offense, the most vocal leader on the field, and serve as the pitchman between fans and ownership.
But while Winston and Mariota have duked it out for the No. 1 overall selection for the last four months, there’s been very little talk of how deep 2015’s talent pool actually is. From top to bottom, there are at least two or three players at each position who can not only contribute right away but even make a Pro Bowl or two down the line.
Cornerback is especially deep this year. Based off CBS Sports projections and other draft reports, as many as 15 corners could hear their name called by the end of the third round. So roughly 15 percent of the first three rounds could be made up of top defensive backs, a position that’s become tantamount to team's success in a league that continues to favor the passing game. That would also equal last year’s total with 15 defensive backs gone by the middle of the third round.
Let’s breakdown which of these cornerbacks has the potential to be a starter either right away or in the near future. Below are the best six cornerbacks available in this year’s draft, with a breakdown of each and where they might land in the NFL.
Trae Waynes, Michigan State
Universally tabbed as the best cornerback in this year’s class, Waynes possesses both the speed and power necessary to compete against the NFL’s elite receivers. He solidified his stance at the scouting combine with a 4.31 40-yard dash and 19 reps on the bench press, and should be the first corner off the board. Spending three years at Michigan State under head coach Mark Dantonio, Waynes totaled 11 interceptions, 12 passes defensed, and 101 total tackles over 36 career games. The Spartans were one of the most feared defenses in the country the last two years, and much of that success was generated by Waynes stalking the sidelines.
Scouts have questioned Waynes propensity for penalties, with nine committed in his last two seasons at East Lansing. But with his athletic abilities, Waynes should adjust over time and help any number of beleaguered secondarys. Right now ESPN’s Mel Kiper and Todd McShay have Waynes going No. 11 overall to the Minnesota Vikings.
Jalen Collins, LSU
Blessed with incredible length (standing 6-foot-1 with 32 1/8” arms) and plenty of weight to support such a frame (203 pounds at the combine), Collins is largely projected to go after Waynes due to his lack of in-game experience. He started only 10 games over three years with the Tigers, which does lead to some conclusions pertaining to Collins' work ethic or his propensity to rely strictly on talent. No matter, he has all the proper skills to excel in the NFL and should be the second or third corner called.
P.J. Williams, Florida State
Now we enter the second round, where Williams is expected to fall with Connecticut’s Byron Jones and Washington’s Marcus Peters going ahead of him. But while both are solid players, Williams’ potential for big plays is far more evident. Williams improved each year over the course of three seasons in Tallahassee, finishing off 2014 with a 11 passes defensed. Like Collins and Waynes, Williams has the prototypical size and strength NFL teams are looking for, with his main drawback being a poor attitude. Scouts have said Williams sometimes plays down to lesser competition, and that he’d fit better in a man-cover defense since he doesn’t appear to like playing zone.
With Williams the talent is evident, and his future in the NFL will have a lot to do with who drafts and coaches him.
Senquez Golson, Ole Miss
Arguably the most decorated player on this list, Golson was a unanimous first-team All-American last season while tying Ole Miss’s record of 10 interceptions in his senior season. He helped the Rebels attain the best defense in the loaded SEC with 13.8 points allowed and accounted for nearly half of the team’s 22 interceptions.
Scouts have commented on Golson’s love of the game even though he has plenty of skills on the baseball diamond if he chose to go that route.
Size is the only knock against Golson. He measures in at 5-foot-9, but with his amazing hands and coordination, along with his desire to succeed, Golson belongs in the first round with Waynes, Collins, Jones and the next player on our list.
Kevin Johnson, Wake Forest
Another long and lean prospect, Johnson showed his ability to make big plays as a three-year starter for Wake Forest. In 2012, Johnson was second in the ACC with 18 passes defensed, and followed that up with 12 more defensed the next year. He also displayed solid tackling skills and a willingness to help out against the run or in the open field with eight career tackles for a loss.
While taking all of his stats into account, Johnson shot up draft boards recently because of his stellar performances at the combine. He finished near the top among corners in the vertical and broad jumps, and the cone and shuttle drills. Johnson’s moved up into the first round tier but could go as low as the early second round. The skills are all there for Johnson, but at 188 pounds he’ll need to put on some muscle to extend his career.
Marcus Peters, Washington
Projected as a first or second round tweener, Peters would have been a lock for the first round if not for his dismissal from Washington in November for arguing with an assistant coach in practice. It’s the kind of volatile temperament, especially when its directed toward an authority figure like a coach, that gives NFL teams reason enough to back away.
But they’d miss out on a sizeable and gifted corner who allowed only 38.1 percent of passes thrown his way to be completed over the last two seasons. Peters also racked up 27 passes defensed and 11 interceptions in a Pac-12 conference loaded with NFL quarterback prospects.
The dismissal likely drops Peters further than the second round and he’ll probably wind up going either very late second or early third round. But from those spots, Peters is a major steal.