Part 8, DB: These corners possess (historic) speed to burn
There's no "Sauce," but this class can fly. And one scout calls Oregon's Christian Gonzalez, "as confident a player as I have seen." Bob McGinn's 39th Annual Draft Series continues.
This is the 39th year that Bob McGinn has written an NFL Draft Series. Previously, it appeared in the Green Bay Press-Gazette (1985-’91), the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (1992-’17), BobMcGinnFootball.com (2018-’19), The Athletic (2020-’21) and, now, GoLongTD.com (2022-’23). Until 2014, many personnel people were quoted by name. The series reluctantly adopted an all-anonymous format in 2015 at the request of many scouts. The 12-minute, 50-question Wonderlic test no longer is administered at the NFL combine. Players generally took the test at spring 2022 timing days, all-star games and pro days in March and April. The NFL average score is about 19.
Today, Part 8: Defensive Backs.
It’s safe to say that no class of cornerbacks, taken as a whole, has ever possessed as much speed as the one that awaits eager teams Thursday in the NFL draft.
Eleven of the top 30 corners, including seven of the top 10, ran 40 yards in less than 4.4 seconds either at the combine or pro days. Last year, a mere two of the top 30 broke 4.4.
Not one of the evaluators interviewed for this series made a big deal about the speed factor. NFL people lock in on business at hand. All those 4.3s, even 4.2s written on the cards of the cornerbacks on their draft-room wall tend to blend in after a while as deliberations go on and on.
The closest remark regarding the collection of speed was made by a veteran scout when he was asked for his overview of the position.
“This group of corners is one of the best I’ve ever seen,” the executive said. “Most years you have one or two. This group, they just keep coming and coming. They all ran fast at the combine. I have five graded in the first round.”
Before getting into the names and numbers, perhaps I should mention my system for determining a 40 time for each player.
First, I disregard the electronic times at the combine. Electronic timing isn’t available at most pro days, and trying to compare electronic times with hand-held times is inappropriate.
At the combine, two designated scouts with stopwatches are seated at the finish line of the 40, and immediately their times are recorded by the combine staff. Working from those numbers, I average the times of a player’s first 40, the average of his second 40 (most run two) and then average the two averages for the number that I assign for posterity. If a player runs a 40 or two at a pro day, I’ll average those as best I can with his averages at the combine.
The sideline surface where the 40s are run at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis becomes the baseline surface. Fortunately, almost all pro days are conducted on comparable surfaces. In the past, when 40s were run on artificial turf or tracks (and some with participants wearing pin spikes) or on grass, I used the teams’ system of adding or subtracting a small amount of time in order to “curve” the time to the baseline.
I’ve used this system for about 20 years. Before that, I went with the fastest of the two hand-held times either at the combine or pro day.
Good or bad, my formula for 40 times has been consistent for a long time.
The avalanche of speed in Indianapolis included these 10 times: DJ Turner (4.26), Jakorian Bennett (4.27), Deonte Banks (4.31), Darius Rush (4.35), Tre’Vius Tomlinson (4.36), Cam Smith (4.37), Emmanuel Forbes (4.38), Kelee Ringo (4.38), Terell Smith (4.39) and Christian Gonzalez (4.39). Starling Thomas ran his 4.38 on March 23 during pro day at Alabama-Birmingham.
There were other fantastic times on the pro-day circuit from players that don’t rank among the top 30 but should at least be signed to a free-agent contracts. That group would include Brigham Young’s Kaleb Hayes (4.32), Michigan State’s Ameer Speed (4.33), Houston’s Art Green (4.36) and Stanford’s Ethan Bonner (4.39).
It wasn’t just speed this year, either. Seven of the top 30 went 11-0 or more in the broad jump whereas five went 40 inches or higher in the vertical jump. Both drills are reflections of speed as well as explosiveness.
Last spring, the only top-30 corners with sub-4.4 speed were UTSA’s Tariq Woolen (4.26) and Baylor’s Kalon Barnes (4.27). There were eight top-30 corners under 4.4 in. 2021, two in 2020, four in 2019 and four in 2018.
Just how rare are the sub-4.3 clockings for Turner and Bennett? A total of 43 corners were taken in the first round of the past 10 drafts and only one, Trae Waynes, ran below 4.3. In 2015, his time was 4.26.
Six corners that ran 4.50 or above were first-round picks in those 10 drafts. Twelve ran between 4.3 and 4.39, 15 ran between 4.40 and 4.45 and eight ran between 4.46 and 4.49. One player was never clocked.
“In the NFL of today, if you’re a corner and you’re not 4.45 on down, you can’t run,” one personnel man said. “The success rate of 4.55 corners is minimal.”
My poll of 16 evaluators asked them to rank the corners 1-2-3-4-5, with a first-place vote worth 5 points, a second-place worth 4 points and so on. It’s worth noting that 164 of the 240 possible points, or 68.3%, went to corners that ran under 4.4.
Christian Gonzalez led with nine firsts and 70 points. Following, in order, were Devon Witherspoon (67, six), Joey Porter (30, one), Deonte Banks (24 ½), Emmanuel Forbes (20), DJ Turner (nine), Cam Smith (6 ½), Garrett Williams (four), Julius Brents (three), Kelee Ringo (three), Clark Phillips (two) and Darius Rush (one).
As much as scouts admire the group as a whole, they were hesitant to label any one player as elite. The current young players most commonly referred to as falling in that category were Sauce Gardner (6-2 ½, 193, 4.46) and Patrick Surtain II (6-2, 208, 4.42).
Last year, the Jets drafted Gardner at No. 4. In 2021, the Broncos selected Surtain at No. 9.
“There’s no one in that class in this draft,” said one personnel man. “I don’t think the top of the corner class is filled with as many good football players as the last couple years. It’s kind of a mix between the tough, undersized, instinctive guys and the pretty height-weight-speed guys that maybe you wish their film was a little better.”
Of the corners as a whole, another executive said, “There are probably 12 to 15 guys that can come in and at least be a No. 3 corner in the first year. Eight or so of those could be good No. 2’s. Probably be four to six in the first round.”
Meanwhile, it appears this will be the third draft in the past four years in which no safety has been taken in Round 1.
“This is unbelievable how bad this is,” one scout said. “(Brian) Branch, (Antonio) Johnson and then it’s kind of a free-for-all. It falls quick.”
Branch dominated the 16-scout poll with 13 firsts and 74 points, yet he is considered an underdog for the first round.
The rest of the vote was Johnson (39, one), Quan Martin (28), Sydney Brown (25, one), Jordan Battle (20, one), Jammie Robinson (17), Ji'ayir Brown (12), Jay Ward (seven), JL Skinner (five), Ronnie Hickman (four), Gervarrius Owens (four), Christopher Smith (three) and DeMarcco Hellams (two).
“No one in our room has any conviction on any of these guys,” one personnel man said. “I think the highest grade we have is a late second or third of that group. It was sort of an uninspiring group.”
Full scouting reports on all top defensive backs — with analysis from personnel men across the NFL — are below. You can catch up on Bob McGinn’s entire draft series right here:
1. CHRISTIAN GONZALEZ, Oregon (6-1 ½, 199, 4.39, 1): Started all 30 games of his collegiate career, including 18 at Colorado and 12 at Oregon. “He’s the prototype height-weight-speed guy,” said one scout.