This is the 10th of an 11-part series on the 2021 NFL draft in which, for the third straight year, Ben Fennell breaks down the draft for The Inquirer. Ben is an Emmy award-winning producer, editor, and researcher across several media platforms, most notably NFL Network and ESPN College Football. This will be his seventh draft for the NFL Network. You can follow him on Twitter at @benfennell_NFL.
Howie Roseman hasn’t exactly covered himself in glory when it comes to drafting cornerbacks.
Going back to his early days as Eagles general manager in 2010 (Curtis Marsh) and 2011 (Trevard Lindley), he’s had tremendous difficulty finding players who can both cover receivers and stay off the injury list.
“Every evaluator has some positions they’re better at and some positions they’re not as good at,” former Eagles general manager Joe Banner said last fall. “The length of time the Eagles have struggled to be good at corner leaves me at least thinking it may be a position that they’re just not looking at in the right way and focusing on the right attributes that fit their scheme. It’s hard to miss because it is so conspicuous.”
Yeah, it is. And here we are again, just days away from yet another draft, and Roseman and the Eagles find themselves once again in desperate need of cornerback help.
They currently have the 12th overall pick in the draft and four of the first 84 selections. Many of the national mock drafts have them taking either a corner — Patrick Surtain? Jaycee Horn? Caleb Farley? — or a wide receiver with that first pick. But this draft also has a solid group of corners that are projected to go in the second round as well.
Surtain and Horn, who is Ben Fennell’s top-rated corner, both are expected to go between 9 and 14. At one point, Farley was expected to be the first corner off the board. But he is coming off back surgery, and it’s not clear what impact that’s going to have on his draft stock. Greg Newsome of Northwestern, who may be the best zone corner in the draft, also is in the first-round conversation.
There also is a solid group of projected Day 2 corners that includes Asante Samuel Jr. (Florida State), Kelvin Joseph (Kentucky), Elijah Molden (Washington), Jevon Holland (Oregon), Aaron Robinson (Central Florida) and Paulson Adebo (Stanford).
“There’s something for everybody in this draft,” Fennell said of the corner crop. “Press corners, zone corners, slot guys, safeties with corner backgrounds and vice versa.
“You have some very good guys at the top and you have several Day 2 guys that are going to play right away. And you have some intriguing Day 3 developmental guys. Collectively, it’s a pretty deep group.”
Fennell’s NFL Network partner, Daniel Jeremiah, agrees but thinks cornerback-needy teams like the Eagles might want to act fast.
“There’s going to be a really good group of corners in round 2,” Jeremiah said. “But after that, it really starts to drop off on my list. For those teams looking for corners, they’re going to go pretty quick. So you’d better get on that ride early, in the first or second round, or you could get left off.”
Ben’s Top Five (outside corners)
1. Jaycee Horn, South Carolina, 6-1, 205, Round 1
2. Patrick Surtain, Alabama, 6-2, 208, Round 1
3. Caleb Farley, Virginia Tech, 6-2, 197, Rounds 1-2
4. Greg Newsome, Northwestern, 6-0, 192, Rounds 1-2
5. Asante Samuel, Florida State, 5-10, 180, Round 2
Arms: 33 inches
40-time: 4.40 seconds
Vertical jump: 41½ inches
225-bench: 19 reps
Fennell’s take: “Horn’s a big, tall, long corner with great speed, great play temperament. He’s very physical, very disruptive. Has played a ton of press coverage. He’s grabby. He’s handsy at the line, in the route and at the catch point. He’s an annoying guy to have to play against if he’s covering you. He contributes in run support and forces fumbles. Had three of them in 2019.
“He’s very much like an Aqib Talib type of player out on the perimeter where you just know what you’re getting with a really long press cover who plays with an eff-you attitude. There’s a fine line of aggression there, though. He picked up a bunch of penalties because of that aggression. But I’d rather have an aggressive guy and teach him how to dial it back, than a timid guy and have to ramp him up.
“Horn, who is Joe Horn’s son, played against a gauntlet of top receivers in the SEC. He took his share of lumps. But I think it made him a better player. He’s different from Patrick Surtain. Surtain is a good cover corner, but is incredibly stiff. He has problems getting in and out of breaks. A lot of scouts think Surtain’s best spot at the next level is going to be safety. Horn is a natural corner.
“Like I said, Horn played against the best the SEC had to offer. He was the best assignment guy in the league. He had to guard Alabama’s DeVonta Smith one week, then would move inside the next week to take on Ole Miss’s Elijah Moore. The next week, they’d put him on Kyle Pitts and tell him to go guard him all over the field. So he wore a lot of hats for his team and took some lumps because of that. But I think it all made him a better player in the long run.”
Round projection: 1 (9-15)
Arms: 31 1/8 inches
40-time: 4.38 seconds
Vertical jump: 40 inches
Fennell’s take: “Newsome is a little bit different package than Horn, Surtain and Caleb Farley. Everybody wants those long height-weight-speed press corners, but don’t forget about the zone corners. And Newsome is a terrific zone corner. He’s very good coming up in run support and attacking the flat on perimeter screen-action stuff. He’ll finish ballcarriers. He had 15 PBUs last year. Only has one interception in his career, but he’s a pretty experienced player.
“He’s a little tall in his pedal. Second guesses his breaks at times. But he’s a tall, rocked-up kid. If you’re a team that doesn’t play zone coverage, he might be a better projection as a nickel safety. I love his play temperament. And he tested out of this world. He’s a really good player. He just isn’t a fit for every team.
Round projection: 1-2
Arms: 31 7/8 inches
40-time: 4.34 seconds
Vertical jump: 35 inches
Fennell’s take: “This guy was a four-star player out of Baton Rouge who went to LSU then transferred to Kentucky. Has very little on-field experience. Essentially played one year with about 750 defensive snaps in his career and opted out of the season early last year. So he has not even played a full season of college football. Not to mention that some of the off-the-field stuff with him at LSU needs to be vetted.
“He’s a big, tall, long press corner. A ball hawk. Lot of talent, but he’s just raw. He’s inconsistent. Last year, he gave up a touchdown to Kyle Pitts and then opted out the next week. He’s done a lot of dumb stuff. Gets called for too many personal fouls. He’s a very scrappy player. Tested well. Ran in the low 4.3s. He has a lot of upside, but he has a lot of questions too.”
Round projection: 4-5
Ben’s Top Five (slot corners)
1. Elijah Molden, Washington, 5-9 192, Round 2
2. Jevon Holland, Oregon, 6-1, 207, Round 2
3. Aaron Robinson, Central Florida, 5-11, 186, Round 3
4. Ar’Darius Washington, TCU, 5-8, 176, Round 4
5. Ambry Thomas, Michigan, 6-0, 191, Round 5
Arms: 29½ inches
40-time: 4.60 seconds
Vertical jump: 36½ inches
225-bench: 13 reps
Fennell’s take: “Molden is the best slot DB in the draft. He didn’t test particularly well, but that’s OK. At the nickel position, you have to have lateral quickness and feistiness first and foremost rather than long speed. That’s him. He’s a guy with tons of forced incompletions, tons of run stops. He’s good on special teams. He’s the prototypical nickel sub-package defensive back.
“He’s a little undersized. So he’s going to get beat on an occasional 50-50 ball. Do you want him on an island in the red zone against a 6-4 receiver? Of course not. But if you’re looking for a quick-footed guy who’s going to make plays in the slot, he’s what you want.”
Round projection: 2
Arms: 31½ inches
40-time: 4.46 seconds
Vertical jump: 35½ inches
225-bench: 19 reps
Fennell’s take: “Holland is a nickel with really good size. Might be best suited for a nickel safety type of role. Like most of the Oregon guys, he opted out of 2020, which means teams haven’t seen him play in a while. Had incredible production in coverage and has excellent ball skills. Made tons of plays on the ball. Had nine interceptions in 2018-19. He’s a really physical player. At 200-plus pounds, he’s good in run support. So he can handle the physicality in the box. He can swoop into the backfield as a blitzer and in run support.
“He’s more the prototypical player you want in the nickel spot in the NFL. A guy who’s not an undersized liability. Everyone wants that Malcolm Jenkins type of player. A former corner you can move inside. The small, undersized nickel is kind of dying because everyone is kind of attacking that player in the run and with perimeter action. Everyone wants that third safety out there. So finding a nickel with some size and ball skills is helpful. Holland can do that.”
Round projection: 2
Arms: 28¾ inches
40-time: 4.40 seconds
Vertical jump: 33½ inches
225-bench: 19 reps
Fennell’s take: “Williams didn’t get a combine invite, so he has a chance to be the highest drafted non-combine player. He’s only 5-8½, but he’s got a rocked-up chest and core and plays bigger than he actually is. He’s a strong player who played some corner, played some nickel, played some safety. He’s also a prolific special teams player. He had over 600 special teams snaps at Boise. Eight return touchdowns. Three blocked kicks. He loves playing on special teams. Said he wants to be a Matthew Slater-type of player in the NFL.
“But even in coverage, he’s an experienced four-year starter at Boise. Played more than 2,500 snaps in a variety of schemes. Whatever you need him to do he can do it. He had picks against Josh Allen back in 2017 when Allen was at Wyoming. He reminds me a lot of Ellis Hobbs. That type of player. A versatile DB and return type.
“Teams also have asked him about playing running back. He was a really good running back in high school.”
Round projection: 4