2013 Draft Preview: Defensive Backs

Posted Apr 22, 2013

Southeastern Conference represented well in the secondary.

It’s safe to say that the Southeastern Conference’s transformation from a run-first mentality to a more vertical attack is complete, which explains why so many quality cornerbacks and safeties are being developed. Three of the top five defensive back prospects hail from the SEC, led by Alabama cornerback Dee Milliner and Florida safety Matt Elam, both projected to go early in Thursday’s NFL Draft.

Throw in Mississippi State cornerback Johnthan Banks, who fits the recent mold of tall and long corners, and it’s easy to see why NFL scouts are spending more time at SEC games during the season and poring over film. The southern part of the country in general has become a goldmine for secondary players, with Florida State cornerback Xavier Rhodes and Florida International University safety Jonathan Cyprien rounding out the top five.

(In Alphabetical Order)

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Johnthan Banks entered the season with a lot of hype and was getting more attention than Milliner after a breakout junior campaign for the Bulldogs that saw him intercept four passes, record three sacks and 71 tackles (46 solo, 8 for loss). His numbers dropped a little in 2012 with no sacks and 63 tackles (39 solo), but he added another four interceptions and won the Jim Thorpe Award, given to the nation’s top defensive back. A knee injury kept Banks out of the Senior Bowl and he had an abysmal performance at the NFL Scouting Combine, managing just 10 reps on the bench press and a 4.61 in the 40-yard dash. He shaved two-hundredths of a second off of his 40 at Mississippi State’s Pro Day and his physical attributes should still enable him to go either late in the first round or early in the second round.

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Last year’s successful rookie season for FIU’s T.Y. Hilton at wide receiver for the Indianapolis Colts helped put the commuter school in Miami on the map and has it emerging from the shadow of the University of Miami. Jonathan Cyprien, a Miami Beach native who had to cover Hilton in practice, hopes to further the school’s image in this year’s draft, and between an eye-opening Senior Bowl week and a solid Pro Day he has shot up the rankings on a lot of draft boards. He is the full package at safety, with stellar instincts against the run and as a blitzer while also solid in pass coverage. Cyprien racked up 13.5 sacks in his college career and six interceptions (three last season), along with 365 tackles (213 solo). His aggressiveness can cost him if he’s asked to maintain coverage but that can easily be coached.

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Matt Elam is another homegrown product from South Florida, having starred in high school at West Palm Beach’s Dwyer High as an athletic quarterback and hard-hitting safety. The Gators moved him permanently to the defensive side of the ball and he flourished as a two-year starter in his sophomore and junior seasons, racking up 154 tackles (108 solo), 22 for loss, four sacks and six interceptions. Elam is the younger brother of former New York Jets safety Abe Elam and loves contact, especially in blitz situations, but the only knock on him is his height, which he can’t do anything about. The fact that he is compact plays to his advantage against bigger running backs and receivers because he can explode from his hips and stop their forward progress. Elam and Cyprien are battling Texas’ Kenny Vaccaro for the honor of being the first safety taken off the board.

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Any concerns about Dee Milliner’s health and toughness went out the window in Indianapolis at the Combine as he blazed his way to the second fastest 40-yard dash among cornerbacks at 4.37 seconds – with a torn labrum in his right shoulder. He did every other drill except for the bench press and shined during his interviews with teams, and he was the defensive catalyst behind Alabama’s third BCS national championship in four years. Milliner, who underwent surgery to repair the shoulder after the Combine, had an incredible 22 passes defensed, two interceptions, 1.5 sacks and 54 tackles (34 solo) for the Crimson Tide and was nearly impossible to throw against. If there is one area where he is lacking it’s against the run, as the more physical backs were able to run through his tackles, but he has cemented his place as the top cornerback in this draft class.

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Xavier Rhodes bounced back from a knee injury in 2011 that limited his playing time to pop back on the radar of NFL scouts, general managers and coaches with three interceptions, 10 pass breakups and 39 tackles (27 solo) as a redshirt junior for the Seminoles. His best season came his freshman year when he had 58 tackles (49 solo), two sacks and four interceptions and showed then as a boundary corner that he could excel in press coverage. Rhodes ran a 4.43 in the 40 in Indy and his 40.5-inch vertical leap tied for the best among all corners, which only confirmed his athleticism. He, Banks and Houston’s D.J. Haden are seen as the cream of the crop behind Milliner at the position, but Rhodes will have to improve in run support in order to become that complete cornerback at the next level.


David Amerson
6-1, 205
N.C. State

D.J. Haden  
5-11, 191

Jamar Taylor
5-11, 192
Boise State

Desmond Trufant 
6-0, 190

Kenny Vaccaro 
6-0, 214

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