INDIANAPOLIS – There is no lack of confidence or bravado among the cornerbacks vying for first-round status in this year’s NFL Draft, but they also are well aware how big a challenge lies ahead.
It’s one thing to be dominant at the college level, where the speed of the wide receivers can be neutralized down the field, but that’s not as easy to do at the pro level when penalty flags are thrown more frequently. Alabama’s Dee Milliner, the top-rated player at his position, understands that part of transition well.
“You’ve got to watch yourself with what you’re doing nowadays in the league, especially when you make a hit because if you lead with the wrong part of your body you’re going to have to be ready to give some cash up for a fine,” said Milliner, who is scheduled to have surgery on his torn labrum in two weeks but still did every drill but the bench press. “I don’t think it will change your mentality as a player and being physical out there, you’ve just got to know what you’re doing and just watch yourself when you’re out there trying to make plays on the ball.”
During his three years playing for Nick Saban in Tuscaloosa, Milliner intercepted nine passes and registered 136 tackles (89 solo) for two national championship teams. At 6-feet and 201 pounds, he established his reputation as a hard-hitting defensive back that was very effective over the middle of the field and with the bigger, physical receivers. He’ll get to show scouts, coaches and general managers how fast he his and how effective he can be in coverage on deep passes today inside Lucas Oil Stadium, which is why he had no second thoughts when choosing to do everything at the Combine.
Mississippi State’s Johnthan Banks also fits that physical mode at 6-2, 185 and used that to his advantage in the SEC against some of the quicker and more skilled receivers in the nation. He pointed to his length and his ability to manhandle receivers as his biggest strengths and drew some laughs when he was asked what he thought he needed to work on to improve at the next level and responded by saying he needs to be more physical. Banks’ 221 tackles, 15 interceptions and four sacks in four seasons for the Bulldogs stand out, but he also knows things won’t be quite as easy in the NFL.
“I talked to (Dallas Cowboys and former LSU cornerback) Morris Claiborne a couple of weeks ago and he was just telling me some of the problems he had,” Banks said. “Coming from college you can beat a guy up all the way down the field. In the NFL you can only touch a guy the first five yards so just getting around some older guys and learning new things I’ll have to learn how to play the game all over again, so it will probably be a challenge.”
One of the best corners in this class less likely to be impacted by those tighter rules is Washington’s Desmond Trufant, the third member of his family to likely play in the NFL. He is the younger brother of Seattle Seahawks cornerback Marcus Trufant and Isaiah Trufant of the New York Jets and played in a pro style defense with the Huskies.
Scouting reports on Trufant highlight his speed and quickness more than his strength and physicality, which these days might be seen as more of a positive than a negative in light of how the game has changed. He points to his instincts, his feet, quickness, getting in and out of his breaks and transitioning as his strengths along with his leadership and believes he was prepared well at Washington for the NFL game.
“We did a lot of man-to-man and I feel like I’m a man-to-man corner,” said Trufant, who had 38 pass breakups and six interceptions to go with 195 tackles (151 solo) for the Huskies. “I can play zone as well but I feel man is my strength and in the league you’ve got to be able to man up. The receivers are great and you’ve got to be able to read and react being out there on that island and it’s definitely helped me playing at Washington. I feel the way I get out of my breaks and my transitioning, the guys in the slot are quicker and I feel I can do well in that area.”
Milliner, Banks and Trufant appear among the top four prospects, along with Xavier Rhodes from Florida State, on most of the lists currently out there. Oregon State’s Jordan Poyer is not far behind, projected as a late first-round or early second-round pick after picking off seven passes, breaking up another 14 and registering two sacks and 51 tackles (34 solo) as a senior. He measured in at 6-0, 191 and his experience as a kick returner should benefit him today when he runs his 40-yard dash, 60-yard shuttle and 3-cone drill.
Football smarts is one area that Poyer hopes will set him apart from the rest of the cornerbacks because he considers his ball skills and his instincts to be his primary strengths. Going against teammate Markus Wheaton, who ran a 4.45 in his 40-yard dash, in practice certainly helped Poyer, but he likes to compare himself St. Louis Rams cornerback Cortland Finnegan, known more for his physical play. Finnegan’s scrappy style, while entertaining, also has been exposed by the league’s faster receivers so Poyer knows he’ll have to adjust, especially when playing press coverage.
“If you miss, they’re gone, especially if you’re pressing a guy like Markus, Tavon Austin or (Texas’) Marquise Goodwin,” he said. “You’ve got to really understand your strength and understand what their strength is and understand the situation. … I kind of got a little taste of (the different rules) at the Senior Bowl and I think I’ll be able to handle it. It’s not going to be anything that’s too difficult to handle because playing corner is about a lot more than just being athletic and covering somebody. You’ve got to play smart, you’ve got to play physical and you’ve got to understand the game.”
After speed was all the talk of the first two days of the on-the-field drills it was the lack of it that was all the buzz today. Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o's disappointing performance in the 40-yard dominated the chatter inside Lucas Oil Stadium, as he failed to meet Mike Mayock's target time of 4.75 seconds. His first run was clocked at 4.81 unofficially and his second at 4.85, prompting a puzzled look from Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh. ... FSU defensive end Bjoern Werner and Utah defensive end Ziggy Ansah both acquitted themselves well overall, though Werner's 4.83 in the 40 was a little disappointing. He made up for it in some of the other drills, showing off his athleticism, and he bench pressed 225 pounds 25 times. ... Anytime a skill player sniffs the Combine record in the 40 of 4.24 seconds set by Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson in 2008 people get excited. It's actually been broken unofficially a few times when those hand timing the players send out their results, like yesterday when Auburn running back Onterrio McCalebb posted a 4.21 initially. But later in the afternoon when the official times were announced he was saddled with a 4.34. Texas wide receiver Marquise Goodwin's official 4.27 seconds was the fastest time with the defensive backs still set to run. ... Miami Dolphins quarterback