NFL teams are wrapping up the preseason, and they aren’t the only ones about to begin official games. The 2021 college football season kicks off today. That will begin the movement up and down boards for all draft-eligible prospects, which will continue up until April 28.
So as the season begins, I’m going position-by-position through the 2022 class, and previewing some names to know and be watching for throughout the college football season from a draft perspective. This is not an exhaustive rundown of every draft-eligible player, but a look at some of the more prominent and interesting names to watch this upcoming season, and where they are currently projecting for the upcoming draft. This preview wraps up the defense, with the secondary. This will cover players who line up at cornerback, at safety, or who profile to fill either role in the NFL.
Steelers’ Need: Immediate
For all the highlight plays a group of young defensive backs have made this preseason in competing for a roster spot and playing time, the Pittsburgh Steelers are still in big need of some new, higher-end names to stock the secondary.
Cornerback is where the more immediate need is. Joe Haden is a capable leader with another contract in him, but is 32 years old and a new, multi-year deal with the Steelers is likely his last. Cameron Sutton is getting his chance to handle the inside spot long-term, but the team did nothing to replace Steven Nelson on the outside. The team needs an infusion of a high-end cornerback prospect, as both insurance to Sutton should he face growing pains in a bigger role, and to fill a pressing need for a true starter on the outside.
Even at safety, there is an upcoming need for the Steelers. Minkah Fitzpatrick has one spot on lockdown long-term, but the franchise declined Terrell Edmunds’ fifth-year option at the other safety spot. Unless he takes a big enough step forward this season to prove he is the other half of the long-term safety tandem, the Steelers will need a new starter.
Derek Stingley Jr., LSU: Stingley is the type of prospect who evaluators feel fortunate to have graded coming out of college. He’s been on the radar since he was one of the highest-rated CB prospects of all-time coming out of high school, and has done nothing to dispel that since. An All-American both his years at LSU, he had one of the greatest true freshman seasons ever for a corner with six interceptions and 21 passes defensed, and quarterbacks avoided him like the plague last season. The total package and the type of player who comes around rarely — my top corner since Jalen Ramsey in 2016, and before that Patrick Peterson (also of LSU) in 2011.
Kyle Hamilton, Notre Dame: Hamilton is another All-American from last year, and used his 2020 season to set himself up as one of the highest-rated safeties in years. He makes the correct read early and breaks downhill with good angles, is adept in zone coverage with strong field vision, and can handle man assignments with physical play. Another player who brings the total package, had 63 tackles last season and has 17 passes defensed and five interceptions in two years. With another good season, Hamilton has a chance to be the first safety drafted in the top 10 since Jamal Adams in 2017, and even the first to go top five since Eric Berry in 2010.
Kaiir Elam, Florida: With one and a half seasons as a starter for the Gators, Elam has pulled in five interceptions, 20 passes defensed, and made 50 tackles while setting himself up to follow his uncle Matt (former Baltimore pick) as a first-round draft pick. He’s a physical, 6’2″ corner with plenty of upside in both zone and man coverage, with room to take another step forward, and is already capable of sticking to receivers and disrupting a QB’s progression with the best of D1 offenses.
Brandon Joseph, Northwestern: Joesph is a versatile player who fits in any defense. He’s got the numbers — six interceptions, eight passes defenses — from his first year as a starter to prove he is a ballhawk. When you watch his tape, he has a playing style that looks like a thumper who can be a major asset in run support. And in both fields, he stays aware, making quick breaks downhill and monitoring the QB’s eyes in deep coverage. A fast, fun player to watch in the Big Ten.
Andrew Booth Jr., Clemson: Booth’s increased role with the Tigers last season got him on the first-round radar for the 2022 Draft, and how he performs for Clemson this year in his first as the team’s starter will dictate if he breaks into the top round. In limited play over his two years, he showed big-time energy and definite ball skills, with the ability to get up and play the ball at its highest point and be physical against bigger receivers. He had a pair of interceptions and six passes defensed last year as a backup.
Ahmad Gardner, Cincinnati: Gardner boasts one of the best nicknames in the class — “Sauce” — and can back it up with solid defense and physical play. Able to stick to his man along routes and a sure tackler, Gardner is a reliable player for the Bearcats, and was an All-American last season, his second consecutive one with three interceptions (he also has 20 passes defensed the last two years). He is capable of covering the majority of receivers, and his losses normally come against the extremes, i.e. some of the fastest or biggest receivers his opponents have.
Sevyn Banks, Ohio State: Banks got his first chance to start in his third season with the Buckeyes in 2020, but made his introduction to 2022 draft talk with an outstanding series of games in the 2020 postseason (where he recorded most of his 23 tackles, eight passes defensed, and one interception for the season). He is a high-end athlete with plus speed and explosiveness, and uses that to stick to receivers like glue. Banks needs to make considerable strides in playing physical, not getting muscled away by receivers and letting runners break tackles. If he can, his ceiling is higher than almost anyone in the class.
Jordan Battle, Alabama: Battle is a twitchy player with very quick reaction time, who can close fast, get downhill, and deliver a pop when he lines a player up. He shows the ability to play in multiple positions, whether as a deep safety, in the box, or even in the slot, and finished with 66 tackles, an interception, and five passes defensed last season for the Tide, his first as a starter.
Other Names To Know
Josh Jobe, Alabama: Jobe is another name sniffing the first-round discussion, but needs to take steps in his development to prove worth the selection. He can be picked on and gives up too much cushion in off-man and zone coverages, and isn’t always able to win physical battles. Strongly in his favor is that he never backs down from a physical challenge and keeps a fighter’s mentality, and he shines in tight man coverage by sticking to his receivers. A big year would help him, but a weak year would hurt just as much.
Derion Kendrick, Georgia: Kendrick has been in the first-round discussion already. Late last season, his name was a possible Day 1 pick, before he elected to return to Clemson. A month later, he was dismissed from the team, and transferred to Georgia. There, he will try to replicate the talent that had him so highly-ranked last season. When he stays physical he can disrupt receivers and stick with them, and he has great ball skills. But he has a lot of growing to do in man coverage to avoid getting burned or out-muscled, shown in Clemson’s loss to Ohio State last season.
Joey Porter Jr., Penn State: Twenty-three drafts after his father was a third-round pick by the Steelers, Joey Porter Jr. is eligible to join him in the NFL, but as a cornerback and not a linebacker. Porter lacks the resume and experience of his classmates, being only a redshirt sophomore who got his first chance to start last season, in which he recorded four passes defensed. His instincts are there and he has the size (6’2″) to be a player in coverage, but his youth showed last season. In his second year as a starter, he’s one to watch to see if his comfort there has grown.
Bubba Bolden, Miami (FL): Bolden is an incredibly active player who doesn’t stop until the play does. Watching Miami film, his number 21 shows up time and time again as he gets over to assist on plays. Last year was his first as the Hurricanes’ starter, and he was an instant big impact player with four forced fumbles, an interception, and 74 total tackles. His 6’3″, 204 frame and 2020 tape is a big part of a high ceiling for him, he just has to sure up his tackling and show he can be just as impactful in coverage as he was overall last year.
Jalen Catalon, Arkansas: Catalon’s name is going to be discussed throughout the season for one big reason: He hits. HARD. His highlight reel is filled with those big shots, but he is more than just an intimidator. Catalon is an all-around safety, forcing a pair of fumbles and making 99 tackles, but also defensing seven passes and intercepting three. He breaks quick on passes and when diagnosing a carry and is a full-speed and high-energy player.
Trent McDuffie, Washington: McDuffie didn’t get long to show off in 2020 — Washington played only four games — but he still had an interception, forced fumble, and 14 tackles, and made enough noise to receive some preseason All-American recognition this fall. Whatever he ends up running at the Combine, McDuffie plays even faster, getting to his spots in a flash and showcasing a ton of twitch on the field. If he puts himself closer to his assignment in man coverage on a routine basis to not rely on his closing speed as much, he will be a draft riser.
Daxton Hill, Michigan: In only six games last season (albeit as a starter), Hill exceeded his production from a full 13-game season (as a backup), taking full advantage of his increased responsibility to be a playmaker for the Wolverines. Hill had 46 tackles, averaging almost eight per game, while picking off a pass and defensing five. His has elite, 4.3 speed for a safety which leads to considerable range playing as a single-high. The more he builds off the shortened 2020 season and shows he can be a versatile playmaker (he can play out of the slot, too), the better position he is in to declare for 2022.
Mykael Wright, Oregon: Wright failed to intercept a pass in 2020, his sophomore year and first as a start, but that was in part because he played good enough defense quarterbacks chose not to challenge him as frequently. A Pac-12 first-teamer who played strong in man to man, Wright is a sticky corner who plays better than a one-year starter. He is another who could rise considerably on draft boards, particularly for teams running a man-focused defense, and will only help his stock by showing a quicker close on passes when not lined up in press or tight man off the snap.
Roger McCreary, Auburn: McCreary is a testament to hard work for the Tigers, working his way into the starting lineup as a junior and coming back for his second season there as a senior. He shined as a backup and as a starter, picking off three passes and making seven tackles for a loss last year, and defensing 12 passes and intercepting one as a backup in 2019. McCreary can stick to receivers and is a strong man corner against talented D1 offenses.
Tykee Smith, Georgia: Smith arrives at Georgia to help lead a secondary as one of the top returning DBs in college football. He brings with him a lengthy resume from West Virginia University that includes All-American honors, a pair of 50-tackle seasons, eight tackles for loss last year, and a pair of interceptions both seasons. He is also one of the most unique defenders, given the “spear” position that is unique to WVU’s defense. That had him play snaps like a slot corner and a box safety, and he showed quick reaction times and quality instincts in both. His role will differ with the Bulldogs, but his stock is high right now. Showing he can adapt to a new defense will only help it.
Who I’m Watching
A lot of position groups catch my eye looking ahead to the draft before each college season begins. This year, the one I am most excited to see is the secondary, where there are a pair of elite prospects the likes of which we haven’t seen in years at their positions, and a group in the double digits following them that all have the potential to lock in first-round status.
All eyes should be on those first two names: Stingley Jr. and Hamilton. Both are consensus top 10 picks, (Stingley consensus top three) and instant impact players. It is foolish to definitively label any college player a guaranteed Pro Bowler or All-Pro, but I think Stingley has that kind of ceiling, to be one of the NFL’s best few DBs.
Beyond them, there is an abnormally large group of players who, whether they end up there or not, will offer some form of first-round traits or possible upside. Among cornerbacks, Elam is the top name, but I’m watching Booth and Banks to see if they can reach sky-high ceilings. McDuffie is just flat-out entertaining to watch, and Wright is falling way too under the radar. He could end up the second-best corner in the class come draft time.
Safety is just as deep, with Joesph leading the race similarly to Elam to be the 1b option to Stingley/Hamilton’s 1a. Beyond him are a trio of players I’m very high on, and Catalon is contending for my favorite player in the class preseason. He’s an intimidating safety who backs it and produces all-around, not just makes big hits. Bolden is a player with how much he ranges to get involved in tackles, and Hill’s ceiling is very high. If he declares after a sub-par season, he is a potential steal.
Specifically for the Steelers, anyone is fair game at cornerback, and at safety as well should the team move on from Edmunds. Anyone from the field of potential first-round corners that should saturate the back half of Round 1 and most of Day 2 is in play, and players like Gardner and Banks are two of many fits for the team. So is an experienced player like McCreary who excels in man coverage more than zone. Never rule out the possibility of a legacy connection in Porter Jr.
If Edmunds fails to earn the long-term safety job, Bolden is the type of safety who the Steelers tried to get Edmunds to be. He is an option, as is Smith given his versatility and experience playing near the box.