Exiting the 2022 NFL season, it would be hard to argue that the secondary remains a pressing need in Pittsburgh, having just capped a season tied for the NFL league lead in interceptions, 18 of which came from the secondary. Nonetheless, a further look into context reveals that the teams top cover corner, and most versatile player in the secondary, Cam Sutton with his 3 interceptions, is set to hit unrestricted free agency, along with Damontae Kazee and restricted free agent James Pierre, who accounted for another 3 picks this past season.
Likewise, with uncertainty surrounding Ahkello Witherspoon and Levi Wallace, where he will likely be up for an increase in pay, next offseason, cornerback has risen to become a position of paramount importance to address through free agency and the draft. While I was able to address a potential first round target in Cam Smith earlier this offseason, the East-West Shrine Bowl presents a great opportunity for Pittsburgh to scout and evaluate some underrated, mid-round prospects at the position. In that respect, I decided to put together a list of five corners I will be paying close attention to this week in Las Vegas.
Kei’Trel Clark #13/CB Louisville 5’10” 176
— 127 tackles 9.5 TFLs 1 sack 2 FR 5 INTs 28 PDs 2 TDs
— 51 tackles 4 TFLs 1 sack 1 INT 5 PDs 1 FR 2 TDs
— 2021 Second Team All-ACC
— 2020 Second Team All-ACC
— Underclassmen, Junior this past season
A guy I’ve had my eye on since watching him live in 2020, Kei’Trel Clark plays with a uniquely physical demeanor at the corner position. He exits Louisville with solid versatility, amassing plenty of snaps both in the slot and on the boundary over his past three seasons. This past season, Clark recorded defensive touchdowns in consecutive games, with a 59 yard scoop and score against Pittsburgh, followed up by a 46 yard pick-six against Wake Forest, a game in which he also posted a pair of TFLs, a sack, 6 tackles and a pass breakup. His usage continued to expand as he gained experience, gaining more experience blitzing and playing near the line of scrimmage in his later seasons. With unique versatility and physicality, Clark could prove to be a mid round steal wherever he winds up, with potential to serve as an immediate plug and play option in the slot.
Tre’Vious Hodges-Tomlinson #1/CB TCU 5’9” 181
— 125 tackles 4 TFLs 3 FFs 5 INTs 36 PDs 1 TD
— 2022: 50 tackles 2 TFLs 1 FF 3 INTs 15 PDs
— 2021 First-Team All-Big 12
— 2020 First-Team All-Big 12
— 2020 AP Second-Team All-American
— 2021 Big-12 Defensive Player of the Week (vs Texas Tech)
— Nephew of Ladanian Tomlinson
— Was a Senior this past season
My top cornerback prospect since first viewing the initial Shrine Bowl roster has been Tre’vious Hodges-Tomlinson, nephew of NFL Hall of Famer, LaDanian Tomlinson, a fellow TCU Horned Frog. While Hodges-Tomlinson exits college with plenty of experience on the boundary, his size likely slides him into the slot at the NFL level. A physical player, with a knack for making plays in the run game, Hodges-Tomlinson should have little trouble making this conversion at the next level. He reminds me a bit of Mike Hilton in size and play-style, and could serve as a mid round target with immediate value as a slot defender. With eight takeaways and 36 passes defended in his four years of collegiate experience, Hodges-Tomlinson has a knack for making plays on the football, a required trait to play under Teryl Austin in Pittsburgh.
Terell Smith #4/CB Minnesota 6’1” 208
— 109 tackles 6.5 TFLs 2 sacks 1 FF 1 FR 4 INTs 16 PDs
— 2022: 38 tackles 4.5 TFLs 2 sacks 1 FF 2 INTs 5 PDs
— 2022 All Big-10 Honorable Mention
— Fifth Year Senior who utilized his final year of eligibility
— Ran a 20.84 200m dash in high school (fifth best time in the country)
— Had an opportunity to run track at Minnesota but decided to focus solely on football
Terrell Smith is an interesting name to watch out of Minnesota, possessing unique size for the position. Having interviewed him in person this afternoon, I can confirm that Smith looks every bit of his 6’1” 208 pound measurements. With 4.5 TFLs and 2 sacks as a Fifth Year Senior, Smith’s size allowed him to make plays in the box as he gained experience, seeing increased usage as a blitzer from his boundary cornerback position. He mentioned in our conversation that he began to feel more comfortable guarding Tight Ends later in his collegiate career, a role I believe he can thrive in at the next level. Posting a top five time nationally in the 200 meter dash in high school, and eying a 4.3s combine time in the 40 yard dash, which would undoubtedly help his stock. In a modern NFL landscape that continues to grow and become more positionless, Smith’s size, physicality, and position versatility should help him thrive in a sub-package role at the NFL level.
D’Shawn Jamison #5/CB Texas 5’10” 187
— 139 tackles 6 TFLs 1 sack 1 FF 2 FR 6 INTs 23 PDs 1 TD 1 BLK
— 2022: 25 tackles 2 TFLs 1 sack 2 INTs 9 PDs 1 TD 1 BLK
— 44 punt returns 368 yards 1 TD (long of 90/8.4 avg)
— 54 kick returns 1435 yards 2 TDs (long of 100/26.6 avg)
— Had 4 receptions (5 yards) and 4 rushing attempts (8 yards) as a freshman in 2018, did not see any offensive snaps since
— Fifth Year Senior who utilized his final year of eligibility
— 3x Paul Hornung Award watch list (2020-2022), an award given to the collegiate player who has shown the most versatility
— 3x Big-12 Special Teams Player of the Week
— Recruited as a defensive back before switching to receiver as a freshman in 2018, and eventually converting back to defensive back in 2019, where he remained for the next four seasons
D’Shawn Jamison is a flat out playmaker, and one of the most dynamic defensive players nationally with the ball in his hands. For his career, he scored on a punt return, a pair of kick returns, a scoop and score off a blocked kick, and a pick-six which came in his final season this past fall. A three time Big-12 Special Teams player of the Week, Jamison’s dynamic ability with the ball in his hands jumps off the screen. Gaining offensive snaps as a true freshman wide receiver back in 2018, Jamison’s offensive background is readily observable, averaging a healthy 26.6 yards per return on 54 kickoff returns in his collegiate career. If nothing else, Jamison is likely a plug and play impact player as a return specialist. Following Marcus Jones breakout rookie season, it is not unthinkable to see teams potentially evaluate Jamison with aspirations of him being a three phase playmaker. Whether keying quick game or securing overthrows and tipped balls, Jamison plays defense with a playmakers mindset, and could fit in Teryl Austin’s takeaway centric defensive culture in Pittsburgh.
Starling Thomas V #4/CB UAB 5’9” 194
— 97 tackles 1 TFL 1 FR 2 INTs 28 PDs
— 21 punt returns 157 yards (long of 36)
— 10 kick returns 199 yards (long of 61)
— 2022: 26 tackles 1 TFL 15 PDs
— 2022 First Team All-Conference USA
— Senior this past season
— Chose UAB over various Power 5 offers, including Notre Dame, to stay closer to home
Another guy with dynamic ability with the ball in his hands, UAB’s Starling Thomas V exits college with plenty of ball production, and some solid production as a return man as well. This past season, he dominated at the catch point, recording 15 pass breakups, a figure which both ranked near the top of Conference-USA, as well as when looking from a more national lens. In my conversation with him Friday afternoon, he did not lack confidence, citing increased film study as a catalyst for his dominant senior season. A 10.4 100 meter dash guy in high school, a state title winning time in Alabama, Thomas V found himself on Bruce Felmans annual Freaks List, primarily due to him being clocked at a blazing 24.16 MPH on GPS.
Fielding plenty of Power 5 offers, including Notre Dame, Thomas V, a Birmingham native chose to stay home at UAB, where he helped assist in the relaunch of the program. He reminds me a bit of Pac-Man Jones, in a good way, playing with unrelenting confidence and unique athleticism to challenge receivers and make dynamic plays with the football in his hands. While you would ideally like to see more takeaway production at the college level, his physical skill set, and continued improvement throughout his collegiate career should make him an attractive mid-round prospect at the next level, with potential to see his stock improve if he is able to parlay Shrine Bowl practice week into a combine invite. He had not yet received one at the time of our conversation.
With practices set to begin Saturday morning at UNLV, I am thrilled to begin evaluating this strong group of cornerbacks in person. In individual drills, I will be keying their baseline movement skills, evaluating their ability to pedal, work in and out of breaks, and flip their hips to carry receivers vertically. While 1v1s are generally slanted in favor of the receivers, I am eager to see which cornerbacks showcase the versatility to effectively play from both press and off man coverage. In that respect, my evaluation of 1v1s still tends to center more on traits, movement skills, and competitiveness at the line of scrimmage, thus being less results based in a win/loss sense. All that being said, a cornerback showcasing ball skills and jumping routes based on splits and the opposing receivers tempo off the ball is always refreshing to see.
Moving into 7 on 7 and team periods, where the players will be placed into a variety of zone coverage assignments, including Tampa 2 and traditional Cover 3, I key for their ability to stay disciplined in their assignments and communicate with teammates to pass off routes. Team drills serve as a perfect opportunity to get a solid sense of a players football IQ, understanding of coverage assignments, and comfortability in communicating with their teammates. By the end of the practice week, I should have a solid sense of who from this group improved their draft stock ahead of the combine.
It will be particularly interesting to see how these cornerback prospects perform in matchups against Zay Flowers and A.T. Perry, two supremely talented ACC receivers with noticeably different frames and skill sets. Terrell Smith and Starling Thomas V will get the opportunity to guard Zay Flowers, an undersized, twitchy athlete with elite route running and YAC ability in the West Practice settings. Likewise Kei’Trel Clark, Tre’Vious Hodges-Tomlinson, and D’Shawn Jamison will get a chance to test their skills against A.T. Perry’s massive frame and reputation for dominance at the catch point in the East Practice settings. They will get a chance to flip their competition in Thursday’s game. It will be equally interesting to watch Starling Thomas V and D’Shawn Jamison, a pair of dynamic defensive and special teams playmakers, working in return lines and fielding punts and kickoffs throughout the week. If Pittsburgh retains Cameron Sutton and James Pierre, there is a solid chance they will have some interest in the crop of cornerbacks that the 2023 Shrine Bowl has to offer.