Kozora: It’s A Great Year To Need A Cornerback

Calling all NFL teams who need a cornerback in this year’s draft. You’re in luck. Step right up and take your pick. Even if you don’t come away with the top names in the 2023 class, you can find one heck of a defensive back throughout.

Cornerback is arguably the deepest position of this year’s draft. Other units have cases to be made, tight end is right up there, but the abundance of cornerbacks is unusually strong. Perhaps it’s a sign of the college game finally able to catch up. Each year, receiver classes always have a laundry list of talented prospects and the only way college defenses can defend them is to load up talent at corner.

The three names at the top of this year’s crop are well-known. Oregon’s Christian Gonzalez, Illinois’ Devon Witherspoon, and Penn State’s Joey Porter Jr. Witherspoon unfortunately couldn’t workout yesterday due to a minor hamstring injury; hopefully he can get healthy ahead of his Pro Day in a week. That’s a tight turnaround so perhaps he holds an individual workout sometime in April.

Gonzalez crushed his workout Friday. He jumped out of the gym, 41.5 inches in the vert, 11’1″ in the broad, and a 4.38 40 all packaged together in a 6’1, 197 pound frame with good length. Watching him through drills, he stayed low in his pedal, not popping up, with a smooth and easy turn. Everything Gonzalez does looks effortless and he has a strong shot to be the first corner off the board. Penn State’s Joey Porter Jr. didn’t have quite as eye-popping of a day but his numbers were still strong. With incredible 34 inch arms, he turned in a 4.46 with a 10’9″ broad and 35 inch vert.

But the top three weren’t the only names worth talking about. South Carolina’s Cam Smith and Mississippi State’s Emmanuel Forbes entered the week as borderline first round picks and exit on firm ground. Smith’s times were strong across the board, a 4.43 40 and 38 inch vert, while he looked among the best of any corner in drills, balanced, coordinated, with a smooth turn. Forbes’ weight is going to be a concern, just 166 pounds, but he still had an impressive workout, possesses great length, and is SEC battle-tested.

Others entered that first round conversation Friday evening. Maryland has two freaky corners but Deonte Banks is the top dog. 6’0, 197 pounds, he ran 4.35 with a whopping 42 inch vertical and 11’4″ broad jump. Kansas State’s Julius Brents lacks the long speed Tariq Woolen showed off last year but is quicker and has a similar frame. His stock has improved since a strong week at the Senior Bowl and he’s unlikely to fall out of the Top 50. Heck, he may not make it out of the first five picks in the second round. He should be on Pittsburgh’s radar at #32.

One of my favorites in this draft is South Carolina’s Darius Rush. A receiver turned corner, he’s a tremendous straight-line athlete, his 4.37 speed matching the tape. Twitchy and athletic, he’s an impressive man corner whose game can still get better technically. Owen Straley has praised Utah’s Clark Phillips. With great hands and ball skills, he could profile as a top slot corner. Ditto Michigan’s DJ Turner, who blazed one of the Combine’s fastest 40’s ever at 4.26.

According to Kent Lee Platte’s Relative Athletic Score, five cornerbacks (along with Cal safety Daniel Scott) registered a 9.83 or better RAS score with 19 total defensive backs, most of them corners, scoring above nine. A wickedly good number that speaks to the classes’ depth.

That doesn’t mean Pittsburgh should avoid a top corner if one happens to fall to them at #17. But the depth of the class is worthwhile context and those three big names fail to make it to the the Steelers’ first round pick, they’ll have plenty of options with their next three selections.

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