The 2018 NFL combine came to an end with a bang. A whopping 70 defensive back prospects ran and were put through drills on Monday. Another great move was separating cornerback prospects from safeties. The same should be done next year to separate the tackles and interior offensive linemen.
The most impressive player of the day was my personal man crush, Jaire Alexander. For some reason, many questioned his long speed, but all that was put to rest with a 4.38 40-yard dash. Alexander was also near flawless in the drills, displaying great feet, loose hips, and great ball skills. Unfortunately, this means he probably plays for someone other than the Bears next season as he should go late first round at worst.
The trio of Alabama defensive backs (Minkah Fitzpatrick, Anthony Averett, and Tony Brown) also each had strong days. Fitzpatrick disappointed some with his broad and high jumps but was good in on-field drills, showing that he indeed can play anywhere in the defensive backfield. Averett displayed better long speed than many thought and generally performed well on the field. Brown did the most to help his stock though. He showed elite speed at a very good size (6’0, 198 pounds) and looked extremely fluid in drills. With the other two and Levi Wallace, it was tough for Brown to get on the field beyond the dime defense but he could have some intriguing upside. At the least, he’s a potentially dynamic special teamer.
While teammate Donte Jackson got most of the headlines, LSU’s Kevin Toliver had himself a pretty strong day. He didn’t run the sprints, but looked pretty good in the field drills, especially for a corner that’s nearly 6’3”. Toliver has had his share of off-field trouble but was a prized recruit out of high school. In a lot of ways, he’s similar to former Tiger Jalen Collins, who played well for the Falcons in 2016 before being suspended all of 2017. Toliver has similar talent but unfortunately could face a similar fate based on his past. Toliver is still a very intriguing risk/reward type prospect.
Nick Nelson is another corner who came through with a lot to prove. Nelson ran well enough, looked more fluid than expected in drills, and showed the ball skills that quieted some concerns about his career 41 pass breakups and zero interceptions.
Carlton Davis also looked solid today. He has questions about whether he can find the ball in the air, but he’s a long-armed corner that showed good enough speed and athletic ability to be an extremely effective press corner. Davis kind of looks like a poor man’s Xavier Rhodes.
This is probably a little unfair, but Mike Hughes probably slightly disappointed on Monday. He only ran a 4.53 in the 40, and his hips didn’t look as flawless in drills as it does on film. He also looks like he plays much faster than he timed. Hughes was by no means bad in Indianapolis but didn’t wow as many (including myself) expected.
Josh Jackson also failed to stake his claim for the number one corner spot. Again, it’s probably a little unfair to say he disappointed, but he frankly looked rawer than many expected. His change of direction was a little clunky, which is fine for a bigger cover corner. However, his issues with transitions seemed to be more of an experience issue rather than an athleticism issue. That means Jackson probably has a little further to go than what most teams want out of a top 10-15 player.
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If Jackson and Hughes didn’t make a run for the top corner, then it’s probably Denzel Ward’s spot to lose (if you don’t include Fitzpatrick). Ward, though, only ran the 40, benched, and did the broad and high jumps, while choosing to skip out on all the field drills. Ultimately, it probably doesn’t matter as Ward shows plenty of the skills from the drills on tape. The drills he did do, Ward performed among the best of the group at all of them.
Quenton Meeks had an interesting day. Meeks didn’t run the 40-yard dash, which is a bit of a red flag. Yet, he put up excellent numbers in the jumps and the three-cone drill, showing he has plenty of athleticism to stay at corner. However, Deion Sanders, who tends to accurately peg defensive backs, said he thinks Meeks is a safety at the next level. Some like Meeks as early as round two, others think he’s a third-day pick. He didn’t exactly cement his draft stock in either direction.
The safety position isn’t a huge need for the Bears for the first time since the days of Mike Brown, but the group put on quite a show to end this year’s combine. Eight safeties ran sub 4.50 in the 40, further blurring the line between corners and safeties.
Derwin James put on a show as expected, and moved well enough that some on NFL Network believe he could potentially even play some corner at the next level. James was compared to his former Seminole teammate, Jalen Ramsey. He probably isn’t a corner, but James could make some noise in the top ten in April.
Another player who worked out with the safeties that could potentially play corner in the NFL is Dane Cruikshank. Cruikshank played corner in most of his time at Arizona, and it showed. He was fluid in drills with good ball skills and with 4.41 speed, he may get another shot to play outside at the next level. Cruikshank really struggled at corner in 2016, but maybe some NFL coaching can turn him around there. If not, he can return to safety and hopefully be a factor there.
Justin Reid, the brother of former Vic Fangio draft pick, Eric Reid, turned in an outstanding day at safety. He ran well, jumped well, and was solid during field drills. Reid may be quietly making his way into the end of the first round.
Northwestern’s Godwin Igwebuike was extremely impressive Monday and maybe helped his stock more than any defensive back. Igwebuike ran a surprising 4.44 in the 40 and led all safeties with a 6.56 three-cone drill. He looked smooth in drills also. Igwebuike was thought to be a box safety without many coverage skills, but he clearly showed the speed and agility to project to be more of an all-around safety.
Some sleepers also surfaced on Monday, as a handful of potentially undrafted players turned in great sprint times. Troy Apke led the way, and much of the conversation, with a 4.34 40 at 6’2”, 198 pounds. He also was extremely fluid in drills, giving him the potential to play outside at corner. Avonte Maddox of Pitt also had a very good day. He’s an undersized corner, likely stuck in the slot, but will get a shot after posting the athletic numbers he did in Indy. Parry Nickerson and Natrell Jamerson are also guys who had big days that will force scouts to re-watch their game tape. Southern’s Danny Johnson will probably be picked highest of the sleeper defensive backs. He was a four-year starter in the FCS, with 17 career interceptions so no question he can play. The only concerns are size and level of competition. Johnson should hear his name called early on day three.
(Photo Credit: Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
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