2021 NFL Draft Position Review: Cornerbacks

Charlie lays out an overview at the top players from each position for the 2021 NFL Draft. For further information, check out our in-depth analysis of 2021 NFL Draft Prospects by Position.

By Charlie Campbell.
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This page was last updated April 23, 2021. Follow me @walterfootball for updates.

Position Review: Cornerbacks

Cornerback Class
Early-round talent: A-
Mid-round: B+
Late-round: C
Overall grade: B+

2020 prospects vs. 2021
Jeff Okudah
C.J. Henderson
Jaycee Horn
Patrick Surtain II
Caleb Farley
Tyson Campbell
A.J. Terrell
Aaron Robinson
Greg Newsome II
Damon Arnette
Noah Igbinoghene
Jeff Gladney
Trevon Diggs
Kelvin Joseph
Kristian Fulton
Asante Samuel Jr.

Just to be clear this article and series is all my opinion based off my own study and information I’ve gotten from general managers, directors of college scouting, national scouts, area scouts, and NFL coaches who know way more than I do.

The 2020 NFL Draft was a quality year for cornerback talent, and the 2021 NFL Draft is in the same league. Last year’s group had more legit top-10 talents, but this year could have better values late in the first round and early in the second round.

If you were to merge the two classes together, Jeff Okudah and C.J. Henderson would be the top prospects. Jaycee Horn, Patrick Surtain, Caleb Farley and Tyson Campbell are better prospects than A.J. Terrell was coming out of Clemson. Aaron Robinson and Greg Newsome are better prospects than Damon Arnette. But Arnette, Igbinoghene, Gladney and Diggs were better prospects than Kelvin Joseph. Kristian Fulton was a better prospect than Asante Samuel.

Safest Pick: Jaycee Horn, South Carolina
Previous Picks:
2020: Jeff Okudah
2019: DeAndre Baker
2018: Denzel Ward
2017: Adoree’ Jackson
2016: Vernon Hargreaves
2015: Trae Waynes
2014: Justin Gilbert
2013: Dee Milliner

My track record here is looking shaky. Dee Milliner, Justin Gilbert and Vernon Hargreaves were busts for the teams that drafted them. Trae Waynes had a slow start to his career before emerging as a good pro in 2019. Adoree’ Jackson and Denzel Ward have started their careers well and look on their way to having good careers. DeAndre Baker and Jeff Okudah had rough starts, but one can’t make a judgement on either of them yet.

I think Horn could be one of the safest defensive prospects in the 2021 NFL Draft. While he may not ever be among the very elite, I think his bust potential is very low and will be a good starter early in his pro career. Horn is a natural football player, perhaps stemming from his NFL pedigree as the son of former Saints great Joe Horn. Jaycee Horn has good size, toughness, speed, and athleticism to match up against pro receivers. In multiple years in the SEC, Horn showed the ability to run the route and prevent separation. He could be a really steady and reliable NFL cover corner.

Biggest Bust Potential: Asante Samuel Jr., Florida State
Previous Picks:
2020: Trevon Diggs
2019: Trayvon Mullen
2018: Anthony Averett
2017: Chidobe Awuzie
2016: William Jackson
2015: P.J. Williams
2014: Bradley Roby
2013: David Amerson

My track record here is looking pretty good. Amerson was a bust for the Redskins, but he has stayed in the NFL as a journeyman. Roby was a disappointment for Denver, and the Broncos made no attempt to re-sign him when his contract was up. Williams has not turned into the player he was expected to be coming out of Florida State. Jackson also has been a disappointment. Awuzie is okay, so I could be off on him. Averett looks like a backup quality player to this point. Mullen had a decent rookie year for the Raiders, so I could be wrong on him.

My top candidates for this were Caleb Farley, Kelvin Joseph and Samuel. Farley is a risk because of durability and a history of serious injuries. I have concerns with Joseph’s makeup as a gambler who is immature and inexperienced, plus hewas benched in 2020 and quit the team early. I ended up going with Samuel, howwever, because there are some projections of him going early in the 2021 NFL Draft despite the fact that he has major size issues and isn’t fast. I think Samuel is going to have mismatch problems as a pro and might top out as backup corner and special teams contributor. It would not surprise me if Samuel gets drafted too high and ends up being a bust as a projected starter.

Cornerback Rankings by Attributes

Off-Man-Coverage Ability:
NFL prototype: Jalen Ramsey, Rams
  1. Jaycee Horn
  2. Aaron Robinson
  3. Caleb Farley
  4. Tyson Campbell
  5. Patrick Surtain II
  6. Greg Newsome II
  7. Kelvin Joseph
  8. Asante Samuel Jr.

Recap: Going off the opinion of Jon Gruden, which is now consensus thought around the league, the most important two positions on a defense are an elite pass-rusher off the edge and a shutdown cornerback. The NFL is driven by passing, and a shutdown corner can limit the opposition’s ability to score points by taking the best receiver away from a quarterback. Teams throughout the league are searching hard for that kind of cornerback talent. Playing off-man coverage is more challenging than press-man because off-man coverage requires loose hips and the agility to turn quickly. NFL offenses use lots of bunch formations to force cornerbacks into off-man coverage whether they want to play it or not.

The top two in this category are clearly the best at off-man coverage. Horn is the top, as he is very natural in off-man coverage. While he may not be as loose as some of the others because of his size, Horn can instinctively anticipate the routes and maintains tight coverage while staying in the hip pocket of receivers. Robinson is fast and fluid to run the route. He is smooth with agility to cut and not lose speed. Both Horn and Robinson possess good off-man skills for big cornerbacks.

Farley is a smooth corner who has good feet in his backpedal and recoverability skills. He is a fluid athlete who profiles very well to off-man coverage in the NFL. Campbell has that same quickness and agility, but he seems a hair late reacting at times, and thus the others are rated higher.

Surtain and Newsome are very good in off-man coverage. They are intelligent players whp read plays extremely well. With good his instincts, Surtain does an excellent job of breaking on the route to eat up any separation. Newsome is skilled and natural to run the route with receivers.

Joseph can play off-man coverage because he has the speed and athleticism to run with wideouts. Samuel shows instincts and route recognition, but he lacks speed and is not as fluid as the other corners.

Zone Corner:
NFL prototype: Stephon Gilmore, Patriots
  1. Jaycee Horn
  2. Patrick Surtain II
  3. Greg Newsome II
  4. Asante Samuel Jr.
  5. Caleb Farley
  6. Tyson Campbell
  7. Kelvin Joseph
  8. Aaron Robinson

Recap: Many teams mix man and zone coverages, so a corner who can excel in both is very valuable.

The top three really stand out here. Horn’s awareness and instincts are obvious. He does an excellent job of reading the offense and getting himself in position to make plays. Off his route recognition and instincts, Horn will quickly shift to cover up receivers.

Surtain is superb in zone, as his instincts lead to him being able to drive hard on the football. Newsome is very intelligent, reacts quickly in his route diagnosis, and is aware of what the offense is trying to do, so he will be a great fit in a zone scheme. Samuel is very good in zone, because his instincts allow him to read plays extremely well. He breaks on the ball at the right time and makes good decisions.

Farley and Campbell can both function as zone corners. Farley has the speed to close quickly and also has enough of a build to make tackles. Campbell could fit pretty well at playing lots of zone as he has good speed to eat up ground in a hurry. He will need a little more development for finishing plays and playing the ball.

Joseph has vision and discipline issues, so he would be better off in a scheme that plays more man. Robinson is a not a good fit for zone corner entering the NFL. He has vision problems and some paralysis by analysis when he is forced to make reads. With these problems, Robinson really is a fit to play in a man-based scheme.

Press-Man Coverage:
NFL prototype: Richard Sherman, Free Agent
  1. Patrick Surtain II
  2. Caleb Farley
  3. Aaron Robinson
  4. Tyson Campbell
  5. Jaycee Horn
  6. Greg Newsome II
  7. Kelvin Joseph
  8. Asante Samuel Jr.

Recap: Many teams in the NFL feature defenses that play a lot of press-man coverage. Having the ability to jam and reroute receivers helps defenses throw off the timing of plays. Corners who can stay stride for stride with receivers down the field are very valuable. The majority of this entire group of corners projects well to playing press man.

Surtain would fit best in the NFL in a press-man scheme. In that style, he can use his size and length to cover up receivers while running with them downfield. He also has has the straight-line speed to run vertically down the sideline. With Surtain’s strength and physicality, he is good at rerouting receivers and disrupting the timing of patterns. Surtain is a superb fit for playing press-man corner in the NFL

Farley, Robinson, Campbell and Horn all could be press-man corners to play on the outside and line up against big receivers. They all have good ball skills, height, length and the speed to run. Horn is not as fast and fluid, hence he is behind those four.

Joseph could play press-man corner, but he needs to become more disciplined and do less gambling. Newsome has the skill to play press-man coverage as well, but his durability issues might lead to him not being a good fit for the physicality of playing a lot of press-man. In the past, Newsome also had issues being too grabby, and that inclination could lead to problems with penalties playing a lot of press man duties. Samuel is short and lacks length, so being a press-man corner would not be a good fit for him.

Ball Skills:
NFL prototype: Xavien Howard, Dolphins
  1. Caleb Farley
  2. Aaron Robinson
  3. Asante Samuel Jr.
  4. Kelvin Joseph
  5. Patrick Surtain II
  6. Greg Newsome II
  7. Jaycee Horn
  8. Tyson Campbell

Recap: None of these corners are particularly great at playing the ball, but the only one who is truly bad is Tyson Campbell. In 2019, Caleb Farley notched four interceptions and 12 passes broken up, showing serious ball skills. Using his height and length, Farley does a very good job of playing the ball in the air with soft hands, instincts, and body control. Farley is a real threat to pick off passes, and it can be very dangerous to throw his direction.

Robinson showed good ball skills in 2019 with three interceptions and 10 passes broken up. With his size, length and athleticism, he has advanced ball skills entering the NFL.

Samuel is natural at playing the ball, and his instincts help him to get position to affect the pass. Samuel recorded three interceptions and six breakups in the shortened 2020 season, so he may have had a huge amount of ball production in a normal year.

Joseph flashed some ball skills in his one year of play at Kentucky, snagging four interceptions. He could stand to a better job of breaking up passes.

Surtain and Newsome both showed some ball skills in 2020, with each recoding an interception and 11 passes broken up. They both play the ball well, but have an occasional lapse downfield. Surtain will lose positioning on some jump balls, while Newsome will grab too much at times. Hence, they’re rated behind the others.

In 2020, Horn showed good ball skills and was very ball aware. He played the ball in air and didn’t panic when passes came his direction. Prior to 2020 though, Horn did not have big ball production in college.

The big flaw in Campbell’s game is his lack of ability to play the ball. He put together only nine passes broken up over his entire collegiate career and only one interception. With the ball in the air and coming his direction, too often Campbell freezes or reacts late, allowing receptions to be made over him. He needs a lot of work on his weak ball skills for the NFL.

Run Support:
NFL prototype: Byron Jones, Dolphins
  1. Aaron Robinson
  2. Jaycee Horn
  3. Greg Newsome II
  4. Patrick Surtain II
  5. Caleb Farley
  6. Asante Samuel Jr.
  7. Kelvin Joseph
  8. Tyson Campbell

Recap: Some college and NFL teams aren’t too concerned with how corners play the run, but good run-defending corners can prevent big gains on the edge and make tackles to prevent long carries. This is a good group overall.

In the ground game, Robinson is a willing defender who will lower his shoulder and tackle. He gives a good effort and will run across the field to chase down a back. Robinson has the size and strength to take ball-carriers to the ground, and he will deliver some hard hits. His tackle totals were impressive, and he should be an asset as a run defender in the NFL.

Horn is an asset in run defense, as he is a willing tackler who will come downhill and pack a punch. Horn is comfortable playing near the tackle box and shows the instincts to make some plays in the backfield. As a pro, he is going to be appreciated by his coaches for his ability and willingness to defend the run.

Newsome is a thinner-framed guy, but he handled the run well for Northwestern over the past two years. Surtain is a tough run defender who uses his size and strength to deliver some hard hits. In 2019, Farley showed the ability to contribute to the ground game and was a willing tackler. Samuel played the run well for Florida State, and he put together very respectable tackle production in 2019.

Joseph and Campbell did not impress as run defenders. They weren’t terrible, and they have the physical talent to do it, but they were not aggressive run defenders who contributed much in the tackle department.

NFL prototype: Patrick Peterson, Vikings
  1. Jaycee Horn
  2. Greg Newsome II
  3. Patrick Surtain II
  4. Caleb Farley
  5. Asante Samuel Jr.
  6. Aaron Robinson
  7. Tyson Campbell
  8. Kelvin Joseph

Recap: For cornerbacks, instincts aren’t just picking off passes. Instincts also are about reading the route and the quarterback. It starts before the snap when the offense lines up. Elite corners seem to have eyes in the back of their heads to know when passes are coming behind them.

Horn and Newsome are very instinctive and make plays in coverage. They make interception, break passes up, and get in position to help other defensive backs after blown coverage.

Surtain displayed real instincts for Alabama over the past few seasons. He is a smart defender who is quick to realize what an offense is trying to do.

Farley, Samuel and Robinson showed good instincts in college. They read plays well and were wise when they made breaks. Campbell is rated behind them because he needs more development. Joseph’s instincts and awareness are okay, but not great, as he is a gambler.

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