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2016 NFL Draft: Position preview -- this class loaded with defensive backs

This year's safety and cornerback class is much better than the 2015 class.

Glenn Beil-USA TODAY Sports

The defensive line is getting most of the press in the 2016 draft, and for good reason. However this is also a very good draft for the defensive secondary.

There are quite a few talented, and athletic, corners to be had throughout the draft, and the safety class potentially more than makes up for the general lack of talent in the 2015 class.


William Jackson III (Houston) -- William Jackson isn't getting talked about much -- for most of the draft process he was almost the hipster's answer to who the top cornerback was. "I like Jalen Ramsey" one draft analyst would say "I like Vernon Hargreaves" another would reply. Then a third would sheepishly chime in with "I like Will Jackson from Houston..." The response is usually "Who? There's always someone..." But Jackson is the real deal. While not especially big, he has good size and length for the position to go with legitimate 4.3 speed, but more importantly, he can cover in man-to-man situations down the field. Jackson allows few passes to be completed, and came away with 23 passes defensed and 5 interceptions in 2015. [Prospect Profile]

Eli Apple (Ohio State) -- Apple has all the tools NFL defenses are looking for in a corner. He has size, length, speed, and quick, efficient footwork. He is also competitive and excels in man coverage while coaches praise his work ethic. His biggest knock, however, is that he gets lost with the ball in the air. While very good at playing the receiver and preventing the pass from being completed, Apple's ball skills are lacking. He could also be a flag magnet in the pros after drawing eleven holding and pass interference calls his last two years in college -- where the rules are much more lenient than in the NFL. [Prospect Profile]

Mackensie Alexander (Clemson) -- He might be a "little" defender, but don't tell Alexander that. Alexander has a personality -- and game -- like a Jack Russell Terrier; athletic, energetic, and confident to the point of cockiness. He can be a legitimate shut-down corner (although like Apple, he did have a fantastic defensive line in front of him), but he might struggle against some of the more freakish receivers in the NFL. [Prospect Profile]

Kendall Fuller (Virginia Tech) - If the name sounds familiar, that's because Kendall Fuller is the fourth Fuller brother to play for Virginia Tech, and later the NFL. Kendall, the youngest brother, is generally agreed upon to be the best, or at least most athletic, of the four brothers. He was sidelined in 2015 with a torn ACL, but he has the kind of athleticism you want from a starting corner, and has been praised by his coaches at VT for his football IQ and instinctiveness.

Sean Davis (Maryland) -- Alex's draft-crush this year, Davis is one of the big hitters in this draft class, especially from the defensive secondary. Davis has played both corner and safety, having the size and mentality to play safety, and the athleticism to stay a cornerback. Teams might worry that his aggression will lead to giving up more plays than he makes, but they will also value his versatility. Not to mention his penchant for hitting should make for a very good special teams player. [Prospect Profile]

Artie Burns (Miami) -- Like so many of Miami's football players, Burns has a track background. It's little wonder then why he looks so fast on the field. But while teams would likely prefer him to play more physically -- not uncommon with corners -- he is definitely a fast football player, not track athlete playing football. The general consensus is that Burns' best football is still ahead of him, and good NFL coaching should help bring all his tools together.

Eric Murray (Minnesota) -- Despite being a little under-sized and not the kind of special athlete that a lot of the other corners are, Murray was still the hands-down best corner at the Senior Bowl, and one of the most well-rounded corners in the country. Murray was dominant in Senior Bowl practices, and was the only corner with a prayer of covering Braxton Miller. Teams will knock him for his pedestrian athleticism and lack of interceptions, but he is a play preventer, rather than a play-maker, and should be a terrific value in the middle or later part of the draft. [Prospect Profile]


Jalen Ramsey (Florida State) -- Probably the top defender in this draft class, and arguably the top player. Ramsey has been called the best defensive back, and even defender, to come out of Florida State since Deion Sanders. A world class athlete with sky-high intangibles, Ramsey will make any defense better. He will be considered for the cornerback position first, but he could quickly become one of the game's best safeties.

Vernon Hargreaves III (Florida) -- Pretty much everyone lists Hargreaves as a corner, and he could be one of the (if not the) best corners in this draft. However I think that if a team has the guts to try it, he could be an All-Pro free safety in the mold of Earl Thomas. Hargreaves has the same size and athleticism as Thomas, a far more explosive lower body, and the kind of instincts and fearless mentality you want to see from a safety. [Prospect Profile]

Karl Joseph (West Virginia) -- Generally considered to be the top pure safety in this class, Joseph played all over the West Virginia defense. His 2015 season was ended prematurely by a torn ACL, but not before he could notch five interceptions in the first three games of the season. Joseph is a play-maker who comes downhill like a missile to blow up ball carriers, often separating player from ball.

Justin Simmons (Boston College) -- The Boston College Eagles don't get the credit they deserve, but they fielded the best defense in college football in 2015. Good enough that when Nick Saban lost his defensive coordinator, he looked to BC to fill the hole. Simmons was a big part of that ranking. He offers versatility, having played corner and safety, but his home is at free safety. And despite being a bigger safety at 6-foot-2, 205 pounds, he is also tremendously athletic, ranking among the at his position group at the combine. He's a player to keep an eye on, as the Giants are reportedly interested. [Prospect Profile]

Jalen Mills (LSU) -- Another two way player, Mills has played both safety and corner for the Tigers, but he is likely best as a free safety in the NFL. He has the athleticism to roam the centerfield, and the football IQ to line up a secondary. That, in particular, might be his greatest appeal. Mills was called a coach on the field by his teammates and was a vocal leader in the locker room. [Prospect Profile]

Vonn Bell (Ohio State) -- Everywhere you look on that Ohio State defense there is another NFL player. Vonn Bell is a solid cover safety with a talent for breaking up passes and preventing the deep pass. He isn't as athletic as Ramsey or nearly as ferocious a hitter as Joseph, but Bell should be an asset for a team that needs a free safety to lock down the back end of their defense.

Keanu Neal (Florida) - A ready-made NFL safety, Neal just looks like a pro safety. He isn't just looks though, he has primarily been a box safety, and has the range to come downhill fast, blowing up running plays or bubble screens. His athleticism should translate to coverage, but his skills as a free safety are still a work in progress. He only played there part-time in college and was a box safety in high school.

Darian Thompson (Boise State) -- For a long time Thompson was in the conversation for the top (pure) safety in the draft. He showed an understanding of route concepts and feel for the passing game, and his size was a definite plus. However, a disappointing combine performance torpedoed his draft stock. Since then, reports have come out including Thompson in the number of prospects and NFL representatives who contracted a stomach virus, but it remains to be seen if NFL teams will turn their noses up at the numbers, or credit him for fighting through the illness. [Prospect Profile]

T.J. Green (Clemson) -- Green has been a late riser in the draft process. He is a former wide receiver who switched to safety after his freshman year -- a very good move, considering the talent Clemson has boasted at the receiver position. He is still a work in progress as he changes position, but his 4.34 speed, range, and soft hands will get him drafted by a team looking to capitalize on his athletic abilities.

Deon Bush (Miami) -- After coming off a very strong 2014 campaign, Bush was expected to take a step forward and be one of the top safeties in the country. Unfortunately, he did the opposite as the Miami program largely disintegrated. Bush has the aggression that coaches like to see out of a safety, but needs to continue to work on the mental part of his game to prevent giving up big plays. While he works on his coverage, Bush should offer upside on special teams and for defenses that like to blitz from the secondary [Prospect Profile]

Jeremy Cash (Duke) -- One of the more physical defensive backs in the draft, Cash is a great run-stopping safety, with the instincts and enough athleticism to play slot corner at Duke. He will likely be a strong safety in the NFL, and should be able to live in zone coverage on running backs and (most) tight ends. He could even have a future in the kind of hybrid safety/linebacker role that Deone Buccanon plays for the Arizona Cardinals