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Denzel Ward best of 2018 NFL cornerback class

The NFL Draft Report breaks down all the possible first-round picks at that position

NCAA Football: Indiana at Ohio State
Denzel Ward
Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

The NFL Draft Report staff takes a look at the cornerbacks that might hear their names called during the first day of the 2018 draft. While some analysts feel there could be as many as five cornerbacks selected in the first round, my scouts feel otherwise. One standout who might be taken at this position is Alabama’s Minkah Fitzpatrick, but his success as a safety for Alabama last season has The NFL Draft Report projecting he will remain at safety in the NFL.

Our charts recognized Ohio State’s Denzel Ward as the top cornerback and feel he will be selected within the first 12 picks on April 26th. Iowa’s hard-hitting Joshua Jackson is drawing considerable attention from teams resting in the bottom third of the opening round. If not for an injury-plagued season, Louisville’s Jaire Alexander would have been a strong candidate for the opening phase of the draft, but if he slides to Day Two activity, he won’t be waiting by his phone for too long.

A trio of underclassmen should join Alexander as second round potentials - Mike Hughes of Central Florida, Carl Davis of Auburn and Isaiah Oliver of Colorado. As much as scouts like Hughes, most are in agreement that he needed at least another season to develop. They also state that if he had returned to school, he would have been the top college cornerback entering the 2018 season.

The next tier of Day 2 cornerbacks feature Alabama’s tandem of Anthony Everett and Tony Brown. Averett is by far the more polished product while Brown is rawer than sushi, but both are blessed with sub 4.4 speed. It could be a Southeastern Conference party for corners later in Day Two, as Louisiana State’s Donte Jackson, Florida’s Duke Dawson and Kevin Toliver II appear to be solid third round types, with Boston College’s Isaac Yiadom and Stanford’s Quenton Meeks also possible third round targets.

Denzel Ward -- Ohio State

Overview...Scouts and player personnel directors in the National Football League are beginning to sound like they are in a chorus, as all are not only hailing the performance recorded by yet another Ohio State cornerback this season, but feel he might be the best ever produced during the Urban Meyer era.

One can not dispute the numbers this hard-hitting tackler has registered throughout the 2017 campaign. Often challenged by opponents, to the tune of 82 balls being targeted into his area, he has held those receivers to just 22 catches, a pass completion percentage of .2683, and that includes two very disputable touchdown calls vs. the Buckeye. Of his 37 tackles, he made 10 of those hits inside the red zone. On those 82 targets, he rerouted or jammed his coverage assignments, leading to a nation-high 39 would-be receptions being rejected.

His 15 pass break-ups also tied for third on the school season-record chart and all three of Ward’s turnovers (two interceptions, one blocked punt) were followed by Ohio State touchdown drives. He also was very successful in ending opposing offensive possessions, as he collected 27 third-down stops and four more via fourth-down snaps.

Pepsi might tout the “new generation” in their slogan, but in Ward, NFL scouts are finding that perfect example of the “new generation” shutdown cornerback every team craves – faster than lightning, more powerful than his sub-200-pound frame indicates and that uncanny knack for making the big play seem routine. One of Denzel Ward’s greatest among his many attributes is his explosive speed. Unquestionably the fastest man in college football, the talented junior gets his opportunity for being the “next man up” in the Ohio State secondary to earn first round status under the mentorship of head coach Urban Meyer.

2017 Season...The All-American and All-Big Ten Conference first-team postseason selection by The NFL Draft Report, Ward is proving that scouting service correct, as they called him the best cornerback prospect in college football prior to the start of the season, despite Ward having never started a game as a Buckeye.

Ward’s Man Coverage AbilityAgainst other opponents, the receivers (twenty total) that Ward was assigned to in man coverage currently have recorded 512 receptions for 7,401 yards and 50 touch-downs vs. other competition, to date, an average of 2.78 receptions and 41.17 per player/per game, while Ward limited that group to averages of 1.08 receptions for 8.69 yards per game, on an average of 6.31 targeted tosses and 3.00 reroutes by Ward vs. his primary coverage assignments…Total, his man coverage assignments snared fourteen tosses for 113 yards (8.07 ypc) and two touchdowns, with the balance of eight receptions for 108 yards and a touchdown coming when he had to break off his coverage assignments to make the stop, registering four touchdown-saving tackles vs. the aerial game in the process.

Body Structure...Ward has a lean, yet athletic frame with good chest and arm muscle definition, average bubble and tapered thighs and calves. He has that good overall body structure that can carry at least another ten pounds of bulk without having it impact his impressive quickness and timed speed. He is quite strong for a player his size.

Ward has continued to develop good overall muscle structure, as he is much more defined in his upper body than in years past. He has a good bubble, loose hips and strong thighs and calves, evident by his success standing his ground vs. lead blocker when stepping inside the box to support vs. the run. He might lack the desired height and weight teams look for, but he more than compensates with fluid hips, superb foot quickness and exceptional leaping ability.

Athletic Ability...The first thing you notice with Ward is that he has that innate “sixth gear” (much faster than a second gear), as he is constantly in the “hip pocket” of receivers on deep routes. He runs with a quick stride and great balance, possessing exceptional stop-&-go ability. He has more than enough fluidness to easily sink his hips and break on the ball in an instant. He has very good acceleration and explosion in his play, along with enough valid strength to be quite effective taking on ball carrier. His weight will need to increase no matter where he plays, but he has the strength and aggression as a tackler and his speed is as good as anyone’s in the game, especially when he closes quickly to prevent the receiver from creating separation.

Football Sense...Ward is a student of the game, one that is going to be needed to act like a “coach on the field” while mentoring a young secondary unit. He is a very smart and instinctive player who knows his role, along with the assignments required from each of his teammates. He is so instinctive, evident by his high amount of touchdown-saving tackles coming out of his area to make those plays, that some team could reap instant rewards in the NFL by also utilizing him as a slot corner and safety, in addition to knowing he has the experience at both the field- and boundary-cornerback positions. He also communicates well with his other secondary mates and should be capable of calling assignments early in his pro career.

What separates him from most of the other cornerbacks in the 2018 NFL Draft is his keen field vision, above average instincts and excellent ball anticipation skills, along with impressive leaping agility that allow him to climb a receiver and get to the ball at its high point, even when challenged by much taller opponents (see 2017 Indiana, Rutgers, Penn State, Michigan State and Wisconsin games, along with his classic battle for the ball vs. 6:06, 248-pound tight end Troy Fumagalli vs. the Badgers).

Key and Diagnostic Skills...Ward has exceptional read-&-react instincts and quickness. He easily reads the quarterback’s release and can redirect instantly when coming off his coverage assignments to read and make plays vs. the run. He has valid field vision when reacting to schemes and almost never “guesses” in deep coverage, as it is very rare to see him fooled by the snap, play action or misdirection. He is very adept at making quick reads and reacting to the action in front of him.

He is not the type that quarterbacks will fool, as he excels at jumping routes because of his ability to read the eyes of the passer. He has that timing and feel needed to make plays on the ball in flight and is quick to react when he sees the play develop. He is not the type that shows any hesitation in his game, as he does not need time to digest the action because of his ability to distinguish between run and pass plays. He does a fine job of reading routes and altering his assignments progression, as he flies to the ball in an instant.

Ward is a smart, alert pass defender who makes quick reads and shows no hesitation closing on the ball. He is quick to diagnose the play, doing a good job of keeping the action in front of him. He won’t bite on play action or fakes and is very active in run support, despite his lack of ideal size to mix it up in the trenches. He seems to have that “sixth sense” of understanding route progression concepts and mirrors the receiver tightly to prevent much separation after the catch.

Man Coverage Ability...Ward not only has the speed to excel in man coverage, but has those very active hands and balance to take the receiver off the route’s progression and also stay tight on the hip of his man executing on deep routes. He is always in good position to make the play and uses his hand strength like lethal weapons in press coverage. Few cornerbacks in the Big Ten had his success in rerouting his assignments away from the ball. He can flip and run in an instant and is just as effective operating in off-coverage, thanks to exceptional stop-&-go action. He also shows outstanding consistency when it comes to maintaining position on the receiver. He is equally effective when playing the trail, covering tight or giving a bit of a cushion. He has the speed and burst, along with the quick reactions to close in a hurry, but is best when playing his man tight, where he can get physical to prevent the pass completion.

He shows good hips and feet to mirror on deep routes and demonstrates an explosive burst to close. He loves to play the press, but is confident in his speed to know he can play off his man effectively. The thing you notice on film is his ability to mirror and adjust to the receivers’ movements, displaying outstanding ability to plant, redirect and flip his hips. He is also very effective at using his hands to jam his man, even against the more imposing-looking tight ends.

Don’t be fooled by the three touchdowns allowed, as one was actually an interception (vs. Penn State), but officials blew the call and the Indiana score was at least one of the most contested touchdown catches in the Big Ten this year. With his loose hips, suddenness to redirect and true explosion to close, you would think that Ward would get over-confident and give a big cushion to the receiver, but he prefers to play his man tight, knowing that he has the hand placement ability to impede the receiver’s route progression. He has the valid speed to stay with his assignment on deep patterns and does a nice job of getting his body in the way to prevent catches over the opponent’s outside shoulder.

He can close in an instant and is very quick to react to the ball in flight, showing natural hands to make the interception or pass deflection. He has the burst needed to accelerate and close on plays at the opposite end of the field and has the second gear to catch up on rare times that he is beaten (see 2017 Nevada-Las Vegas and Iowa games).

Zone Coverage Ability...While Ward excels as a press coverage cornerback, he is also quite efficient playing the deep part of the zone, thanks to his physical nature and ability to jolt the receiver, causing quite a few dropped balls in the process. He is extremely alert to threats and shows good suddenness and urgency, along with textbook plant-&-drive skills to make plays on the ball. He has the peripheral vision to quickly locate secondary targets and is fluid making the switch-off in the deep part of the field. He uses his hands effectively to get a push off his man going up to compete for the ball in flight and has probably the best comprehension of zone concepts than any other college cornerback. With his range and sudden movements to the ball, he does a fine job of being in position to make plays, as it is very rare to see him misdiagnose routes. He has that added maturity and intelligence that allows him to get a good drop, read pattern development and react suddenly to the play.

Backpedal Skills...Ward shows excellent fluidity on his turns and it is rare to see him false step coming out of his pedal to stay on his coverage assignment. He does a really nice job of flipping his hips and has possibly the best change of direction agility of any cornerback eligible for the 2018 NFL Draft. He can turn and run with the fastest of receivers, mostly because he is never sloppy getting out of his breaks. He stays low in his pads, which allows him to transition without taking extra steps and his intelligence is evident by his ability to keep anticipation for the ball in flight. He has that suddenness in his pedal, along with loose hips to turn and run, looking smooth when transitioning deep or coming back up on short routes. He also has great ability to close when changing direction, as his feet look very natural and continuous in his movements to the ball.

You can make an instructional tape out of the way that Ward demonstrates proper plant-&-drive agility. He no longer takes soft angle cuts and he stays low in his pads to generate the quickness needed to come out of his breaks without taking false steps in transition. He accelerates in an instant in attempts to close. There are still some slide technique issues that he needs to correct (must shuffle feet better), but he has a smooth and easy knee bend that lets him come out of his cuts with good explosion. He is very good at flipping his hips and stays square throughout his pedal, showing controlled and smooth foot movement. When he stays low in his pads, he has the ability to suddenly change direction, along with natural and fluid foot movement (smooth and continuous).

Ball Reaction Skills...Ward shows good urgency tracking the ball over his outside shoulder and reacting to the trajectory of the toss, making sure he is capable of reaching for and plucking the sphere at its highest point. He simply shows no fear, nor does he have a regard for his body, working through tight areas to make sure no opponent has a clean opportunity to make the grab. He is equally effective playing the man as he is vs. the ball. He displays very good timing and a sudden break on the ball. He also shows great hand/eye coordination to make lots of big plays on the ball in flight. He has the natural hands to make the interception and the reach to knock down passes he can’t secure.

The thing you see on tape is his uncanny ability to use his foot quickness when trying to step in front of a receiver. He does a very good job of reacting to routes and anticipating throws into his area. Few cornerbacks show the feel for the ball in flight like Ward displays, especially during his junior year (39 reroutes/jams, two pass thefts, 15 break-ups). He looks natural maintaining contact with his assignment and does a nice job of tracking the pigskin in flight (see 2017 Indiana, Nevada-Las Vegas, Michigan, Wisconsin games). He has very good timing trying to leap and attack the ball in flight, showing excellent elevation to reach the pass at its highest point.

Range/Recovery...Ward is very confident in his elite catch-up speed, but still prefers to play his assignments very tight rather than “baiting” them with a big cushion. He covers ground in an instant when the ball is in the air and has enough burst to get back and prevent his opponent from making the big play. He has that sudden burst to lure the quarterback into feeling he can complete an underneath pass, only to see the cornerback step in front of that receiver to make the big play. He can cover up for those rare mistakes with his great catch-up speed and looks even faster in pads than he does with a stop-watch on him (runs 4.31 - electronic).

Ward has the speed to make plays at the opposite end of the field, evident by coming out of his area to make eight touchdown-saving tackles since becoming a starter in 2017 (see Nevada-Las Vegas, Rutgers, Nebraska, Iowa and Wisconsin games). He shows urgency closing on the ball and has the recovery burst to compensate when he’s beaten on the go route

Jumping Ability...Ward’s vertical is what I politely term as “special,” as you can see his high school track skills (sprinter, long jump champ, relays) come out. He has that good, natural ability to time his leaps and with his reach, he compensates for giving up a few inches to the much taller receivers.

Ward is fearless attacking the ball in flight and will not hesitate to sell out in attempts to make the play. He times his jumps well, but you still wonder if he has natural ball skills, as he will extend to catch outside his framework, but there were a few deflections that should have been pass thefts this season (see Indiana and Michigan games). His vertical jump lets him get to most jump balls and he shows good explosion and strength in his legs on attempts to leap. For a smaller defender, he gets more than his fair share of success competing for the ball in flight, as he consistently gets good elevation to vie with the receiver to attack the ball at its highest point.

Hands... Ward is a former receiver with natural hands, but there have been a handful of pass break-ups that could have been interceptions (tends to try and run before securing the ball). He rarely uses his body as a crutch to look the ball in and is very strong grasping and knocking receivers off the route’s progression. He looks the part of a natural hands catcher with the arm length to pluck the ball outside his frame, but has to be a bit more patient in securing it first. He has very impressive “finger-stretch” ability and natural talent to look the ball in and compete for it in a crowd.

He also demonstrates nice power behind his punch, which he uses with great success to jam or reroute his opponent. That hand jolt also is very useful when he has to take on bigger blockers in run support. He will extend to catch outside his frame and makes a concerted effort to get to the ball in flight, but more often, that leads to break-ups rather than interceptions. He plays much bigger than his size indicates due to his ball-hawking skills, though.

Run Defense...Ward is developing into a physical tackler, displaying a good feel for blocking schemes. He will need to add bulk to play run support at the next level, but he is more physical than you would expect for a player his size, perhaps a carry-over from his days as a 160-pound field cornerback and wide receiver in his school. He loves to come up and hit a ball carrier, but is not reckless or a type that will leave his feet to try and make the play. He shows the ability to hit with authority and knows how to get in position to impede the runner’s forward progress by attacking his opponent’s outside leg. He might not have the bulk to get off some down field blocks, but he will never take a side tackle, especially when double-teamed, as he is just too fast getting downhill when he sees the play develop. He keeps his hands active in attempts to play off blocks and while he is a better open field tackler, he has the moxie to play inside the box.

Ward might lack the “sand in his pants” to prevent from getting absorbed by the bigger blockers, but he is an efficient perimeter tackler with the speed to redirect the outside running game. He needs to generate more power behind his hand punch to play off blocks, especially in tight quarters. He does a good job of keeping his pads down, sinking his hips and lowering his shoulders while driving hard with his legs to make the play. He will not hesitate to take on blockers and is good to break down, but due to a lack of bulk, he is better taking good angles to the ball rather than trying to split blocks. Even though he lacks size, he plays with leverage and explosion. The thing you see on film is that he won’t back down when taking on blocks and is very active in attempts to fill the rush lanes (see 2017 Nevada-Las Vegas, Rutgers, Michigan games).

Tackling Ability... At 191 pounds, Ward is not going to clobber an opponent like a linebacker, but he has good moxie in him and will not hesitate to mix it up in tight areas. He has the developing frame to become a physical striker, but will need to use his hands more to grab at the next level rather than be a collision type hitter who puts a lot of “thud” behind those hits. He will hit and finish with proper wrap-up tackle technique and does a nice job of squaring up when working through those tight regions. He can be an explosive hitter, and will generally square up and put his hat up under the chin of his opponent. He does a nice job of bringing his hips and keeps his hands inside his frame to combat the taller, more physical receivers trying to get a push off him.

Ward has improved his strength and is more of an impact hitter as a junior than he was in the past, but still lacks that explosive power to suddenly stop the ball carrier in his tracks, as he is more of a low-cut, drag-down wrap-up tackler than one that will blow up his man on every play. He shows very good courage taking on bigger blockers and will do an efficient job of breaking down, facing up and wrapping to tackle. He will not hesitate to go low, wrestle the opponent down and knock the receivers out of bounds with a decent thud and he is not intimidated taking on bigger blockers, but size and a small wingspan does prevent him from “blowing them up” and making lots of tackles in the open field.

Compares To...Chris Harris Jr.-Denver Broncos...Ward has that explosive open field hitting style that can see him utilized at various positions in the secondary, based on the offense.

Joshua Jackson - Iowa

The 2017 Season...Jackson started all 13 games at left cornerback, as he was a unanimous first-team All-American (The NFL Draft Report, AFCA, Associated Press, FWAA, Sporting News, Walter Camp, College Sports Madness, College Football News ESPN.com, SBNation.com and USA Today.

During the regular season, he was targeted 81 times, allowing 38 receptions for 406 yards (46.91%) and five touchdowns.

Body Structure...Jackson has a well-built, muscular frame with long arms, good bubble, thick thighs and calves. He has a tight abdomen, trimmed upper body and a frame that can carry additional bulk without it affecting his overall quickness. He above average hand size that aids him in securing the ball properly and extending away from his frame when competing for the pass at its highest point.

Athletic Ability... Jackson has very good speed and moves easily when mirroring a receiver through the route’s progression. He opens up suddenly and it is rare to see him lose any relationship with his opponent in transition. He has an outstanding recovery burst (see 2017 Wyoming, Ohio State, Northwestern games) to make up ground in a hurry when a receiver gets behind him and a smooth, fluid backpedal. He shows no gather in the plant-&-drive phase of his game, especially when closing on the target. His range and fluid hips might see him earn instant playing time in the nickel/dime packages at the next level and he is strong enough to earn some snaps at free safety. He does a nice job of slipping through trash to make plays in run force and is a strong athlete who shows nice short area quickness and agility to come up and play in the box. He maintains balance changing direction and plays with very nice balance.

Football Sense... Jackson is a minimal “reps” type who has no problem digesting a complicated playbook and taking the action from the chalkboard to the playing field. He shows very good awareness in zone coverage and is alert to running threats in his area, along with recognizing pass threats to his outside when playing in the bail/shuffle technique. He does a nice job of working to get position in the zone and can’t be fooled by play action or misdirection.

He shows good field vision and will not hesitate to sacrifice his body to make a play on the ball in the air. He is always looking to finish the play in coverage and is a willing tackler in the deep zone. He is not a “killer” in run support, but will wrap and secure while waiting for help to bring the bruising inside runners down. When Jackson steps on the field, he is all business. He plays with good enthusiasm and will compete until the whistle. He is a good playmaker who seems to be in the right place to disrupt the offensive scheme (24 third-down stops in 2017 - see Iowa State, Minnesota, Nebraska games). He plays with good effort throughout and will not hesitate to stick his hat into the pile to make the play.

Key and Diagnostic Skills...Jackson has that quick reactionary ability to instantly make his initial read vs. the pass or run. He is very alert to play action and has a knack for reading routes, whether playing in the zone or when operating in zone coverage. When he sees the route develop, he has the sudden burst to close and prevent the big gain (see 2017 Michigan State, Northwestern, Minnesota games). Against plays in front of him, Jackson is quick to react, taking good angles to close on the ball. He is very effective in press coverage (19 reroutes and 18 pass break-ups in 20917 – see Iowa State, Minnesota and Nebraska games), but when he spends too much time attacking his man rather than going for the ball, he misses out on quality interception opportunities. He makes quick decisions when working in the box, but sometimes jumps the play before it develops, resulting in several costly touchdowns (see 2017 Iowa State, North Texas, Penn State, Nebraska games). When operating in the deep zone, he reacts well to the ball in flight, showing adequate leaping ability. When working on those long routes, he has the speed to recover when beaten. The thing you see constantly on film is his ability to identify his keys and react in an instant as the play develops (no need to digest).

Man Coverage Ability...For a boundary cornerback, Jackson does a very nice job of disrupting the receivers before they can get into their patterns. He has that strong hand placement to tie up his man for a long time at the line of scrimmage, evident by his performances in frustrating those that dared to beat him out of the blocks in the 2017 Michigan State, Minnesota and Ohio State. He uses his length well to reach around and compete for the ball in flight. He has the speed and burst to run on the receiver’s hip and recover when his man gets behind him. His fluid hips and quick change of direction agility, along with excellent anticipation skills. What Jackson does better than most corners is to be very active and physical with his hands. He shows sharp plant and drive agility, but will sometimes get sloppy on deep routes and round his angles to the ball. Still, he has outstanding feet and balance when adjusting to the receiver’s moves and can flip his hips, redirect and plant sharply coming out of his breaks without needing to gather.

Zone Coverage Ability...The thing that is impressive about Jackson is that he has that “safety” mentality (will not hesitate to make plays outside his area). He displays very good route awareness and quick reactions to the ball in flight. He can play the shuffle-&-bail at the X’s and it is rare to see him be late when acknowledging threats to the outside. He just has a knack for putting himself in position to make plays on the ball. You can see that from one game to the next, he does a better job of diagnosing routes. He is best when playing off the line, as he takes good angles in pursuit. He shows good awareness looking up receivers and anticipating the quarterback to jump the play. He has good leaping ability, but needs to time his jumps, as he has left several sure interceptions behind. Some team might try to use him at free safety, as he has that keen comprehension of zone concepts, along with the range and suddenness in his movements to react instantly to the ball in flight.

Backpedal Skills ...Jackson is very smooth and effortless in his retreat, taking no wasted steps in the process. He has possibly the best plant-&-drive ability of any defensive back at his level of competition. With his long limbs, he gets good length in his stride, crucial when trying to recover when the receiver gets behind him. He is not the type that you will see revert to taking choppy steps. He opens his hips easily, coming out of the pedal with the burst needed to maintain position out of transition. He looks very smooth with that transition when going deep or coming back up on the ball on short routes. You can see on film that he has the feet and balance to turn and stay on his man’s hip. He is sudden in his movements when changing direction and looks natural and continuous flipping his hips and coming out of his breaks cleanly.

Ball Reaction Skills...Jackson does a nice job of reacting to the route’s progression and anticipating the throws. He has a very good burst to recover and make plays on the ball or making the big tackle. The thing you notice on film is his ability to break on the ball vs. plays in front of him. He has improved his ability to anticipate the quarterback when working the deep zone, but when he does get caught out of position, he tries to overpower and reroute the receiver rather than mirror his opponent and let the play develop. He shows urgency closing on the ball in man coverage and has natural hands, but you would like to see him use his leaping ability more in attempts to intercept the ball rather than deflect it.

Range/Recovery ...Jackson has excellent range and it is rare to see him trudge from behind when a receiver gets past him. With his quickness and foot speed, he can easily make a break on the ball when playing in deep routes. I am really impressed with his speed coming out of transition, as he can suddenly make up ground when the ball is in flight. He explodes off the snap and can stay stride for stride with the receivers. He has the loose hips needed to quickly change direction and displays good explosion closing on the ball. He shows great acceleration when closing, but when he relies too much on his speed to help him recover, he will get outside his frame with his hands, resulting in several pass interference calls.

Jumping Ability...Thanks to his ability to elevate and get to the ball at its high point, he took better advantage of interception opportunities as a senior. He shows the natural ability to adjust and track the ball in flight and he has the size to make plays on the ball vs. bigger receivers. He displays natural hands for the interception and the body control to make proper adjustments in attempts to get to the ball, but has to step up his theft totals.

Hands... Jackson has ideal hand size (9 3/8-inches) and that could be a reason for his high interception totals and pass break-ups in 2017. He shows the ability to extend and pluck outside his frame, as he is not the type to use his body as a crutch, but at least four of his ten break-ups should have been pass thefts. Right now, you can say he has good hands to reroute, jam, wrap and secure, but as a pass thief, they are special.

Run Defense...Jackson can hit with a thud and shows good anticipation getting to the outside running plays. He is not a “trained killer” in the Brian Dawkins, Charles Woodson mold, but he is a patient sort who knows how to keep outside containment. He has the strength to come off blocks and shows the ability to make the wrap-up tackle, whether in the open field or playing in the box. He has the speed and rip move to slip off the blocker’s shoulder and displays the closing burst to pursue when he penetrates the backfield. His size lets him take on and play off isolated blocks well.

Tackling Ability...Because Jackson plays mostly in man coverage, he has had just limited opportunities to make plays in the box, but he is a physical tackler in the open field. He can put a “big hit” on a receiver competing for the ball and is not the type that will just attack “legs” when facing up to a ball carrier. He has effective drag-down strength and can get guys to the ground, but is not regarded as an explosive tackler.

Compares To...Josh Norman-Washington Redskins.

Mike Hughes - UCF

Overview...No, Hughes was not a member of the “Not Ready For Prime Time Players” that featured Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Jane Curtin, Laraine Newman and Gilda Radner, but if you hear NFL scouting executives talk about this emerging talent, he might have been better served waiting another year to enter the draft. “I wish he would have stayed. I don’t see him as a ‘one’ and I think he could have been with another year. He’s just raw right now but he’s got the ability to become a really tough ball challenger,” one NFC regional scout commented while attending Hughes’ campus Pro Day on March 29th.

Those comments are a bit puzzling and our staff is only swayed on what we see on film. In Hughes, we see a dangerous returner and skilled ball thief that brings back memories of the great Champ Bailey.

The 2017 Season...Hughes looked to transfer to a FBS-program and was expecting to sign with South Carolina, but by the time he received his associate’s degree, he missed the deadline for enrollment. He then signed with Central Florida, joining the program in mid-August, just two weeks before the 2017 season opener. He earned All-American Sleeper Team honors from The NFL Draft Report and he was also an All-American first-team choice as a return specialist by that scouting information service.

Body Structure...Hughes has a well-built frame that has impressive power, enough for teams that like to utilize their cornerbacks inside the box and on press coverage. He has shorter than ideal arms and small hands, but has developing upper body muscle tone (might spend 2018 adding more bulk). His legs are tapered, with good thickness in his calves, thighs and ankles. He possesses a tight waist and hips with a good bubble, knots in his calves and minimal body fat.

Athletic Ability...The first thing you notice about Hughes running the field is his exceptional body control, as he is so flexible, he could probably do “back flips” and still maintain his recovery quickness to get back on the play. He has excellent agility and footwork in his back-pedal, showing the balance and outstanding change of direction agility, along with the range to make plays at the opposite side of the field. With his burst and acceleration, he easily comes up to plug rush lanes or make tackles in backside pursuit. He has very quick hands and feet, along with the ability to maintain balance in transition, where it is very rare to see him take extra steps. He is very alert to plays developing in front of him, showing the strong leg drive to maintain position when challenged by lead blockers in the second level when providing run support.

Hughes runs with an easy stride, yet has that sudden second gear that makes it hard for even the speediest of receivers to get behind him when they challenge the deep secondary.

Football Sense... Hughes is a highly instinctive player, called by his head coach Mike Riley the smartest defensive player he’s ever coached. He generally plays under control, despite being a blow-up type of aggressive tackler. He has no problems taking plays from the chalkboard to the playing field and looks very alert to blocking schemes, play action and misdirection, as it is rare to see him eyeball the quarterback too long and lose relationship with his coverage assignments. He knows his role in the defensive game plan and is very “studious” preparing for his upcoming opponent, as he will put in the extra hours watching films. He thinks well on his feet and easily adjusts to handling different assignments, especially when picking up the switch-off in zone coverage. He is well-prepared on game day and should be more than capable of handling the mental aspect of the game at the NFL level.

Key and Diagnostic Skills...To call Hughes a “quick reader” on the football field would be an understatement. Even rival coaches feel he is the most instinctive player out there on game day and quarterbacks have little success getting him to bite on play action or misdirection. He shows very good timing and a great feel for the ball in flight, defending 15 passes in 2017 while also rerouting his assignments away from 22-of-85 targeted passes into his area. He comes up quickly to lend run support and you will not see him guess any when in deep coverage. Whether in man or zone coverage, he stays on the hip of the receiver and all of those touchdown-saving tackles (six) out of his area were enough to convince scouts that he is very capable of coming off his assignment to help others.

Man Coverage Ability...When opposing quarterbacks are successful on just 38.24% of balls targeted into his area (34-of-85 throws), scouts are confident that Hughes’s combination of instincts, field vision, range, power and speed are ideal for teams that like their corners to be active in run support or dropping back to cover speedy receivers one-on-one. He is very consistent in maintaining his position on the receiver throughout the route’s progression and has the skills to excel, whether playing the trail, cover or cushion. He gets to the ball in a hurry and is not fooled by action in the backfield to have him break off his assignment. He likes to use his hands and body to play tight on the receiver and is especially effective in press coverage, as he can easily reroute his man). He can flip and run with no wasted steps in transition and you won’t see him guessing any when aligned in off coverage, as he plays strictly with intent. He has the acceleration, burst and speed to run stride for stride with any receiver he faces and the thing I like is that he never seems to be out of position down field, thanks to that great recovery speed. With his hand punch, not even the bigger tight ends have success when trying to turn him some.

Zone Coverage Ability...This former quarterback and tailback has the range, size and experience to make plays in zone coverage, as he is very quick to react to action in front of him. It is rare to see him stay in his backpedal for too long, as he breaks instantly to close on the ball with intent and aggression. He has very good awareness handling switch-offs. He has very good eyes reading the quarterback and is alert to threats. He will come off his assigned area with no hesitation to attack the ball when ball carriers and receivers manage to get by UCF defenders at the opposite side of the field.

Backpedal Skills...Hughes is very fluid dropping back and coming out of his pedal, doing a nice and smooth job turning and running to the ball. You will never see him take extra steps in transition and he plays with very good anticipation, keeping the receiver from getting into his route with his ability to turn, run and get right on the hip of his man. The thing I like is that he can flip his hips and has the fluid change of direction agility, as this allows him to make covering his man one-on-one look very easy for him to do. He has that highly quick acceleration to close if a receiver gets behind him and recovers instantly from any transition glitches. Even with his speed, he is smooth and controlled, showing good technique and staying square when moving in reverse.

Ball Reaction Skills...Hughes demonstrates outstanding speed when closing on the ball, especially when playing vs. the run. He has above average breakdown in space and is a master at reading the receiver’s eyes and hand movements going for the ball down field, whether to deflect or pick off the pass. He is consistent with his elevation going for the ball in flight, showing natural hands that he uses to secure the ball, whether on picks or returns. He has exceptional timing coming out of his breaks and the hand/eye coordination, along with the timing to get to the ball at its high point.

Range/Recovery ...With his range, Hughes could be more of a gambler on the field, but he chooses to play mistake-free ball. He is the type that carries his equipment well (not much loss in speed running with his pads on compared to sprinting in shorts). He excels at pursuing and making plays at the opposite end of the field. He has the burst and second gear to quickly get under the ball in flight and enough hip snap and change of direction agility to get back into deeper secondary action. You can see that he not only accelerates well, but plays with that needed “second gear.” His pursuit range and catch-up ability appear outstanding on the game tapes viewed.

Jumping Ability...Hughes can really “sky” going up for the ball, as he not only shows excellent leaping ability, but does a nice job of catching outside his framework. He has the timing and ball hawking skills to make plays on the thrown ball at its high point.

Hands... The former prep quarterback has displayed excellent hands as a pass thief, returner and rare occasions as a receiver and running back. He has that natural feel for the ball in flight and smooth hips to easily adjust to the ball in the air. He catches the ball with his hands rather than use his body as a crutch. He is very conscious of ball security and to label his hands as “receiver’s type” would be an understatement.

Run Defense...Hughes is a physical tackler who is not afraid to come up and hit bigger guys at the line of scrimmage. You will never see him “take a side” in run force, and is extremely fast going down hill to the ball carrier, as he is quick to see the play develop. The thing I like is that he will often leverage and get involved in the pile. He became a great factor for the Knights defense supporting vs. the run, as he comes to the ball with little or no delay. He supports with no hesitation, uses his hands well to protect himself from the blocker or two-gaps and seems to really like contact. While he does hit with aggression, he knows when to break down and play under control.

Tackling Ability...Hughes can generate good pop on contact and has developed steady wrap-up skills, as he plays like a linebacker when challenging ball carriers. He flashes good force as a striker and relishes his role of taking on bigger lead blockers and runners when facing up in the holes. He uses his hands like weapons in attempts to shed and willingly wraps when in tight quarters. His tackle totals are not eye openers, but he’s had to make more than 30% of his tackles out of his assigned area, as offenses tend to shy away from his territory, and for good reason. Few cornerbacks show the savvy and desire like Hughes does, as he has become an explosive hitter who will square up and “put his hat” under the chin of any opponent he faces.

Return Skills...Hughes has the natural hands, size and speed to be a very effective NFL return specialist. He could have good success as a combo returner at the next level, thanks to his good vision and natural hands to look the ball in and locate the crease.

Compares To...Champ Bailey-ex Denver Broncos

Louisville v Clemson Photo by Tyler Smith/Getty Images

Jaire Alexander - Louisville

2017 Season...Alexander was hoping to cement himself as one of the top cornerbacks in the entire nation, coming off a banner sophomore campaign that saw the first-time starter lead the team with five interceptions that included two contests where he had multiple thefts. A knee injury early in the season opener vs. Purdue sidelined him for the next four contests (North Carolina, Clemson, Kent State, Murray State) before returning for two games. He then re-injured his right knee in practice, sitting out vs. Florida State and a broken bone in his hand prevented him from suiting up vs. Wake Forest. He played in the final three regular season contests, but elected to not play in the Taxslayer Bowl.

Body Structure...Alexander has an average frame with decent height, needing to add more bulk to play at the next level, but you do not want that increase to affect one of his greatest assets – quickness. He has a track/receiver-like defined upper and lower body structure, possessing average arm length, smooth, natural hands to field the ball cleanly and less than 6.5% body fat. His hands are also one of his better assets, as he demonstrates the flexibility and grip to grab and jerk the receiver off the route’s progression without getting caught by the refs.

Athletic Ability... Alexander is an outstanding athlete who is one of the fastest players in college football. In the return game, this is an area where he was regarded as one of the most dangerous threats, but he needs to more conscious of fielding the punt and securing it before taking off, as this has led to some fumble issues (see 2016 Syracuse, Marshall, Clemson, Boston College; 2015 Clemson, North Carolina State games). He’s a true shutdown cornerback who effectively uses his exceptional speed and quickness to make plays on the ball in flight, or when impacting his man coverage assignment with aggression and force to impede the route’s progress. He has that outstanding ability to change direction with no wasted steps and he also shows the body control and adjustment skills to easily combat the bigger receivers during “jump ball” situations. His hand/eye coordination is considered as elite NFL-caliber and he could develop into one of the more savvy deep coverage defenders in the NFL, as he sees things develop and reacts with no hesitation. He is very fluid and smooth in his movements and he can flip his hips and close on the ball with good urgency. His success in run support is because of his short area quickness and when having to run long distances, he does so with nice balance, demonstrating quickness in transition (see 2016 Florida State and Wake Forest games; 2017 Syracuse, Kentucky contests).

Football Sense... Alexander has been trained well, as he’s sort of a “boy scout,” (be prepared) and you will constantly see him in the film room doing “homework” before taking on an upcoming opponent. His ability to react to plays at the opposite side of the field has been a life-saver for the Cardinals, as he’s often had come out of position to make the touchdown-saving tackle at the opposite side after opponents elude his teammates (see 2016 Duke, Virginia and Wake Forest games). He did catch some media flak after he was “prancing” after making a big play vs. Wake Forest, but the coaching staff says he is the type that will “work his butt off” in practices and in the training room (no Calvin Pryor attitude issues). He has that natural feel and anticipation skills to make plays. He is the type that quickly learns from his mistakes and makes proper adjustments. Simply put, Alexander thinks well on his feet.

Key and Diagnostic Skills...Alexander is highly instinctive, evident by his uncanny knack for disrupting the route’s progression, as there were at least thirty catchable targets that he denied his coverage assignments opportunities to get to in 2016 (see Charlotte, Marshall, North Carolina State, Virginia games). In 2017, he rejected 14-of-19 passes targeted into his area. He also excels at “doing his job” and coming off his man to help others. He’s a very alert player, especially in man coverage, using his press skills to reroute/jam receivers away from the ball. The thing that you see on game film is the suddenness he displays in distinguishing between run and pass plays. He is so quick to identify his keys and react to the play, that receivers barely have time to get out of their stance before he is all over them. He works hard to defend his responsibilities and has excellent vision when it comes to recognizing blocking schemes. You can count on one finger the times that Alexander “guesses some” in coverage, as he’s almost never fooled on the snap. He does a great job in reading the quarterback’s eyes and in the zone, he can instantly get a jump on the ball. Despite being under six-feet, his timing on jump ball opportunities is superb (fourteen passes defended, eight where he elevated to make the play) and scouts that might be concerned that he can not handle big receivers, the average size of his main pass coverage assignments in 2016 were 6:03.2 in height and 212 pounds in weight.

Man Coverage Ability...On 73 passes targeted into his area in 2016, just 22 were caught, with only seventeen that were snared by his main pass coverage assignments. On 19 tosses targeted at him in 2017, just five were successful. His hand placement and punch has seen him reroute his opponents away from 30 of those tosses, along with showing excellent timing that has him lead the team with five interceptions, win jump-ball battles to bat away nine other throws (was 8-for-11 on jump balls vs. receivers 6:03 or taller in 2016 – see Marshall, Clemson, North Carolina State and Virginia games). He is highly consistent when it comes to maintaining position on the receiver, and he has enough skills to play the trail, cover or cushion. He has the foot speed to run with any receiver stride for stride and he never seems to be out of position, especially when down field. He demonstrates that he has the recovery speed to get back on the play on those rare times when a receiver gets behind him. He’s one of the best “press men” in college and while some teams might not like his size, he possesses the strength to jam at the line, along with the turning ability to mirror in the short area or when playing off coverage. He is very good at maintaining leverage on posts and always seems to be quick in transition, especially when covering on a nine-route.

Zone Coverage Ability...What separates Alexander from most college cornerbacks is that instinctive field vision and range to close on a play. He has outstanding anticipation and good comprehension of zone concepts, along with great range and suddenness in his movements to close on the receiver in a hurry when executing the switch-off, much like the Patriots’ Devin McCourty. Once he gets a read on the quarterback, he is quick to react and impact the play. He demonstrates very quick plant-&-drive agility when driving forward to make plays on the ball. While he does win a lot of jump ball battles, he can also be very physical stepping into the box vs. the run (see 2016 Florida State, Clemson, North Carolina State and Virginia games). Still, he excels at looking up the receivers and anticipating the quarter-back to jump the play.

Backpedal Skills ...Alexander is a former track standout with loose hips and crisp change of direction agility. He is never sloppy or will he take extra steps in his pedal, even though he has more than enough valid speed to get away with it and recover. He’s a smooth, fluid mover who makes man coverage “look easy,” as he has those suddenly-quick motions needed to recover from rare transition glitches. His feet appear well-balanced when retreating and his hips are loose, making him able to turn on the receiver’s hip and mirror heading up field. I really like what I call “rapid foot fire,” something I have not seen in a college cornerback eligible for this draft outside of Ohio State’s Denzel Ward and Louisiana State’s Donte Jackson. Those are three defenders with similar speed, but Alexander is more physically aggressive than those two.

Ball Reaction Skills...Alexander is a huge problem for a “lazy” quarterback, as he will never bite on misdirection or play action. He has that outstanding natural ability to break on the ball and when it comes to making the interception, he’s like a vacuum going after the sphere (see 2016 Clemson and Virginia games; 2017 Virginia, Syracuse contests). He has superb foot quickness and body control to step in front of the receiver and he can transition on a time-&-burst to make the play, even vs. the bigger receivers or when working in a crowd, as he has no problem tracking the ball in flight. He takes good angles and shows the quickness needed to accelerate when closing out of his breaks, keeping his feet clean in transition. He’s like a savvy veteran, as he often knows when to read the receiver’s eyes and hand movements to go for the ball and make the deflection down field.

Range/Recovery ...Even if he makes a mistake, Alexander has the catch-up speed to recover. He is the quickest accelerator in the 2018 draft class and has that rare ability to play with more than one gear. His pursuit range and catch-up ability appear outstanding on any game tapes viewed (see 2016 Syracuse, Clemson, North Carolina State, Virginia and Houston games). He easily maintains relationship with receivers on deep routes and I still have not found a player eligible for the 2018 draft with his exceptional football instincts (sees things develop quickly). He has that extra burst needed to cover ground with the ball in the air and when back into the deeper playing areas. With his transition skills, field and ball awareness, he is the most “NFL ready” cornerback in college.

Jumping Ability...Alexander is well known for getting great elevation to track the ball while it is in flight (see 2016 Clemson and Virginia; 2017 Syracuse games). He has no problem challenging the much bigger receivers to get to the pigskin at its highest point. He just has great lift and plenty of courage, as he has gained a lot of success picking the ball off in tight areas. He attacks the ball as if it was his birthright. He takes clean angles to the ball coming out of his breaks and in pursuit, demonstrating the body control to adjust on the move and time his leaps to compete.

Hands... Alexander is a natural hands catcher, but it is a bit puzzling that he’s had some ball security issues as a return specialist. His hands are his asset as a ball thief and his prep playing days could entice some team to even consider using him on offensive plays, on occasion. When it comes to pulling off the big interception, this kid ranks right up there with the best still in college. He looks very comfortable reaching and snatching the ball outside his frame and he knows how to contort his body to make the tough grab (see 2016 Clemson and Syracuse games).

Run Defense... Alexander will never hesitate to come up and support vs. the run. He has very quick hands and uses them well to fend off low blocks and utilizes his upper body strength to take on bigger blockers and shed. He’s a fearless open field hitter (see 2016 Wake Forest game) and is a better run stuffer than most college cornerbacks (see 2016 Florida State; 2017 Syracuse games). Despite his adequate bulk, he is a valid factor vs. the run, as he always will get involved and leverage, doing so with little-to-no delay. He is quick to react and come downhill, as even though some scouts feel that he does not have the size needed to take on and play off blocks, he shows strong angle concept to fit and make plays in traffic. He is very conscious of using his hands to protect himself or two-gap a blocker and for a defensive back, he really seems to like contact, knowing when to break down and play under control.

Tackling Ability... Alexander can be an explosive hitter, as he will consistently square up and “put his hat under the chin” of an opponent. He flashes power as a striker and will not hesitate to take on the big fullback to clog the rush lanes. Do not be fooled by his average amount of tackles (39 in 2016), as he’s a solid wrap-up tackler who can hit and he can punish (31 of those hits were solo efforts, indicating his stats were not compiled by jumping on the pile or waiting for assistance to make the stop). He makes nice adjustments to break down and fit in the open field and has enough brute strength to explode into an opponent upon contact. Unlike most sub-200-pound defensive backs, he’s not the type that will grab or just take a side, as he does a nice job of squaring up in tight quarters.

Compares To...Marcus Peters-Los Angeles Rams.