An informal poll of league evaluators of the 2016 NFL draft indicates a dropoff in cornerback quality after the top-three players, creating a potentially difficult decision for the Pittsburgh Steelers and others looking for cover help late in the first round.
The consensus is Florida State’s Jalen Ramsey, Florida’s Vernon Hargreaves and Ohio State’s Eli Apple are a cut above the rest. Two of seven evaluators polled say Apple is a better prospect than Hargreaves. This suggests Apple likely wouldn’t be available at No. 25, where Pittsburgh picks.
These evaluators (NFL coaches, scouts and execs) provided their top-five corners on condition of anonymity. Using an inverse point system (five points for a first-place vote, one point for fifth place), here are the results. A few provided a sixth corner, which can work as a fifth-place tie.
The sentiment from many: After the top two or three, the order will vary wildly, often depending on what teams need for their defense.
Jalen Ramsey, FSU: 34 points
Vernon Hargreaves, Florida: 27 points
Eli Apple, Ohio State: 18 points
William Jackson III, Houston: 8 points
Artie Burns, Miami: 7 points
Kyle Fuller, Virginia Tech: 6 points
Mackensie Alexander, Clemson: 4 points
Xavien Howard, Baylor: 2 points
Cyrus Jones, Alabama: 1 point
A few thoughts from those conversations:
Jackson and Burns are both considered high-ceiling athletes with good size but a bit raw at the position for NFL standards. One evaluator considers Jackson a third-down corner his rookie year, but he can play inside/out and has the potential to grow into an every-down corner.
Alexander can and should be a good player, but many give the edge to Jackson, Burns and Fuller based on size and playmaking ability.
Many really like Fuller’s 2014 tape and his overall instincts. He has adequate but not great speed. His injured knee is the biggest question mark. Otherwise, he might be a first-round lock.
Varied opinions deepen the draft intrigue every year. Example: One evaluator said Hargreaves is a better natural cover corner than Ramsey. Another says Apple’s size and speed wins any tiebreaker with Hargreaves.
Howard had a sub-par pro day but some are OK with that because they like his 2015 performance.
None of these guys has major character red flags. All solid for the most part.
My take: If the Steelers have targeted a specific corner — and many believe it to be Jackson — then the order doesn’t matter. Preference does. But questions remain with most corners outside of Ramsey and Hargreaves. Teams must know whether any perceived weaknesses are manageable.
In last year’s draft, the top-three cornerbacks were off the board by the time the Steelers picked 22nd overall. They chose pass rusher Bud Dupree over cornerback Byron Jones. With the demand on good cornerback play increasing league wide, they’ll likely face a similar situation this year, especially as the Redskins (No. 21 overall) and Bengals (No. 24) needing help in this area, too.