The problem, as I see it, is the incredible volatility in the way we perceive the quality of defensive backs. Perhaps more than any other position group, one day's hero is the next day's goat. A good middle linebacker or defensive tackle can be selected year after year to Pro Bowl or All Pro teams (not that these honors should be taken too seriously), but outside of a very select group of players, there seems to be a constant changing of the guard in the defensive backfield.
I don't really think that the quality of most players probably changes very much from year to year, or at least not as much as our attitudes about them do. Sure, a player might improve with experience, and decline with age and injuries, but their essential qualities are probably fairly set. Part of our change of perception is probably due to Interception Hysteria, where a player suddenly grabs people's attention with a handful of eye-popping plays, but the second his numbers dwindle, so does the mania. When the dynamic and explosive results shrink into the background, you are often left with a player that has exploitable flaws. Those flaws start to stand out a bit more, and we begin to judge them more harshly. I suspect this is just as big of a problem for teams, as it is for fans, as they frequently over-invest in flash-in-the-pan players, only to later wonder why the well seems to have run dry. I tend to believe that what a player is, he most likely will largely remain, but his circumstances and surrounding talent can be constantly evolving.
When people debate which position influences the success of the other more, defensive backs aiding the pass rush or vice versa, I tend to come down pretty strongly in favor of the pass rushers. I think a team can probably do pretty well with mediocre defensive backs, if their pass rush is strong. I'm not so sure about how reliable or consistent the results are with the opposite approach. Of course, defining what a "mediocre defensive back" is, is its own problem. I suspect that most defensive backs are pretty mediocre (well, statistically speaking, they have to be), though our hysteria can often elevate these players, for a time, to some lofty and highly paid pedestals. Was Pro Bowler Mike Jenkins actually talented (yes, he surprisingly made a Pro Bowl in 2009), or was he a player with limited ability who benefited from the seemingly eternal luster of being a former 1st round pick, as well as playing behind DeMarcus Ware? It's a tricky question to answer (no, it really isn't), though I personally suspect that Jenkins likely sucks. Why do I think this? Well, I think despite people's optimistic hopes for him, he probably lacked the athletic ability to really reach the greatest heights of success.
While some players might only thrive in a certain environment, there are certain players who seem so exceptional that it is hard to imagine a situation where they wouldn't perform well. I like to picture the great defensive backs as if they were Marcel Marceau, capable of mimicking their opponents movements to perfection. There aren't enough discussions about football that end up mentioning dead French mimes, and I am trying to rectify that problem. While people get excited about a great 40 time, I think it's really exceptional agility that separates the great from the merely good. For this we have the Agility Score (based equally upon a player's short shuttle drill and 3-Cone drill), to show how many standard deviations above, or below average, that a player is relative to other players in his position group. While I can never definitively say who the "great" players are, we can make a simple comparison here.
|40 yard||2nd Gear||Agility|
While they are all quite fast, it is pretty easy to see which one of these players is not like the others. In Champ Bailey's case, we only have the data from his short shuttle to go on, but there tends to be enough of a correlation between short shuttle results, and 3-Cone results, to safely expect that the missing information probably wouldn't have been capable of hurting him very much. In fact, I might argue that the short shuttle drill might be slightly more valuable than the 3-Cone drill, when it comes to predicting success, though I don't want to get into that right now.
When you consider the huge physical advantages that players like Bailey, Revis, and Peterson have, it's not hard to imagine why they have found success. You can almost picture them whistling Anything You Can Do, as they run about the field, perfectly capable of matching almost any movement their opponents makes. Yes, I started out making references to mimes, and felt I should add more hyper-masculine references from the musical Annie Get Your Gun. Life is simply easier for the supremely gifted athlete. This doesn't mean that I think a high agility score guarantees success, or that a player with a poor result will fail. I would, however, probably suggest that players who fall on either of the two extreme ends of this scale, will have wildly different probabilities of finding success.
But it's all so much more wonderfully complicated than just a player's agility. There are probably a dozen different athletic or statistical areas of concern for us to fret about, all with varying degrees of potential importance. Quickness, speed, size, power, and proven college production are all worth putting on the scale. While individual players can find varying degrees of success, and defy our expectations, gambling on players who have a paucity of evidence to support the views you have based on your lying eyes, is a difficult gamble to justify. This is particularly true, if you are thinking about using a high draft pick. Of course, as you get deeper into the draft, it is reasonable to lower your standards a bit.
So, to the best of my limited ability, I will try to narrow down the field of prospects, looking for the players that I feel have the odds most strongly tilted in their favor. The degree to which I value one piece of data over another, will shift somewhat, as we move from cornerbacks, to free safeties, to strong safeties, but the goal is always the same. That goal is to minimize the risk of doing something that is potentially stupid. Perhaps, even more importantly than seeking to identify gems, we are really seeking to avoid busts. Mediocrity is tolerable. Selecting someone who becomes an outright failure isn't.
Besides the player's Agility Score, I will also list their 2nd Gear score, and their average number of passes defended in their last two years in college. Like Charles Nelson Reilly in a bathhouse, I think a high quality DB should probably be grabbing balls with some frequency. For safety prospects, my expectations for the Agility Score will go down a bit, but I hope to see an increase in their Kangaroo Score (our measure of lower body power), which is also given in the form of how many standard deviations that a player is away from the average result for someone in their position group.
Let the guessing begin....
This list will continue to be modified and updated as new data, and additional prospects, come to my attention. Not every prospect will be included here, but instead, just the ones that I find interesting for one reason or another. Updated: 5/6/2014
Darqueze Dennard, CB, Michigan State Ht: 5'10.75" Wt.: 199
40 time: 4.41 2nd Gear: 0.16 Agility Score: -1.235 Avg. PD: 12
Well, what do you do with a guy who has poor agility, average speed, and relatively mediocre quickness (1.57 10-yard split), as well as just slightly better than middle-of-the-road statistical production? I certainly don't see any of this as a reason to believe that he should really go in the 1st round, and I suspect that people are being blinded by his moderately impressive number of interceptions (10 in the last three years). Personally, I think he would do better as a free safety, though I would still would have some concerns even there. As a cornerback, I think he is probably a moderate fraud, though that doesn't mean he can't be serviceable to some degree. I just doubt he will ever be able to deliver the level of high quality play that you would expect for such a potentially high draft pick.
Justin Gilbert, CB, Oklahoma St. Ht: 6' Wt.: 202
40 time: 4.31 2nd Gear: 0.23 Agility Score: -0.790 Avg. PD: 11.5
I have somewhat mixed feelings about Gilbert. On the one hand, his Agility Score is rather troubling, though this this is largely because of the poor short shuttle time at his pro day. So, I think he could struggle against quick, agile receivers who run sharp routes. On the other hand, he probably has the size, speed and power to adequately match up with some of the bigger receivers, who generally aren't terribly nimble. I think he could do an okay to good job, but most likely will never truly be great. For someone his size, he doesn't strike me as much of a force against the run, though he should be capable of doing so (0.506 Kangaroo Score). I have a hard time getting excited about Gilbert, though I wouldn't necessarily bet against him.
Ha'Sean 'Ha Ha' Clinton-Dix, FS, Alabama Ht: 6' 1.3" Wt.: 208
40 time: 4.58 2nd Gear: 0.02 Agility Score: -0.603 Avg. PD: 7.5
I really don't get the appeal of Clinton-Dix as a draft prospect, and fully expect him to become a disappointment like most of the recent players who came out of Alabama. His Agility Score is too low for me to take him seriously as a free safety, and is more in line with what I expect to see from a strong safety. At the same time, he seems to lack the power to be a strong safety (0.079 Kangaroo Score), where I would hope to see something closer to a 1.000. His college production was also very much of the "meh" variety, in my opinion. I would avoid him altogether, let alone in the 1st round, though he does get points for having a name that is fun to say. Ha Ha, indeed, the joke will be on somebody.
Calvin Pryor, FS, Louisville Ht: 5' 11" Wt.: 207
40 time: 4.58 2nd Gear: 0.00 Agility Score: -0.595 Avg. PD: 7
Athletically, he is very similar to Clinton-Dix, and raises a lot of the same concerns. The main difference is that Pryor was much more productive (though their Avg. PD is similar), and more entertaining to watch, which at least allows me to raise the argument that perhaps his measurable traits don't adequately capture what he brings to the table. While he is listed as a free safety, he seems to play more like a strong safety, and his Agility Score would be perfectly acceptable for that role. My only real concern with him as a strong safety prospect would be his Kangaroo Score, which is just 0.072, though he seems to be a pretty good hitter despite this average result. While I wouldn't be able to select him, because Reilly and I need to unanimously agree about a prospect in order to choose him (Reilly doesn't like him), he does strike me as a fairly entertaining prospect who could exceed our expectations.
Bradley Roby, CB, Ohio St Ht: 5' 11" Wt.: 194
40 time: 4.34 2nd Gear: 0.17 Agility Score: 0.862 Avg. PD: 17.5
Well, he is very physically gifted, and unlike some corners he actually seems to be willing to hit people. Perhaps even more than his impressive speed, I am drawn in by his exceptional quickness (1.51 10-yard split). His statistical production was well above average, and he made plays in multiple aspects of the game, which is good to see. He's actually slightly younger than some of the other corners (born 5/1/1992), which I like, and this could give him some advantages in terms of further development. I'm not sure if I really see any significant problems here. While I don't think he is necessarily overly dominant in any one area, I think he might be the one of the safer overall compromises in terms of size, athleticism, production.
Jason Verrett, CB, TCU Ht: 5' 9.5" Wt.: 189
40 time: 4.36 2nd Gear: 0.14 Agility Score: 1.175 Avg. PD: 19
He's quick, fast, agile, and productive. So, obviously, I like him quite a lot. With that said, I think there are still limitations to what you can expect from such a relatively small corner. From what I can see, he does appear to be quite capable in coverage, though there are times where he gets pushed around a little bit. He's kind of like a relentless little chihuahua, that keeps nipping at your ankles, and slowly driving you insane. If it weren't for the size concerns, I would say he is the probably the most appealing corner prospect that I have seen in this draft. An obvious person to compare him to might be someone like Lardarius Webb, though Verrett is actually slightly heavier and much more physically gifted than Webb was (at least on paper), though Verrett's 40-yard dash is just a tiny bit less impressive. As long as you don't expect him to shutdown larger receivers of the Andre Johnson or Calvin Johnson variety (not that any corner really does this), I don't see any reason to think he shouldn't do quite well.
Kyle Fuller, CB, Virginia Tech Ht: 5' 11.5" Wt.: 190
40 time: 4.40 2nd Gear: 0.12 Agility Score: -0.053 Avg. PD: 9.5
I don't necessarily have a huge problem with Fuller's average agility, or the mediocre rate at which he got his hands on the ball. To some extent, his strengths seemed to lie in his above average physical play, and that's fine. His Kangaroo Score of 0.288 is tiptoeing into the realm of the safeties, when it comes to potential hitting power, and his above average number of tackles for a loss lines up nicely with this strength. Still, I probably wouldn't draft someone with his physical traits as highly as he is projected to go, since I think the first couple of rounds should be reserved for defensive backs with truly exceptional coverage skills. As with Bradley Roby, I would give him some extra consideration just for being a bit younger than some of the other prospects (born 2/16/1992). While he may end up being a good corner, I would probably bet against him becoming a great one. I wouldn't give him serious consideration until the 3rd or 4th round, though that isn't the insult it may sound like to some people.
Marcus Roberson, CB, Florida Ht: 6' Wt: 191
40 time: 4.61 2nd Gear: -0.04 Agility Score: 0.474 Avg. PD: 8.5
For some reason I seem to run across a lot of people projecting Roberson as a 2nd round pick. I don't quite get what they are thinking on this one, but I wish them luck.
Lamarcus Joyner, CB, Florida St. Ht: 5'8" Wt: 184
40 time: 4.47 2nd Gear: 0.12 Agility Score: -1.677 Avg. PD: 6
I can only assume that the people who are promoting Joyner as a high draft pick, are doing so as a joke.
Jaylen Watkins, CB, Florida Ht: 5' 11" Wt: 194
40 time: 4.41 2nd Gear: 0.09 Agility Score: -1.694 Avg. PD: 9
I wouldn't touch him with a ten foot pole, though people seem to be projecting that he will go in the 2nd or 3rd round.
Jimmie Ward, FS, Northern Illinois Ht: 5' 10.75" Wt.: 197
40 time: 4.47 2nd Gear: 0.09 Agility Score: -0.200 Avg. PD: 15.5
I like Jimmie Ward a lot. I'm just not sure what position he should play. Athletically he falls into a somewhat gray area between free safeties and cornerbacks. While I normally place almost no value in a player's results from the bench press, his 9 repetitions does set off some alarms for me. The bench press tends to be a terrible thing to put much stock in, except for weeding out players with abnormally low results. Ward's result was about half of what I would normally expect to see for a safety prospect, and there does seems to be some correlation between this and a player's ability to become an exceptional tackler. Despite this concern, he actually appears to be pretty good when making tackles, though they tend to be of the go-for-the-ankles variety, and this leaves me feeling somewhat concerned about what will happen when he faces bigger and more powerful running backs and tight ends, who might just plow through him. His 0.502 Kangaroo Score, is also only a moderately good/acceptable result for a safety (though quite good for a corner). All of this combined with his relatively small size for a safety (5' 10.75", and 197#) makes me worry about how he will stand up to the punishment. I really have to wonder if he would be better off being used in a cornerback/nickelback role. Still, he has proven to be a surprisingly capable tackler, and has been extremely productive. Part of me would be very tempted to take him in the 2nd round, though it would make me nervous, and probably be a bit of a violation of some of my rules. Either way, he is a very exciting player to watch, and I think he is vastly more interesting than Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix.
Deone Bucannon, SS, Washington St. Ht: 6' 1" Wt.: 211
40 time: 4.48 2nd Gear: 0.06 Agility Score: -0.444 Avg. PD: 7.5
My feelings about Bucannon sort of waver, going one way and then the other. But they're just feelings, nothing more than feelings. While his Agility Score is nothing to write home about, it is in an acceptable range for a strong safety. While strong safeties tend to lag behind other defensive backs when it comes to agility, they generally compensate for this with power. Bucannon's 1.162 Kangaroo Score suggests to me that the power is in fact present. When it comes to athletic ability, he is basically the prototypical strong safety. His statistical production was excellent, and diverse, with 15 career interceptions, 7 forced fumbles, and 13.5 tackles for a loss. He didn't really set my panties on fire when I watched him play, but I still suspect he should eventually become a good safety, since I don't place a lot of value in what my lying eyes tell me. With that said, I'd definitely take him if he fell to the 3rd round, and might even go as high as the 2nd round, as I figure he is a relatively low risk prospect, who should turn out to be an at least adequate player, even if he doesn't become a star.
Stanley Jean-Baptiste, CB/S, Nebraska Ht: 6'2.5" Wt: 218
40 time: 4.55 2nd Gear: 0.03 Agility Score: -0.007 Avg. PD: 13.5
Is it wrong for me to downgrade a prospect simply because I think he might be a moron? That's sort of the vibe I get when I see this player interviewed, and the fact that he will also be a 24 year old rookie doesn't help to dispel these intelligence/maturity concerns. Nevertheless, I do find Monsieur Jean-Baptiste to be extremely interesting, and if we eliminated all of the idiots from the NFL, there might not be many guys left standing. The problem here is determining what position he will play. If he ends up playing cornerback, I think he could struggle, though the Seahawks have gotten good mileage out of similar over-sized prospects recently. Still, I think his Agility Score, and short shuttle time of 4.33 seconds would probably make this a questionable idea. As a safety, on the other hand, these concerns are greatly diminished, and he does possess excellent size for that position. Perhaps more importantly, he has the power to play that position. As I said before, I want a strong safety to have a Kangaroo Score of about 1.000 standard deviations above average. Jean-Baptiste's score was 2.594, which is simply stunning. That's some very impressive lower body power, but despite what his size and power might suggest, I like him more as a free safety than as a strong safety. It's his ability to get his hands on the ball, rather than his hitting/tackling ability, that really impresses me, which probably isn't surprising considering that he is a converted wide receiver. Now, his official 40 time of 4.55 seconds is somewhat worrisome, though that too would be borderline tolerable for a safety. Fortunately, he improved upon this time at his pro day, running a reported 4.45. Pro day results can be a bit questionable at times, but I would probably be willing to give him the benefit of the doubt here, and say that he probably runs in the mid-to-low 4.5s. If he is still there in the 3rd round he could be a fairly interesting target for Team Kangaroo.
Rashaad Reynolds, CB, Oregon St. Ht: 5' 10" Wt.: 189
40 time: 4.49 2nd Gear: 0.02 Agility Score: 1.049 Avg. PD: 13
Well, he's not that big and he's not that fast. He is, however, quite quick (1.51 second 10-yard split), and very nimble. If a team can accept his physical limitations, and provide some safety help against much faster opponents, I think he could provide at least adequate depth. He didn't make much of a positive impression on me when I watched him play, but if he slid to the 4th or 5th round, I might be interested. In the end, I'm really not much of a fan, despite some of his measurable traits.
Phillip Gaines, CB, Rice Ht: 6' 0.3" Wt.: 193
40 time: 4.31 2nd Gear: 0.18 Agility Score: 1.163 Avg. PD: 15.5
For someone who is generally listed as a mid-round pick, I think the calculation of risk vs reward would be rather favorable here. Athletically, he is clearly quite gifted, and comparable perhaps to the smaller Jason Verrett, though Verrett seems to be a scrappier player. From the little I have been able to see, he appears to cover his opponent quite tightly, and he has managed to get his hands on the ball fairly frequently even if he hasn't turned a lot of those opportunities into interceptions. It's a bit harder to judge him as a tackler, since I didn't see him get many opportunities to do this, but when the opportunity arose he appeared quite willing to at least make an effort here. He has missed playing time in the past due to injuries, though none of them appeared to be too serious. While I often see him listed as a 4th to 5th round prospect, I doubt he will last that long in the draft, and I would probably start to target him in the 3rd round. At this point, he is probably one of my three favorite corners in this year's draft, and I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if he ends up outperforming more highly touted players like Gilbert and Dennard, though he might not get as many opportunities early on.
Dontae Johnson, CB/S, NC State Ht: 6' 2" Wt.: 200
40 time: 4.41 2nd Gear: 0.16 Agility Score: -0.024 Avg. PD: 6.5
As a cornerback, I don't find Johnson to be terribly impressive. He does appear to be a fairly good tackler though, and with his size and athletic traits, I could see him as a moderately interesting safety (which he has played in the past). Since I value the Kangaroo Score a bit more for safeties, I will say that his result of 0.710 is a good, but not necessarily shocking result for a safety. If someone insists on using him as a corner, I suspect he will struggle with more nimble wide receivers, against whom he probably doesn't have the agility to keep up with. I generally see people projecting him to be selected in the 5th to 6th round, which seems like a reasonable place to take someone like him, depending on who is available at other positions that might be more interesting.
Ross Cockrell, CB, Duke Ht: 6' Wt: 191
40 time: 4.47 2nd Gear: 0.17 Agility Score: -1.453 Avg. PD: 16.5
Once again, we have to decide how we feel about pro day results. I wouldn't normally even raise this issue, but Cockrell was so productive, that I am wary of being too dismissive of his abilities. While his 40 time was fairly average, he did manage to improve this at his pro day to a 4.44. More importantly, perhaps, he improved his 10-yard split from a wretched 1.64 to an excellent 1.50. Similarly, while I wouldn't normally pay much attention to a corner with an Agility Score of -1.453, but he likewise improved this to a more average -0.278 at his pro day. These still aren't exciting results, but they are at least acceptable, especially for someone who is only projected to be taken in the 5th or 6th round. Maybe he was drunk at the combine, I really don't know. Personally, he struck me as a pretty good player, which makes me want to trust his pro day results, but truthfully, I would probably pass on him in favor of a more athletically superior prospect. That's how we roll.
Bennett Jackson, CB, Notre Dame Ht: 5'11.75" Wt: 195
40 time: 4.46 2nd Gear: 0.11 Agility Score: 0.974 Avg. PD: 6.5
I should probably mention that he did improve his 40 time to a 4.40, at his pro day, though you can take that with a grain of salt. He didn't get his hands on the ball as much as I would hope to see, but when he did, it seemed to frequently result in an interception (6 in the last two years). As far as his tackling ability is concerned, I really haven't come to any strong conclusions yet. At this point I would strongly lean towards Jackson, over someone like Rashaad Reynolds. People seem to project that Jackson will be taken in the 5th or 6th round, which seems fairly reasonable to me. Probably not a bad corner, for someone who can be picked up rather cheaply, even if he will possibly only become a #3 or #4 corner on a lot of teams.
Travis Carrie, CB, Ohio Ht: 5'11.5" Wt: 206
40 time: 4.43 2nd Gear: 0.12 Agility Score: -0.298 Avg. PD: 14.5
Yes, I know this is becoming a bit of a theme, but I want to see someone use him as a safety. Could he do okay as a corner? Maybe. He probably wouldn't do any worse at corner than some of the overrated prospects that people have been hyping. I'm just not sure if he would thrive there. At safety, I think he has a shot at really excelling, and his 1.415 Kangaroo Score suggests he has the power to make this switch. That he has generally managed to get his hands on a lot of balls, and appears to be a decent tackler doesn't hurt either. Will I get my way here, and see a position switch? Probably not. CBS is listing him as a player who will go undrafted, but I think he's probably worth picking up, and would start considering him around the 5th round.
Dashaun Phillips, CB, Tarleton St. Ht: 5'11" Wt: 182
40 time: 4.48 2nd Gear: 0.09 Agility Score: 1.328 Avg. PD: 8.5
I can't really say too much about Phillips, because I have never gotten to see him play. I suppose ESPN got too much criticism about all of their Tarleton State coverage, and decided to shift the spotlight to an underdog program like Alabama. Since he comes from a low level program, is a bit of a lightweight, and only had moderate production, it is fairly obvious why he is generally projected to go undrafted. On the other hand, he appears to be very agile, acceptably fast, and can be had for less than a ham sandwich. Considering the poor state of most teams' #3 or #4 cornerback, I think he might be well worth bringing in as an UDFA, just to see if he might have something.
Brandon Watts, LB/S, Georgia Tech Ht: 6' 1.75" Wt: 225
40 time: 4.41 2nd Gear: 0.10 Agility Score: -0.097 Avg. PD: 1.5
This is another peculiar player that I have been unable to watch, but I thought he was worth mentioning. Yes, he was actually a linebacker, not a defensive back, but at his pro day he only weighed 225# (though the team's site, and other sources, sometimes claim he weighs 235#, which is probably fiction), which would give him an excellent frame for a strong safety. In terms of his measured agility, he would actually be above average for a strong safety, and more in line with what I expect to see in a free safety. His lower body power, however, is way beyond what I would hope for in a free safety, and even exceeds the results of most strong safeties, with a 2.014 Kangaroo Score. His college production was just okay, but maybe this was due to being a bit undersized for the position he was playing. I really don't know since, as I said, I haven't been able to watch him play. Physically, he is almost a clone of Stanley Jean-Baptiste, though slightly bigger and faster. Since he is projected to go undrafted, I think he is well worth picking up as a UDFA.