PewterReport.com analyzes the top players in the 2021 NFL Draft with its’ position previews. Jon Ledyard previews the cornerback position with a comprehensive look at what the Bucs have and what they need in the secondary, while also providing a detailed list of this year’s top cornerbacks. In addition, Scott Reynolds offers up the team needs and the annual PewterReport.com Bucs’ Best Bets – the most likely cornerback for the Bucs to select in Rounds 1-3, and in Rounds 4-7.
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What The Bucs Have At Cornerback
Table of Contents
The Bucs’ top four cornerbacks for the 2021 season appear to be set, on paper at least. Carlton Davis III will enter a contract year looking to build on a breakout 2020 campaign. Sean Murphy-Bunting and Jamel Dean will try to find consistency in their play after impressing down the stretch.
Bucs CBs Carlton Davis III and Ross Cockrell – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Veteran Ross Cockrell, who was a clutch in-season signing for the Bucs last year, returns on a two-year deal to man the No. 4 cornerback role. Practice-squader Herb Miller had a cup of coffee on the active roster last season, intercepting a pass against Detroit.
What The Bucs Need At Cornerback
The Bucs don’t really need a corner for the 2021 season, but there are a lot of question marks beyond this year. Davis will be a free agent looking for a big pay day next offseason. And we’re still wondering what Murphy-Bunting and Dean are going to become in the NFL.
It’s a very good draft for cornerbacks, a position of vital importance in today’s NFL. The Bucs might want to come away with one of the many quality cornerbacks in the first two rounds of the draft would be a priority. Georgia’s Eric Stokes and Tyson Campbell would be great fits early on.
Slowly but surely Horn has drawn comparisons to Jalen Ramsey, which I certainly understand from watching his tape. Horn might not be the elite playmaker Ramsey is, but he’s certainly as aggressive in press-man coverage. We probably won’t see a cornerback as physical and as good as Horn from a press alignment for a long time. It’s important that Horn is slotted into the right scheme, but in a press-man heavy defense, he could be a star in the NFL.
Surtain is probably one of the safer prospects in the draft, as there really isn’t anything he does poorly based on his college tape. He’s technical, smart, physical, can play in any scheme and has tons of experience after starting from his freshman year. Few college cornerbacks will ever be more battle-tested either, as Surtain has consistently squared off with the best receivers in college football for three straight years.
Perhaps the only downside with Surtain is that for a cornerback with his size, smarts, athleticism, speed, work ethic and pedigree as a 3-year starter at Alabama, you would have expected a lot more splash plays and big moments on tape. Surtain reminds me a lot of the Dolphins’ Byron Jones. Both guys will have very good careers, but might never be considered top-tier players at their position. It would be a shock to see Surtain turn out to be a disappointment, however.
Northwestern CB Greg Newsome II – Photo by: USA Today
The way I see it, there are three concerns with Newsome: he really only played at a first round level during his six games in 2020, he’s had nagging injury concerns during all three of his college seasons and he can get a little grabby down the field at times. But Newsome might be the most scheme versatile cornerback in the class, with the length, transitions and speed to play in press man, and the instincts and burst to play in zone. Newsome is a willing tackler and a tough competitor despite his wiry frame. He’d be a great pick for the Bucs if he somehow lasts to No. 32.
Even if Farley didn’t have back injury concerns entering the draft, there would still be wrinkles in his game to iron out. Farley is technically behind where the top three cornerbacks in the class are, but he’s athletically comparable with all of them, at least based on his tape. We never got to see Farley work out because his back prevented him from doing so after sitting out the 2020 season.
Still, Farley is big, long, fast and has flashed game-changing ball skills during his breakout 2019 season. If he can get more opportunities in a press man scheme, I think that may be better for Farley than Virginia Tech’s zone heavy defense was in college. If he falls to Tampa Bay and the injuries aren’t a concern, it would be hard to argue with the pick.
The best thing about Stokes game is his acceleration, size and speed, which come in very handy when defending vertical balls. His ability to box receivers to the boundary and stay in phase down the field will prevent big play attempts in the passing game and discourage a lot of 50-50 balls. When those contested catch situations do arise, Stokes does a good job of playing through the hands and finishing reps, even if his ball production isn’t overly impressive. The redshirt junior’s four interceptions this year, the first four picks of his career, were more luck than skill.
Georgia CB Eric Stokes – Photo courtesy of Georgia
What Stokes struggles with is anything that tests his change-of-direction or ability to stop-start. Receivers who took him vertical only to break off into a post pattern or comeback left Stokes reeling to recover his balance and stay in phase. The separation he gave up was startling at times. If he can remain more under control and begin to sense when patterns will break, Stokes lack of fluidity will be less noticeable in press man. Corners his size that can run like he does will always get drafted high, but Stokes will have to become more polished to overcome his struggles to mirror quicker route runners.
What Stokes lacks in the ability to throttle down, change directions and turn with receivers, Campbell has in droves. His tape is filled with reps showing his impressive anticipation and feel for when routes will break, and ability to mirror receivers as they alter course. Campbell has outstanding speed and acceleration as well, which puts him in good position on vertical routes, although that didn’t discourage throws his way as much as it did for Stokes.
That’s where Campbell really struggles. When the ball is in the air, he has consistently failed to deliver at Georgia. He gave up a pair of touchdowns against Florida despite great positioning, even putting his arm in the catching window on the second throw. Sometimes there really is no defense for a great throw and catch, but Campbell needs to show more confidence at finding the ball and making plays. He surrenders too many contested grabs for a cornerback with his measurables. Devonta Smith is 166 pounds and consistently finished against Campbell at the catch point. Can’t happen, and penalties could mount if Campbell starts to panic down the field.
Where Campbell has a clear edge over Stokes is in his run defense and tackling. Both corners will tackle, but Campbell hits and takes on blockers with an attitude, while Stokes would rather let others do the dirty work in the run game. There is a lot to like about Campbell, and we’ve seen corners with worrisome ball skills (Carlton Davis, Marlon Humphrey) get much better in the NFL. The junior just turned 21 and has 4.36 and 32-inch arms. Stokes and Campbell being on the Bucs radar with their length, speed and upside. They’ve drafted a lot of SEC DBs under Jason Licht, and the measurables for these two match up with Tampa Bay’s prototype.
7. Florida State CB Asante Samuel Jr. – Junior – 5-10, 180, 4.38
It’s easy to like Samuel Jr., as he has no real flaws other than his size and strength, and can play in any defensive scheme. He’s smart, competitive, athletic and makes plays on the ball despite his size. That should lock Samuel into a top 3 cornerback spot on a team for the rest of his career, with the ability to play inside or outside. Physically, there will be concerns about him in a press-man scheme despite his experience in the role. I think Samuel probably is what he is, a good player that may not have the ceiling to be great in the NFL. He’s probably a second or early third round pick, but it would be unlikely to see him end up on the Bucs with their preference for bigger corners.
It’s a draft full of big cornerbacks, but even amidst this group Melifonwu stands out. He’s a physical specimen who can run 4.4 and jumped 42 inches at his pro day. That’ll generate a lot of interest from NFL teams, especially when your best two games of the year come against Trevor Lawrence and Sam Howell. Melifonwu locked up UNC WR Dyami Brown this past season, and was a consistent presence with ten pass breakups and a pick.
Where Melifonwu may lose some suitors is due to the scheme at Syracuse, where he wasn’t asked to play in press as often as you’d assume for a 205-pound corner with over 32-inch arms. Melifonwu fared fine when he was pressing, but Syracuse played a lot of zone, and Melifonwu was most impressive reading-and-reacting to the 3-5 step game from receivers in an off coverage alignment. He’s a solid tackler and plenty physical coming downhill, which makes him an easy fit on the outside for a zone defense at the next level. If the Bucs are looking seriously at CB, Melifonwu should be on their radar at No. 64.
Robinson is a unique evaluation, as he has decent size and good athleticism for the position, yet played almost entirely in the slot at Central Florida. He’s frustratingly inconsistent with his technique and discipline in coverage, but his aggressive play style makes him a standout when he can read-and-react in off coverage. Robinson will mix it up in the box and is one of the better run-defending/tackling cornerbacks in the class, making him an ideal fit for the slot in the NFL.
Off-field character, work ethic and coachability concerns exist with Joseph per The Athletic’s Dane Brugler’s draft guide, but there is no denying his talent if those things can be fixed. Declaring as a redshirt sophomore, Joseph transferred after being suspended for the Fiesta Bowl during his freshman year at LSU in 2018, sitting out the 2019 season due to transfer rules before bursting back onto the scene in 2020. Joseph’s play varies greatly from game-to-game and even snap-to-snap, but if a team believes in their ability to develop him, they could take a massive risk on his raw talent.
Molden is one of the draft’s more enjoyable watches on tape, as his instincts and mental processing are some of the best in the class. Five interceptions and 19 pass breakups over the past two seasons (17 games) are strong indicators that Molden has the outlier traits to stick in the NFL despite poor testing and minimal physical traits. Still, 5-9 1/2, 192 pounds with 29 1/2-inch arms is a tough sell for a cornerback who ran a 4.60 pro day 40.
Fortunately for Molden he’s already well-versed as a slot corner, spending his entire Washington career there. He’ll likely spend his entire career there after his slow 40 times. Several people have mocked Molden to Tampa Bay in recent weeks, but outside of the fact that he’s from Washington and has reputable football character, the fit would make little sense given Licht’s recent prototypes at the position.
Adebo’s whole game is feast or famine, and it has been for years now. His eight interceptions and high-point plays on the ball really pop on tape, but unfortunately so does the consistent stream of big plays allowed over the 2019 and 2018 seasons. Adebo could have boosted his stock with a great 2020 season, but COVID concerns pushed him to opt out. Few cornerbacks offer a wider range of outcomes on a given play, as Adebo’s focus and attention to detail seem to be all over the map. His pro day workout was fantastic and NFL teams love ball skills, so someone will take a shot in the top 100 despite the seesaw film.
Best Of The Rest
13. Central Arkansas CB Robert Rochell – RS Senior – 6-0, 193, 4.39
Central Arkansas CB Robert Rochelle – Photo by: USA Today
Rochell will test the skills of his next positional coach in the NFL, as he has hails from the FCS where he was simply bigger, longer and more athletic than every receiver he faced. In some matchups in the NFL that may still be true, but Rochell’s struggles at the Senior Bowl revealed how far he has to go technically before he’s able to reach his full potential. I’d expect him to come off the board early on day 3, although a team could reach for his raw gifts at the end of round 3 if they believe they can develop him.
According to Pro Football Focus, Thomas had just 401 coverage snaps and 57 targets before opting out of the 2020 season, making him a major unknown. What we do know is that Thomas’ 32.5-inch arms, 38-inch vertical and 4.4 40 is a great profile to go with some impressive ball skills. Still, the Senior Bowl was a good reminder that Thomas’ transitions in press and at the top of routes can sometimes leave a lot to be desired.
15. Oklahoma CB Tre Brown – Senior – 5-10, 185, 4.40
It feels like every draft has one and 2021 will be no exception, as Brown is an extremely scrappy, undersized corner who will stick his face in the fan on every rep. His aggressiveness leads to some high highs and some low lows, as Brown isn’t built to handle physical battles with bigger receivers on the outside. Brown surrendered lots of big plays down the field on tape, but also has some of the most fun reps in press of any cornerback in the class. He’s tough as nails and will have every DB coach standing on the table for him. Just don’t know how he’ll ever develop into a desirable starter in the NFL unless he transitions to the slot, where he barely played at Oklahoma.
16. Michigan State CB Shakur Brown – RS Junior – 5-10, 185, 4.63
One look at the profile of Brown, and you wonder how a team could justify drafting him. 5-10, 185, 30-inch arms, a 4.63 40, an all-around bad pre-draft Pro Day workout and just 12 collegiate starts is a nearly impossible starting point when heading to the NFL, but put on tape of Brown and he makes plays all over the field. Not all of his 7-career picks are highlight reel stuff, but several are pretty special catches. Clearly his athletic and physical limitations make him a long shot at a position that really values both, so special teams and versatility are going to matter. A transition to safety could be next for Brown wherever he lands in the NFL. Don’t expect it to be Tampa Bay.
Minnesota CB Benjamin St.-Juste – Photo courtesy of Minnesota
St-Juste will be 24 in a few months and has significant medical red flags in his profile, which is disappointing considering he was one of the more impressive cornerbacks in January in Mobile. But St-Juste is an absolutely massive cornerback with impossibly long arms, making him a nightmare for receivers to work through from a press position. He has to be physical to win matchups however, as his transitions are a lot less impressive down the field. If Tampa Bay is committing to more of a press-man scheme this season, St-Juste could be on their radar on day 3.
McPhearson’s name is hardly ever mentioned as a legit prospect, but his pro day agility drills and jumps opened some eyes. Experience in the slot and as an outside corner will increase McPhearson’s value to NFL teams, as will his steady tackling with a special teams role next on the horizon. McPhearson could star on teams and be a valuable No. 3/4 cornerback at the next level, even if his ceiling doesn’t appear to be sky-high.
19. Florida CB Marco Wilson – RS Junior – 6-0, 191, 4.34
Despite a lot of promise at Florida, injuries and constant mental mistakes have held Wilson back from reaching his potential. His technique in coverage and as a tackler is sloppy, and after 35 collegiate starts I’m not sure that is going to change. There is interest in Wilson from NFL teams due to his size and elite athleticism, but I don’t know how you could ever trust him after watching his college career unfold over the past three years.
20. Oregon CB Thomas Graham – Senior – 5-10, 192, 4.48
Graham ticks the size, length and athleticism boxes, but not by much. He might not look like much on the hoof, but Thomas intercepted eight passes and broke up 40 over three years as a starter in Oregon before opting out for the 2020 season. Graham is experienced in all alignments except for the slot, but might be best as an off-man or zone cornerback in the NFL considering how instinctive he plays. I’d be shocked if he’s what the Bucs are looking for, but Graham has a good a chance as any of the day 3 cornerbacks in this class of sticking in the NFL.
21. Washington CB Keith Taylor – Senior – 6-2, 187, 4.53
Washington CB Keith Taylor – Photo courtesy of Washington
Taylor struggled in the one-on-ones during Senior Bowl week, but stepped up in the game and looked like he might hold some promise. But get very far into his tape, and you see the shortage of athleticism, ball skills and even play strength. Taylor looks the part with his towering frame and long arms, it just hasn’t ever translated to the field. 4.53 speed at 187 pounds during his pro day probably isn’t good enough to move the needle either.
Relegated to the bench behind Tyson Campbell and Eric Stokes, Daniel is another corner that got cooked in Senior Bowl one-on-ones, but looked better in the game. Despite coming in a tick under 6-foot, Daniel has some of the longest arms in the class at 33 3/8. He uses them too, bodying Ja’Marr Chase (!!) into the sideline during a rep in 2019. Daniel’s drawback is unimpressive athleticism, 11 college starts and very little instincts or ball production. Special teams appears to be the next stop for the physical-minded, strong tackler. Daniel would make sense in Tampa Bay as a late round pick.
The fall of Shaun Wade really shouldn’t be considered a fall at all, it should be a lesson to all draft analysts to not scout the helmet. Wade flashed in 2018 and 2019 as a slot corner with tons of help around him, but was still completely exposed when he got an NFL-caliber matchup in the slot in Rondale Moore in 2018 or by K.J. Hamler in 2019. It was no surprise when Wade kicked outside as Ohio State’s No. 1 cornerback in 2020 and got torched all year long. Wade tested like a great athlete at his pro day, and his size and physicality could be attractive in a move to safety.
Stephens started his college career as a seldom-used running back at UCLA, then transferred to Southern Methodist for the final two seasons of his eligibility. There he transitioned to cornerback, where his eye-popping athleticism (4.44 40, 38-inch vertical, 10’7 broad at 213 pounds) and aggressive mentality helped him get on the map as a prospect. Stephens is raw and needs to improve his mental processing and his tackling, but he profiles as a special teams try-hard in the meantime.
25. South Carolina CB Israel Mukuamu – Junior – 6-4, 212, N/A
With 34-inch arms and the largest frame among the 2021 cornerback class, it’s surprising more people haven’t projected a move to safety for Mukuamu at the next level. Perhaps if he were a better tackler or a more instinctive playmaker some would see him as a deep coverage option, but Mukuamu looks too limited to be an ideal free or strong safety. The struggles at cornerback are prominent too, however, as quicker receivers expose his stiffness pretty quickly at the line of scrimmage or at the top of the route. Mukuamu will only fit press-heavy schemes, and even then there will be concerns.
Bucs’ Best Bets: Cornerback
Bucs’ Best Bet – Rounds 1-3: Georgia CB Tyson Campbell
Tampa Bay general manager Jason Licht has spent four Day 2 picks on cornerbacks and has had success with Carlton Davis III, Sean Murphy-Bunting and Jamel Dean. Don’t be surprised if the Bucs draft a cornerback early, as Davis is in the last year of his contract, and Murphy-Bunting and Dean are entering their third year. Georgia has two outstanding cornerbacks in Campbell and Eric Stokes, both of whom are likely to come off the board between the end of the first round to the end of the second round. Campbell is the more physical of the two, and makes sense for the Bucs.
At 6-foot-1, 193 pounds with 32-inch arms, Campbell has great length to go along with his 4.36 speed. He’s also a very physical player and a hard-hitting tackler. Campbell plays with an edge and thrives in press-man coverage. The junior scored two touchdowns at Georgia, including one on special teams where he starred as a gunner. While he broke up 11 passes in three years for the Bulldogs, he recorded just one interception and needs to work on his ball skills at the next level.
Bucs’ Best Bet – Rounds 4-7: Boise State CB Avery Williams
Boise State CB Avery Williams – Photo courtesy of Boise State
At 5-foot-8, 187 pounds, Williams is not an ideal fit for the new 6-foot threshold for corners in Tampa Bay’s defense. But on Day 3 the Bucs aren’t looking so much for starting cornerbacks. The team is looking for help on special teams, and that’s where Williams thrives. In fact, he may be the best special teams player in the entire 2021 draft. In addition to six punt returns for touchdowns and three kick return touchdowns, Williams also blocked five kicks/punts at Boise State.
While the Bucs would love Williams’ coverage prowess and return ability on special teams, he’s not a bad defensive back. Although he’s too small to play on the outside, Williams could play inside the slot in Bowles’ scheme. He’s a very competitive cornerback that broke up 26 passes, intercepted four more and forced five fumbles on defense. The hard-working Williams hustles on defense and his 4.4 speed helps, too.
Jon Ledyard is PewterReport.com's newest Bucs beat writer and has experience covering the Pittsburgh Steelers as a beat writer and analyzing the NFL Draft for several draft websites, including The Draft Network. Follow Ledyard on Twitter at @LedyardNFLDraft
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