2018 NFL Draft: Kameron Kelly and the ‘other’ cornerbacks capable of thriving

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Examining the non-headliner cornerback prospects who have the ability to be reliable players in the NFL

by Chris Trapasso, January 13, 2018

Iowa’s Joshua JacksonOhio State’s Denzel Ward, and Alabama’s Minkah Fitzpatrickwill be the names you’ll hear on television over the next few months as the top of the 2018 cornerback draft class.

A few others, like Louisville’s Jaire Alexander and Colorado’s Isaiah Oliver, will also justifiably receive some notoriety during the draft process as quality defensive backs entering the NFL.

While I’m a fan of those players, as they’re all currently in my Top 50 overall prospects, I’d like to highlight 10 other cornerbacks who had exemplary collegiate careers and have legitimate potential to be productive cornerbacks at the pro level. Oh, and they likely won’t cost a team a first-round pick.

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Mike Hughes, UCF

Hughes played only one season at UCF — after transferring from North Carolina — but boy did he make the most of it. In 13 games he had 49 tackles, four picks, and 11 pass breakups, many of which were of the highlight variety. Also, he was a star return man for the undefeated Knights. He averaged 31.8 yards per kick return and housed two of those returns. Hughes scored on a punt as well while averaging 16.6 yards per return.

His performance on special teams shed light on his outstanding athletic talents, which undoubtedly help him while running with receivers and breaking on the football in coverage. If he measures in at 6-foot — he might be a tad shorter than that — he’ll likely be picked in the second or third round, simply due to only one year of high-quality play at the collegiate level.

Darious WilliamsUAB

Williams might have the most “active” ball skills in the entire class of cornerbacks. He’s keenly aware of when the football is arriving, and he stops at nothing to disrupt receptions from occurring. If he needs to use two hands to force an incompletion, he’ll do that. If he needs to rip the wideouts’ hands away from the football, no problem.

As you can probably imagine, at his somewhat smaller size (5-foot-10, 180), Williams is a twitchy athlete, and while I don’t know if he has the leaping ability to deal with tall, outside receivers in the NFL, he makes up for it with suddenness and those plus ball skills. He had five interceptions and a whopping 15 pass breakups in 2017.

Kameron KellySan Diego State

A former safety, Kelly seemingly made the correct decision to move to cornerback in his final season at San Diego State. The 6-foot-2, 200-plus pounder sustained his hard-hitting ability when attacking bubble screens and run plays to the outside yet demonstrated fluidity as a corner.

He was a do-everything defensive back for the Aztecs this season, as he tallied 67 tackles, five tackles for loss, two sacks, three interceptions and seven pass breakups. He has the size, athletic talents, and physical nature to be a No. 1 corner in the NFL. With a strong showing at the combine, Kelly should rocket up draft boards.

Darius Phillips, Western Michigan

Hobbled by injury for parts of his senior season at Western Michigan, Phillips was an accomplished ball-hawking cornerback and return man for the Broncos during his time in Kalamazoo. Though he doesn’t possess great size — 5-foot-10, 190-pounds — he’s swift mover on every snap which helps to lock into the football often.

Phillips recorded 12 interceptions and 35 pass breakups in his final three collegiate seasons. At times he can get overwhelmed by bigger receivers, but his athleticism and refined ball skills make him an intriguing prospect. He also had six return touchdowns (five kick returns, one punt) for Western Michigan.

D.J. Reed, Kansas State

Reed might be the cornerback with the most impressive quickness in the class. And that quickness translates to a suprising amount of power from the 5-foot-9 defensive back. His change-of-direction prowess is evident when he plants and drives toward the football and when he’s beating blocks on the outside.

Also, Reed understands route concepts. That combination allows him to get his hands on the football often. While he was more impressive in 2016 than 2017, he still finished his last collegiate season with nine pass breakups and four interceptions.

Holton HillTexas

There will be off-field concerns with Hill. In early November, he was suspended for reportedly failing a drug test. On the field in 2017, the supersized cornerback had dominant stretches. Against Oklahoma State, he had nine tackles, defended one pass and forced a handful of other incompletions.

At around 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds with decent twitchiness and plus ball skills, Hill has type of skill set NFL teams want in their No. 1 outside corners.

Siran Neal, Jacksonville State

The Senior Bowl will be Neal’s time to shine, as he’ll finally get a chance to square up against top competition. At Jacksonville State, his straight-line explosiveness was on full display often.

His closing speed and pop on contact are outstanding. And at slightly over 6-foot with a chiseled frame, scouts will like that Neal has covered slot receivers in college.

M.J. Stewart, North Carolina

The most impressive aspect of Stewart’s resume is his versatility. He has a well-built frame at 6-foot, 205 pounds and has manned every cornerback spot, and while he hasn’t picked off a pass since a four-interception 2015, the senior defensive back has defended 37 throws in his last three seasons in Chapel Hill.

While not the most springy athlete, Stewart is super experienced and effective against the run too.

Quenton MeeksStanford

Another one of the “new-age” outside cornerbacks who’s well over 6-foot-0, Meeks is lanky but tough at the line and has enough awareness in zone to use his length to cast a wide net to knock down or intercept passes.

Some Stanford cornerbacks get likened to Richard Sherman, and while Meeks (6-foot-2, 197) doesn’t possess the tremendous length and quickness of Sherman, there are some similarities in their body type and strength in coverage.

Arrion SpringsOregon

This Oregon corner will get drafted mainly due to his comfort playing tight man-to-man coverage, something he did often at Oregon. Per Pro Football Focus, despite playing 700 snaps in 2017, Springs was targeted only 55 times and allowed just 23 receptions. For context, Iowa’s Joshua Jackson was targeted 89 times, and Darious Williams saw 69 passes thrown in his coverage area.

Springs did get beat on a few touchdowns, yet his low target and catch rates tell the story of a sticky cornerback with all the necessary talent to stay in the hip pocket of wideouts on the outside. At around 6-foot with a somewhat lanky build, Springs looks like an NFL cornerback.

This post originally appeared on CBS Sports. Copyright 2018.

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