The 2023 NFL Draft is within a stone’s throw for anyone who played little league baseball. There are somewhere between 12-18 teams in the NFL that could stand to either upgrade one of their starting cornerbacks.
In a league where coverage is king and offenses continue spreading wider, not only does it create a need for talented players in coverage, but sheer numbers of those players as well. If a team doesn’t have three or even sometimes four CBs who can legitimately line up and survive on a given passing down, the defense is in trouble.
Drafting a 2023 NFL Draft CB Prospect to a CB-Needy Team
As luck would have it, the 2023 NFL Draft provides the kind of reinforcement we’re looking for at the position. The Industry Consensus Big Board boasts 12 cornerbacks inside of the top 100, while PFN’s Free NFL Mock Draft Simulator has 15 players ranked in the top 100. But we’re also in a bit of uncharted territory with the position.
Football is a game of physicality, particularly as a defender. Yet, many of the cornerbacks we enjoy from the 2023 class weigh nearly 20 pounds less than the average American adult male. A few are nearer the 30-pound mark, with one impressive cornerback standing over 6’0″ is a mere 166 pounds.
The game is safer today than it’s ever been. But it’s still geared toward violence, and unless you’re Deion Sanders, you have to tackle if you’re going to be a professional cornerback.
Our MDS bases team needs on a numerical scale. Generally, those numbers scale from 1-10, but we can make needs multiply for teams by making that number larger. There are currently 13 teams with a mark of six or higher, so let us get down to business.
Arizona Cardinals | Cam Smith, South Carolina
The Arizona Cardinals need a ton of help rebuilding their roster. Unless they decide to take a monster trade package, they’re unlikely to take a cornerback with their first pick. However, with a group consisting of Marco Wilson, Antonio Hamilton, Christian Matthew, and Rashad Fenton, there may be no greater single need on the roster.
Cam Smith is part of the popular underweight group of CB prospects. Smith weighed only 180 pounds at the NFL Combine, a 20th-percentile mark for the position. However, Smith’s experience playing from depth in the slot and playing as an outside cornerback should be an intriguing fit for Jonathan Gannon’s coverage scheme.
Baltimore Ravens | DJ Turner, Michigan
Unless Baltimore trades down from 22 or up significantly from 86, it’s hard to see where they’d have a realistic chance to draft DJ Turner. But even if the Ravens were to take him in Round 1, it wouldn’t be all that surprising, at least to me.
Turner already has a relationship with Ravens defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald, playing outside CB for the Michigan Wolverines while he was their DC in 2021. Although Turner is undersized, there are few players in this class with better reactive athleticism and outright explosiveness. Turner has been one of the more underrated coverage players in this deep class, and it’s likely just because he had to play Marvin Harrison Jr.
Buffalo Bills | Emmanuel Forbes, Mississippi State
I would draft Emmanuel Forbes with the 59th pick in the NFL Draft and be done with it, weight be darned. But it’s not out of the question to imagine Forbes being on the board at 91 because of his second-percentile weight.
Forbes makes sense for Buffalo specifically because of the Bills’ history with slender man cornerbacks. He’s a better prospect than Levi Wallace was coming from Alabama, but the two players fill out a jersey similarly.
Except Forbes runs like the wind and has the explosiveness one looks for in a cornerback that can truly do it all in coverage. And in Buffalo’s aggressive coverage deployment, his loose hips and explosive change of direction will work wonders in the Bills’ secondary.
Cincinnati Bengals | Darius Rush, South Carolina
The Cincinnati Bengals need a cornerback, but they probably don’t need one that will start immediately. Chidobe Awuzie didn’t put a timetable on his return from a torn ACL in Week 8, but it’s not unreasonable to expect he’d push for a return before Week 1.
“I don’t know what I’m physically able to do right now, because there’s certain time markers that you try to push that limit,” Awuzie said during the team’s breakdown day on Feb. 2. “Obviously, I’m working out, exercising.”
Darius Rush is still very raw in coverage, but throughout his two years as a starter in South Carolina, the former standout receiver has certainly shown a knack for attacking the football. Rush is an athletic upside gamble, but Cincinnati’s environment in the secondary has led to career-level play from Awuzie and Eli Apple, while also seeing Cam Taylor-Britt shine as a rookie.
Denver Broncos | Tyrique Stevenson, Miami (FL)
The Broncos’ defense was outstanding a season ago, but it needs to nail down the CB position opposite of Pat Surtain II. K’Waun Williams does an outstanding job of that in the slot, but Tyrique Stevenson could provide reinforcements on the outside.
Although he’s an inconsistent player, Stevenson fits the Vance Joseph mold of a strong, athletic, man-coverage cornerback. If he can iron out some of the mental lapses and technical issues in coverage, Stevenson has the ability to be a plus starter potentially available in Round 3.
Detroit Lions | Deonte Banks, Maryland
The more I think about this potential fit, the more I love it. Although Deonte Banks provides some of the greatest testing athleticism we’ve seen with tape to back that athleticism, and tape that also shows more than enough coverage prowess to be a high-level outside cornerback, that’s not what makes him a Lions fit.
“We’re gonna stand up, and it’s gonna take two more shots to knock us down,” Dan Campbell famously said at his introductory press conference as the Lions HC. “And on the way up, we’re gonna take your other kneecap, and we’re gonna get up, and it’s gonna take three shots to get us down. And when we do, we’re gonna take another hunk out of you.”
You can find highlights of Banks in coverage. But the real jaw-droppers come from him literally pressing a receiver into the backfield or squeezing down and throwing a shoulder on a pulling blocker to set the edge in run defense. His attitude encapsulates everything that Campbell preaches.
And he’s a darned good football player worthy of the 18th pick.
Jacksonville Jaguars | Clark Phillips III, Utah
Is he short? Yes. Is he light? Yes. Can he struggle to finish as a tackler because of it? Yes. Does he lack the ideal long speed we look for in cornerbacks? You bet.
But would I want Clark Phillips III to be my starting slot CB despite all of that? You bet I would.
It’s clear Phillips is a filmaholic because the way he reacts to cues is instantaneous. There’s a reason the young man has four pick-sixes in his college career and, despite lacking size, has accumulated 30 pass defenses and nine INTs in only 31 games.
There will be times he’s simply out-athleted at the NFL level. But the consistency Phillips brings as a coverage defender is outrageous.
Minnesota Vikings | Devon Witherspoon, Illinois
The Vikings are in a peculiar position here. They’re banking on two second-year cornerbacks with a combined experience of fewer than 300 snaps as their starters. Unfortunately, picking at 23 likely precludes Minnesota from any of the top four or five guys.
To make matters even more interesting, Brian Flores doesn’t necessarily make things easy for the members in his secondary. You survive on an island, or perish in the fire.
The great hope is that Devon Witherspoon‘s 180-pound frame scares enough teams off that he falls to Minnesota. Because without their second-round pick, it’s not easy to see a path toward CB salvation for the Vikings.
New England Patriots | Garrett Williams, Syracuse
Bill Belichick finds gems in the NFL Draft when it comes to cornerbacks. He’s struck out on many of the higher picks at the position but has nailed early Day 3 selections and even found an All-Pro-caliber defender in J.C. Jackson, who went undrafted.
Belichick gets sneaky here with the Garrett Williams pick. Williams is a bit undersized and is coming off an ACL tear, which leaves his draft value a complete unknown. The Industry Big Board has him at 89, and with eight selections after their 76th pick, Belichick could take a swing on Williams coming back healthy and better than ever.
Williams has been a contributor on some good Syracuse secondaries dating back to 2020. But he has all the natural movement skills that have made Belichick CBs successful, with an eye for the football to boot.
New York Giants | Julius Brents, Kansas State
If Julius Brents had 10 more pounds on his frame he’d be lab-built. At just a hair under 6-foot-3 with ridiculous 34-inch arms, it’s impossible to miss Brents when one turns on Kansas State’s All-22.
Brents is a bit inconsistent as a coverage player, but most of those issues come in zone coverage. Despite being a longer cornerback, Brents has surprisingly springy reactive athleticism, which is something nearly unheard of for a CB his size. He’ll likely take lumps early on, but his upside is more than enough to bet on for New York in Round 2.
Philadelphia Eagles | Christian Gonzalez, Oregon
While it might be a bit unlikely to see Christian Gonzalez fall to the 10th pick in the draft, there probably isn’t anyone else the Eagles should draft if he does.
Sean Desai will mix things up in coverage. Gonzalez showed he can flourish in a zone scheme that asks for a lot of communication and coverage intelligence while also being a tremendous cover corner.
San Francisco 49ers | Jakorian Bennett, Maryland
Banks gets most of the attention between the two Maryland cornerbacks, but Jakorian Bennett shouldn’t be forgotten. The 5-foot-10 cornerback ran a blistering 4.30 40-yard dash and jumped over 40 inches. Bennett’s also produced 34 INTs + PDs over the past two seasons in 28 games played. He’s a ball hawk.
Overall, Bennett is a really good player who simply needs to calm himself down and let his athleticism do its job. Additionally, he must find a compromise between aggressively attacking routes and be baited into double moves.
Washington Commanders | Joey Porter Jr., Penn State
Joey Porter Jr. is as tantalizing as a cornerback prospect can be. He’s 6-foot-2 with 34-inch arms, an 80-inch wingspan, and 4.46 speed. And at a bit over 190 pounds, he probably has another 10 pounds to easily put on that lanky frame over time.
Porter’s strengths and weaknesses make him such a fun prospect. Everything he struggles with is coachable. And as the son of a 2000s Hall of Fame team member, Porter won’t have any problems having the resources to clean up some of his technical issues. Heck, the improvement he showed from 2021 to 2022 is evidence enough of that.
Things could go poorly for Porter early on, or he could hit the ground running and swiftly become one of the best all-around CBs in the game. That’s a gamble many teams will be willing to take.