2018 NFL Draft: Ohio State’s Ward has top-10 talent

CORNERBACKS

1. Denzel Ward
Ohio State
5-11, 183, 40 time: 4.32
Projection: First Round

OVERVIEW
While Ward’s relative lack of size may hurt him in the NFL, he’ll more than make up for it with his athletic ability and technique. Ward is at his best when playing press coverage, because he can use his quick-twitch reflexes in concert with his fundamentals to lock down most receivers. Quarterbacks looking to pick on this rookie might figure out they’re better off finding a veteran to go after. His future defensive coordinator will also gain a versatile performer. At times in 2017, Ward took successful turns as a slot cornerback, helping the Buckeyes better contain tight ends.

ANALYSIS
If Alabama’s Minkah Fitzpatrick is the top-ranked cornerback in this draft class, Ward is an equally solid No. 2 and some teams evaluating Fitzpatrick as a safety will put Ward above Fitzpatrick. He’ll never be able to do anything about being 5-11, and he isn’t the guy if you want a cornerback who can support the run, but Ward is a freakish athlete.
No corner in the draft can match his pure explosive athleticism, vertical or broad jump, qualities which will appeal to an NFL team measuring Ward as a lockdown cornerback. While Ward only picked off two passes in his Ohio State career, his coverage skills and confidence could make him a top 10 overall pick.

2. Josh Jackson
Iowa
6-0, 196, 40 time: 4.48
Projection: First Round

OVERVIEW
Iowa was the only major college program to show interest in Jackson out of high school. No cornerback in the nation was more productive in 2017 than Jackson, further illustrating the ability coach Kirk Ferentz and his staff to whip two-star recruits into first-day draft picks. Jackson was an All-American and won the Jack Tatum Award as the nation’s top defensive back. He opted to enter the NFL draft rather than return to Iowa City for his senior season.
Jackson led FBS in interceptions, passes defended (26) and returned two picks for TDs in a November loss at Wisconsin, accounting for all the Hawkeyes’ points in the game. Not bad for a guy who was so lightly-regarded coming into the season that he had made precisely one career start at cornerback and was thought of as a wide receiver as late as 2015.

ANALYSIS
Jackson’s size and background as a receiver come in handy playing the ball. Contrasted to most defensive backs who are DBs in part because they can’t catch the ball, Jackson can not only blanket receivers, but get the ball back for his team with elite ball skills.
His lanky frame will present him with issues covering smaller, quicker receivers mostly if he’s asked to cover in the slot, and his relative inexperience hurt him at times in run containment. But when NFL scouts are comparing you to Hall of Fame defensive back Rod Woodson, one of the best DBs in NFL history, you’re going to be in demand.

3. Jaire Alexander
Louisville
5-10, 196, 40 time: 4.38
Projection: First Round

OVERVIEW
Alexander played wide receiver and cornerback – as well as punter and return specialist – in high school and has a detailed understanding of each position. He proved a natural at cornerback after switching high schools as a sophomore. If you’re looking for this year’s version of Marshon Lattimore, who helped turn around the New Orleans Saints’ perennially leaky defense after being the surprise No. 11 overall selection in the 2017 draft, Alexander is easy to spot.
While he played just six games last year and skipped the Cardinals’ bowl game to be 100 percent for the combine, Alexander wowed many observers in 2016. He picked off five passes, including two against Clemson’s DeShaun Watson, and flashed game-breaking skills on punt returns. He was a second-team All-ACC choice. Even after knee and hand injuries sidetracked his 2017, Alexander was an honorable mention All-ACC pick.

ANALYSIS
Alexander’s greatest strength might also be his biggest weakness. He is aggressive, willing to jump a route and bet that he’ll be able to make the big play that turns a game. Every once in a while the risk bites back and he gives up a TD the other way.
With that risk-taking mindset under consideration, some NFL team will is likely to land Alexander in the first round because of his athleticism and swagger. His light feet and hip turn more than make up for being slightly undersized.

4. Mike Hughes
Central Florida
5-10, 189, 40 time: 4.53
Projection: First Round
OVERVIEW

A high school quarterback and two-time state champion – Hughes rushed for seven touchdowns in the title game to cap his undefeated senior season – Hughes drew interest from Florida and Ohio State but committed to North Carolina State to stay close to home. After one season, Hughes left NC State due to an off-field incident and suspension. After a stint at Garden City Community College, where Hughes was an All-American, he attempted to enroll at South Carolina but was not permitted due to a deadline for paperwork. In the midst of 2017 fall camp, Hughes enrolled at UCF and became a star in the secondary while also earning All-American honors as a returner.

Hughes anchored the secondary, making 44 tackles, breaking up 11 passes and intercepting four, returning one for a TD. Proved a gamebreaker in the return game with two kickoff returns for scores and a punt return for a TD. Hughes opted to enter the 2018 NFL Draft with the expectation he was a top 50 pick.

ANALYSIS
Hughes might not be as polished as other cornerbacks in this class, but there is no doubting his ability and gamebreaking skills on defense and in the return game. He projects as a solid NFL player if he can iron out his weaknesses.
Scouts aren’t crazy about his footwork and his technique, nailing him for surrendering inside position too easily, although that’s something which could be corrected with coaching and limited on-field work. Because of his vision and burst, some teams rate him as a top-end safety. Hughes appears to be at his best in press coverage and is capable of supporting the run. His kick return skills add plenty to his game and could make him a fit for a team that needs an extra cover guy and a return man.

5. Isaiah Oliver
Colorado
6-0, 201, 40 time: 4.50
Projection: Second Round

OVERVIEW
A two-way player in high school, Oliver was also a state champion decathlete and chose Colorado’s scholarship offer because it came with the choice to play wide receiver or cornerback without giving up track. He was not a fulltime starter for the Buffs until his junior season in 2017.
While the Buffs didn’t have a good year, Oliver did, even though he missed two games with injury. He broke up 13 passes and intercepted two others, leading the Pac-12 in passes defensed and tying for seventh in FBS.
Most of his stats were accrued in the first half of the season, as opponents didn’t make a practice of targeting him from late October until the season’s remainder. In addition, Oliver averaged 9.5 yards on 19 punt returns and played on almost every special teams unit. He also participated in track and field at Colorado, winning Pac-12 titles in 2017 in the 100, 400 and long jump.

ANALYSIS
Oliver is one of the stronger corners in the draft, using his skills to track the ball and make plays, naturally adjusting to the ball in the air. He has good bloodlines, as his father (Muhammad) and uncle (Damon Mays) were drafted by NFL teams in the ninth round in 1992 and 1991, respectively.
While he has enough straight-line speed, there are questions about his ability to cope with quicker receivers and willingness to tackle in run support. His size will play well against big receivers outside the numbers. Consider Oliver a solid value pick for someone in the second round.

6. Carlton Davis
Auburn
6-1, 206, 40 time: 4.53
Projection: Second Round

OVERVIEW
After initially committing to Ohio State before landing on The Plains, Davis wasted little time announcing his presence at Auburn, making his first career start against Dak Prescott and Mississippi State. All he did that day was make six tackles and force a fumble, a sign of things to come for the three-year starter.
In 2017, Davis defended 11 passes and made an interception, but his true value was recognized when facing top receivers like Texas A&M’s Christian Kirk and Alabama’s Calvin Ridley. Kirk had eight catches for 62 yards and Ridley managed just three for 34. Neither could make a big play against Davis’ coverage.

ANALYSIS
Davis has the ideal build and skills to match up with big receivers outside the numbers, using his long arms and quick feet to provide tight coverage. He’s a willing tackler, although he tends to force fumbles by squeezing the ball out of players’ hands instead of crushing hits.
Some scouts wonder if Davis can correct a tendency to give receivers an inside release, and his build could restrict him to a boundary corner spot. A former receiver, Davis doesn’t catch the ball naturally and ball skills will concern some teams. But his track record in the SEC will likely outweigh the weaknesses and he’s likely to be off the board in the second round.

7. Anthony Averett
Alabama
5-11, 183, 40 time: 4.36
Projection: Second Round

OVERVIEW
One of the byproducts of the Nick Saban era at Alabama is that it’s become a cornerback factory of sorts. Averett is one of the latest models to roll off the assembly line, featuring excellent speed and aggression to go along with a willingness to support the run. Averett never earned a spot on the All-SEC team but earned the trust of the hard-to-please Saban and was a steady performer despite a lack of size.
The nephew of former Miami (Fla.) and Minnesota Vikings offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie, Averett finished with nine passes defended in 2017 (eight in 2016) as a starter for the Crimson Tide’s latest national championship team and recorded his only career interception.

ANALYSIS
Everett has excellent speed and athleticism. The only long jumper in the history of high school sports in Alabama to rip off a leap longer than Everett’s 25 feet, 2 inches in 2013 was a guy named Carl Lewis. Yep, that Carl Lewis.
Everett will have to find a way to mix in discretion with his aggression, as his handsy tendencies will get him in trouble with some flag-happy NFL crews. His habit of missing tackles in space is also a concern, but his speed and competitiveness will appeal to someone in the second round.

8. Donte Jackson
LSU
5-10, 178, 40 time: 4.32
Projection: Second Round

OVERVIEW
No corner in the draft will be faster than Jackson (4.32 40-yard dash), who defended 24 passes in 24 career starts for the Tigers with a blend of speed, aggression and determination. Jackson also offers his potential employer another option in the return game, as he averaged 21.9 yards on kickoff returns and 20.5 yards on punt returns in 2017.

ANALYSIS
His body control and excellent feet allow Jackson to make instant adjustments on the ball, which leads to making plays that less athletic corners wouldn’t attempt. Jackson is also capable of lining up at safety and has experience playing special teams.
The downside of Jackson’s frame is that it appears to come without much strength or mass, which could make him vulnerable to big receivers who can post up and box him out. Scouts question his lack of discipline and wonder if he’ll be able to develop quickly to become an NFL starter.
It’s hard to teach the kind of speed, explosion, balance and competitiveness that Jackson brings to the field, and his instincts in crowding receivers at the catch point are excellent. It’s a safe bet that some team assures Jackson will be drafted within the top 75 picks.

9. M.J. Stewart
North Carolina
5-11, 200, 40 time: 4.54
Projection: Third Round

OVERVIEW
Equally adept at press coverage or playing off receivers, Stewart started three years for the Tar Heels, setting the school record by defending 47 passes.
Given North Carolina has sent its fair share of defensive backs to the NFL for lengthy careers, this is a pretty impressive feat. As a senior, Stewart defended a dozen passes and made 45 tackles. He’s also a weapon as a blitzer, usually forcing quarterbacks to evade the pocket, and he isn’t afraid to hit.

ANALYSIS
Not overly fast, Stewart compensates with intensity and the quickness to stay with all kinds of routes.
Only knows one style of play – physical. Stewart sometimes crosses the line, hurting his team with penalties and overaggressive play.
His handsy style of play can also irritate receivers, but is a concern when involving flag-happy NFL officials. A lack of pure speed might portend a shift to safety. But Stewart’s strength, durability and skill at returning punts – he averaged 11.3 yards per return last year – make him a decent value pick. Despite a bit of off-field baggage, he’ll get the call in the third or fourth round.

10. Duke Dawson
Florida
5-11, 197, 40 time: 4.46
Projection: Third Round

OVERVIEW
A four-star recruit who converted to defense as a high school senior, Dawson started one game as a true freshman in a loaded UF secondary. He developed as a boundary cornerback and also played nickel – including six starts as a junior – before a first-team All-SEC season in 2017. Dawson’s performance didn’t reflect the team’s poor 4-7 finish, as he collected a career-high 34 tackles, nine pass breakups and four interceptions. Dawson returned his first pick 48 yards for a touchdown in the season opener against Michigan. After showing well at the Senior Bowl and the combine, Dawson raised his draft stock a bit more.

ANALYSIS
Despite a body type which screams safety or running back a lot more than cornerback, Dawson looks ready to handle nickel back duties as a rookie. While he plays bigger than his size, Dawson could be overmatched if asked to handle bigger receivers outside the numbers.
Blessed with good feet, quickness and aggression, Dawson is willing to be aggressive with his first jam and stays with receivers well on short and intermediate routes. Multiple scouts compare him to Jairus Byrd, whose career blossomed after a move to safety. But other teams covet his playmaking skills at cornerback. Three of his six career interceptions were returned for touchdowns.

11. Isaac Yiadom
Boston College
6-0 7/8, 190, 40 time: 4.50
Projection: Fourth Round

OVERVIEW
Yiadom was a bit of a late bloomer for the Eagles, not earning a consistent starting spot until his junior year. His best work came as a senior in 2017, when he started all 13 games and finished with 53 tackles, nine passes defensed and a pair of interceptions.
Yiadom helped himself at the Senior Bowl, where he showed the ability to shut down receivers in press coverage. Many scouts felt Yiadom was a mid to late-round pick going into the week in Mobile, but he could be a climber as more teams covet the type of length that made the Legion of Boom secondary tick in Seattle.

ANALYSIS
At 6-1 with long arms, Yiadom should be able to match up with the NFL’s taller receivers outside the numbers. Scouts like the way he can play both press and off-man coverages, but are a bit concerned about his ability to handle transitions and feel like he might be overmatched early in his career while he adjusts to superior route-runners. But his blend of athletic ability and size figures to buy him time, and if he winds up in the right system, Yiadom might be able to contribute sooner than expected.

12. Kevin Toliver II
LSU
6-2, 192, 40 time: 4.52
Projection: Fourth Round

OVERVIEW
Some players are lightly-regarded coming out of high school and produce at a level far above their rating. Toliver is one of those guys who was highly-regarded coming out of high school and produced at a level well below the five-star designation he received.
After starting eight games as a true freshman, Toliver managed just 10 more starts the next two years as he regressed because of injuries and an inability to marry fundamentals with pure skill. But teams will see his terrific build and excellent potential, and one of them is likely to make the bet they can extract the best out of Toliver.

ANALYSIS
At his best, Toliver looks the part of a shutdown corner. More quick than he is fast, he’s aggressive with his initial jam and then contests everything. He can make adjustments to better defend smaller receivers and is willing to play through injuries.
Toliver’s speed is a shortcoming and he’s working without an instant burst to cover missteps in coverage, which leads to him becoming too handsy with receivers running north and south. He also brings baggage to a team, as he served multiple suspensions during his LSU career.

–Field Level Media

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