Okudah is one of the very few I’d want Elway to trade up for, if he slid. | Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Who should Vic Fangio add to the secondary in the 2020 NFL Draft?
The Broncos have far too many questions in the secondary right now. Even with A.J. Bouye in the fold, there’s questions to answer. Chris Harris Jr. isn’t expected to return. Bryce Callahan missed the entirety of 2019 with a foot injury. While De’Vante Bausby was retained, he’s coming off a season ending injury.
Fangio himself said that the Broncos need to look to add more help to the secondary. So it wouldn’t be a big surprise if this is a position group that gets attention in April, so it’s worth learning about the NFL draft prospects.
Before you get too deep, there needs to be a pretty big caveat to consider when it comes to my cornerback notes. If you haven’t already noticed reading through my receiver rankings, I don’t have as much access to All-22 college tape as I’d like. Because of this, positions that move away from the ball are pretty piecemeal as far as getting what I can glean from the broadcast tape. For some players, I’ve been fortunate enough to get sideline footage, but not all. To make things even more complicated is how the Coronavirus pandemic ended Pro Days, so more than a few cornerbacks have incomplete athletic profiles.
To try to supplement what I could see firsthand, I dug into all the reports, stats, and other analysis I could to learn as much as I possibly can on the players below. What follows are my rankings based on my understanding of how they’d fit Fangio’s scheme. They are ranked according to what I thought of their talent combined with the risk vs upside for the Denver Broncos.
The tier separation is built to help explain what appears to be the talent gaps in this class. Keep in mind that since the agility drills from the Combine were garbage and some of the following players didn’t run at all, I tried to be overly cautious about players with athletic concerns. Like it or hate it, speed matters for DBs.
Tier 1* – The presidential prospect.
Day 1 starter with elite upside. Someone like this comes along every four years, maybe.
1. Jeffrey Okudah – Ohio State
There’s probably not a lot I can say about Jeffrey Okudah you haven’t already read. Barring injuries, or just a complete lack of effort on his part, he should grow into one of the better cornerbacks in the NFL during his rookie contract.
To me, cornerbacks are arguably the second most valuable position in football, which makes him one of the very few prospects I’d argue Elway should trade up for if he inexplicably slides on Draft Night.
— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) February 1, 2020
Tier 2 – I like’m.
These players offer a lot of potential and look like great fits for Fangio’s defense.
2. Jeff Gladney – TCU
One of the big things that continuously stands out about this Horned Frog is how well he’d fit in Fangio’s defense. He brings good to very good athleticism to the position and looks as fluid moving laterally as he does in a straight line. His stop-start acceleration shows up when he has to come up on a play from off coverage, and he also measured in longer than expected at the NFL Combine and possesses the explosiveness to get up to make plays on the ball.
I’ve talked about how big a fan I am of his game in January, but there’s a number of reasons why. It doesn’t take long to notice how good he looks mirroring his assignments. He shows a solid understanding of zone spacing and looks comfortable playing with his back to the quarterback. This gives him a chance to show off his good to very good ball skills, such as when he tore a catch away from the Longhorns’ Collin Johnson. He’s not going to blow someone up, but is a reliable tackler, and shows a willingness to play through blockers in order to help against the run or screen game.
3. Kristan Fulton – LSU
I’ve gone back and forth on Fulton and Gladney a couple times. If you ask me tomorrow, I may have flipped again. I know the consensus puts this Tiger above the Frog. I’m not sure I agree because of fit for the Broncos’ defense.
As for what he does bring to the table, it’s a laundry list. Fulton is a rare talent that has the kind of hip mobility and movement skills to turn into a top tier corner in a scheme that leaves him on an island. He’s a physical player who doesn’t make his assignment’s life easy, plus he has the footwork, length, and athleticism to mirror and erase a receiver from his quarterback.
Where I have some concerns are how his strengths can work against him. His physicality can get him into trouble downfield, and he’ll need to improve or become a flag magnet in the league. To be fair, I believe he will. More than once these kind of mistakes in 2019 were a matter of trusting his technique to keep him in the area.
It’s splitting hairs to have him third, which is why these two are in a tier all their own. There’s talk that Fulton doesn’t fit because the Broncos didn’t press much in 2019. A big part of that is because of personnel (watch Prince Amukamara with the 2018 Bears). Fulton is also perfectly capable of playing off his assignment, even if I do believe he’s at his best in trail. Right now I like Gladney for Denver a bit more, but won’t complain if Elway disagrees on April 23rd.
Tier 3 – They make a lot of sense.
There may be a transition early on, but these guys have what it takes to be Fangio corners.
4. Trevon Diggs – Alabama
Stefon’s little bro is all grown up.
One of the common misnomers during draft season is the idea of athletic ability. Often times it’s equated with the time a player can run 40-yards, despite most agreeing that running that distance in shorts and a T-shirt have little to do with someone’s ability to play football. Athletic ability also goes beyond a player’s straight line speed to their lateral mobility, explosiveness, ability to jump, etc. To really get a decent idea for a player, you also need to consider their size at which they’re making these movements.
This applies to Trevon Diggs because I do not believe he is quite the mover someone like Jeff Gladney is. Maybe I’m wrong, because he did not work out at the Combine and Gladney’s agility scores came in horrifically low. That said, I doubt he’s quite as fast in a straight line as Kristian Fulton is, too.
Diggs is a good bit taller though. In fact, he came in at 6’1” with 32 3/4” arms, both figures are above the 75th percentile for NFL cornerbacks. That’s important because his size and length has a noticeable impact on some of his bigger strengths.
In the NFL he looks like he’ll eventually be at his best pressing up on opponents and using his length to jam and disrupt their release. He’s athletic enough to stay in trail on their hip, and to use his long arms to reach up and contest passes at the catch point. His ball skills are an underrated part of his game, and when he’s shown an ability to bait opponents into throwing in his vicinity. Underestimate his ability to drop and go up for the pass at your own peril.
In the league, he’ll need to better use his length to shed blocks and contribute on the perimeter once the ball is in play. He’s a solid tackler, but I’d like to see more from him here. He has the talent to do so. His length does work to his detriment a bit when he’s outside of trail because he’s not as quick in a phone booth. I have concerns about his ability to play in off, which is why he could move a good bit if the speed scores don’t measure up.
5. Jaylon Johnson – Utah
Upside with a capital U.
The Ute is long with a 6’ frame and 31 3/8” arms which should help him in press and trail. He’s physical, and when he reads it shows a willingness to use his length to fight through blocks. The ball skills and ability to contest catches are exciting. He’s also willing to bait a bad pass by the quarterback with his confidence that he can make the play with his ball skills.
I wish I could see his agility drills because I have some questions about his change of direction and short area mobility. He’s only adequate when he’s transitioning, and it hurts his ability to break down and make plays in off coverage. This also mars his ability to recover if he doesn’t land a good punch in press and his opponent runs by him.
For the Broncos, the Ute would be a developmental starter on the outside with a lot of potential. He’d need time to really hone his technique and especially his footwork early, but offers upside on the backside of opposing 3X1 formations where Fangio likes to have his corner up on the receiver. There could be a few rough patches if pressed into time too early, but he could eventually turn into a playmaker on the boundary thanks to his ball skills and instincts.
6. Noah Igbinoghene – Auburn
A swing for the fences.
Upside is a scary word this time of year because it tends to make a sucker out of everyone. This Tiger won’t be able to legally buy a beer ‘til Thanksgiving and brings the kind of athleticism and twitch you’d expect from the child of Olympians. He moves through space so effortlessly it’s easy to forgive the raw parts of his game. On top of the fluidity, Iggy is a physical corner who doesn’t hesitate to lower the boom on ball carriers or the screen game.
According to Pro Football Focus he played more than 200 snaps in press alignment last season. He’s also one of the only corners in the SEC you won’t see on an LSU highlight tape. So even though he’s new to the position and will need some coaching up, he’s one I hope Elway considers at the top of the second round.
That said, the floor is notably lower here. He’s new to the position after swapping over from receiver and still figuring out the more technical aspects. His hand placement, tackle form, zone awareness, and anticipation will all need to improve at the next level if he’s going to reach his ceiling, but who better to coach him up than Vic Fangio and Ed Donatell? He may never be a true ballhawk, but he’s sticky as can be and versatile enough to play up or off and lock down his assignment. With polish, he could become the next great CB1 for the Broncos defense.
7. Bryce Hall – Virginia
A sleeper to keep an eye on.
If NFL draft prospects were Christmas presents and cornerbacks were the stocking stuffers, this Cavalier is a gift card. Sure you appreciate the sappy note and have some plans for the money in the back of your mind, but with candy and other goodies deeper down the sock, it’s easily forgotten about. That’s Hall. He’s been on evaluator’s radar for what seems like forever after a pretty good 2018, there’s little doubt he’d fit into Fangio defense as a solid player. Alas, he’s a senior who got hurt in 2019 in a class full of exciting juniors.
Hall brings a some really notable strengths to his game. First and foremost, he has the kind of mental processing and play recognition that really pops off the film. This isn’t a surprise because he’s an experienced player who came to Virginia as a two star recruit and started since his first year on campus. He has the kind of anticipation and ball skills that should help him become a steady contributor at the next level.
It won’t surprise me if Fangio likes how physical he is for a corner, both on the line of scrimmage and coming downhill. He’s reliable as a force player and is willing to work through blocks to get to the ball. He could also bring value as a blitzer, as he shows the kind of disposition to rip through anything in his path to get to the QB.
Last season ended when he broke his ankle, but it’s worth noting how he allowed all of 11 catches on 22 targets for 119 yards in the six games he played. He also did not run at the Combine, so certain questions that linger over him remain unsolved. On tape, he looks closer to adequate than solid in terms of his long speed, transitions, and lateral mobility. So far, Hall has used his physicality and the mental side of his game to make hay without top tier athleticism, but it’ll be harder in the NFL and could be an issue against legit speed merchants like Tyreek Hill.
Tier 4 – They intrigue me
I’m not as sold on these players as the tiers above, but they make sense.
A.J. Terrell – Clemson
If Fangio’s looking for another long corner to potentially step into the Prince Amukara type of role on the backside of 3X1 sets, Terrell has the tools. Comfortable in press with a nice hip turn and the kind of eyes that’ll steal your girl, he’s a sleepy upside pick that makes a ton of sense.
His long speed looks easy and he’s got explosiveness to his movements. Terrell will toe the line between disruptive and too physical, but with a little work could be a real sticky out of soft shoe in the league. While he isn’t a real thumper, he’s willing to come up on ball carriers and help against the run.
He looks adequate in off coverage, and because he didn’t do his agility scores at the Combine, it’s an open question what his lateral quickness is. It looks solid on tape, but his double moves and quick twitch opponents at the next level could prove problematic. He’s going to need some work to improve at the catch point and may never be rock solid there.
Darnay Holmes – UCLA
If he booms, look out.
How much do you believe in the coaching staff to maximize a player’s traits? That’s the big question to ask when it comes to Holmes. He’s a great athlete and could be a real asset in off coverage in time. He’s shown the ability to be a reliable tackler on the perimeter. He earned his degree in just three seasons and all reports suggests he brings great character. Some of his highlight plays will leave your jaw on the floor.
On the other hand, his lack of length really inhibits his ceiling in press at the next level. He needs to improve at recognizing routes and do a better job with zone spacing. His lack of size could leave him susceptible to getting bodied by bigger receivers.
Troy Pride Jr. – Notre Dame
A member of the Irish who needs more Fight in his game.
I go back and forth on Holmes and Pride because they’re both corners I’ve been scooping up a bunch in Draft Network mocks on the faith they’ll take off with pro coaching. He’s a top tier athlete and played on the boundary for Notre Dame, and he rarely got beaten deep downfield. He also has a really good click and close and shows promise in how he can mirror. On top of that, the Golden Domers run a variety of coverages. so it’s hard to believe he’d struggle to pick up the Fangio defense.
Unfortunately, Pride struggles in a way that’ll get him a lot of attention early and often if he’s thrown into the fire too soon. He needs to improve his route recognition or he’ll be a sitting duck against better competition. He’s also a mess at the catch point and only adequate as a tackler, so he could look a lot like Isaac Yiadom did early last season until he figures it out.
Damon Arnette – Ohio State
This year’s “safe” corner.
If you can look past the rumors about character concerns that hung over Arnette at the Combine, the 23-year-old looks like a surefire day 1 contributor at the position. He’s versatile enough to play inside and outside, saw a ton of Cover 3 and Cover 1 for the Buckeyes, and excelled in press alignment.
One area where Arnette shined last year is his play at the catch point. His physicality helps make up for his adequate long speed. He’s also a willing tackler and run defender who won’t make friends with the offense. I like him enough that I wouldn’t necessarily boo the selection at 46, but I prefer the corners above for one reason or another.
C.J. Henderson – Florida
Here’s a Gator who did not look great in the 2019 season opener. One game does not make a season, but it’s important to note this. After all, ESPN made sure to point out that the Florida-Miami game drew a 4.1 rating.
This matters for Henderson because The Draft Network and many of the fans who obsessively follow college football for what it means every off-season essentially wrote Henderson off after Miami. For a large part of the Fall, he was a third or worse round prospect. Many Broncos fans also wrote him off because his biggest issue seemed to be tackling.
Digging into his tape, it’s hard to totally blame them. It isn’t as if he’s incapable of tackling, there’s plenty of instances where he comes up and makes a sound hit. What’s worrisome is how inconsistent his effort towards the physical unsung aspects of cornerback play is. He’ll skip blocks instead of working to force runs back to his help, and will occasionally take lazy angles to the ball. It’s easy to dismiss run defense because a corner is asked to cover first and foremost, but if he can’t become a reliable player coming up to tackle out of off coverage, an offensive coordinator can just run screens and dumpoffs at him for easy yards.
So why is he still an intriguing talent? Simply put, he could wind up as the best pure coverage player in this class. He brings the athleticism, technique, and ball skills to be a real terror to opposing quarterbacks. If Fangio accepts the questions about his physicality, his skill at contesting plays at the catch point could make Denver tough to pass on.
Ultimately though, I don’t believe that will be the case. While run support isn’t the most important skill for a corner to posses, I have serious doubts Denver will be interested in the range he’s expected to go.
Cameron Dantzler – Mississippi State
With Pro Days on hiatus, there’s been a number of tough guys talking about how “this is why prospects need to run at the Combine.” They overlook Dantzler when they say this, of course, because no player may find himself more hurt by his Combine numbers.
Leading up to Indianapolis he was generating talk about sneaking into the first round. Then he ran a 4.64. That’s not just bad. That’s horrific. If you’re looking for slow corners who succeeded in the modern league, the list starts and ends at Josh Norman. Now Dantzler’s tape is legit good, maybe he just had some bad waffles that morning? But without a re-check, I’d be nervous gambling on him.
Amik Robertson – Louisiana Tech
He’s kind of like Scrappy Doo in that he’ll pick a bout with just about anyone. I love his tape, his physicality, and his ball skills. He has 14 interceptions in his career and shows an ability to read route combos and anticipate breaks to make plays. Double moves rarely give him issues because he’s so good at reading hips. He’s got good short area quickness, he’ll press and he’ll tackle. There’s just two holes in his game, but they’re big ones.
Standing at just 5’8” and a hair under 190 lbs with just 30” arms means there will be match-ups he just can’t win against professional receivers. On top of that, his long speed is only adequate. If he didn’t have these two concerns, I’d have him in my top tier. Because of them, he’s a bit of a time bomb on the outside unless he’s really protected by the help around him.
Because this tier list is aimed at boundary corners instead of nickel corners, it’s hard to rank Robertson. I do think he should be a pretty good slot at the next level, and since it’s the new base, he has a role in the league. I just don’t know if the Broncos will consider him with both Bryce Callahan and Duke Dawson available at the position.