Our NFL draft analyst, Ryan Wood, talks with Weston Hodkiewicz about the Green Bay Packers' needs for cornerbacks and the top players available in the 2015 NFL draft. (April 22 2015) Press-Gazette Media Press-Gazette Media
In a league where championship contenders are teams with top quarterbacks, the Green Bay Packers don't have to figure out what it takes to beat the best.
That lesson was learned on the final day of November last season when the Packers beat the New England Patriots 26-21 at Lambeau Field. The win was impressive even before the Patriots went on to win Super Bowl XLIX.
Rookie receiver Davante Adams was the Packers' third target in the passing game last season, but he had six catches for a team-high 121 yards against the Patriots. Brandon LaFell, the Patriots' third receiving target, had two touchdowns, but his five catches gained only 38 yards.
The Packers had five capable cover corners last season, enough depth to limit the options for Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. New England had the NFL's best one-two punch of starting cornerbacks with Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner, but lacked the depth to keep Adams in check. The difference meant the Packers' most impressive win of 2014.
Nothing is more important in the NFL than having an elite quarterback. Behind that, nothing correlates to winning more than being able to stop the pass. The Packers' cornerback depth chart was hit hardest this offseason with the departure of starter Tramon Williams and top perimeter backup Davon House.
The importance of having depth defending the pass could prompt general manager Ted Thompson to draft a cornerback with the No. 30 overall pick in the first round of this week's draft.
"Corner is a place they would like to go with Tramon Williams no longer being there," NFL Network analyst Charles Davis said. "They have an opportunity down at that spot (at No. 30) of getting a corner."
There could be plenty to choose from at the end of the first round, depending on how the draft goes Thursday night. The cornerback class has depth and talent, with approximately 30 given a draftable grade. There could be five cornerbacks — maybe six — taken in the first round alone.
The Packers' best-case scenario could be seeing Washington cornerback Marcus Peters available at No. 30. Peters comes with significant off-field concerns after being dismissed from the Huskies' program last season, but there is no denying his talent.
At 6-foot and a shade under 200 pounds, Peters has good size and acceptable speed with a 4.53-second, 40-yard dash. He looks even better on film.
"He's the best pure cover corner in this draft," ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay said. "When I watch him, you see the instincts. I think he's highly confident in what he's doing. … Just understands how he has to read receivers, and then get his eyes back to the quarterback, and just has great ball skills, too. He's a natural playmaker, locates the ball quickly, tracks it well over his shoulders, goes up and contests for it, good hand-eye coordination.
"He's a little bit of a buffet tackler — pick-and-choose a little bit — but he's willing. There are times … where he turns down contact here and there, but overall I think he's adequate in run support for that position. I think Peters, to me, he's the top cover corner if you can live with the behavioral issues and you're comfortable with it."
There's no telling how Thompson will feel about Peters' off-field makeup. On one hand, there were no legal issues. On the other, first-round picks are precious, and it's a risk taking a player with potential maturity and authority issues that high in the draft.
Peters was dismissed from Washington after multiple run-ins with a coaching staff that did not recruit him. Without knowing the details of what happened, it's impossible to determine the severity. Peters reconciled with the coaching staff enough to attend the program's pro day this spring.
However, he makes no secret his role model is fellow Oakland native Marshawn Lynch, a questionable mentor for a player with potential issues with authority.
"I think it's got to be a consideration in terms of putting the player's portfolio together," former Cleveland Browns general manager and Senior Bowl director Phil Savage said of Peters' red flags. "Any time a player is dismissed from a major program like that two-thirds of the way through the year, that's an eyebrow-raiser. Granted, there was a coaching change there, but you've got to make sure in your interviews and visits with this player that you're comfortable that you can coach him, and he's willing to be coached, and the personalities will jive between the staff and the player and the other players that will be in that position group.
"I would say it's giving him a strong look, and then it's a matter of whether his personality is believable to the point that you don't think it will be a problem anymore down the road."
In weighing off-field risk against on-field value, talent is the bottom line. At some point, a team will decide Peters is talented enough to assume the risk. It could happen with the Packers, or even well before.
"I think he should be a top-10 pick just based on ability," ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper said. "A top-15 pick."
There are other cornerbacks the Packers could draft near the end of the first round — with or without Peters available. Wake Forest's Kevin Johnson and Connecticut's Byron Jones likely will be drafted between Nos. 20-35. LSU's Jalen Collins is projected to be taken between Nos. 25-40.
Savage said he could see Johnson or Jones available at 30, probably not both.
Johnson starred for a Wake Forest team that finished 3-9 his senior season. He's a well-rounded cover corner, able to play in press or off coverage. He is slightly undersized at 6-foot and 188 pounds, but has adequate speed with a 4.52 40.
"He didn't 'wow' anybody at the combine," McShay said, "but when you just look at him on tape you can see a guy who is very fluid with his movement and just understands the position, has good instincts. Could play on the line, could play off the line, and I think he would be a good all-around player."
When it comes to athleticism, nobody beats Jones. The UConn senior may have been the biggest winner regardless of position at the NFL combine, where he broad-jumped a record 12 feet, 3 inches. He also had a vertical jump of 441/2 inches and ran a 4.43 40.
Unlike Johnson, Jones has drawn some questions about his skill development. Most analysts agree Jones' tape from his junior season is more impressive than last season. Jones injured his shoulder in 2014 and gutted it out, one possible reason for not playing as well. He played safety and cornerback at Connecticut, adding value with versatility.
Johnson and Jones didn't start the pre-draft process as top-four cornerback prospects. As the draft has gotten closer, both have risen on team boards as others like Florida State's P.J. Williams (arrested for DUI) have fallen.
"Really, Peters and P.J. Williams, those are the guys that if the draft was in January or February, those guys are up there," Savage said. "Kevin Johnson and Byron Jones were more or less second- and third-round types of picks. I think as the process has unfolded, if you want cleaner guys off the field … I think those guys have emerged almost through attrition to some extent. Not to discount what they represent on the field, but I think because of the junior situation it's probably helped the two seniors out to a degree."
— email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @ByRyanWood.
Top 10 cornerbacks
1. Trae Waynes, Michigan State
Height: 6-0. Weight: 186. Class: Junior. 40-yard dash: 4.31. Stats: 46 tackles, 8 passes defended, 3 interceptions. Projection: Round 1.
•A Kenosha native, Waynes has been the consensus top cornerback prospect for months, likely off the board by the middle of the first round.
2. Marcus Peters, Washington
Height: 6-0. Weight: 197. Class: Junior. 40-yard dash: 4.53. Stats: 30 tackles, 7 passes defended, 3 interceptions. Projection: Rounds 1-2.
•Peters is the second-best cornerback prospect but, after being dismissed from Washington last season, significant off-field concerns will likely prevent him from being the second cornerback drafted.
3. Kevin Johnson, Wake Forest
Height: 6-0. Weight: 188. Class: Senior. 40-yard dash: 4.52. Stats: 44 tackles, 6 passes defended, 1 interception. Projection: Round 1.
•Johnson starred on a team that finished 3-9 last season, but he enters the draft as arguably the most complete cornerback prospect.
4. Byron Jones, Connecticut
Height: 6-1. Weight: 199. Class: Senior. 40-yard dash: 4.43. Stats: 24 tackles, 4 passes defended, 2 interceptions. Projection: Rounds 1-2.
•On film, Jones shows he must continue to develop before his skills catch up with his off-the-charts athleticism.
5. Jalen Collins, LSU
Height: 6-1. Weight: 203. Class: Junior. 40-yard dash: 4.48. Stats: 38 tackles, 9 passes defended, 1 interception. Projection: Rounds 1-2.
•Collins has height, size, speed and perhaps some of the best upside at his position in the draft, though it will be interesting to see whether a report of multiple failed drug tests in college drops his stock.
6. Eric Rowe, Utah
Height: 6-1. Weight: 205. Class: Senior. 40-yard dash: 4.45. Stats: 59 tackles, 13 passes defended, 1 interception. Projection: Rounds 1-2.
•Rowe is a bit of a tweener, a big corner who projects better as a safety after starting at that position during the first three seasons in college.
7. Ronald Darby, Florida State
Height: 5-11. Weight: 193. Class: Junior. 40-yard dash: 4.38. Stats: 43 tackles, 4 passes defended, 0 interceptions. Projection: Round 2.
•Darby is undersized compared to many other corners on this list, but could be an excellent cover corner in off coverage because of superior speed.
8. Quinten Rollins, Miami (Ohio)
Height: 5-11. Weight: 195. Class: Senior. 40-yard dash: 4.57. Stats: 72 tackles, 9 passes defended, 7 interceptions. Projection: Round 2.
•Rollins played only one season of college football after beginning his career as a full-time basketball player at Miami, but he made the most of it with Mid-American Conference Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2014.
9. P.J. Williams, Florida State
Height: 6-0. Weight: 194. Class: Junior. 40-yard dash: 4.57. Stats: 74 tackles, 10 passes defended, 1 interception. Projection: Rounds 2-3.
•There is no questioning Williams' on-field talent, but severe off-field issues have his stock dropping fast.
10. D'Joun Smith, Florida Atlantic
Height: 5-10. Weight: 187. Class: Senior. 40-yard dash: 4.45. Stats: 53 tackles, 8 passes defended, 1 interception. Projection: Rounds 2-3.
•A speedy off-corner, Smith has better ball skills than his numbers indicate and can double as a return specialist for a team needing help on special teams.
Top 5 safeties
1. Landon Collins, Alabama
Height: 6-0. Weight: 228. Class: Junior. 40-yard dash: 4.53. Stats: 103 tackles, 7 passes defended, 3 interceptions. Projection: Round 1.
•In one of the weakest safety classes in recent memory, Collins is the lone player at his position with a solid first-round grade.
2. Damarious Randall, Arizona State
Height: 5-11. Weight: 196. Class: Senior. Class: 4.41. Stats: 106 tackles, 9 passes defended, 3 interceptions. Projection: Rounds 1-2.
•Randall is listed as a safety, but he plays and tests more like a cornerback prospect, irking some talent evaluators while also adding value as a player who can really cover.
3. Shaq Thompson, Washington
Height: 6-0. Weight: 228. Class: Junior. Class: 4.58. Stats: 81 tackles, 4 passes defended, 1 interception. Projection: Rounds 2-3.
•As a tweener, Thompson is adamant he should be considered an outside linebacker prospect but probably translates more as an NFL safety.
4. Cody Prewitt, Ole Miss
Height: 6-2. Weight: 208. Class: Senior. Class: 4.59. Stats: 64 tackles, 2 passes defended, 3 interceptions. Projection: Rounds 3-4.
•Prewitt didn't test well, but he was a highly productive player in the SEC and leader of Ole Miss' secondary.
5. Jaquiski Tartt, Samford
Height: 6-1. Weight: 221. Class: Senior. Class: 4.44. Stats: 62 tackles, 1 pass defended, 1 interception. Projection: Rounds 3-4.
•Tartt will have to adjust from low-level college football to the NFL, but his blazing 40-yard dash time should help with that.
Connecticut cornerback Byron Jones' skills need refinement, but he's worth a first-round pick after shocking everybody with a record 12-foot, 3-inch broad jump at the NFL combine.
Florida State junior P.J. Williams would've been one of the first cornerbacks drafted in January, but a DUI arrest added to his already shaky off-field portfolio and has his stock free falling.
Quinten Rollins could be a steal in the second round if he continues to blossom as quickly as he did in his one season at Miami of Ohio, where he started his career as a basketball player.