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NFL Draft Preview: Cornerback

Posted Apr 21, 2011

Less than a year after knee surgeries that some thought could potentially end his career, Rams cornerback Bradley Fletcher returned to the field well ahead of schedule last season.

Some suggested Fletcher might not be ready until after the preseason but there he was in training camp from day one, working his way back into the lineup.

Not only did Fletcher get back on the field but he won his starting job back and emerged as perhaps the team’s best cover corner and play maker on the outside.

When the season was done, Fletcher had racked up 91 tackles (third on the team), led the squad in interceptions with four and was second on the team with 12 passes defended.

Fletcher’s coming out coincided with the return to health of veteran corner and leader Ron Bartell.

Bartell is the most experienced of the Rams’ corners and was strong in coverage and run support in 2010 as he provided 72 tackles, a team-leading 13 passes defended and invaluable amounts of leadership to a group of corners without much previous playing experience.

With Bartell and Fletcher in place, the Rams have a pair of corners to feel good about heading toward this year’s NFL Draft. But sorting out the situation behind that duo might be a little more difficult.

As injuries and inconsistencies mounted in the nickel position last year, the Rams rifled through a number of options without ever truly settling on one.

At various times, the Rams tried Kevin Dockery, Justin King, rookie Jerome Murphy and Quincy Butler in the nickel role. None ever staked a full claim to the job, leaving it as a potential question mark heading into next season.

Of that group, 2010 third-round pick Murphy might have the most potential. Murphy proved to be unafraid of the moment in his opportunities last season and is just scratching the surface on his potential as a strong press corner.

Dockery and Butler are scheduled to become free agents when that market opens and King was tendered as a restricted free agent which could bring him back to add depth.

One player who could become an X factor heading into 2011 is 2010 seventh-round pick Marquis Johnson. He flashed some of his potential in the preseason and was active in two regular season games before knee and shoulder surgeries landed him on injured reserve on Oct. 5.
With King, Murphy and Johnson returning to the fold, the Rams could turn to the draft to create even more competition in the defensive backfield.

Since taking over as General Manager, Billy Devaney has used at least one pick in each of his drafts on a cornerback. In fact, the Rams have drafted a corner in the fourth round or earlier in each of the past six drafts.

This year, it’s certainly a possibility the Rams will go that route again in search of more talented corners for a defense that relies heavily on press man coverage.

Sitting at the top of this year’s draft crop is a pair of cover corners deemed by many to be two of the top 10 or so players in this draft regardless of position.

LSU’s Patrick Peterson is at the head of the class and a player that many believe is the best overall player in the draft. Nebraska’s Prince Amukamara is thought to be just a slight notch below Peterson.

Peterson figures to come off the board sometime in the first five to seven picks with Amukamara to follow sometime in the next five or so choices after that.

Should Amukamara somehow fall to No. 14, the Rams could take a long look though that scenario is unlikely.

After Peterson and Amukamara, Colorado’s Jimmy Smith, Miami’s Brandon Harris and Texas’ Aaron Williams figure to land somewhere late in the first round or early in the second.

The Rams have expressed interest in Harris, bringing him in for a pre-draft visit. At 5’11, 195 pounds, the feisty Harris is not afraid to stick his nose in and hit someone and has the type of versatility that could make him a strong nickel corner right away.

Beyond that initial group, there are plenty of other options that could be intriguing options for the Rams in the second and third round. Virginia’s Ras-I Dowling is 6’2, 200 pounds and fits the mold of a press corner that would fit in coach Steve Spagnuolo’s system right away.

Others to keep an eye on include Louisville’s Johnny Patrick, New Mexico State’s Davon House, Utah’s Brandon Burton, Clemson’s Marcus Gilchrist and Texas’ Curtis Brown.


Cornerbacks

1. Patrick Peterson, Louisiana State – Perhaps the most dynamic athlete in the draft. Peterson has world-class speed and excellent size. Some thing he’s better suited for safety but he’s probably a franchise type player at either position.

2. Prince Amukamara, Nebraska – Not quite as gifted as Peterson physically but still a smart, instinctive guy who is solid in man coverage and a solid tackler.

3. Jimmy Smith, Colorado – Probably the best pure press cover corner in the draft. Great size (6’2) and long arms allow him to jam receivers at the line. Some character concerns but will still go in the first round.

4. Brandon Harris, Miami (Fla.) – Smaller than the other top corners but still has good size and showed the ability to play in the slot as well as outside.

5. Aaron Williams, Texas – Some think he might be better suited at safety as well but Williams has the size and athletic ability to start in the NFL. Should be a strong nickel corner from day one.

Sleeper: Marcus Gilchrist, Clemson – A bit undersized at 5’9 but plays hard and is tough. Can play safety as well and has all the intangibles to someday be a valuable piece to a secondary.

 

 

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