Breaking down the cornerback class in the 2012 NFL Draft

Best in Class: Morris Claiborne, LSU
Despite reportedly scoring a 4 on the Wonderlic Test at this year’s scouting combine, Claiborne is a shoe-in to be selected in the top 10, if not the top 5. He was college football’s top cover corner coming out of LSU and won the Thorpe Award with a six-interception season in 2011. He also averaged 26.3 yards per kickoff return and is viewed as a better prospect than former No. 5 overall pick Patrick Peterson, who is also an LSU alum.

Next in Line: Stephon Gilmore, South Carolina; Dre Kirkpatrick, Alabama
Unlike Kirkpatrick, there’s no questioning Gilmore’s speed. He ran a 4.44 and a 4.47 at the scouting combine and has excellent size at 6-foot-1 and 190 pounds. He’s gained a ton of media attention over these past few weeks and is now predicted to go somewhere in the top 15 picks thanks to his combination of size, speed and athleticism…At 6-foot-3 and 192 pounds, Kirkpatrick is more known for his run support than his cover skills and Mike Mayock even said that the former ‘Bama defender may have to convert to safety “down the road.” But he ran in the 4.40s at the combine and may have put to rest the idea that he’s a 4.6 guy. He may fall into the 20s, but he will be selected at some point in the first round.

The Risk: Janoris Jenkins, North Alabama
Jenkins might be the most polarizing figure in this year’s NFL draft. He has the talent and cover skills to be the second best cornerback prospect behind Claiborne, but he’s been arrested multiple times for drug use, was booted from the team at Florida, and has four children born to three different women. Obviously teams are justified for being a little skeptical that Jenkins can stay out of trouble once he signs his first contract. But if can fly straight off the field, then he could be a tremendous value for teams picking in the bottom of the first round (or at the top of the second if he falls that far). He played plenty of press man while at North Alabama and while he isn’t the best tackler, receivers will have a hard time separating from him in coverage thanks to his speed and change-of-direction skills. But again, nobody is questioning his talent – it’s his inability to stay out of trouble that is cause for concern.

The Potential Sleeper: Casey Hayward, Vanderbilt
Hayward would likely get exposed even he was asked to primarily play in man coverage at the next level. But considering most teams stick to Cover 2 or zone schemes, Hayward shouldn’t have any problems sticking on a NFL roster. His best attributes are that he’s instinctive, locates the ball well in coverage, and is a smart player overall. While at Vanderbilt he was also highly productive, racking up 15 interceptions in his four-year career, as well as 198 tackles and 31 pass breakups. Considering he may fall into the third round, he could be a solid value for a team that primarily plays Cover 2.

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Will Janoris Jenkins be worth the risk for one NFL team?

One could make the argument that there’s less intrigue at the top of the draft this year than there is at the bottom.

It would appear as though Andrew Luck will go to the Colts at No. 1 and the Redskins will select Robert Griffin III at No. 2. While the Vikings are reportedly looking at three prospects sitting at No. 3, if they choose Matt Kalil then other pieces could predictable fall into place. (Such as the Browns selecting Trent Richardson at No. 4, the Buccaneers taking Morris Claiborne at No. 5, and the Rams picking Justin Blackmon at No. 6.)

But one of the biggest questions facing teams selecting in the bottom half of the first round is whether or not talented but troubled North Alabama cornerback Janoris Jenkins will be worth the risk.

For those needing a recap, Jenkins was kicked off the team at Florida for two marijuana arrests, an assault charge and a failed drug test. He’s also been given the gift of fatherhood, although four of his children were born to three different women.

The thing is, Jenkins can play. Behind LSU’s Morris Claiborne and Alabama’s Dre Kirkpatrick, Jenkins is the third best prospect in this year’s draft class. He has average height and weight at 5-foot-10 and 182 pounds, but where he excels is in coverage. Once he learns the nuances of the pro game, wideouts will have a tough time creating separation from Jenkins in either man or zone schemes. And while he didn’t face the stiffest competition at North Alabama, he played in plenty of press man and doesn’t shy away from contact when lined up in a receiver’s face.

The NFL is now a passing league and a player like Jenkins is awfully valuable because of the position he plays. But Pacman Jones was just as talented, if not more talented, coming out of West Virginia in 2005 and we’re all aware of his troubles. They might be two different people with two different paths in the NFL, but Jenkins hasn’t been able to shake the comparisons of Jones, who is on his third NFL team because he can’t stay out of trouble. Jenkins may go on to never commit another crime the rest of his life and wind up being a good father and role model. But as of this moment, teams can’t help but look at Jenkins and see Jones starring back at them.

So the question becomes, will Jenkins be worth the risk? To me, the NFL draft is all about value. You don’t draft on need – you stay true to your pre-draft rankings and you take the player at the top of your board. Granted, if two prospects are similar and one of them plays a position of need, then you obviously go with the player that also fills a need for you.

At some point, Jenkins will come to the top of a team’s draft board. That team can’t be sacred about taking him because at that point it becomes more about value and less about risk. Teams determine a prospect’s value based on, among other things, character concerns. Thus, if they stay true to their board, then that’s when it’s appropriate to take a leap of faith and trust that the kid will mature.

Remember, it only takes one team to fall in love with Jenkins – not 32. He’s a first-round talent and that’s where I expect him to inevitably be selected.

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