The following is the eighth of eight position previews in advance of the May 8-10 NFL Draft:*
Most NFL analysts agree that this year's draft is deep at cornerback with Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard, Virginia Tech's Kyle Fuller, Oklahoma State's Justin Gilbert and TCU's Jason Verrett all expected to garner first-round consideration.
A four-year contributor and three-year starter at Michigan State, Dennard won the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation's best defensive back and was named first-team all-America last year after recording 62 tackles, 10 pass breakups and four interceptions.
|Ha Ha Clinton-Dix
ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. predicts that Dennard will be the first defensive back off the board, going 11th to the Titans. Kiper calls the 5-11, 199-pounder the "most versatile cornerback in the draft."
In his 2014 NFL Draft Preview, Nolan Nawrocki describes Dennard as a "solidly built, athletic, instinctive press-man cover man who took his game to another level as a senior" and who "brings intensity, confidence and competitiveness to the corner."
Fuller was a four-year starter at Virginia Tech, where he blossomed as a sophomore in 2012, recording 65 tackles, seven pass breakups, two interceptions, a team-high 14.5 tackles-for-loss and 4.5 sacks while also recovering a blocked punt in the end zone for a touchdown.
Nawrocki sees the 6-foot, 190-pounder as a "narrow-framed, confident, competitive off-man/zone corner with nice length, field speed and awareness" who initially could contribute on special teams.
Gilbert was a productive big-play cornerback and return specialist at Oklahoma State, where he returned six kickoffs for touchdowns in four seasons and scored TDs on interception returns of 31 and 43 yards last year as a senior.
Kiper ranks Gilbert as the top defensive back in the draft and the 14th best prospect overall, writing that the 6-foot, 202-pounder is a "superior athlete with good size" who "can allow too much separation at times, but he's fast enough that it rarely matters."
Verrett was a three-year starter at TCU, where he was named co-Big 12 defensive player of the year last season as a senior after compiling 39 tackles, 14 pass breakups and two interceptions. The 5-9½, 189-pounder led the Big 12 with six interceptions as a junior in 2012.
Nawrocki describes Verrett as a "feisty, aggressive, undersized nickel corner" and a "terrific football player who boasts toughness and competitiveness reminiscent of Cortland Finnegan."
Most NFL analysts feel that the safety position isn't as deep as cornerback, with a considerable drop-off after the top two prospects, Alabama's Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Louisville's Calvin Pryor.
Clinton-Dix was a key contributor during all three of his seasons at Alabama. He helped the Crimson Tide win the national championship in 2012, registering 37 tackles, four pass breakups and five interceptions, which tied for the SEC lead. The 6-1, 208-pounder had interceptions in both the SEC Championship and BCS title game.
Kiper ranks Clinton-Dix the 19th best prospect in the draft, writing: "A fluid mover with very good range, he can cover a lot of ground and should be the top safety taken."
Pryor started in all three of his seasons at Louisville, where he recorded 75 tackles, five pass breakups and three interceptions with 5.5 tackles-for-loss and two forced fumbles last season.
Nawrocki describes the 5-11, 207-pounder as "perhaps the most explosive hitter in this year's crop of safeties" as well as a "big, physical hammer in the run game, bringing the ability to intimidate and erase."