Now that the 2017 NFL Draft has concluded, the analysis continues in projecting these prospects to the next level, especially during their rookie years. I’m building a series looking at the five biggest early impact contributors among each position group, including today’s focus on five cornerbacks who are best prepared to perform at a starting level for their teams right away.
The players are listed in order from the most to least impactful rookies among each position group. It’s splitting hairs in some cases, but I figured it will give us another fun element to look back on when the season ends.
1. Gareon Conley, CB, Oakland Raiders
Sean Smith and David Amerson both had up-and-down seasons in 2016, and Conley is a more talented prospect with better ball skills than both. Conley has experience playing the nickel spot, and offers the size and speed to match up against bigger threats on the outside.
No cornerback in this class was as talented at mirroring vertical routes and then getting his head around to find and make a play on the ball as Conley. He’s not elite against the run, but Conley is a pretty consistent tackler who can play in a variety of schemes and spots and still succeed. I think he’ll start in base packages on the outside, while frequently kicking inside against top receivers vs 11 personnel looks.
2. Marshon Lattimore, CB, New Orleans Saints
Lattimore was a force last season for Ohio State, offering a superb combination of size, speed and all-around athleticism to go with his ball skills down the field. He’s only started one season and is still working out a few kinks, but all the traits are there for Lattimore to become a star in New Orleans.
What really stands out is how active and aggressive he is against the run, both in pursuit and in attacking the line of scrimmage. Lattimore will have a down moment or two during his rookie year, but he’s going to start right away across from Delvin Breaux, and his strengths will outshine his struggles.
3. Adoree Jackson, CB, Tennessee Titans
I’m expected a rookie season similar to Marcus Peters’ in some ways for Jackson, who will produce turnovers and big plays while also getting beat a handful of times. He has all the athletic traits and tenacity you want in the position, and made huge technical and footwork strides last season.
Dick Lebeau has relayed heavily on Cover 3 looks in the past, and Jackson has the speed to match up vertically and the instincts to break on balls in front of him as well. Tennessee’s lack of depth at cornerback is startling, and Jackson should start across from Logan Ryan right away.
4. Chidobe Awuzie, CB, Dallas Cowboys
I have no idea how the glut at cornerback is going to sort itself out before Week 1, but I’m confident Awuzie will have a top 3 cornerback position on the team before it’s all said and done. Anthony Brown, Jourdan Lewis and Nolan Carroll are all competing for top spots, and Orlando Scandrick, the only incumbent starter, could be on the trading block.
Awuzie is one of the more technical cornerbacks in the class, with the route recognition and awareness to be a contributor on the outside, nickel or even at safety. He’ll tackle in the run game as well, offering good support and harnessed aggression to not be a liability if playing closer to the box.
5. Quincy Wilson, CB, Indianapolis Colts
Wilson better be ready to start Week 1, because the Colts don’t have any other cornerbacks to start opposite Vontae Davis. Rashaan Melvin and Darius Butler have proven not to be the answer, while fifth round pick Nate Hairston isn’t ready to step into that role anytime soon.
Wilson has trouble mirroring shiftier route runners down the field, but he can match up nicely with big vertical threats, showing the size and speed to compete in the air and make plays on the ball. There will be some ugly moments for Wilson in his rookie season, and his run defense must be more consistent or he’ll be a major liability there as he was in certain games at Florida.