NFL Draft 2012 positional breakdowns: Cornerback

728318.jpg

NFL Draft 2012 positional breakdowns: Cornerback

Each weekday, from now until the week of the draft, we'll take a position-by-position look at the Patriots' draft needs and which players they may be looking at. Today: Cornerbacks

POSITION OVERVIEW
The 2012 cornerback class has a nice group of varied talents. The small waterbug type, the rangier cornersafety hybrids. But while every team values coverage skills and is often willing to pay for it in free agency, the same urgency isn't seen on draft day. A couple of reasons for that. There's a glut of guys between 5-9 and 6-1 who run really fast, have great short-area quickness and can jump. There are far fewer 6-4, 330-pound offense wreckers or 6-7, 310-pound backside protectors or 6-5, 265-pound pass rushers who can run a 4.7. And college level success is not a precursor to NFL level success as it may be with other positions. At the head of the 2012 draft class, all by himself is LSU's Morris Claiborne. He's sticky as hell and a top-10 pick. After Claiborne, there are 10 corners seen as deserving of consideration in the first three rounds.
PATRIOTS PREDICAMENT

This is a tough position to handicap for the Patriots because there's a fair amount of forecasting that needs to be done. For instance, which Devin McCourty shows up in 2012, the one that played so well as a rookie or the one who was one of the worst starting corners in the NFL in 2011? What can one expect from 2011 second-rounder Ras-I Dowling after he lost the 2011 season to injury? Kyle Arrington is pretty well established now as a strong little player. Sterling Moore flashed enough ball skills and smarts to be intriguing even if he isn't as fast as you'd like a corner to be. With where they draft, the Patriots are going to have cracks at talented players. The chore for them will be determining which ones they can wait on - if there are a few - or figuring out how high they have to get to draft the one they want.

TOP OF THE CLASS
Morris Claiborne, 5-11, 188, LSU
The best corner in the draft by a lot. Incredibly quick and able to shadow. Ridiculously long arms (33 inches, two inches longer than ballyhooed pass rusher Melvin Ingram). Pulled an impossibly low Wonderlic score (reportedly a 4). He'll be long gone before the Patriots select.
Stephon Gilmore, 6-1, 190, South Carolina
Comes from a program that's been churning out solid cover men. Tremendous sub-4.4 speed with length and body control. More instinctive than schooled at this point and will need to refine his technique. Probably a top-20 pick.

Dre Kirkpatrick, 6-2, 186, AlabamaConfident with good length and excellent athleticism. Will play physically and jam but his lean build could cause him to be overpowered a little by bigger, stronger receivers. Not as fast as Gilmore and Claiborne and there are some maturity concerns. Might fit nicely as a "star" corner covering the slot for the Patriots but would probably not be a tremendous fit based on reviews.

Janoris Jenkins, 5-10, 193, North Alabama
One of the draft's most intriguing players because he's got first-round skills but a red flag history of irresponsible behavior that got him kicked out of Florida. Can play all techniques and is willing to be physical. Has excellent ball skills and is slippery when he gets it in his hands. Also has four children by three different women and, while he's pledged he's going to be responsible and dependable, he needs a cocoon of support. The Patriots may be a team that can afford him that if they feel the risk-reward is there.
Trumaine Johnson, 6-2, 204, Montana
His size and range make him an interesting prospect because he could play safety or corner and versatility has become such a valued trait among defensive backs. Plays the ball very well and was dominant as a four-year starter, albeit against lesser competition than the other highly-rated corners. Needs some personal direction.
BEST PATRIOTS FITS
Jenkins. If he's on the board in the second round when the Patriots pick at 48, he could be a tough player to pass on. But he has to check out with their personnel people.

Brandon Boykins. A Georgia product with excellent return skills, he's not seen as one of the top prospects but he's seen as a guy who can come in and cover the slot right away and brings special teams ability. A tempting guy in the late-second or early-third.

Ron Brooks. A sleeper who can absolutely fly (4.39 40) and has great special teams ability. Can play all over the place in the secondary and is a very good tackler. The kind of player the Patriots may value ahead of other teams.

Will the Harris signing mean more time on the edge for Hightower?

Will the Harris signing mean more time on the edge for Hightower?

David Harris is expected to be a savvy middle linebacker who will line up his teammates when they help. He's expected to provide some level of leadership, even in his first year in New England, as an accomplished-but-hungry 33-year-old who has not yet reached a Super Bowl. 

What Harris is not expected to do is improve the Patriots pass-rush. He was in on one sack in 900 snaps last season.  

But in a roundabout way he might. 

MORE: How does Derek Carr's new deal impact Jimmy Garoppolo?

There are dominos to fall now that Harris has been added to Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia's defense. How much will Harris play, and whose playing time will he cut into? Those questions don't yet have answers, but one of the more intriguing elements of the Harris acquisition is how he will benefit Dont'a Hightower's game.

If Harris can pick up the Patriots defense quickly -- and all indications are that there should be few issues there -- he could take some of the all-important communication responsibilities off of Hightower's shoulders. 

Ever since taking the reins from Jerod Mayo as the team's signal-caller, Hightower has had to be on top of all requisite pre-snap checks and last-second alignment changes. It's a critical role, and one that Hightower performs well, but those duties place some added stress on the player wearing the green dot. Perhaps if part of that load can be heaped onto Harris' plate, that might allow Hightower to feel as though he's been freed up to focus on his individual assignments.

Harris' presence might also impact where on the field Hightower is used. Hightower may be the most versatile piece on a Patriots defense loaded with them, but with Harris in the middle, Hightower could end up playing more on the edge, where he's proven he can make a major impact (see: Super Bowl LI).

For Belichick and his staff, having the ability to use one of their best pass-rushers -- and one of the most efficient rushers league-wide, per Pro Football Focus -- on the edge more frequently has to be an enticing byproduct of the move to sign Harris. Especially since there are some question marks among the team's end-of-the-line defenders behind Trey Flowers and Rob Ninkovich. 

We'll have to wait for training camp before we have an idea of how exactly Harris fits in with the Patriots defense. But the effect he'll have on his new teammates, and Hightower in particular, will be fascinating to track.