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2018 NFL Draft Rankings: Top 5 Cornerbacks

Denzel Ward

Denzel Ward

The 2018 NFL Draft is set for April 26-28, so you still have time to get ready with the Athlon Sports 2018 Draft Guide. With 526 players ranked and needs outlined for every NFL team, it has everything you need.

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Here’s a sneak peek at our top five cornerbacks in this year's NFL Draft:

1. Denzel Ward

COLLEGE: Ohio State
CLASS: Jr. HEIGHT: 5’10” WEIGHT: 190

STRONG POINTS: Ward is an exceptional athlete, a quick, balanced mover with the ability to play a variety of coverages. There’s little wasted movement. He has a smooth backpedal and click-and-close ability, transitioning and closing fast on the ball. He’s outstanding with his eyes on the quarterback, showing the ability to read route combinations, and he’s a twitchy athlete with exceptional closing burst. He’ll line up in press coverage and has the toughness and competitiveness to battle at the line even though he’s undersized. His best asset is his movement skills, with the loose hips and quick feet to mirror. He often ran receivers’ routes for them at the college level. He has the ability to deal with two-way go routes inside. He also shows very good awareness downfield as far as locating the ball when running with his back to the throw. His ball skills are much better than his low interception total would suggest, and he consistently gets a hand on the ball while avoiding a flag downfield. He also plays bigger than his size in jump-ball situations, showing a big vertical and a great sense of timing to high-point it. He’s competitive and willing in run support.

WEAK POINTS: The lack of size does show up at times. Ward won’t disrupt bigger receivers at the line of scrimmage, and he can get boxed out by bigger receivers. He’ll give effort in run support, but he’s not a thumper; he’ll dive low against big backs and hope for the best.

SUMMARY: Ward’s floor would be as one of the best slot corners in the NFL, but with the league starting to trend slightly smaller at outside receiver, he could easily match up with most No. 1s.

FINAL GRADE: 1st round

2. Mike Hughes

CLASS: Jr. HEIGHT: 5’11” WEIGHT: 195

STRONG POINTS: Originally a North Carolina Tar Heel, Hughes (above, right) ended up as a one-year starter playing in the American Athletic Conference after a junior college stint, so he flew under the radar in college. However, he has the physical traits to match up with any cornerback in this draft class. He’s a tad undersized but doesn’t play that way; along with having long arms, he’s physical, feisty and ultra-competitive. He’ll line up under bigger receivers and beat them up at the line, and he has the powerful hands to reroute them. He’s a very good mover as well, a fluid athlete with quick feet and exceptional body control. He can flip his hips and turn upfield and has more than enough long speed to recover if he loses a step, and he consistently gets his head turned around to avoid flags. He has the ball skills to come away with interceptions on contested balls, and he shows good timing and the competitiveness to win on jump balls. He also offers value as a kick returner, with three TDs (one punt, two kickoffs) last season.

WEAK POINTS: He’s still a little rough around the edges. Hughes isn’t as good facing the action, where he looks unnatural and uncomfortable in his backpedal, and he is inconsistent closing on the ball (though at his best, he has more than enough twitch and closing speed to make plays). We’ll see how he fares against size in the NFL, where his less-than-ideal length could be exploited more often.

SUMMARY: Hughes is not as polished as the other top corners in this draft class, but he might have the highest upside. He’s at his best playing aggressive press coverage and could certainly emerge as a top shutdown corner after a year or two to get his feet wet.

FINAL GRADE: 1st round

3. Josh Jackson


STRONG POINTS: Jackson (right) brings a blend of length, fluid movement skills and ball skills that made him a terror in the Big Ten. He is at his best facing the action, a smooth mover who reads route combinations and is quick to jump routes. He shows excellent closing burst, and his ball skills are outstanding; he has hands like a wide receiver and will come away with the contested ball in traffic. His long arms allow him to make up for any problems in press coverage. He showed the balance and fluid athleticism to cover the slot as well as play outside. He should continue to improve after only one season as a starter. He also puts his size to good use in run support, where he’s willing to mix it up.

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WEAK POINTS: Long speed is the big question. Jackson’s height covers up some of it, but his tape does not show a corner with the kind of recovery speed to get back into a play. He also needs a lot of work in his press technique, as he’s far more comfortable facing the action. He’s not overly physical at the line of scrimmage, and he flips his hips far too early and will give up a lot of plays underneath. He’s more fluid and balanced than sudden, and he might not be an ideal matchup for smaller, quicker receivers underneath.

SUMMARY: He’ll fit the mold with teams that play off more than press, giving him a chance to put his ball skills to good use. Pure speed remains a question, but if a team can live with that, Jackson should be a Day 1 starter who makes some game-changing plays.

FINAL GRADE: 1st round

4. Isaiah Oliver

COLLEGE: Colorado

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Long and fast, Oliver is a prototypical press corner. He has NFL bloodlines; father Muhammad played five seasons in the NFL at cornerback. Isaiah has the long arms and quick, strong hands to win early in the down, effectively jamming and re-routing receivers. He’s physical, competitive and confident at the line of scrimmage. In the event he doesn’t win off the line, he has loose hips and is a burner with the make-up speed to get back in the play. He flashes good ball skills downfield, getting his head around to avoid a flag and consistently getting an arm in the way at the catch point. He will get into a receiver’s hip and stay there throughout the route downfield; he won’t get jostled by hand-fighting as the ball comes in. He’s excellent in high-point situations. A decathlete on the Colorado track team, he is a big-time leaper who will get his hands on the ball consistently. He’ll mix it up in run support as well.

WEAK POINTS: He’s not nearly as good in off coverage, and Oliver has some big-man problems as a mover. He’s not overly twitchy, and he’ll struggle to change directions and mirror against quickness. He often gives up separation at the tops of routes, struggling to gear down. He’s shaky playing off coverage, sitting too high in his backpedal and struggling with recognition skills. He has good closing speed but can get flat-footed facing the action. His movements get stiff, and his reaction time lags.

SUMMARY: A pure press coverage corner who still has a little development left, Oliver has a size/speed combination that will appeal to any team. He has a No. 1 corner ceiling.

FINAL GRADE: 1st/2nd round

5. Donte Jackson

CLASS: Jr. HEIGHT: 5’10” WEIGHT: 175

STRONG POINTS: Jackson is in the conversation for fastest player in the 2018 draft class, as he is a star track athlete who proved to be a true No. 1 corner in the SEC. The athleticism is what stands out, as Jackson is on another level when it comes to movement skills. He not only has the speed of a sprinter (he ran leadoff for LSU’s conference champion 4x100 relay team), but he also has the quickness and change-of-direction skills to match. He can line up in a variety of spots and play a variety of coverages. LSU played him outside and inside with similar success. In press coverage, he has the fluid hips to turn and run. In off coverage, he has a low, quick back-pedal and has the twitch and quickness to arrive seemingly instantaneously. He can handle a two-way go as well, with the ability to mirror slot receivers. Jackson is competitive, undersized but feisty in run support.

WEAK POINTS: Size will be the issue. Jackson will occasionally put up a fight at the line of scrimmage, but he lacks the power to re-route receivers. Opponents are going to target him in the run game, and while he competes, he typically shoots low and hopes for the best in the end. There are going to be plays when he’s muscled off the ball downfield. His quickness covers it up, but he seems slow to recognize route combinations.

SUMMARY: He’s still coming along as far as his instincts go, and Jackson has some upside left. Run support and size will always be an issue, but he has the kind of speed and quickness that can’t be taught. He could step in as a slot corner his rookie year, with a chance to become a borderline shutdown cover corner.

FINAL GRADE: 1st/2nd round

Other cornerbacks that could be drafted: Jaire Alexander, Louisville; Carlton Davis, Auburn; Tarvarus McFadden, Florida State; Nick Nelson, Wisconsin; M.J. Stewart, North Carolina; Anthony Averett, Alabama; Duke Dawson, Florida; Kevin Tolliver II, LSU; Quenton Meeks, Stanford; Brandon Facyson, Virginia Tech; Holton Hill, Texas; Greg Stroman, Virginia Tech; Darius Phillips, Western Michigan; Michael Joseph, Dubuque; JaMarcus King, South Carolina

(Mike Hughes photo courtesy of UCF Athletics)