The Eagles head into the 2011 NFL Draft needing a few things, but the one position that must be filled is right cornerback. Without the benefit of trades and free agency, the Eagles have to turn to the college ranks to find someone capable of stepping in and playing right away. There eventually will be some kind of offseason moves, but the Eagles can't count on finding a top corner through that method. This has been such a strange offseason because of the CBA situation that teams can't think in standard terms. The one thing teams know in absolute certainty is that there will be a draft starting on April 28. For once, I think teams will have to approach it with a serious focus on needs.
There are three cornerbacks at the top of the class this year. I get a lot of questions from fans about how the players stack up against each other and what makes them different. Let's take a look at the "Big 3" - Patrick Peterson, Prince Amukamara, and Jimmy Smith.
Peterson ----- 6'2, 219. Arms - 32 inches. Hands - 9.25 inches.
Amukamara - 6'0, 206. Arms - 30.5 inches. Hands - 8.5 inches.
Smith ---------- 6'2, 211. Arms - 32.25 inches. Hands - 9.75 inches.
Peterson has the biggest body. Smith is a shade smaller, but has longer arms and bigger hands. Amukamara is the runt of the group, but would easily be the biggest Eagles cornerback. That should tell you that this is a big group. Hand size and arm length is important. Big hands make it easier for a corner to grab receivers and jam them at the snap. This keeps them from getting a clean release. The long arms help the corner to jam the receivers. They also help the corners to play the ball better. How often did we see Plaxico Burress make a catch over an Eagles corner? Guys with long arms have a better chance to get a hand on the ball.
STRENGTH / PHYSICALITY
Smith did 24 reps at the Combine, an outstanding total for a cornerback. That is especially impressive when you consider how long his arms are. The shorter the arms, the easier it is to do the bench press. Amukamara and Peterson each did 15 reps. That is a good total for a corner.
Peterson is the most physical of the trio. He can really jam receivers and is a strong, physical tackler. Smith is really physical with receivers. He's able to re-route guys because of how strong and physical he is. Smith is the weakest tackler of the trio. There are times when he is really good. He will pop some guys. You'll see him wrap up running backs and put them down aggressively. Then there are other times when Smith is passive. He's nowhere close to the type of (non) tackler Asante Samuel is. Amukamara is solid in both areas. He can jam receivers and is a good tackler. He doesn't stand out as great in either area, but is above average in both.
Here are the key numbers for the trio.
Peterson ----- 4.34 in the 40 ... 38 inch vertical jump ... 6.58 3-cone time ... 4.07 short shuttle
Amukamara - 4.43 in the 40 ... 38 inch vertical jump ... 6.97 3-cone time ... 4.08 short shuttle
Smith ---------- 4.46 in the 40 ... 36 inch vertical jump ... 6.98 3-cone time ... 4.06 short shuttle
Peterson is clearly the better athlete. Not only does he test well, but that athleticism shows up on the field. Watch him on his kick returns and you see explosive speed. It looks like he's been shot out of a cannon. Amukamara and Smith test almost identically and they both play like very good athletes. All three players are above 200 pounds, but also have an excellent combination of speed, quickness, and agility. Very impressive.
All three players are outstanding man coverage cornerbacks. They have the ability to be physical with receivers at the line and then turn and run with them down the field. All three are athletic enough to play off coverage and react to what happens in front of them. Peterson especially gets a quick break on the ball.
All three players will need help in learning to play zone in the NFL. I think Amukamara shows the best coverage awareness, meaning he's most likely to make the quickest adjustment to zone. All three will also have to learn to be less physical in the NFL. You can't keep your hands on receivers like you can in college.
Peterson has the best ball skills of the trio. He picked off the most passes of the trio, despite playing in the fewest games. He has good hands and catches the ball very naturally. Amukamara broke up 24 passes over the last two years. He picked off five passes, all in 2009. He made some really tough catches. Smith had the fewest chances to play the ball. In 47 career games he picked off three passes and broke up just 18. It will be hard to know exactly what kind of ball skills he has until Smith gets to the NFL and regularly has passes thrown his way.
Peterson needs to get better at locating the ball when he plays with his back to the quarterback in man coverage. It is tough to turn around and find the ball in a split second, but the elite cornerbacks do just that. Amukamara will have to adjust to playing in unfavorable situations. Nebraska had elite defenses the last two years. They played with the lead most of the time and only lost eight games in the two seasons combined. Smith must be more consistent. When faced with covering a top talent like A.J. Green, Smith responded. Against some lesser players he would get sloppy at times. In the NFL you can't play to the level of the competition. You need to play your best every week.
MISC / INTANGIBLES
Amukamara is the best of the trio when it comes to character and off the field matters. He is the kind of guy you want on your team. Eagles fans should think of him as a young Troy Vincent in this way. Peterson doesn't have any major knocks. Smith is the one guy with real character concerns. He has some alcohol related arrests. He tested positive for drugs in the past. Smith reportedly didn't interview well with all the teams he met. He's not violent and he never missed any playing time. Teams have to decide if he's a problem child that isn't worth the trouble or if he's an immature kid that can will grow up when he's part of a highly structured environment around men like Andy Reid and Juan Castillo.
Peterson offers added value to teams as a kick returner. He averaged 29 yards per kickoff return, 16 yards per punt return, and even took two punts back for touchdowns in 2010.
BEYOND THE BIG 3
Aside from the "Big 3", the two names mentioned most are Brandon Harris and Aaron Williams. I'm not sure these guys are definite Eagles targets. Harris lacks ideal deep speed. He is outstanding when covering short passes and he tackles really well, but he's a better fit for a team that plays mainly zone defense. Williams is a corner/safety tweener. He is a better football player than athlete. That wasn't a problem at Texas, but could be in the NFL.
The guy I think could come out of nowhere is Virginia cornerback Ras-I Dowling. He is 6'2, 199. He ran 4.4 at his Pro Day. Dowling had a great first three years at UVA, but hamstring problems limited him to just five games as a senior. Dowling would have been a mid-first rounder with a solid senior campaign. He obviously has NFL size and speed. He can cover, hit, and tackle. Dowling is a very high character player and the kind of guy the Eagles would love. I'm not sure that he's got much of a chance to go at pick 23, but if the Eagles move back to the late first or early second, Dowling could absolutely be a primary target.
WHAT WILL THE EAGLES DO?
Smith really is the key player. Peterson will go Top 10. The Eagles aren't likely to pay the price to move up that high. Amukamara could go as high as pick nine or as low as the mid-teens. The Eagles could move up for him, since he's got less downside than Smith. If the Eagles stay put, Smith is the guy who has a realistic chance to be on the board. He would be a risk, but also has the potential to be a star cornerback in the NFL. It would be worth it to roll the dice on him. I think the risk is worth the reward. If Smith is taken, the Eagles go to another position, or very possibly move back. No matter what, the Eagles need to find a talented cornerback prospect somewhere in the draft.