Corner is one of the more delicate positions in the NFL draft. Pick right, and your defensive coordinator could be getting a lockdown pass defender, able to shut down opposing WR1s without a second thought. Pick wrong, and you have a liability on your hands that can single-handedly cost you a match. The best example is Kevin King in the 2020 NFC championship game.
The upcoming 2022 NFL draft is being touted as having one of the strongest cornerback classes in recent memory. As many as seven players regularly show up in first-round mocks.
The following seven players all appear in the top 35 on PFF's draft giant board. Only around 30% of first-round picks on average live up to the expectations.
The top CB prospects in the 2022 NFL Draft
#7 - Daxton Hill, Michigan
The lowest-ranked CB on PFF's board (ranked 33rd) is also the lowest-ranked cornerback on this list.
Unfortunately for Hill, this is all too apparent - though he's physical and aggressive, both in coverage and in his hits, this season on many occasions, Hill looked unbalanced and uncomfortable.
The reason for this primarily is Daxton's poor fluidity, as you frequently see him stumble when he tries to match his opposite number's breaks. Now this was forgivable at the start of the season - he was new to the position, so you wouldn't have expected him to play like a refined pass defender.
The problem, however, is that he looked lost even late in the season. Hill had arguably his worst game in the Wolverines' week eight clash against Michigan State, giving up numerous deep plays to MSU wide receivers.
Even in Michigan's penultimate game (vs. Iowa in the Big 10 Championship), Daxton Hill didn't look like he'd shown any development towards becoming a genuinely reliable slot corner.
Ultimately taking Hill as a corner is a bet on him developing, but considering how he failed to do that over the last year, he doesn't seem worth the risk up high.
Value: 6th round pick
#6 - Derek Stingley Jr., LSU
It's understandable why you may be surprised with Stingley being this low, considering he's PFF's top-rated CB (number four overall). Still, even the PFFs themselves recognize the danger of taking the LSU man up high.
Over the past two seasons, Stingley has played ten games. He missed the last two games of the 2020 season due to a leg injury. He went on to play the first three games of 2021 before undergoing surgery on an injured foot that he hurt during practice.
This may age poorly, but Stingley hasn't looked 100% since 2019. It's too much of a risk to spend a valuable draft pick on, no matter how sensational he is.
Value: Early 4th round pick
#5 - Roger McCreary, Auburn
PFF's 25th ranked player is fifth on this list. McCreary is a great technician, with good feet and fluidity to stay on receivers' hips down the field. Complementing this, he has impressive acceleration and explosiveness - able to quickly drive the ball when a receiver stops on a hitch or comeback route.
His hand usage leaves little to be desired, as occasionally, his lack of contact can result in him being beat on stop or comeback routes if the QB is on time. However, the main issue with McCreary is how he defends (or, more accurately, how he doesn't defend) position and leverage-based routes such as slants and crossing routes.
McCreary doesn't actively make use of his hands around the line of scrimmage. Potentially because of his relatively lighter build at 190 lbs (by comparison Ahmad Gardner and Andrew Booth Jr. are both 200lbs).
The issue with this lack of physicality and more diminutive stature is that on slants and crossing routes, where the receiver is simply trying to cross the face of the corner and then box him out of the catch, McCreary doesn't have the physical tools to prevent the WR from crossing his face or to compete at the catch point.
This wouldn't be a significant concern if the senior CB had the recovery speed to catch up and contest with the pass-catcher; unfortunately, McCreary doesn't have this speed.
If he loses, he loses on these types of routes, but in a league with many great slant and crossing route runners such as DK Metcalf and AJ Brown, these routes are ones you can't afford to be vulnerable on.
Though not as important, it is also worth mentioning that McCreary is by far the worst running defender and tackler on this list, demonstrating absolutely no interest in supporting rushing downs.
Value: Mid 3rd round pick
The top seven corners of the draft (4-1):
#4 - Trent McDuffie, Washington
There's certainly a lot to like about the sophomore corner of CA: he has impressive acceleration and speed both horizontally and vertically. He is willing to lay a big hit on receivers. He can cover well deep down the field and make one-on-one tackles without much problem.
However, the problem with McDuffie seems to be more on the mental side. When it comes to coverage, McDuffie often bails far too quickly. At times it almost looks as though he's running away from the receiver.
Of course, playing 'top down' is a common technique for corners (for example, when defending the sticks on 3rd down), but McDuffie often takes this too far.
The relatively weak opposition QBs Washington faced this season usually didn't see open receivers, but NFL QBs certainly won't.
What's more, he is rarely aware when the QB will throw these passes beneath him, nor does he react quickly enough when they are thrown. This lack of aggression explains why McDuffie only had two career interceptions during his time at Washington.
One can't ignore the impressive numbers (only eleven yards given up this season on 36 targets) or the fact that Washington had the best pass defense in all of D1 college football.
Still, the crucial context behind these stats is that Washington also had the 23rd worst rushing defense in all of division one (108/130). This is apparent on tape, as opposing offenses would only throw the ball when necessary.
McDuffie is undoubtedly good, but not as good as he appears at first glance.
Value: Early 3rd round pick
#3 - Kaiir Elam, Florida
Elam is what you might consider a prototypical man-on-man corner. He uses his incredible strength and physicality to kill the momentum of receivers throughout their route. His aggressiveness and willingness to use his hands show up on every play.
Battle-hardened by exceptional SEC receivers, Elam knows how to feel for the break in the route before it comes to sticking to a pass-catcher across the field. He also knows how to use his impressive length and size to box receivers out of passes that are intended for them and win the ball.
But what puts Elam a step below the other physical press corner on this list is his consistency in landing his punches at the line of scrimmage. Now and then, Elam's initial attempt to get his hands on the receiver will be swiped away or will be missed on either side.
When this happens, Elam doesn't possess the necessary tools to recover and get back in phase with the receiver, leading to lost reps. Though not an exceptional tackler, Elam still shows a willingness to be aggressive and hit receivers in zone coverage, though man coverage is still certainly his strong suit.
The seven penalties he gave up this year may also be a concern but said penalties are relatively easy to clean up once he arrives in the NFL (it's certainly easier to teach a corner discipline than it is to teach one aggressiveness), not to mention that NFL refs are usually quite forgiving (within reason) when it comes to letting corners be physical.
Value: Mid 2nd round pick
#2 - Andrew Booth Jr., Clemson
The fifth-ranked corner on PFF's list is the second-ranked on this one. Andrew Booth Jr. is a very imposing and powerful corner; he's aggressive and quick, with good feet to complement.
His strength when it comes to redirecting/passing off receivers in zone coverage is an unusual but welcome trait to stand out on film. He can completely knock a receiver off-balance, making the job of covering them much more accessible to the person he is passing them off to.
Admittedly, Booth can look a little lost in zone coverage, partly due to communication mistakes and partly due to misreading the quarterback's intentions. This is the reason for Booth's slightly worrying numbers (312 yards given up on 29 catches last season), but the risk is more than worth it considering his upsides.
How these corners fare in the run game has not been mentioned much in this list, and for a good reason, that reason being that there is not much to say about most of these players.
All of the corners that have been mentioned are rather typical when it comes to assisting the run defense (except McCreary) - they can make a tackle if needed, but they aren't going to set up a hard edge or blow a run-up in the backfield.
That's except for Booth, who is nothing short of a weapon when it comes to stopping outside runs, screen passes, or anything else that comes into the flat. Booth never looks faster than when he's charging to meet a ball carrier at the line of scrimmage, and he uses his larger size to absolutely flatten receivers who dare to catch a screen pass in his vicinity.
Because of his great instincts, he often sees screens developing long before the ball gets out to the receiver so that when it does get there, he's already at full speed.
Screens and outside runs are prevalent in the NFL at the moment, and Booth can shut both of these elements of an offense down almost single-handedly - that gives him real value on defense and more than makes up for his average coverage skills.
Value: Late 1st round pick
#1 - Ahmad Gardner, Cincinnati
Ahmad 'Sauce' Gardner is THE press corner of the draft. He is exceptional in his ability to use his terrific length and strength to control the stem of a receiver's route and stick to them when they break.
He also used this length to compete with pass-catchers and play the ball in the air, resulting in nine career interceptions across three years at Cincinnati.
Unlike Kaiir Elam, Gardner is very refined with his hand use and places them very precisely to gain dominance over the receiver. Gardner only very rarely misses with his initial punch at the line of scrimmage. It's far less common for him to be beaten by shifty receivers who can dodge his hands.
The only real downside to Gardner is that he lacks the speed/fluidity to keep up if he cannot get his hands on the receiver, which can lead to lost coverage reps. However, it is very rare that this happens - so rare in fact that Gardner has not allowed a single touchdown in his entire college career.
Gardner is very physical; both in tackles and in coverage - combined with his high effort, this makes Gardner a force when it comes to laying hits on receivers or even (as you will see below) quarterbacks.
Value: Mid first round pick
Q. Is Derek Stingley worth the risk in round 1?