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Recent posts by Nolan Nawrocki
Last in a series
PFW draft analyst Nolan Nawrocki previews the top prospects for the 2011 NFL draft, by position. In cases where a listed prospect is playing in a bowl game, we identify that upcoming matchup.
Underclassmen dominate the defensive back ranks, with most of the top cornerbacks and safeties likely to come from the junior class. LSU's Patrick Peterson is the star of the crop, with the size-speed combination to factor as a cornerback or safety in the NFL while doubling as a return man. Unique to this class, if juniors wind up exiting as expected, is the presence of more significant size than most typical draft classes have. (Editor's note: Juniors are denoted by an asterisk.)
Previous position: 2011 LB prospects
1. Patrick Peterson, LSU*
6-0e, 220e, 4.40e
Peterson is fully expected to enter the NFL draft following his junior season after starring as both a cornerback and return man. He stands out as the most dominant all-around performer since Charles Woodson exited Michigan as the fourth overall selection of the Raiders in 1998. At 6 feet, 220-plus pounds, he is extremely physical at the line of scrimmage in press-man coverage, has terrific ball skills and is aggressive supporting the run. He is so thick that NFL DB coaches could ask him to drop weight or even move him to free safety. For as physical as Peterson is — and he put on a clinic hemming Alabama's Julio Jones on the line — his hip tightness shows up against quicker receivers, such as Alabama's Marquis Maze, and he tends to freelance too much. He projects as a top-10 pick.
Don't miss: Peterson's Tigers play Texas A&M in the AT&T Cotton Bowl at 8 p.m. ET Jan. 7.
2. Prince Amukamara, Nebraska
6-0¼e, 201e, 4.45e
With great length, good hips and very good body control, Amukamara matches up favorably in man or zone coverage. He has a very good feel for patterns developing, can sort out combo routes quickly and trusts his eyes, very quickly jumping routes. He appears most comfortable manning zones. Although he tends to play a bit flat-footed and squat on routes, which gets him in trouble against double moves, he shows the ability to recover. Evaluators who have passed through the program say he is every bit as good as advertised and have stamped top-10 grades on the senior. Those who watch tape of him attempting to cover Oklahoma State's Justin Blackmon and see him increasingly clutch and grab will have more concerns.
Don't miss: Amukamara's Cornhuskers play Washington in the Bridgepoint Education Holiday Bowl at 10 p.m. ET Dec. 30.
3. Brandon Harris, Miami (Fla.)*
5-11e, 195e, 4.50e
A very football-smart, instinctive cover man whose physicality stands out on tape, Harris compares favorably to Kareem Jackson. He has a great feel for the game, can line up inside or outside and noticeably stands out as a tackler, having delivered knockout shots coming downhill and chopping down Terrelle Pryor in the open field. He is quick and very solid in all facets of the game, driving hard against the run and pass. In three seasons, he has only four interceptions, and he could stand to improve his ball recognition. He has the tools to develop into a solid starter in the pros.
Don't miss: Harris' Hurricanes play Notre Dame in the Hyundai Sun Bowl at 2 p.m. ET Dec. 31.
4. Janoris Jenkins, Florida*
5-10e, 185e, 4.45e
Jenkins plays the game with a swagger. He's confident, competitive and very energetic in coverage, sticking to receivers like a gnat. With excellent athletic ability and movement skills, he is very fluid coming out of his pedal, flips his hips and transitions quickly and shows great anticipation reading routes and making plays on the ball. Despite being undersized, he matches up well in man coverage against bigger receivers, such as South Carolina's Alshon Jeffery, and is a willing tackler who will support the run with fervor. He is small-framed and not built to withstand much contact, and he struggles some fending off blockers. He always could be mismatched against bigger receivers, but he could factor readily in the pros in nickel situations and should develop rapidly. Having been suspended, he will have his character evaluated by teams.
Don't miss: Jenkins' Gators play Penn State in the Outback Bowl at 1 p.m. ET Jan. 1.
5. Aaron Williams, Texas*
6-0, 190, 4.50e
Williams struggled this season when he was forced to move outside from his more comfortable nickel-back position and try to handle outside receivers. He had trouble covering Oklahoma State's Justin Blackmon down the field and even struggled against the speed of Florida Atlantic. Most glaring on a defense that collectively regressed this season was Williams' lack of production on the ball. He did not nab a single interception this season. He still has upside to improve, but if he were to declare for the draft, his inability to make plays on the ball could keep him out of the first round.
1. Mark Barron, Alabama*
6-2e, 210e, 4.50e
There may not be a true first-round safety in this year's class. Barron clearly looks the part with a very athletic build. He shows the foot quickness and burst to handle receivers and easily carry tight ends and is capable of making the acrobatic interception off the hash. Nonetheless, he can be exposed by quickness, frozen by double moves and too often has allowed big plays over the top this season, losing awareness with his back to the ball. As a run defender, he attacks the line of scrimmage and will strike with authority. He is agile slipping blocks, can close fast to the ball and will make his presence felt as a tackler in the box. He is asked to do a lot in a well-coached secondary and could still hone his instincts but, in a weak safety lot, stands a chance to be the first one drafted.
Don't miss: Barron's Crimson Tide play Michigan State in the Capital One Bowl at 1 p.m. ET Jan. 1.
2. Rahim Moore, UCLA*
6-1e, 195e, 4.50e
Built more like a cornerback than a safety with a slight, narrow frame, Moore may be better-suited for the edges. He shows good ball skills on the back end, plays the ball in the air like a receiver and covers a lot of ground. Where evaluators should be most concerned is with the way he factors in the run game, as he struggles playing off blocks, is too inconsistent tackling in space and is much more of a catcher than a striker. He lacks the physicality desired in the box, can be eliminated too easily and plays the game with too much finesse. He could struggle to match up with receivers in man coverage but could warrant interest as a zone corner or single high safety playing center field.
3. SS Eric Hagg, Nebraska
6-1 5/8, 206, 4.50e
A very athletic, rangy defender with a cornerback-like build, Hagg has not always been quick to stick his nose in a pile and has been criticized for his lack of toughness, having missed some time to injuries. After lining up at the hybrid linebacker position for the Blackshirts as a senior, however, he showed more willingness supporting the run, seldom leaving the field and keying Bo Pelini's aggressive defense. He has the cover skills to match up with receivers in the slot and has ascended to the top of the senior class with a solid season.
Don't miss: Hagg's Cornhuskers play Washington in the Bridgepoint Education Holiday Bowl at 10 p.m. ET Dec. 30.
4. FS George Iloka, Boise State*
6-3e, 205e, 4.50e
Iloka has been a productive three-year starter who graduated from high school early and immediately stepped into the lineup for an underrated secondary. Long-limbed, athletic and rangy with fluid movement skills and good leaping ability, Iloka plays fast and has shown the ability to make plays on the back end despite not being tested heavily or having great production on the ball. Although he could become more consistent securing tackles in space, he has stood out more heavily than teammate Jeron Johnson and has moldable talent.
Don't miss: Iloka's Broncos play Utah in the MAACO Las Vegas Bowl at 8 p.m. ET Dec. 22.
5. FS Robert Sands, West Virginia*
6-4e, 220e, 4.50e
Sands often roams in the Mountaineers' 3-3-5 defense and is surprisingly light on his feet for as big as he is. He has a very lean build with good flexibility, carries his weight well and packs a punch. He plays the run aggressively, flashes explosive striking ability and noticeably stands out with some of the big plays he makes. He does have a tendency to play undisciplined and bite on play-action and can still hone his eyes and instincts, but he possesses intriguing NFL-quality traits.
Don't miss: Sands' Mountaineers play North Carolina State in the Champs Sports Bowl at 6:30 p.m. ET Dec. 28.
Don't miss out on PFW's brand-new NFL Draft mobile app for iPhone, Blackberry and Android — coming soon. It will provide the very best in player analysis and inside draft info. Watch ProFootballWeekly.com for an announcement when it becomes available. Also, be sure to get your copy of PFW's 2011 Draft Guide magazine (on sale March 1) and PFW's 2011 Draft Preview book (on sale March 29). Both publications will be available at retail outlets and at PFWstore.com.