MOBILE, Ala. — Teams hunting for help in the secondary could be in luck in 2017, and the NFL is getting a head start on sorting through the deep cornerback class at the Senior Bowl.
Between Michigan’s Jourdan Lewis, West Virginia’s Rasul Douglas, Iowa’s Desmond King, and LSU’s Tre’Davious White, there’s no shortage of accolades. White and Lewis were finalists for the Jim Thorpe Award — recognizing the top collegiate defensive back in the country — and both Douglas and King earned AP Second Team All-American nods.
“Its been a while since you had 15 corners who could possibly go first round and a lot of guys in the conversation like that,” Lewis said.
But they all insist that there isn’t much of a heated competition between the cornerbacks at the Senior Bowl. Instead, they say they root for each other’s success, as well.
“We’re just cool and we just want to win,” Douglas said. “You want to win your rep every time you’re in the game. And we want the corners to win. We don’t want to see the receivers running around just catching the ball, so we’re all rooting for each other and we’re all competing at the same time.”
The Senior Bowl is about standing out, though. And each of the top-flight cornerbacks at the game did exactly that during their college careers.
Nobody is going to show up Tre’Davious White
White was the only one of the four cornerbacks who didn’t earn a spot on the AP All-American First or Second Teams. But he is projected by many to be the first of the four Senior Bowl cornerbacks selected in April and he isn’t concerned in the slightest that another cornerback could draw more eyes.
“Nobody is going to show me up,” White said. “I just compete and put my best forward.”
“I don’t really too much worry about what anyone else is doing or where they’re projected and stuff like that,” White said. “I just worry about myself. I should be prepared when the time comes for me to show my skills.”
Many expected White to enter the 2016 NFL Draft after his junior year but he returned for another season.
“I wanted to graduate, I did that,” White said. “And my goal was to just become a complete player as far as the film room and just knowing what guys are going to do before they do it. To just become a total package, so I feel like it paid off for me.”
White won’t play in the Senior Bowl on Saturday after he tweaked his ankle in practice, but the injury isn’t considered serious and his impressive showings in practice helped his case as a first-round pick.
Jourdan Lewis aims to overcome size concerns with his work ethic
It’s almost unfathomable to think that a player as decorated as Lewis could fly under the radar, but on a defense that featured Heisman Trophy finalist Jabrill Peppers and possible first-round defensive end Taco Charlton, somehow Lewis has a low profile.
“A lot of cornerbacks are those flamboyant type of names that pop out and you see, but we already had a guy that did it all,” Lewis said. “But that’s how I like it. I like to fly under the radar and be one of the guys that nobody really knows and go out there and prepare to do my job. All I can do is do my job to the highest degree.”
High effort and plenty of preparation are consistent themes for Lewis, who isn’t in the business of telling others he’s the best.
“There’s a lot of people who say ‘I’m going to be one of the greats’ when they came through here, but you can’t guarantee that,” Lewis said. “What can you do is guarantee hard work. And that’s one of the things I want to guarantee is my hard work.”
The work ethic of the AP First Team All-American is a big reason why he has found success, despite measuring in at 5’10, 188 pounds. While he’ll have to overcome size concerns and it could cost him some draft position, the weigh-in at the Senior Bowl may have actually helped his case.
"Scouts had him at 5’9 and change when they got him measured back in the spring," said NFL.com analyst Lance Zierlein. "I think they had him at 5’9 7/8. So for him, a 5’10 measurement here is a good thing, and weighing 188 helps him, too. If he can maintain that weight and run really well at the combine, he'll be fine."
Until then, Lewis is trying to stand out on a North Team roster coached by the Chicago Bears that also features King and Douglas.
Desmond King is the king of interceptions
King understands the stakes with so many other cornerbacks in Mobile. If the 2015 Jim Thorpe Award winner doesn’t live up to his billing, Lewis and Douglas are ready to steal the spotlight during North Team practices.
“You have to come out here and play to the best of your ability,” King said. “There’s a lot of top guys out here — receivers, as well — there’s a lot of players out here who are willing to make plays and play their hearts out. So, that’s the goal, to go out there each and every day and give it your best.”
But King’s first couple practices haven’t been so smooth. He’s been on the wrong end of a few highlights for Eastern Washington’s Cooper Kupp and Michigan’s Amara Darboh.
Where King has excelled is in interception drills. He finished his collegiate career at Iowa with 13 interceptions, eight of which came during his award-winning 2015 season.
“That’s something that cornerbacks really have to do is go up to the ball at the highest point because there’s a lot of receivers that will do the same thing,” King said. “The only way to challenge a great receiver is to get the ball at its highest point.”
There has been chatter about King potentially moving to safety in the NFL for a while, and the Iowa product hasn’t helped his case much in Mobile so far. But with another couple days before the Senior Bowl on Saturday, he still has a chance to turn things around and impress.
Rasul Douglas burst on to the scene in 2016 and is here to stay
While White, Lewis and King all measure in at under 6’0, Douglas stands out at 6’2, 204 pounds. He’s also one of the most energetic players on the North roster and can be heard cheering on teammates and tossing out a little trash talk from time to time.
But a year ago, Douglas was a mostly unknown community college transfer who finished his junior season at West Virginia with just eight tackles and one interception, contributing as a depth cornerback who played on special teams.
As a senior in 2016, he led the nation in interceptions and burst on to the scene as a legitimate NFL talent. But like the others, he said he doesn’t pay much attention to the draft projections and isn’t seeking to show up the other cornerbacks in Mobile.
“We’re all helping each other get better at the same time,” Douglas said. “So we all want what’s best for us on the field, we want what’s best for other players while they’re on the field, but we’re competing and we’re going after it.”
Douglas is the one-year wonder of the group, but hasn’t looked out of place compared to the more experienced cornerbacks at the Senior Bowl.
Even if Douglas is the most inexperienced, he may be the one with the most upside thanks to his long frame.
With plenty of high-flying offenses in the NFL and multiple receiving threats to cover, cornerback depth is more important than ever in the league.
Along with White, Lewis, King, and Douglas, the top of the 2017 NFL Draft will also have underclassmen like Ohio State’s Marshon Lattimore, Washington’s Sidney Jones, and Florida’s Quincy Wilson and Teez Tabor.
Even safety is a deep position with four projected in the first round of Mel Kiper’s first mock draft of the 2017 offseason. The ESPN draft guru thinks a record-breaking number of defensive backs could go in the first round.
The 2017 Senior Bowl has been the first display of this depth and cornerback is the best positional group on the field.