Photo Credit: Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports
Cover men are in high demand, and the ability of defensive backs to counter multifaceted offenses has never been more coveted.
Illinois cornerback Devon Witherspoon and Alabama safety Brian Branch are consensus top-15 players in the 2023 class, but depth is far better at corner, where eye-of-beholder applications based on scheme bump the value of Oregon’s Christian Gonzalez and Penn State’s Joey Porter Jr.
Multiple defensive backs were selected in the top 10 in three consecutive drafts. The first corner off the board in 2022, Cincinnati’s Sauce Gardner, landed with the New York Jets and turned in an All-Pro, Defensive Rookie of the Year season.
Here’s a look at this year’s cream of the crop in the secondary.
1. Devon Witherspoon, CB, Illinois
Selected fifth overall by the Seattle Seahawks
If prospects were ranked based solely on their competitive grade, Witherspoon has a case to be No. 1. At 5-11, 184, he hits with a sting and clocked a 4.43 40-yard dash showing he’s got more in his bag than will. His raw technique is a result of being newer to the game, having logged just two seasons of high school football and starting fulltime two seasons at Illinois. A worker bee with a prove-it mentality, teams might worry about his physique (170-pound range at U of I) and below-average bulk, but only until they invest in enough film to see he’s never limited by his frame.
2. Brian Branch, S, Alabama
With apologies to Gonzalez supporters, we’re giving a slight value edge to Branch as a hybrid or flex defensive back.
Training under Nick Saban for defensive backs might be akin to a writing group with Hemingway or Sailing 101 with Magellan. Branch can do a little bit of everything and serve as a spare cornerback in big nickel or dime defense to bring versatility to schemes but is at his best in the middle of the field or in the slot. He’s quick but not a blazer running straight-line angles over the top. Like Witherspoon, Branch isn’t huge, and teams that want primitive sledgehammers at safety might opt to pass and look to Boise State’s 6-4, 210-pounder JL Skinner.
3. Christian Gonzalez, CB, Oregon
Selected 17th overall by the New England Patriots
There are a half-dozen cornerbacks with 4.3 40-yard dash times likely to be selected in the top 100 picks. Gonzalez separates himself from all but Georgia’s Kelee Ringo (one of our top underrated CB prospects in this draft) with arm length, height, age (not yet 21), and that 41.5-inch vertical. Recruited as a safety by Colorado first, he developed rapidly into a cover man opponents didn’t test with the Ducks. His combination of skills equates to shutdown potential. Gonzalez has the natural tools to erase most of his youthful mistakes in coverage. Only two serious and meaningful questions are left for GMs: Will he tackle consistently and can he add strength to fill out a wiry frame?
4. Joey Porter Jr., CB, Penn State
Loquacious quarterback hunter Joey Porter, feared pass rusher formerly of the Steelers, Dolphins, and Cardinals, raised one lean, mean defensive back to the surprise of absolutely no one. Dad might now be “gramps,” but the little Porter is clamps. He’s 6-2, 195 and defends receivers in coverage as if they swiped his cell phone. A jam at the line is guaranteed — Porter has the length of a pass rusher, a confirmed wingspan of more than 80 inches — and closing speed to be used in blitz packages or convert to safety. He steers speed receivers off of the route plan consistently and was part of the reason he became difficult for quarterbacks to challenge as they moved to secondary reads. When he gets beat, Porter tends to grab or fall behind too far to recover, raising open doubt regarding his feet in zone schemes.
5. Emmanuel Forbes, CB, Mississippi State
Selected 16th overall by the Washington Commanders
There are too many almosts in the scouting report for Forbes to be considered much higher than No. 20 overall. He’s almost 6-1, almost 170 pounds, and almost too fast and feisty to still be on the board in the second round. Teams and schemes that covet nickel cornerbacks will be most attracted to Forbes because of his ball skills and rare speed. He covers 10 yards in 1.47 seconds and 40 in 4.36 and had 14 career interceptions (six in 2022) in three seasons with 34 starts at Mississippi State. Not scared or intimidated, he also had five picks as a true freshman starter in the SEC. He’s also hard to hide in the running game. Atypical arm length for his height is the only thing that might keep Forbes alive in head-on collisions with big NFL running backs.
6. Kelee Ringo, CB, Georgia: Repeating our belief Ringo is a first-round talent, he’s a cookie-cutter fit for a few teams who’ll value that the 20-year-old is already an elite athlete but needs pro coaching to meet his immense ceiling.
7. Deonte Banks, CB, Maryland: A starter since his true freshman season, Banks has track speed and isn’t shy on muscle, but will he catch it? Just one interception since 2019.
Selected 25th overall by the New York Giants
8. Antonio Johnson, S, Texas A&M: Box safety with a linebacker mentality, Johnson held up covering the flat and as a slot defender for the Aggies.
9. Jordan Battle, S, Alabama: Bigger and more physical than his teammate and tandem safety Brian Branch, Battle is more awareness, brains and instincts. Can be physical and won’t get you beat.
10. Clark Phillips III, CB, Utah: Playmaker in HS as a receiver and defensive back was a top recruit and nearly went to Ohio State. Three-year starter (31 games) at Utah is entering NFL after junior season. The 184-pounder was the top bench press performer at the combine (18 reps of 225), 2022 team captain for the Utes and returned two of his Pac-12 best six interceptions last season for TDs.
–Jeff Reynolds of Field Level Media contributed to this article