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2021 NFL Draft CB Rankings

by Thor Nystrom
Updated On: April 21, 2021, 7:06 pm ET

This is the eighth installment of our 2021 NFL Draft prospect rankings series, following quarterbacksrunning backs, a two-parter on wide receivers (WR1-9 here, WR10-50 here), tight endsoffensive tacklesinterior OL, interior DLEDGE and linebackers.

Check back next week for our final installment, a deep-dive into the safety class. Also coming next week: My full position rankings, as well as the Thor500, my 500-player big board with 500 player comps.

1. Patrick Surtain II (Alabama) | 6'2/208    
Comp: Jalen Ramsey
RAS: 9.96

The son of 11-year NFL veteran and three-time Pro Bowl CB Patrick Surtain Sr., Surtain II was a top-10 national recruit coming out of high school that started all three years he was in Tuscaloosa. He earned SEC All-Freshman Team honors in 2018, and went on to bag first-team Associated Press All-American and SEC Defensive Player of the Year honors during Alabama’s run to the national title in 2020.

Inarguably the best cornerback in the nation over the past two years -- period -- the biggest nitpick the draft community could summon about Surtain entering the pre-draft process was the supposition that he was a good athlete, not a great one. At his pro day event, Surtain ducked the agility drills, a business decision that perhaps should have been expected, but measured and tested elite-plus everywhere else.

I doubt Surtain would have bombed the agility tests, but there was no good reason to test that theory. Surtain's not the crispest changing directions, and that can afford brief throwing windows in space. Not much more than that, though. Recovers too quick.

At 6'2/208, he ran a 4.42 forty (size-adjusted 88th percentile) with a 39-inch vertical and a 10’01” broad jump (both 90th-percentile-plus showings). He even posted an 89th-percentile bench press (18 reps). His 10- and 20-yard splits were his worst showings among completed tests -- and he finished in the 69th and 73rd percentile, respectively).

Huge day for sure, but Surtain’s composite 9.96 RAS score is deceptive. RAS athletic composites are derived by comparing athletic tests taken in a size-adjusted vacuum -- tests voluntarily skipped or missed for injury merely aren't calculated in.*

*(This creates a vacuum-within-a-vacuum conundrum to which there is no simple workaround I can offer Mr. Kent Lee Platte. A one-sized fits all penalty for missed tests doesn't make sense, but ranking players with a full battery of tests against ones who only participated in their best tests inadvertently punishes the former group. Is dropping a Roger Maris asterisk on those with qualifying-but-incomplete testing profiles the only way? If you have a better idea, let me hear it on Twitter -- if I hear one better than the Maris asterisk concept, I'll pitch that to Mr. Platte instead.).

Similar to the story of Antoine Winfield Jr. in last year’s class, Surtain received a lifetime defensive back master-class education growing up in the home of an NFL veteran of the same name. Surtain Sr. got into coaching after his playing days and is 58-6 as HC at American Heritage School in Plantation, Fla. (he was named the 2020 High School Football America National Coach of the Year). Surtain II finished off his football PhD studies in technique and field awareness in Tuscaloosa under grandmaster Nick Saban and his coterie of overqualified assistants and analysts.

No corner in the nation had more than Surtain’s 1,536 coverage snaps over the last three years. Surtain’s 662 press-coverage snaps over his final two seasons were 199 more than any other corner, per PFF. Surtain broke up 24 passes over his 38-start career, with four interceptions and four forced fumbles. 

In last year’s SEC title game, Surtain was burned for a 50-yard touchdown in the third quarter by Florida WR Trevon Grimes. Prior to that play, Surtain hadn’t allowed 50 yards receiving in a game all season (the rest of that game, by the way, he surrendered one 10-yard completion total).

In 2019, Surtain gave up 65 coverage yards to the best passing offense in college football, Joe Burrow’s LSU Tigers, but gave up 55 or less in every other game. Clockwork reliability, game-in, game-out for three years squaring off against the SEC's go-to receivers, one after the other.

A long, strong plus-athlete brimming with skill, Surtain jolts receivers off the line with his pterodactyl 78.5-inch wingspan, forcing delayed take-offs from inefficient, dilated angles. This has the effect of limiting a receiver’s options such that the receiver's initial movements out of the jam telegraph an enormous amount of actionable information to a Malcolm Gladwellian 10,000-repper like Surtain.

Interception of intent, like being handed GPS coordinates of the route during its infancy stage. Surtain's hands, feet and eyes work in concert, no wasted motion, always has a plan, no panic. You wonder how much Devonta Smith and Surtain, within the Football PhD program that is Alabama, sharpened the blades of each other’s craft in practice for three years. If Smith is a master deceiver in his routes, Surtain is a telepath.

Surtain is a very active participant at the catch point downfield, with the speed to hang in footraces and the length and hops to challenge in the sky. Surtain allowed 46.1% completions and a 68.7 NFL passer rating during his college career, per PFF.

As a bonus, Surtain has proved to be an exceptional run defender throughout his career. He crashes down quickly and is an extremely reliable tackler, lassoing his prey while driving his shoulder pads through torsos. He converted 91.9% of his tackle attempts in college, an exceptional rate.

Surtain is a high-floor, high-ceiling corner prospect with add-on special teams ability that proved it on the field under the brightest of lights for three seasons, then shut down concerns about his deep speed at his pro day.

With born-for-this instincts and bloodlines, and a desire to improve that was seen in development jumps all three seasons, Surtain profiles as a Day 1 starter with perennial All-Pro upside. 

2. Jaycee Horn (South Carolina) | 6'1/205    
Comp: Aqib Talib
RAS: 9.99

Similarly to Surtain, Horn is an NFL legacy kid from the class of 2018 that started all three seasons before declaring early for the NFL Draft. The son of former Chiefs, Saints and Falcons WR Joe Horn, Jaycee earned second-team all-SEC honors in 2020 for his work across seven starts (he opted out after HC Will Muschamp was fired). 

Horn had less pedigree coming in than Surtain. He actually quit football as a freshman and sophomore in high school to focus on basketball (starting varsity PG both years), but returned to the gridiron as a junior, ultimately finishing as a four-star, top-250 overall recruit. 

A wiry, amped-up, yappy on-field contrast to Surtain’s quiet method-and-technique watchmaker’s game. Horn is an electric athlete with an extremely aggressive and feisty play ethos. The Gamecocks' shutdown CB1 posted a 9.99 size-adjusted RAS athletic score, the second-best of any corner to enter the league since 1987.

He ran a 4.4 forty with an elite 41.5-inch vertical and 11’01” broad jump. But like Surtain, and for similar reasons, Horn ducked the agility drills. Feel free to affix your own mental Maris asterisk on Horn's near-perfect composite. 

In coverage, Horn dances very closely up to the fire separating physicality and abject flag-drawing interference. Horn doesn’t surrender slivers of separation without a fight, and that fight can include bumps and hand-fighting beyond five yards. 

This style helped Horn wrack up ball production (25 passes defensed in 29 starts), killed completions before they happened, and discouraged quarterbacks from targeting him (No. 1 in FBS last year with 27.4 coverage snaps per catch allowed, per PFF). 

Locate, close-and-crash instincts with ball in air. Since he's at the catch point so often, it would be nice if he could convince those up-to-no-good hands to fight for good, try to flip the field.

Horn picked off only two balls in college, curiously in the same game. Auburn, last season, Horn serving notice he was a top-3 2021 corner by throwing on a Cobra Kai Karate gi and putting Seth Williams in a body bag.

But Horn's pugnacious style draws flags, 10 over his career, half of which came last season. He’s going to have to cut down on the downfield grabby games in the NFL to avoid those back-breaking home run pass interference calls unique to the pro game.

Extremely agile receivers can also get a step on Horn and open up throwing opportunities. Horn is a bit shiftier than Surtain, but agility is his least electric athletic trait, so it wasn’t a surprise he similarly no-showed those tests. 

Horn loses ground to Surtain as a prospect in run defense and tackling reliability. At the former, Horn is mostly willing so long as he doesn't have to sacrifice his body. He's a haphazard tackler that lunges into contact and doesn’t consistently wrap up. His 21.2% career missed tackle rate in college is a red-flag area that needs immediate attention.

But his NFL team will want to send Horn on the blitz a bit more than Muschamp's South Carolina staff did. In only 19 pass-rushing opportunities over the last two years, Horn had six pressures, three hurries, two hits and a sack, consistently wreaking havoc (elite 91.0-plus PFF pass-rush grades both years in a very small sample).

Horn comes with the requisite feistiness, length and high-octane athleticism to profile as a CB1 press-corner ace. If his tackling improves and he tones down in-coverage contact, Horn could become the best corner from this class.

3. Caleb Farley (Virginia Tech) | 6'1/197
Comp: Jimmy Smith

Farley was a two-year starter at Virginia Tech that opted out in 2020 over COVID-19 concerns. He signed with the Hokies as a three-star athlete in 2017, ranked No. 428 nationally in the 247Composite. 

After piling up over 10,000 total yards on the prep gridiron as a dual-threat quarterback with a limited arm (nearly 2,500 yards rushing as a senior alone!), Farley enrolled at Virginia Tech early. The Hokies experimented with their new sleek athlete -- Farley ran the 40-yard dash in high school between 4.28-4.37 seconds, depending on the source -- at wide receiver and cornerback that spring. Justin Fuente and crew chose receiver! 

In Fuente’s defense, he’s an offensive guy, Farley is a silly athlete, and his transition to receiver was going swimmingly. Better than that, even. In the 2017 spring game, played before Farley’s high school prom took place, Farley, playing receiver, gave veteran starting CB Brandon Facyson fits, torching him for a 36-yard reception and drawing two Facyson pass-interference penalties. Facyson is entering his fourth NFL season with the Chargers.

Farley finished with two catches for 61 yards and a 17-yard jet-sweep run. At the time, Farley was seen as a “promising” immediate-impact starter in a receiving corps that had lost Isaiah Ford and Bucky Hodges to the NFL and had a bunch of questions marks on the depth chart behind veteran WR1 Cam Phillips

We’ll never know what Farley could have been at receiver, because he tore his ACL in August 2017 during non-contact work. That injury, of course, knocked Farley out for the year, forcing a redshirt during a true freshman season he likely would have spent as a starter -- at receiver. 

By the time Farley returned in 2018, Virginia Tech was feeling good about the development of the young receivers that saw the field next to Cam Phillips in 2017. The Hokies’ WR corps suddenly looked deep with Damon Hazelton, Eric Kumah, Hezekiah Grimsley and Tre Turner, and Virginia Tech also had something on its hands at TE with future NFL third-round pick Dalton Keene.

So Farley made the full-time transition to cornerback, where Virginia Tech needed more immediate help. Farley won a starting job immediately, because of course he did, even though he suffered a preseason back injury in a weight-lifting mishap (you're going to want to remember this moment).

A warrior, Farley, no-doubt resolute not to miss a second-consecutive season to injury to begin his college career, gutted through physical pain and growing pains. He flashed brilliance (eight breakups, two INT) amid periods of choppy water during that maiden voyage at corner (32-463-4 receiving line allowed on 54 targets). 

As a redshirt sophomore in 2019, Farley emerged as a no-doubt star, holding opponents to a 18-257-1 receiving line over 50 targets while picking off four balls and breaking up another nine in 11 games (he missed two games with a back injury -- queue ominous background music).

At 6’1"/207, Farley retains incredible wheels with all the long speed you need (reportedly was running 4.3 in training in March) and a physical game with the frame to support it that siphons receivers to the sideline where Farley cuts the oxygen and shuts out the lights.

Eyes-in-the-back-of-his-helmet tracking ability, picking the ball up immediately, so dang good in those precious partial-seconds before arrival. Size, length, strength, hops and ball skills to legitimately compete for the ball against dang-near any receiver he’s squared up against (lest you thought Farley’s 2017 spring and summer at receiver was a complete waste!). 

Hands on 15 balls over 11 games in 2019 speaks for itself. Incredible output for a guy in his second year at the position. Farley surrendered a 26.8 opposing passer rating that season en route to first-team All-ACC honors. Dominant stuff.

Only four FBS corners that season with more coverage snaps finished with a higher PFF grade than Farley (90.5), only one of them a fellow boundary guy (LSU’s Derek Stingley Jr., the likely CB1 next April). The others were slots, Louisiana Tech’s Amik Robertson (Round 4 pick of Raiders last year), Appy State’s Shaun Jolly (priority UDFA next spring, if nothing else), and Washington’s Elijah Molden (a likely Round 2 pick later this month).

Farley considered declaring for the NFL Draft after his redshirt sophomore 2019 campaign. In hindsight, of course, he should have. Farley would have battled CJ Henderson for CB2 honors in the pre-draft process, maybe even, Butterfly Effect-style, stealing Henderson’s 1.9 slot with the Jaguars. Even if he hadn't, I'm here to tell you Farley's worst-case scenario was Atlanta’s pick at 1.16 (that became AJ Terrell, a Sliding Doors beneficiary, in the way these things go).

Farley announced his return to campus for the 2020 season, the pandemic became a thing shortly thereafter, and Farley became the first high-profile NFL Draft prospect to opt-out. After losing his mother in 2018 to breast cancer, Farley explained that he wanted to protect his father from the virus.

But while Surtain spent 2020 locking in CB1 status and Horn spent it shedding his raw-project cocoon to emerge as a sure-fire first-round butterfly, both tacking on 99th-percentile RAS showings for good measure, and while Northwestern CB Greg Newsome used six 2020 games and one glorious March day (discussed below) to go from a late-rounder to a top-25 pick, Farley didn’t play a snap during the season nor perform one athletic test after it. 

Farley is staring down the barrel of the very real possibility that he’ll slide lower in 2021 than he would have gone in 2020, despite not incriminating himself on the field nor track in the interim. But of course there was that minimally invasive microdiscectomy back procedure on March 23 -- 72 hours before Virginia Tech's March 26 pro day -- that removed damaged sections of a herniated disc.

Farley’s four-month recovery prognosis was confirmed by doctors in Indianapolis earlier this month at the NFL Combine’s medical recheck shindig, a positive development. That timeline would have him fully mended in the days leading up to NFL training camp in late-July. Short-term good news, but the risk of recurrence with notoriously fickle back injuries by definition render Farley a durability red-flag.

When his on-field cornerback education continues, Farley must work on two things that may just be a function of his lack of experience, namely: tackling technique (missed 21-of-80 career attempts) and coverage polish. Farley’s footwork and backpedal, even while dominating in 2019, was inefficient, in a way that should be correctable with coaching and experience but that will manifest in unnecessary pro yardage yielded until so done.

Farley told Peter King: "I plan to be the best cornerback of my generation. I just can't wait to get back in the pads again." As an inexperienced one-year wonder with a back injury that has the game for a press-man role he didn't do in college (58 career snaps), the risk is very real.

That’s been the focus of his process. But his size/athleticism package and ball skills remain very real, high-value NFL traits if weaponized. Farley offers high-octane upside at what is going to be a sticker-price discount in April -- if you’re willing to roll the dice his back issues are a thing of the past.

4. Greg Newsome II (Northwestern) | 6'0/192
Comp: Marcus Peters
RAS: 9.66

A three-star prospect from the 2018 class made good, Newsome became a three-year starter that earned first-team All-Big Ten honors his last two seasons and added third-team AP All-American honors in 2020.

Per The Athletic’s Dane Brugler, Newsome was Northwestern’s first true junior to declare for the NFL Draft since 1996 (Darnell Autry). He entered the draft process with questions about long speed and overall athletic profile, which wasn’t necessarily his fault.

Northwestern HC Pat Fitzgerald and long-time DC Mike Hankwitz (2008-2020 in the post before retiring after the season) ran a zone-coverage heavy scheme, in part, one assumes, to mask the athletic limitations of back-seven defenders typically available to the Wildcats in recruiting. 

Ironically, that scheme, in conjunction with opponents rarely testing Newsome deep in 2020 in instances he found himself isolated in press-man, afforded Newsome fewer downfield footraces and mirror-twitch-in-space reps. That made Newsome’s pro day workout crucial -- one of the most crucial in the class. 

According to Benjamin Robinson’s Grinding the Mocks, which analyzes mock draft data, Newsome as recently as February was seen in the industry as the equivalent of an after-Round 3 comp pick. In the data, you can isolate the precise seven-day period Newsome’s stock erupted (in hindsight, normalized): the week following March 9, the date of Northwestern’s pro day showcase.

A whip-smart player that competes full-throttle with unmistakable confidence, Newsome did something that day that was very brave indeed (pragmatic in hindsight): Facing more questions about his athleticism than Patrick Surtain and Jaycee Horn combined (and doubled), Newsome elected to complete every single athletic test. 

In front of stunned scouts, Newsome tested as a legitimate* 96th-percentile RAS athlete at CB since 1987 (119th out of 1,795 prospects). His 40-yard dash (4.39), 10-yard split (1.5), 20-yard split (2.53) and vertical jump (40”) all ranked in the size-adjusted 93rd-percentile or higher historically. 

Many would have advised Newsome to duck the agility drills like Surtain and Horn, but he apparently refused, and -- we’ll be darned -- made himself a bundle of cash for the trouble, submitting an eye-opening 72nd-percentile 3-cone (6.9) and a get-me-over 49th-percentile shuttle (4.26). RAS graded his composite size-adjusted agility score: GOOD (along with GOOD in size, GREAT in explosion, and ELITE in speed). Athletic package: Confirmed elite.

*(the reason I used the word “legitimate” in reference to Newsome’s 96th-percentile RAS composite was to continue the column's recurring side-rant theme vis-a-vis RAS neither penalizing nor partitioning prospects that duck tests. Newsome finished with a lower RAS than Surtain and Horn. Weighing 13 less pounds than Horn and 16 less than Surtain, Newsome beat each in the 40-yard dash and the 10- and 20-yard splits. He tied Surtain one bench rep behind Horn. He beat Surtain in each jump while falling 1.5-inches short in the vertical and 10-inches short in the broad jump of Horn. But Horn and Surtain both ducked the agility drills and weren’t penalized for it, finishing with 9.99 and 9.96 RAS composites, respectively. Newsome performed RAS-approved “GOOD” in the agility drills and fell to the 96th-percentile because of it).

This sent Newsome’s stock, GameStop-style, *to the moon*. In two months time -- most of the movement happening in those first two weeks -- Greg Newsome went from close to No. 100 overall in February to No. 25 today on Grinding the Mocks’ “Expected Draft Position” composite board. Even that price might be light. Newsome went between 17-23 in the most-recent mock drafts from Mel Kiper (1.23 to Jets), Daniel Jeremiah (1.20 to Bears) and Peter Schrager (1.17 to Raiders, three of the industry’s most respected insiders.

A lightning-fast processor of the field with extremely gifted feet, Newsome, in conjunction with his quick-twitch athletic package, has all the weapons to stick close to receivers of all ilk. Per PFF, Newsome allowed only 12 catches for 93 yards (7.8 YPA) on 34 targets over 387 snaps in 2020, coughing up one singular completion 10-plus yards downfield (on 15 such targets; that one reception went for 19). 

His NFL QB passer rating of 31.7 when targeted in 2020 was the best in this class. Newsome didn’t have to defend a ton of deep balls for reasons explained above, most-often used in zone coverage assigned to those in front of him. But he acquitted himself well when he did, locating the ball over his shoulder, competing at the catch point. 

Newsome defended 25 balls over 21 career games, an incredible ball rate. But he picked off only one ball in those 21 games. If he can start to turn some of those PD into field-flipping interceptions, we’ll really be onto something.

Newsome has a wiry body that facilitates more quickness than power and is lacking for length with sub-NFL-average-for-the-position 31 ⅛” arms and a 73 ¾” wingspan. It’s true that it’s very tough for receivers to win slivers of separation from Newsome, but it’s also true that he can overcompensate for his lack of muscle by grabbing.

His 16 flags in 21 career appearances (two were declined or off-set) -- including seven DPI’s over his final 14 -- are a red flag. Outside of that, I have three other areas of concern regarding Newsome. He suffered season-ending injuries all three seasons, with a groin issue ending his 2020 season mid-B1G title game against Ohio State. Durability is a question mark and experience (19 starts) is light in part because of that.

My third-concern is theoretical, but multi-pronged. In 2020, in six games and 387 snaps, he was Newsome Island. But Newsome faced very little NFL talent in 2020 -- Purdue’s David Bell being the exception -- taking 17 coverage snaps in the B1G title game against Chris Olave-less Ohio State (COVID protocol) before leaving with injury and missing the bowl game against Auburn’s Seth Williams/Anthony Schwartz duo.

And where that gets concerning is -- similar to QB Zach Wilson’s jump as a prospect this year -- in 2018-2019, in more snaps against better competition, Newsome wasn’t the same player that we saw last season. In 854 snaps (and 271 coverage snaps) over those two seasons, Newsome allowed five touchdowns and didn’t pick off any passes. He surrendered receptions on 52-of-80 targets (65.0%, compared to 35.3% in 2020) for 691 yards (93 in 2020) on 13.3 YPA (7.8 in 2020). 

Northwestern had a top-3 SP+ pass defense last year. SS Brandon Joseph broke out as a star, finishing the year not only as PFF’s highest-rated strong safety, but also its highest-graded cover safety with 300-plus coverage snaps. Joseph picked off six balls in nine games! How much easier do you think zone coverage is with that guy behind you?

And remember how Newsome surrendered the lowest QB rating on targets of any 2021 CB prospect? He wasn’t even tops on his team in that category (if you drop the coverage snap threshold to 100)! In roughly half the coverage snaps last season, unknown 3-star redshirt freshman nickel back Cameron Mitchel posted a 22.5 opposing QB rating on targets, nearly 10 points better than Newsome. Northwestern’s pass defense last year, it must be said, was a high tide that raised all boats.

Newsome is an obvious talent, but his profile, to me, has real elements of risk, same as Farley's, just for different reasons. Newsome has the smarts, athleticism and cover chops for any scheme and will join his NFL team proficient in the languages of press-man and zone coverage. He’ll transition quickest in a Cover 3 scheme in the vein of Northwestern's.

5. Asante Samuel Jr. (Florida State) | 5'10/180    
Comp: Jaire Alexander
RAS: 7.47

Samuel Jr., a top-50 overall recruit, is the son of the four-time Pro Bowl corner of the same name. A two-plus-year starter, Samuel Jr. led FSU in breakups as a true freshman in 2018 despite starting only three games. He broke out in a 2019 campaign that ended in third-team All-ACC honors, the only P5 player with 14-or-more pass breakups and 45-plus tackles. 

In 2020, playing in eight-of-nine games (he “opted-out” in the month between FSU’s penultimate game in mid-November and its finale against Duke in mid-December), Samuel finished tops in the class with a 46.2 NFL passer rating allowed on targets.

Samuel Jr.’s barrier of entry at the next level is something he can’t do anything about -- lack of height, weight, strength and length in an athletic package that is very good, but not elite. Samuel plays as though unaware of his size. Willing in run support and a reliable bet to immediately drop any receiver with the temerity to make a catch on him, Samuel converted a solid 87.2% of the 100-plus tackle chances he got at FSU.

Blender-quick feet and the best agility — observationally and anecdotally — of the top-5 corners in this class. Where Surtain and Horn ducked the agility drills, Samuel followed up a 4.41 forty with an 83rd-percentile RAS shuttle (4.09) and a 56th-percentile 3-cone (6.98).

Scrappy, aggressive corner that makes up for lack of size with a coverage style like an overturned nest of bees. No receiver across from him gets any freebies: Samuel surrendered a mere 51.3% completions in college, per PFF.

Even when receivers opened up throwing windows on him in-route, Samuel was generally right there at the catch point. Samuel, the hive of ticked-off bees, swarms the ball. On 137 career targets, he defended 29 passes and picked off four more. Best fit is in off-coverage, either man or zone.

Because of his agility, speed, ball skills and technique, Samuel absolutely could hang on the boundary in the NFL ala Jaire Alexander, a 5-foot-10 corner with a similar game (Alexander has 15 pounds on Samuel).

If it turns out Samuel can’t, it’ll be because big, strong outside receivers give him fits by playing with a beekeeper suit, shrugging off his buzzy aggression and shutting the bees outside the screen door at the catch point. High-floor prospect who'll be an above-average starting slot if he can't swing the boundary.

6. Elijah Molden (Washington) | 5'9/192

Comp: Antoine Winfield Jr.

RAS: 4.64

If you’re counting at home, Elijah is the fourth member of our top-6 CBs with a retired NFL veteran for a father (former first-rounder and eight-year vet Alex Molden). A four-star recruit that turned into a two-year starter for the Huskies at nickel, Elijah boasts the reflexes and agility of a cat. 

But in the same way cats can lose foot races to dogs if they don’t find a tree to run up or space to evade, Molden’s lack of size and wheels render NFL boundary work a non-starter. 

In his one full-year as starter in 2019 — he was a heavily-used reserve his first two seasons but only started two games, and Washington only played a four-game season in 2020 — Molden earned first-team All-Pac-12 honors. Over 13 starts that season, Molden was a menace, leading the Huskies with 79 tackles and three forced fumbles (at sub-190 pounds!) while intercepting four balls and breaking up 13 more.

Molden's 4.58 40-yard dash (RAS 37th percentile) at his pro day wasn’t a surprise, but did confirm the small/slow narrative. Interestingly, Molden elected to do the jumps but not the agility drills. His jumps, both better than the 71st percentile, impressed.

Perhaps, he figured: Why risk the 3-cone or shuttle when my agility is the one thing about my athletic profile that isn’t under interrogation? Personally, I would have, but I have the armchair gig. Worth noting that Molden ran a stellar 6.68 3-cone at the Husky Combine in the spring of 2018.

Molden’s loose hips and joystick agility keep him affixed in man coverage. In zone, you get to see the explosion seen in his pro day jumps when he drives back to balls to make it a two-man party at the catch point. Zone is also where you see more obvious examples of the cleverness he plays with. 

Molden is absolutely getting his hands on the ball if you make a mistake while targeting him with your accuracy or situational-read. He defended 19 balls and picked off five over 17 starts the last two years.

A see-things-before-they-happen diagnostic machine that extrapolates information very quickly and acts upon it with conviction, Molden is also just a brainiac in general, a finalist for the so-called “Academic Heisman” (William V. Campbell Trophy) as a senior.

He is small, sure. Defiantly so, flipping into YOLO attack mode when it’s time to come downhill. Incredibly, for a player his size, he’s not only extremely active against the run, but shockingly reliable when he gets home, with a mere 22 missed tackles over 172 career attempts, per PFF (that's a strong 12.8% career missed tackle rate at heavy volume). Plus-plus special teamer all four years at Washington, bringing that bonus skillset with him.

Molden’s lack of length and strength is only truly detrimental in coverage interactions with bigger targets, who at the catch point can put their hands on his head as he helplessly flails the air like a bullied younger sibling. The NFL’s few slot mutants could give him issues downfield, a concern that would be mitigated by a zone-scheme, ala his collegiate situation in Seattle.

Molden told reporters at his pro day that NFL teams have exclusively discussed a “slot slash safety” usage plan with him. Which of course they have. Those were the roles Molden played with aplomb in college, and his athletic profile, while nullifying a future on the outside in the pros, does no such thing in those roles.

NFL.com guru Lance Zierlein slapped an extremely aggressive comp of Tyrann Mathieu on Molden, high-praise indeed. I’m not quite as bullish. But I see Molden existing in the same line of continuum, just a bit further down.

Molden reminds me of a slightly less athletic version of another recent prospect with a long-time NFL veteran CB father, Antoine Winfield Jr.. At Minnesota, Winfield was used in a similar but inverted, a base safety with slot duties. Both are Deep Blue-level processors of the field from either post. 

7. Paulson Adebo (Stanford) | 6'1/198

Comp: A.J. Terrell

RAS: 9.56

Adebo was a first-team All Pac-12 honoree in both his seasons starting at Stanford, 2018-19, before opting out in 2020. Over those two campaigns, he had enormous ball production, with 27 passes defended and eight interceptions. Adebo tied for college football’s lead with 24 plays on the ball in 2018, earning an elite 90-plus PFF coverage grade. 

With a sleek, stretched-out frame like a limousine and a turbo-charged, zero-to-60-in-a-flash athletic package, Adebo’s style on the field is less the luxury of the former, more the I-live-life-a-quarter-mile-at-a-time ethos of the latter, attacking balls in the air as though reunited with a lover after years apart. A high school receiver with the wingspan of an eagle, he actually has the temerity to believe those balls belong to him.

Adebo’s hype train got rolling less than a month into his redshirt freshman season, on September 23, 2018 against Oregon. Ducks QB Justin Herbert, who would go on to win the NFL Rookie of the Year award two years later, was out-of-his-mind unconscious that day, one of Herbert's singularly-most impressive collegiate performances.

Herbert went 25-of-27 for 331 yards in regulation. His Oregon teammates conspired against him to force overtime anyway, a TD pass that would have made it 30-7 Ducks wiped out on review, followed by a terrible shotgun snap scooped-and-scored for an 80-yard Stanford TD, followed by a critical CJ Verdell fumble, followed by the predictable accompanying Oregon defensive collapse. 

Anyhoo, that was Fate of the Gods divine intervention stuff, Oregon’s epic meltdown to compromise a win during Justin Herbert’s finest hour. It was done, it seems clear in hindsight, to afford a fifth-stanza platform for a player on the other side who also showed up in God Mode. That development wasn’t fully appreciated during Herbert’s laser show the first four quarters, but was about to be.

Adebo had broken up one of Herbert’s two incompletions during regulation. He wasn’t close to done. During Oregon’s drive in overtime, Herbert made the mistake of targeting Adebo thrice more, and Adebo got his hands on all three balls, quadrupling his breakup total for the game to bring him, at that juncture, to an FBS-leading 11

Herbert, by this point long sick of Adebo sprinkling black ink on his portrait -- having spent most of that afternoon peppering targets away from Adebo, most to Dillon Mitchell (14 catches for 239 yards) -- may have had the thought, following Adebo's third OT breakup, that the only way he could survive this incredibly sticky situation his teammates and Paulson Adebo had gotten him into was to, you know, avoid Paulson Adebo as a matter of course.

That must have been a freeing decision, up until Herbert’s next pass, his last of the game, it turned out, an aggressive shot into the end zone away from Adebo and towards nondescript fifth-year cornerback Alameen Murphy. Overly aggressive, it turns out. Herbert’s only mistake-ball that day was picked off by Murphy, ending the game.

I hear Adebo had a “down” 2019, and I sort of roll my eyes — that season he made 18 plays on the ball, similarly intercepting four passes, with an 80-plus PFF coverage. Paulson Adebo was really, really good in 2019 — just not elite, as he’d been the year before. 

It’s the reason he decided to return to campus in 2020, an interesting gamble-on-myself decision that became ill-fated quickly in a way I guarantee you he didn’t see coming despite assuredly having spent months doing mental calculations, a 100-year pandemic ripping across Earth in the months following his announcement. Adebo, at this point no-doubt in a state of buyer’s remorse, opted out for the 2020 season.

Here's what happened in 2019. Teams picked up on Adebo’s ludicrously-aggressive approach to breaking on balls and turned his special sauce against him. As in baseball when it’s learned a slugger can’t hit curveballs, Adebo started to get a heavy dose of double-moves.

Exacerbating the issue early in the 2019 season, Adebo may have been doubling-down on the aggression in an attempt to replicate his absurd 2018 debut. This set him up to be the foil in a sort of bizarro-option pass play eventually attempted in some variation by every team he faced that season.

Quarterbacks had a first read of a potential freebie throw downfield to an open receiver if Adebo sprung forward to take the candy off a fake-stop and choreographed pump fake. If he didn't, a pair of secondary options closer to the line of scrimmage on the other side of the field acted as checkdown options.

Devious micro-attack strategy when your offensive line held — a secondary option typically was open for the short completion, if nothing else, a side-benefit of the shenanigans going on on the other side of the field (time permitting, of course).

Fool him once, shame on you. Fool him twice? Adebo didn't want to get burned again. He began easing the grip of his itchy jump-the-route trigger-finger. This began a very important evolutionary period for his game. Adebo’s swing-from-the-heels routine wasn’t going to fly long-term in the NFL anyway. In the pros, you must not only keep risks to the calculated variety, but be right. 

Though he ended up giving up two more touchdowns (three) than the had the year before, on a higher percentage of completions (69.7% to 61.8% in 2018), at the micro level, Adebo had taken his first steps down the path to potential enlightenment. Which in this case means keeping as many of the explosive, field-flipping plays as possible while eliminating instances of opponents flipping the script for the explosive play.

Adebo was seen a surefire first-round prospect in 2018 and 2019. But whereas the Angel of Draft Stock Death did not visit some of his contemporaries who opted out in 2020, it found Adebo’s door. Instead of Adebo getting the chance, in 2020, to find that nirvana sweet-middle style that would not only lead to superstardom, but a sustainable model for keeping him there, without the high-variance blips seen in his 2019 film catalogue, Adebo saw his stock begin to steadily fall in the court of public opinion.

Adebo stopped some of the bleeding at his electric pro day workout, putting up a *legitimate* 9.55 RAS composite score that included the full gauntlet of tests. Measuring in at the 91st percentile for height and the 82nd for weight, Adebo dropped a 4.45 forty (85th percentile) and a stupefying 6.69 3-cone (95th percentile). His two jumps and his short shuttle all fell between the 58th and 77th percentile. In composite, the profile is a 95th-percentile size-adjusted athlete.

But curiously, the performance, even from a high-end four-star recruit that can put his two seasons in the starting lineup against the best two seasons of most any corner in this class, merely stabilized his stock just outside the top-10 consensus corners.

I absolutely acknowledge the risk — and will further state that Adebo has less rope than some other prospects in this class, because he must make it as a boundary corner, no place to move his skillset if it flames out there. But the upside here is enormous.

In addition to finding that elusive I-am-water balance, it would also be nice to see Adebo improve in some finer-point areas of his craft, such as tackling, playing with better leverage, and bringing some of his amped-up aggression for the ball to his jamming duties at the line of scrimmage. Improvements in all those areas along with a self-actualized Adebo, that’s an NFL star, a game-changer. 

There’s a risk Adebo never finds harmony, and that he misses too many tackles and keeps playing too high. There’s a risk that he fails outright. But those odds aren’t higher than him hitting, and even the middle-range outcome here will net a long-term starting outside NFL corner. Paulson Adebo’s being slept on, folks.

8. Eric Stokes (Georgia) | 6'1/194

Comp: Sidney Jones

RAS: 9.37

An alluring size/speed/athleticism Day 2 proposition, Stokes was a local three-star prospect made good that turned into a two-year starter at Georgia. Stokes flew a little under recruiting sites’ radars coming out of the prep ranks because he didn’t play corner until his senior year (RB/WR before that).

But recruiters that looked into him at any depth knew he was an incredible athlete, a Georgia prep state champion sprinter. The Bulldogs took a developmental stab, and they had to fend off Florida and Ole Miss for the right as interest in molding Stokes’ athletic traits intensified.

Georgia used Stokes’ redshirt year as a 101-level educational seminar, and it turned out he was a quick study (today, UGA staffers rave about Stokes' work athlete to anyone who'll listen). 

Stokes defended 26 balls, picking off four more over the next three seasons. He returned two interceptions for touchdowns in 2020, a year ending in second-team All-SEC honors. Second-team felt light for a guy who held receivers to one-half of one yard per coverage snap over the entire campaign, per PFF.

Stokes then went to Georgia’s pro day and did what comes naturally, which is to dominate on the track. He dropped jaws with a 4.25 forty and added a 38.5-inch vertical, 10’03" broad and 6.9 3-cone that were all better than RAS size-adjusted 70th-percentile.

Athleticism remains the most striking element of his game, speed all day to carry any vertical route to term. Playing with natural leverage and in possession of hula-girl hips and tap-dancer feet, Stokes has jarring change-of-direction chops to stay glued out of breaks. 

Georgia weaponized Stokes’ length and speed in over 400 press coverage snaps the past two seasons. The only issue with a smooth projection in that area to the next level delves into Stokes’ Achilles' heel: A lack of muscle and play strength.

In college, you mostly saw the manifestations of this in the run game, where Stokes is all-to-happy to get tied up with his man, safely away from big collisions. Stokes will remain a bad run defender at the next level, but say this for him: If he gives up a completion, he’s making a quick tackle. Stokes missed only five attempts over three years, with a minuscule 5.6% career missed tackle rate (the necessary caveat being that he mostly avoided the difficult ones against the run). 

His reliability in that area in conjunction with his awkwardness turning and locating with his back to the ball downfield might make zone coverage Stokes' best fit at the next level. But he’ll remain pesky in press-man if it turns out the quick, accurate, low-wattage jab that worked fine in the SEC is viable in the NFL.

9. Aaron Robinson (UCF) | 5'11/186

Comp: DJ Hayden

RAS: 8.36

The Alabama Crimson Tide stole a gem of a player from the state of Florida when it convinced FSU OL Landon Dickerson to transfer to Tuscaloosa after three seasons in Tallahassee. The state of Florida, specifically UCF, returned the favor when it welcomed home Aaron Robinson after the high-upside, sought-after three-star recruit from Deerfield Beach spent his true freshman season as a little-used reserve on the Alabama Crimson Tide. 

Robinson played alongside Jerry Jeudy for two seasons in high school. Ironically, as Robinson was moving back to Florida after the 2016 season, Jeudy was passing him north-bound on the highway headed toward Tuscaloosa, where he was one of the Tide’s prized 2017 signees.

Robinson, the cousin of former Michigan QB and four-year NFL vet Denard “Shoelace” Robinson, became a two-year starter at UCF, earning All-AAC honors both seasons. He's a sleek athlete on par with what you’d expect on, well, Alabama's roster.

Robinson blazed a 4.39 forty at his pro day workout and posted 70th-percentile or above showings in the vertical, broad and 3-cone. Robinson’s athleticism allowed UCF to use him both in the slot and on the boundary, sometimes in the same series. The Knights found that Robinson’s feisty style translated to outside press-man reps.

A willing and aggressive run-defender, Robinson cleaned up his tackling issues in 2020, missing only two after botching 14 in 2019 (on only 10 fewer attempts). Over his two years as starter, Robinson showed a similar Johnny-on-the-spot bent at the catch point, consistently getting his mitts on the ball, defending 20 balls over 22 appearances at UCF. 

The biggest issue with Robinson is his propensity to bite on fakes and inability to anticipate receiver’s intentions in general. The former issue, if uncorrected, is, in circumstances without deep help, going to lead to home run balls in the NFL.

The latter is more of a thousand-paper-cut manifestation, with Robinson, for instance, a beat late to slam on the breaks and accelerate towards the ball on a comeback or ceding a step or two on in-breaking routes to athletes with strong feet or agility.  Those are the two primary risk factors in the on-field profile, and, since Robinson is already 24, time is ticking for the mental side of his game to make up ground on his physical gifts.

Robinson’s game smoothly translates to the slot in the NFL, where he won’t be as exposed to deep stuff, and where he can get a little closer to the ball at the line of scrimmage to scrap it up in the run game. If his instincts and technique improve, there's also a chance he could swing long-term starting outside duties. 

10. Tyson Campbell (Georgia) | 6'1/193

Comp: Xavier Rhodes

RAS: 7.51

Campbell’s father was not a long-time NFL standout, like four prospects above him on this list. But in high school Campbell played for one (Patrick Surtain Sr.) and with one (Patrick Surtain II) at American Heritage School (Plantation, Fla.).

Campbell doubled as a track state-champ in the 100- and 200-meter dashes before becoming a three-year starter at Georgia. He showed off those wheels at his pro day, running a 4.4 forty. Campbell had a strong workout outside of the agility drills, which he bombed (sub-30th percentile on both).

This was a somewhat surprising development because of the smoothness of Campbell’s hip-flip and footwork on tape. Then again, the same film revealed a lethargic stop-start bent pushing back to balls on curls and comebacks. Similarly, sporadic instances of tangled feet mirroring high-end agility movement in space.

A tall, well-built corner with long arms and long speed, Campbell comes with an intriguing press-man starter kick. Though he categorically lacks Pat Surtain’s technique, smoothness and know-how in this area, Campbell has shown a knack for Surtain’s funnel game off the snap, directing traffic where he wants it moving.

Cleverly cuts off space ramming receivers against the sidelines in footraces like a car threatening to bump another off the road in a high-speed chase. Puts himself in good situations but has regrettable lack of feel for ball-tracking, which in some instances can erase all gains and gift opponent socially-distanced downfield catch-point opportunities. 

With this blend of athleticism and length, Campbell is shockingly bad in jump-ball situations. Regards ball like a pimple-faced nerd regards the prettiest girl at the dance, nervously, awkwardly, equally unsure what to do with his hands, invariably wasted in these situations like withered fruit on long, barren vines. One interception and 11 breakups over 33 games and 93 targets, legitimately troubling lack of ball production.

Campbell gets pushed around by receivers who get their hands on him in the run game, and his desire to pitch-in comes and goes. But he’s plenty willing to use that big tackling radius after allowing a completion and rarely misses, converting 62-of-67 career tackle attempts in coverage.

The package is an expensive sports car, a sexy machine that breaks down too often. If deficiencies in Campbell’s game aren't addressed, he can’t be left in man coverage. By extension I'm saying I couldn't draft him unless I ran zone. Too much risk he's unplayable early otherwise.

In a Cover 3, Campbell’s strengths would play up (tackling what’s completed in front of him, ability to press and match vertical stems, et all) while some weaknesses (like the clunky transitions) would be mitigated. 

But even used just in that way, Campbell's instincts must improve to mitigate lack of explosive burst to contest on routes breaking back towards ball (i.e., first step half-beat earlier would really help).

And Campbell simply must improve the way he plays the ball. That's an area his NFL position coach will have to build from the ground up. Campbell was targeted more often than you'd assume in Athens, and that’s going to intensify in the NFL until he proves he can get hands on balls. Because until then, with little risk for turnover, why not throw at him?

Classic high-risk, high-reward Day 2 prospect that gets overdrafted the last Friday night of April by a corner-needy team shooting the moon on ceiling after failing to address the position with a sure-thing the night before.

Best of the rest...

11. Kelvin Joseph (Kentucky) | 6’0/197 | RAS: 9.02 

12. Ifeatu Melifonwu (Syracuse) | 6’2/205 | RAS: 9.69

13. Ambry Thomas (Michigan) | 6'0/191 | RAS: 8.97 

14. Trill Williams (Syracuse) | 6'2/195 | RAS: 7.69

15. Robert Rochell (Central Arkansas) | 6'0/193 | RAS: N/A

16. Benjamin St-Juste (Minnesota) | 6'3/202 | RAS: 8.11

17. Camryn Bynum (California) | 6'0/196 | RAS: 7.8

18. Tre Brown (Oklahoma  ) | 5'10/185 | RAS: 6.35

19. Marco Wilson (Florida) | 6'0/191 | RAS: 9.99

20. Thomas Graham Jr. (Oregon) | 5'10/192 | RAS: N/A

21. Darren Hall (San Diego State) | 5'11/188 | RAS: 8.02

22. Israel Mukuamu (South Carolina) | 6'4/212 | RAS: N/A 

23. Shakur Brown (Michigan State) | 5'10/185 | RAS:2.72

24. Shaun Wade (Ohio State) | 6'1/196 | RAS: N/A

25. Rodarius Williams (Oklahoma State) | 6'0/189 | RAS: 8.13

26. Olaijah Griffin (USC) | 5'11/176 | RAS: N/A

27. Keith Taylor (Washington) | 6'2/187 | RAS: 6.53

28. Tay Gowan (UCF) | 6'1/186 | RAS: 7.65

29. Kary Vincent Jr. (LSU) | 5’10/185 | RAS: N/A

30. Rachad Wildgoose (Wisconsin) | 5'10/191 | RAS: 7.18

31. Bryan Mills (North Carolina Central) | 6'1/174 | RAS: 5.18

32. Deommodore Lenoir (Oregon) | 5'10/199 | RAS: 7.58

33. Brandon Stephens (SMU) | 6'0/213 | RAS: 9.2

34. Brandin Echols (Kentucky) | 5'10/179 | RAS: 9.15

35. DJ Daniel (Georgia) | 6'0/195 | RAS: N/A

36. Chris Wilcox (BYU) | 6'2/198 | RAS: 8.79

37. Bryce Thompson (Tennessee) | 5'11/182 | RAS: 3.13

38. Jason Pinnock (Pittsburgh) | 6'0/204 | RAS: 9.78

39. Zech McPhearson (Texas Tech) | 5'11/195 | RAS: N/A

40. Michael Carter II (Duke) | 5’10/184 | RAS: 5.71

Check out the rest of our 2021 NFL Draft breakdowns here:

Thor Nystrom

Thor Nystrom is NBC Sports Edge’s lead CFB writer. The 2018 FSWA College Sports Writer of the Year, Nystrom’s writing has also been honored by Rolling Stone magazine and The Best American Essays series. Say hi to him on Twitter @thorku!