“The Amateur Ward:” Ballhawking Machines on the Rise
We now turn to Part 2 of our defensive rookie roundup rankings: safeties and cornerbacks. In general, safeties score more points than corners in fantasy leagues. But leagues that give extra value to corners for passes defensed (PDs) even the score some, as there are some corners out there that will collect a good deal of PDs in addition to interceptions. Let us look at one case in particular from last season: Marcus Peters (KC), who registered 8 picks (tied for league lead with Reggie Nelson) and a whopping 26 passes defensed, which led the league. That’s bound to be a top rated corner in any league, even those not counting passes defensed, and in those leagues that did count PDs, he outscored most top safeties. He was not the only rookie last season to be a huge fantasy asset from the corner position. Ronald Darby also put up an astounding 21 passes defensed and 68 tackles. See the trend? Yep, corners that pick off passes and are elite in the passes defensed category are fantasy gold. Safeties make their game out of pretty much knocking players on the turf, defending against the run and reading routes as they generally play deeper than corners, especially strong safeties who flat out light fools up like Kam Chancellor.
This year’s crop of safeties and corners is deeper than in past season’s drafts. But it is very top heavy with the elite talents. With that being said, there are a nice number of impact defensive backs, and these are the top guys fantasy owners should pay attention to on Draft Day.
1.) Jalen Ramsey (CB-JAX)- It is not often that a rookie corner has an opportunity to be a CB1 immediately, but Ramsey will join those ranks as he was by far the best corner in the draft. He will step in immediately and play corner, but he can play basically everywhere. He will be used in press and Cover 3 schemes, where he will play deep and contest both at the point of release and catch with receivers. He reads the ball phenomenally well, but doesn’t pick off as many passes as he could have. Think of Ramsey as the Jaguars’ version of Richard Sherman. Yes, he has all the makings to be a shutdown corner. When he is not in press coverage, he will be allowed to roam free and help in the run game and use his athleticism and physical play style to lower the boom. This may only be a small sample size, but during his college career, he allowed a completion rate of a measly 38.5 percent. Looking at the player and team, this is the perfect match, and he should be considered a CB1 from Day 1 in all fantasy formats.
2.) Keanu Neal (S-ATL)- Neal may have been a reach, but the Falcons needed a safety as their secondary is among the league’s worst and their front seven isn’t much better. Dan Quinn and company know what they are getting with Neal, and it is a ballhawk who is gonna lay runningbacks and receivers out…cold as soon as they touch the ball. He has nice cover skills and does not get fooled often. Always around the ball, Quinn could line him anywhere on the field and he would make plays. Quinn envisions Neal as a Chancellor-type safety, and if turns out to be that, opposing offensive players might think twice before crossing his path as he can cover the entire field with ease and is the complete package at safety. Strong S2 play in most leagues.
3.) Karl Joseph (S-OAK)- Another huge hitting safety, Joseph drew high praise from Charles Woodson upon being drafted by Oakland. Had it not been for a freak ACL injury during practice in October, Neal could have gone higher than 14 to Oakland. In the first four games of the season, he had 5 picks and was laying the lumber quicker than lumberjacks. While there is concern he could miss up to the first six games of the season, once he steps onto the field, game on. The Raiders are on the rise, and with Mack and that defensive line looking nastier with free agent addition Bruce Irvin, Joseph will be able to do what he does best, play man, be a factor in the run game, and jar balls loose. RaiderNation has a potential stud their hands and he could be the next Charles Woodson for them. He is not as big as Neal, but he is every bit as instinctual and could lead all safeties in picks his rookie season.
4.) Vernon Hargreaves III (CB-TB)- Hargreaves had the best feet of any corner in the draft, the problem is he plays over-aggressively at times and can be baited and overpowered by bigger, more physical receivers. Hargreaves should be able to step in immediately and be a major factor in the pass game on a unit that was middling in the league last season. Initially, Tampa Bay will use him as their nickel corner, which will allow him to use his quickness inside to cover slot receivers and then transition him outside in games, depending on the situation. He has superior press and zone coverage skills and fights for the ball at its high point. He needs to bulk up a bit and work on his ability to read plays and not be fooled. But he is a sound tackler and a player who could develop into an all-pro corner. He may never be a shutdown corner, but he will be one who can pick off passes at an elite clip and be a force wherever he plays, whether it’s in nickel packages, or outside.
5.) Mackensie Alexander (CB-MIN)- Watching him play reminds some of Desmond Trufant: he’s a bit undersized for a corner, but he is a fierce competitor and will always fight for the ball. His coverage and ball skills are elite. Versus him, he allowed 0 touchdowns and took Sterling Shepard completely out of the game in the playoff game. He was originally redshirted his freshman year due to a groin injury. But when he finally got on the field, he flat out dominated opposing receivers. He did not register an interception during his time at Clemson,. But that just goes to show how fearful opponents were of him. He can sometimes get in trouble off the line, but reads opposing receivers’ routes well and can play man. With time, he will learn to play the ball more and not just off the receiver. He is an elite talent and could be a sneaky source of passes defensed.
6.) William Jackson III (CB-CIN)- Some argued that Jackson III was the best corner in the draft, but now he enters a muddied situation with corners Dre Kirpatrick, Adam Jones and Darqueze Dennard. As it appears now, Jackson will be one of the top three corners for Cincy, a defense that plays a lot of Cover 2 and occasional Cover 3 schemes. That means they rotate players a ton on the defensive line, rush four and drop 7 into coverage. Jackson is a very instinctual, tall corner who turns his find to find the ball then make plays on the ball. He attacks the ball and led the FBS in pass breakups last season. He may come out of the game more versus run heavy teams because he has negative value in run support. Overall, he should be an immediate contributor, but could be exploited if he does not improve his physicality and press play as a more physical receiver could knock him around.
This is where the gap between the elite and the chances to be good-well above average starts.
7.) Artie Burns (CB-PITT)- Burns is going to be a work-in-progress for the Steelers, but he is an aggressive player who can play plays at a moment’s notice and bait quarterbacks into poor throws. Also, he gets his hands on a ton of passes–he had six picks last season in a corner rotation in Miami. CThe Steelers ran a lot of zone coverage last season. That means their corners relied on reading the quarterbacks’ eyes, as opposed to the receivers’ eyes (man coverage). Burns, who possess elite speed, should be able to adapt to a zone scheme because he plays the ball and can adapt to plays on the fly. He will need to watch the trash talking, but he has makings of a nightmare for the AFC North for years to come and will be an instant help on a Steelers unit that was horrendous versus the pass last season, finishing 30th in passing and receiving defense last season.
8.) Vonn Bell (S-N.O.)- Bell makes sense for the Saints as they need all the defensive help they can get, and someone who can create turnovers. He is not overtly physical as he is a drag down safety, but he holds his own very well in man coverage and is always around the ball with his elite play reading skills. Starting from Day One, Bell will be placed in coverage for the Saints where he will look to read the quarterback and compete for the ball at its highest point and will challenge Jairus Byrd for playing time, who has been a bust since coming over from Buffalo. The main thing he will need to do, however, is establish himself as the Saints free safety of the future as he currently lacks the traits to take on running backs and bigger tight ends once they have the ball.
9.) Xavien Howard (CB-MIA)- He will need time to develop this offseason, but Howard is very physical in press coverage and wants the ball every time he sees it. He turns his head and reacts to the ball quickly, and fights and scrapes with receivers for the ball. He lacks long speed, which allows receivers to burn him once they disengage. He must also work on not using hands so much as he drew a ton of penalties due to his lack of recovery speed. The Dolphins currently have him penciled in as starting opposite Byron Maxwell. But they need to improve Howard’s ability to stay with receivers, overall technique and vulnerability to get beat once receivers get past him, or he could see a ton of balls his way and a ton of TDs versus him.
10.) Kendall Fuller (CB-WSH)- Kendall is the fourth Fuller brother to attend Va Tech and play in the NFL. His immediate older brother Kyle Fuller is a damn fine corner for the Bears, while another older brother, Corey plays backup receiver for the Lions. Kendall looks to be the best of the four as he is the most talented and possesses the best ball skills. An instinctual corner who reads the quarterback, he is waiting to feast on errant throws or force quarterbacks into trap passes. He can hold his own in coverage, although he can get beat over the top if he does not does not find the ball quickly. While he lacks recovery speed, his elite ball skills and ability to contribute in the run game make him an impact player for the Redskins and a name fantasy owners should keep an eye on as he will challenge for snaps in the slot early on and should start over the likes of Blackmon and Toler. Of course, playing in the same secondary as Josh Norman can only improve your chances at getting targeted as no one throws at Norman: a shutdown corner.
11.) Miles Killebrew (S-DET)- This is one safety you do not want to get hit by as he wants to break your ribs and is a mean tackler. That sums up what Killebrew is, a safety who hits harder than some linebackers. Playing wise, the Lions need his physicality as they got absolutely abused in the second and third levels of their defense last season. He reminds me of Deone Buchannon, whom the Cardinals used as a hybrid safety-linebacker in 2015 to help against running backs and more physical receivers. With supposed 4.43 40 speed, he has the speed to play safety, but needs that to translate to the game. The major knock on him is he needs to improve his instincts, which currently leave him vulnerable in coverage. Given the porous nature of the Lions secondary, there should be no concern over his playing time as he will be on the field as an enforcer and will make the highlight reels with abusive hits.
12.) Eli Apple (CB-NYG)- Let us not sugarcoat this: Giants defense was pretty much the league hoe last season, finishing last in total defense. Bringing in a rangy, tall, physical corner makes sense for the team as “Big Apple” Apple has all the makings of a starting corner in the NFL. He plays the ball out of the air, knows his assignments and stays on contain. On the downside, he also tends to grab at receivers, receiving too many penalties and does not always use his frame to finish plays. Make no mistake about it though, he is a player and corner who can shutdown opposing receivers if he improves his hand usage and rely on his ability to play the ball and read routes. Could be a work-in-progress in season one, but is worth a look in dynasty leagues. Playing time could be intermittent in his rookie season.
Sleepers: T.J. Green (S-Colts), Darian Thompson (S-Giants), Cyrus Jones (CB-N.E.)
Thanks for tuning in for all these individual defensive rookie rankings, and look for more fantastic football advice from us here at Major League fantasy Sports where we do not bullshit around when it comes to sports. If you need more advice on rookie defensive players, throw me a question at email@example.com, or leave it here on the post.
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