The 2023 NFL Combine is underway, with the first prospects arriving in their positional groups on Monday. Over the first few days, players will get medical checks, meet with NFL teams, and take the podium to answer questions from the media. Then on Thursday, March 2, the league will start four days of televised coverage of on-field drills.
This is the latest in a series of articles that will explore the participants at this year’s combine that the Detroit Lions should be keeping a close eye on during positional activities. If you missed any of our previous installments, check them out here: Quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, tight ends, offensive linemen, interior defensive linemen, edge rushers, and linebackers.
Next up: Cornerbacks
Everything is on the table for the Lions at cornerback this year. They could use a player to challenge to start on the outside, another to start at nickel, and depth overall is needed as well. Detroit could easily take their approach to drafting edge rushers in 2022 and apply it to defensive backs in 2023: draft two in the top 50 and add a third on Day 3 for good measure.
What to watch for
Cornerback drills at the Combine are meant to be revealing and there are several that can project which prospects will be best suited on the outside, or inside, or would benefit from a switch to the safety position.
For the corner safety debate, watch a player's hips during transitions. Corners have little wasted movement, while safeties tend to have a hitch. Man cover corners tend to perform best in the “backpedal and react” drill, which highlights this skill. While the “W” drill focuses on rapid change of direction in tight windows and corners that thrive here tend to be great nickel options.
In general, a corner's hips tell the story. Balance, fluidity, quickness, and acceleration all start with the hips. Also, keep an eye on where they’re looking and if they have natural hands in passing drills.
Now, on to the prospects.
The perfect fit
Devon Witherspoon, CB, Illinois, 6-foot-0, 183
Instinctive cover corner who is sticky in coverage and will lay the wood when making tackles. His ability to read-diagnose-react to a play is elite and it shows up when he makes a play on the ball or when blowing up a play. He can operate in press man and zone concepts, with little variation in his skill set. Witherspoon’s grit and toughness are the icing on the cake to his already impressive game. When he delivers a hit, he not only wants you to feel it, he wants you to know he’s the one who delivered it.
Christian Gonzalez, CB, Oregon, 6-foot-2, 200
Gonzalez's sister is Olympic hurdler Melissa Gonzalez—wife of former Lions QB David Blough—and elite athleticism must run in the family because Christian has an impressive skill set. Size, length, speed, fluidity, closing ability, and ball instincts are all in Gonzalez’s toolkit, which will make him a highly coveted corner. His only weakness is his run defense, as he is slow to react and needs to improve his tackling form. That won’t be an issue for some teams, but the Lions will likely want to figure out if that is correctable. If it is, he could be a top five option on their board.
Joey Porter Jr. CB, Penn State, 6-foot-2, 200
Another highly athletic prospect with familial ties to sports, Porter is the son of Joey Porter Sr. who played linebacker for the Steelers. One of Porter’s biggest obstacles in the Lions scheme is that he allows too many free releases, relying on his athleticism to disrupt the receivers' routes. These off-coverages can lead to penalties when Porter is faced with an athletic counterpart, which he will see on a weekly basis in the NFL. The question the Lions will want to be answered is: is Penn State’s scheme to blame or is this a preferred style?
The safest defensive back in this class
Brian Branch, NB/S, Alabama, 6-foot-0, 195
Branch will be a safety on some teams' boards, but for the Lions, he seems like a natural fit for their slot DB role (previously occupied by Will Harris). Highly intelligent and instinctive, Branch can cover all offensive skill players in routes and is fearless enough to step up and fill run fits. He plays with fearlessness and isn’t afraid to take on players who are much bigger than him. Arguably the cleanest defensive back in this class, Branch is a top five defensive player, but his off-the-ball role will impact his draft stock and he will likely see his value land somewhere in the teens of the first round.
Day 2 options hoping to get into Round 1
Deonte Banks, CB, Maryland, 6-foot-2, 205
Projected to be an underrated athletic tester at the Combine, Banks is an impressive physical corner in both body type and play style. If he were quicker to react during routes, he might have been in the conversation with Gonzalez and Porter.
Kelee Ringo, CB, Georgia, 6-foot-2, 210
While people are focused on Ringo’s struggles down the stretch in 2022, his elite speed and athleticism are being overlooked. If he tests well at the Combine, as expected, he could vault his name back into the first round, but if he can’t flip his hips with fluidity during drills, he may not come off the board until Day 2.
Emmanuel Forbes, CB, Mississippi State, 6-foot-0, 180
Forbes and Witherspoon will likely check in around the same height and weight, but they have very different body types, as Forbes’ length and skinny legs work like an optical illusion that he is taller than he is. Despite being incredibly thin, Forbes has a nose for the football and is very instinctual in coverage, but his ability to help as a run defender is limited.
Clark Phillips III, CB/NB, Utah, 5-foot-10, 185
An inside/outside option with a nose for the football, Phillips understands what the offense is trying to accomplish and uses great instincts and intelligence to make plays. He’s comfortable playing in press and working through congestion, which is why he may end up being at his best in the slot at the next level. If the Lions miss on Branch, Phillips may be the next best option as a plug-and-play nickel.
At the Senior Bowl, Lions assistant linebackers coach Shaun Dion Hamilton was fortunate to be able to coach the cornerbacks on the American roster. Through this opportunity, Hamilton got an up-close look at some very intriguing prospects.
Tyrique Stevenson, CB, Miami, 6-foot-0, 204
Arguably the best corner in Mobile, Stevenson saw his stock rise with an impressive week of practices and looks firmly like a Day 2—and maybe Round 2—prospect. He both looks and plays big and isn’t afraid to mix it up with even the biggest of receivers. Right now, he is limited to press man only and will need to work on expanding his comfort in zone coverage in order to be considered a complete, starting prospect.
Darius Rush, CB, South Carolina, 6-foot-2, 196
Rush’s cornerback partner at South Carolina, Cam Smith, gets a lot of attention as a higher-rated prospect, but Rush has the physical tools to be a solid NFL corner as well. Big, long, and comfortable in press coverage, Rush has the size and experience the Lions prefer at the position. Right now, his stock is a bit all over the place, but if he can show better acceleration and hip fluidity at the Combine, he could see his value climb.
Julius Brents, CB, Kansas State, 6-foot-3, 202
Brents is even bigger and longer than Rush, but his skills translate better to Cover-3 concepts than press man. He still has press skills in his tool belt, and his ability to contribute in run support will be very appealing, but Brents is more of a projection at this point than someone who could walk into Allen Park ready to compete.
Rejzohn Wright, CB, Oregon State, 6-foot-2, 196
Big and strong, Wright uses his physicality to alter routes early in coverage but will need to improve his ability to stay in phase throughout the play. He has good instincts and footwork for man coverage, but he needs to clean up his penalties and improve his run support—which seems realistic considering his skill set.