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2023 NFL Draft rankings: The top-15 cornerbacks in this year’s class

The Detroit Lions are desperate for some long-term cornerback help, so we take a look at the top corners in the class, plus how they fit in an NFL scheme.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL NOV 19 Illinois at Michigan Photo by Joe Robbins/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Now that the NFL Combine has concluded and NFL free agency is in full swing, general manager Brad Holmes and the Detroit Lions have some holes to fill and some important decisions to make. One of those holes is at cornerback, where the Lions have had a ton of struggles the past couple of years.

On Monday, once legal tampering was off and running, Holmes made it a point to address the cornerback position as the Lions agreed to terms with former Steelers Cameron Sutton on a three-year, $33 million deal. On Tuesday, the Lions re-signed Will Harris to a one-year deal, as well as signing former 49ers cornerback Emmanuel Moseley to a one-year deal for a reported $6 million.

The Sutton signing is a big deal that has major roster implications, but if you ask me, it likely won’t change whether the Lions address corner early in the draft or not (they still should). If anything, it gives them the flexibility to look elsewhere and not have to panic about their corner room, and it also allows them the opportunity to draft a player and not have to rush them into things.

So we turn our attention to the 2023 NFL Draft. This year’s draft offers one of the deepest corner classes in recent memory, so don’t be surprised to see the Lions take one—maybe even two—near the top.

Here is a list of my favorite fits for the Lions at cornerback in this year’s class:

Tier 1 — In play at pick No. 6 overall

Devon Witherspoon (Illinois), 5-foot-11 12, 181 pounds

There might not be a single player in this draft that fits the Lions’ culture better than Witherspoon. You want grit? Witherspoon is grit on steroids. You want ball skills? He’s one of the best in the class at getting his hands on the football. How about confidence? He’ll be the first to tell you that he’s the best corner in the draft, and he might be right.

Witherspoon’s ability to knock the Sonic rings out of you is something to marvel at, especially at his size. He’s delivered plenty of massive hits, and he’s not afraid to do the dirty work in the run game either.

In man coverage, Witherspoon is a total nuisance, does well to stay in the hip pocket of his receiver, and consistently gives himself a chance to make a play on the ball. In zone, he has great instincts and elite click-and-close ability but is prone to getting a little over-aggressive at times.

The one thing that concerns me with Witherspoon is his frame. At 181 pounds, he’s in the 10th percentile of weight among all cornerbacks that have tested since 1999—you might not have guessed it from the way he throws his body around on tape.

How he fits: Put him anywhere in the secondary and he will succeed. Game-changing ability and All-Pro potential.

Round grade: Top-10 pick

Christian Gonzalez (Oregon), 6-foot-1, 197 pounds

Although Witherspoon might be the best fit for Detroit, Gonzalez, to me, is the best overall cornerback prospect in this draft. At the NFL Combine, Gonzalez put on a show, running an official 4.38 40-yard dash and posting one the highest RAS score among all corners in this year’s class.

Gonzalez has elite size and length and is as fluid as they come as a defensive back. He displays the ability to flip his hips and carry upfield without losing any speed and has impressive foot quickness and flexibility. He is extremely explosive out of his stance and when making a break on the ball, so it was no surprise to see him test well on the vertical and broad jump.

Though he is at his best as a man-coverage corner, Gonzalez is scheme-transcendent. With his skillset, athleticism, and knowledge of the game. There is no team that wouldn’t welcome him in with open arms.

Gonzalez doesn’t have the same violent nature as someone like Devon Witherspoon, but he is still plenty physical. I would like to see him do more in situations where he gets washed away from the play far too easily, and he could certainly clean up on his tackling technique and angles.

How he fits: Dominant press-man corner that can start on the outside Day 1 and completely shut down one side of the field. All-Pro potential.

Round grade: Top-10 pick

Tier 2 — Likely to go in the first round, but not at 6

Joey Porter Jr. (Penn State), 6-foot-2 12 , 193 pounds

Initially, I had not been as high on Porter Jr. as many others during the draft process. He is no doubt an impressive physical talent and plenty of teams are going to salivate over his size and stature, but the tape shows a lot of inconsistencies. I love the way he uses his hands to jam receivers on the boundary, and it feels like trying to complete the deep ball on him could be the plot of the next Mission Impossible movie. But I don’t love how easily he gets taken advantage of on inside releases, and I wish he would show that same physical dominance at the line of scrimmage as he does against outside releases, rather than giving up the inside for free.

Porter Jr. did impress me at the combine with some very good numbers, especially for his size. He did not participate in agility testing, which shouldn’t come as much of a surprise because transitioning and changing directions quickly isn’t exactly his bread and butter, but he performed well in other areas, including a 4.46 40-yard dash with a 1.50 10-yard split and a broad jump in the 87th percentile.

One thing that Porter Jr. can improve on at the next level is his tendency to latch onto receivers. He is often grabby at the top of routes and was called for 13 penalties in the past two years.

How he fits: Physical press-man corner. Should compete for a starting job Day 1 and has the potential to be a shutdown corner in the future.

Round grade: Top-20 pick

Brian Branch (Alabama), 6-foot-0, 190 pounds

Branch might be listed on most outlets as a safety, but he has played mostly slot corner and in the box throughout his college career, and that is likely where he’ll play in the NFL, too. He is a versatile defender that has played at every level of the defense and has shown that he can be very effective when rushing the passer, playing the run, and covering in the slot.

What I love about Branch is his football IQ. He is at his best when he’s seeing the play develop in front of him. He is an excellent run defender and is also one of the best tackling defensive backs I’ve ever seen on film. He’s only had four missed tackles on 174 career attempts, according to Pro Football Focus.

Branch did not test all that well at the combine, which leads to some concerns about his ability in man-coverage, but it hasn’t really shown to be a problem for him just yet.

How he fits: Can fill the Will Harris role for the Lions as a slot/box defender.

Round grade: Mid-to-late first round

Deonte Banks (Maryland), 6-foot-0, 197 pounds

Banks is one of the more intriguing prospects in this class that has only seen his stock rise as we get closer to the draft. He has some inconsistent tape, but his elite traits and athleticism will have DB coaches praying they get a chance to unlock his potential.

Banks is still quite raw as a prospect and can stand to improve on his technique. He is physical at the line of scrimmage but can get caught off balance at times, especially when transitioning and changing directions. In zone, Banks does a nice job of understanding when to pass off and pick up assignments, but his click-and-close ability is lacking compared to others at the top of the class.

How he fits: Physical corner that will play on the outside. Has the potential and upside to develop into a CB1 down the line.

Round grade: Mid-to-late first round

Tier 3 — Could sneak into the first round

Cam Smith (South Carolina), 6-foot-1, 180 pounds

Speaking of risers, Cam Smith also had a great day in Indianapolis during the combine and could have done enough to see his name called near the end of the first round. He tested better than expected and looked extremely smooth during on-field drills.

Smith’s 2021 tape will have you scratching your head as to why he isn’t in the same tier as guys like Witherspoon and Gonzalez, but his 2022 tape shows a much more reserved player with a tendency to get a little too grabby.

Smith stands out as one of the more confident personalities on and off the field in this draft class and I have a feeling he would fit right in with Detroit’s coaching staff.

How he fits: Yet another physical corner in a loaded draft class. Scheme versatile and could compete for a starting job right away on the outside.

Round grade: Second round

Eli Ricks (Alabama), 6-foot-2, 188 pounds

Ricks is a joy to watch and one of the lengthiest, most physical corners in this draft. He is a suffocating press corner that gave up only six (!) receptions on 19 targets in 2022. Ricks did not participate at the Combine due to a hamstring injury but said he will be participating in all drills during his Pro Day on March 23rd. There are concerns about Ricks’ overall athleticism, but the tape shows some flashes of brilliance, and if he can extinguish those concerns, then I really like his potential as a shutdown corner on the outside.

I like Ricks a lot more than most, and it seems more likely than not that he won’t truly sneak into the first round, but he’s in this tier because I believe he’s getting heavily slept on and could prove a lot of people wrong.

How he fits: Physical outside corner capable in man- or zone-coverage. Can work his way into a starting outside CB role early on.

Round grade: Second round

Emmanuel Forbes Jr. (Mississippi State), 6-foot-0, 166 pounds

Forbes Jr. had heads turning at the NFL Combine for better and for worse. At a paper-thin 166 pounds, he sits in the zero percentile for weight, which will scare some teams. You wouldn’t know he was that light with the way he plays, though. In man coverage, he shows great foot quickness with the ability to match and mirror with ease. He is aggressive despite his frame and times his punches well. He’s very instinctive and opportunistic, which has led to him producing six defensive touchdowns in three years.

How he fits: Scheme versatile outside cornerback with elite ball skills. Needs to add weight to his frame.

Round grade: Second round

Kelee Ringo (Georgia), 6-foot-1, 207 pounds

Ringo is a former five-star recruit and CB1 in the 2020 recruiting class. He was projected to be the first CB off the board in the upcoming draft for quite some time, but his lack of starting experience and inconsistent tape has resulted in him falling into the borderline Day 1 pick range.

What stands out the most about Ringo is his imposing size and elite athleticism. He’s a former track star that ran a 4.36 40-yard dash at the combine despite being a good 10+ pounds heavier than most of the other corners in this class.

Ringo has only two years of starting experience under his belt and is lacking the production and technique you’d like to see from someone that is likely going to get drafted this high. He is scheme independent but seems more suited to play in a scheme with heavy zone concepts right away. Drafting him will require plenty of patience but I don’t think he will fall further than Day 2 based on his size and traits alone.

How he fits: Scheme independent, physical corner that might take a little while to develop, but has CB1 potential if put in the right hands.

Round grade: Second round

Tier 4 — Day 2 fits

DJ Turner (Michigan), 5-foot-11, 178 pounds

I really, really like Turner the more I watch him and he has a ton of physical tools that you simply cannot teach. In press-man, he can get bullied by bigger receivers, but he is very sticky and a nuisance to go up against. He has experience in zone as well, and displays elite explosiveness and closing speed. Turner ran a 4.26 40-yard dash at the Combine, which was the fastest in his position group.

How he fits: Can play on the outside or in the slot (maybe more suited in the slot due to lack of physicality). Scheme versatile, uber athlete.

Round grade: Second round

Julius Brents (Kansas State), 6-foot-3, 198 pounds

Brents is rising up draft boards after an impressive showing at the Combine. Though he lacks top-end speed (4.53 40-yard dash), he put up elite numbers in agility and explosion drills. Due to the speed concerns and his inability to match and mirror receivers in man-coverage, Brents might be a better fit in some zone-heavy schemes and could potentially be moved to safety.

How he fits: Long outside corner that is better suited in off-man/zone coverage.

Round grade: Second/third round

Clark Phillips III (Utah), 5-foot-9, 184 pounds

Despite lacking the desired height and length many teams are looking for, Phillips punches well above his weight class. His testing did him no favors, and I’d expect him to slide a bit in the draft, but some lucky team is going to get a very good football player for a steal if that happens. Phillips has elite ball skills for the position and thrives in man-coverage.

How he fits: Play-making slot corner that can play on the outside in a pinch.

Round grade: Third round

Darius Rush (South Carolina), 6-foot-2, 198 pounds

After a stellar showing at the combine, Rush is now getting the attention he deserves and has thrown his name into the ring as a potential Day 2 pick. He needs to develop his technique as a press corner but has loose hips to stick with receivers and is plenty physical with elite length.

How he fits: Developmental outside CB that will thrive in man-coverage and can contribute on special teams

Round grade: Third round

Tyrique Stevenson (Miami FL), 6-foot-0, 198 pounds

Stevenson is a suffocating press-man corner that looks like a fish out of water if you ask him to do anything else. He lacks the foot quickness and fluidity to play in off-man coverage and often looks lost when asked to play in zone.

How he fits: Physical outside corner that will need to play heavy press-man to succeed.

Round grade: Third/fourth round

Tre’Vius Hodges-Tomlinson (TCU), 5-foot-8, 178 pounds

Hodges-Tomlinson is tiny, but that didn’t stop him from dominating on film. In 2022, he led the country with 21 forced incompletions. In man coverage, he was targeted 36 times and gave up only eight completions and zero touchdowns. I wouldn’t bet against this kid becoming an outlier at his size.

How he fits: Undersized starting slot corner with excellent man-coverage prowess.

Round grade: Third/fourth round

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