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2017 NFL Draft: BTSC Nickel DB Prospects Big Board

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A position focused look at what prospects project to get time as a Nickel defensive back.

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Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

STEELERS PICK AT: #30 of the first round; #30 of the second round; #30 of the third round; #41 (compensatory) of the third round; #29 of the fourth round; #29 of the fifth round; #30 of the sixth round; and #30 of the seventh round.

SOURCES: Analysis of needs is based on the discussion at BTSC together with published opinion from people who ought to know what they're talking about. Most of the raw data for this Board came from BTSC articles and comments, cbssports.com, walterfootball.com, the NFL's Draft Tracker site, and SBNation blogs.

YOUR COMMENTS MATTER: The Board is constantly updated to reflect feedback in the Comments. What you see is intended to reflect our community opinion, not the author's personal opinion about what's "right."

Organized by Highest Value ("HV#") to the Steelers. Great players for other teams get downgraded here when they fail to fit the Steelers' openings, system, or other requirements, with enormous downgrades moved to the "Ain't Gonna Happen" list at the end. An HV of 1:25 means the player is a reach for the Steelers at any point before Pick # 25 overall but good value at any point from the end of the 1st on. Getting that player in the early 2nd would be fine, while getting him at 2:14 would almost be a steal. Yes, this system results in a certain amount of grade inflation for positions of need because we are talking about the "highest" grade, not the one where a player is expected to go; grades are never pushed up just because of need, however. Players with the same HV# are more-or-less equivalent so don't sweat the order inside each grouping.

The Position: Unless the Steelers get lucky with one of the more high-end talents like Jamal Adams or Malik Hooker, Sean Davis and Mike Mitchell project to be the starters at safety once again next year. That said, there is plenty of room for a draft pick to compete for field time as a Nickelback. The size of this opportunity largely depends on the capabilities of Senquez Golson and the newly added Coty Sensabaugh with Golden and Dangerfield largely playing the backup role for Davis and Mitchell. Having a draft pick to develop in case the current plan falls through at the Nickel. These prospects will tend to have more in the way of quickness, football IQ and willingness to tackle than ideal height, arm length, or speed since a Nickelback can be expected to cover slot WRs as well as the occasional RBs,  and TEs. This means CBs that project as more of an outside defensive backs, box or deep safeties, and even hybrid linebackers are largely left off the list due to their focus or, if you prefer, their path to playing time lying elsewhere.

Notable Decision:

Jabrill Peppers: He overcame my reluctance to list a LB hybrid as a Nickelback through sheer utility and athleticism. Having him on the field would create an effective counter against attempts to create a mismatch if he can replicate even some of the versatility that people expect from him.

Obi Melifonwu: He has deficiencies that would make his phenomenal athleticism and experience as a CB seem better suited to finding time as a Nickelback to start off. A safety that struggles with positioning on deeper throws and taking the right angle might be able to mask those issues as a Nickelback. Not to mention a physical beast might be able to help construct that match-up proof defense that teams are always trying to find. Unfortunately his footwork could get him into trouble against quicker foes. He wouldn't be an ideal pick to cover slot WRs if he trips up when asked to turn his hips and sprint.

Malik Hooker and Jamal Adams: Probably have a good shot at supplanting our current safeties. They wouldn't be fighting over the Nickelback position. I left them off since this is geared towards players who project as specialists.

Jack Tocho: He has played some Nickel and if he is going to find a place on an NFL team then he'll need to fix his backpedal anyways. I included him since Nickel might cover some of the fears about his playing long speed and allow his closing burst to flourish.

Marquez White: Suspect run-support and technique issues make me question his fit for the Nickel position. His talent and length seems like he could get a shot on the outside if he fixes his backpedal, press-issues and tendency to give away inside leverage.

Gareon Conley: He feels like an all-purpose CB to me. He'd probably push for a job on the outside and his potential weaknesses line up where I'd want him to be strong as a Nickelback with questions about his run-support and hips in transition.

John Johnson: A very fluid and smooth player that tracks shifty players well but doesn't track as aggressively as you'd like for a S. That sounds like a player who can stick with the shifty guys, play the ball, and make the tackle but would have trouble if asked to cover the back half of the field.

Rounds are subdivided as follows:

  • 1st Round grades: 1:01, 1:05, 1:10, 1:15, 1:20, or 1:25.
  • 2nd & 3rd Round grades: Early (#:01), Mid (#:12), or Late (#:24).
  • 4th to 7th Round grades: Early (#:01) or Late (#:16).

HV

Info

1:20

Jabrill Peppers, SS/ILB, Michigan - 5'11", 213 lbs. with 30-3/4" arms and 9-5/8" hands. This entry could get long because there is an outside chance that Peppers will be available to Pittsburgh at the end of Round 1, in which case the "First Edge Available" crowd may have to change their tune. This may be the single best athlete in the draft, and he would be the ideal Hybrid LB/SS puzzle piece that would allow Coach Butler to create a defense comparable to any since the Steel Curtain itself. Mike Mayock flat out raves about his ability to play Nickel Corner, Safety, and even help as an undersized Dime LB. He called Peppers "a bigger version of Budda Baker," which is a hell of a compliment since Baker is a fringe 1st-Rounder too. We are told that Jim Harbaugh compares his football IQ to Andrew Luck, and confirms that he sacrificed himself for the good of the team by playing linebacker in 2016 instead of his natural position at Safety. And Peppers is also hugely charismatic and reported to be a fabulous locker room guy; "The alpha male that everyone follows around" according to Daniel Jeremiah. So how is it even conceivable that he'll fall so far? It's because (a) he's a player at a lower-priority position, Safety, who's the #3 talent behind two Top-5 guys in Jamal Adams and Malik Hooker, and (b) there is a lack of interceptions red flag (which Mayock & Crew poo-poohed as he looked utterly natural in all the drills). P.S. Jabrill Peppers is one of the top 2-3 punt returners in the draft as well.

There are enough scouting reports on this guy to make you sick, but they all say the same thing: athleticism is literally off the charts, but he needs some good coaching to reach his full potential, and a coordinator/system that can find the best ways to use his remarkably varied skill set. Here is the CBS scouting profile, which will be updated as the process moves forward. This January scouting report is a good place to start. This goes to a full scouting report (January) from Walter Football. This January DraftWire article describes the pairing between Peppers and Pittsburgh as "a match made in football heaven." This scouting profile comes from a Steelers site, and would definitely agree. If that's not enough he also might be able to take some of the load off AB for kicks and has experience as a CB. Unfortunately he is probably on the edge of being an Ain't Gonna Happen player. This mid-February article has three scouting profiles to compare Budda Baker, Justin Evans, and Jabrill Peppers. This article compares 5 top safeties: Malik Hooker, Jamal Adams, Jabrill Peppers, Budda Baker, and Marcus Williams.

1:25

Budda Baker, S/CB, Washington - 5'10", 195 lbs. with 30-3/4" arms and 9" hands. What are the flaws? He's small. That about covers it. Budda Baker, Desmond King, and Chidobe Awuzie all ring a similar bell - the undersized guy who straddles the line between slot Corner and roving Safety. Baker is the best of the three, a remarkably good coverage guy who is also an explosive athlete that loves to hit. If he had two more inches and 15 more pounds he would be an easy Top 20 talent. The NFL.com scouting profile could not be more excited with the exception of a tendency to get "big boyed" by TE's, which is going to be unavoidable at his size. This excellent, gif-supported scouting report from a Bills site explains why people ‘in the know' like him so much. Phrases like "coach on the field" and "young Bob Sanders" catch the essence, especially if you consider that his coverage skills are close to being at the Cornerback level. This New Year scouting report uses Tyrann Mathieu as the comparison and uses phrases like "undersized heat seeking missile". Both seem apt, and are mirrored by the CBS scouting profile. This mid-February article has three scouting profiles to compare Budda Baker, Justin Evans, and Jabrill Peppers. This article compares 5 top safeties: Malik Hooker, Jamal Adams, Jabrill Peppers, Budda Baker, and Marcus Williams. This goes to a thorough, gif-supported scouting report. This scouting profile considers Baker's fit for the Browns, who will almost certainly grab one of these top Safety prospects on Day 2. This brief, one-gif scouting report is worth checking for the critiques, which are real even if they don't add up to enough to keep him from getting a fringe-1st grade. This goes to a collection of scouting opinions gathered by our sister site for the Panthers. Here is a 6-minute video scouting report. See this scouting profile for a more critical review ending with a late-3rd grade due primarily to size concerns.

2:01

Justin Evans, S, Texas A&M - 6'0", 199 lbs. with 32" arms and 9-3/4" hands. Justin Evans is a versatile Safety who can play center fielder using his tremendous speed and ball skills, or drop into the box to deliver some serious hits and counter the quickness of running backs and slot receivers. The NFL.com scouting profile emphasizes his "easy feet and hips ... [that] might lead a team to test him out as a slot corner," "excellent passion for the game," and "ball skills of a slot receiver." High praise indeed! His only flaw? He needs some weight room work to fill in his frame, and some good professional coaching to develop that misleading word called "instincts." In other words, he sounds a lot like the description you'd give of both Mike Mitchell and Sean Davis. Is there room for a third Safety at that level of fringe all-pro production? You'd have to say "yes" since so many snaps are spent in Nickel. Three Safeties and two Corners would work just as well as two Safeties and three Corners, if all the Safeties are really that good. This January scouting profile seems fair enough before ending with a stunningly low 4th-Round grade (odd enough that I suspect a typo). This DraftWire article concludes with a Top 40 grade, which sounds closer to right. This goes to a brief but solid and gif-supported scouting report. This scouting profile from a Dallas point of view reflects the swirling rumors that connect him to the Cowboys. This article considers his fit with the Browns. This mid-February article has three scouting profiles to compare Budda Baker, Justin Evans, and Jabrill Peppers.

2:12

Chidobe Awuzie, CB/S, Colorado - 6'0", 202 lbs. with 30-5/8" arms and 8-1/2" hands. Budda Baker, Desmond King, and Chidobe Awuzie all ring a similar bell - the undersized guy who straddles the line between slot Corner and roving Safety. Awuzie's experience in all those positions - and as a boundary corner too - make him (and the others) a particularly desirable prospect for a team like Pittsburgh that can use scheme-versatile puzzle pieces as much as players who fit the standard profile. Awuzie's stock would be even higher if he was just a bit more "special" at any of those jobs. Physically, he checks off every box you want: quickness, length, physicality, ability to mirror, hands (despite a lack of interceptions), click-and-close, etc. His long speed had been questioned until the 4.44 Combine dash. Awuzie's overall technique is excellent too, with the exception of some hesitation when it comes to tackling big TE's and backs. Mike Mayock is a major fan: "[He may be] a little tight hipped, but I don't care. This kid knows football. [He] is a starting Nickel Day 1." Okay.

Here are the CBS scouting profile and the NFL.com scouting profile. This gif-supported scouting report ends with a solid Round 2 grade. This gif-supported scouting report from BillsWire agrees, adding that Awuzie is known for "stellar character both on and off the field." This January scouting profile touts Awuzie's "exceptional fluidity" and feel for the game. This brief January scouting profile (from a set of 10) lumps Awuzie' and Desmond King together as "really good nickel corner-safety hybrids" who lack the pure speed to hold up if left on an island. Here is a brief scouting profile from a Cleveland source. This links to a nice scouting profile from Denver, where he played his college ball.

2:12

Jourdan Lewis, CB, Michigan - 5'10", 188 lbs. with short 31-5/8" arms and 9-1/4" hands. Jourdan Lewis, like Senquez Golson two years ago, is a 1st-round cover corner in a body small enough to drop his likely draft position down to Round 2. He has literally everything you want other than size, including a seriously scrappy attitude ("Lewis is a flat-out competitor and will give receivers hell all game"). Mike Mayock had this to say: "A really, really good football player... Not the fastest DB on the field [but] I like him as a starting Nickel Day 1 in the NFL." This December scouting report sums the assets up nicely: "Perhaps no corner in the country has the ability to mirror receivers the way Lewis can... Lewis may have the quickest and most disciplined footwork of anyone in this class. He changes directions and explodes out of his breaks. Because of this, he may be the best player in the country playing inside against the slot." If there really are doubts about Senquez Golson's ability to play in 2017, Jourdan Lewis would be an ideal replacement. As summarized in this December scouting report, Lewis has a physical style of play and enjoys press coverage despite his size. There are some technical issues to fix, like the tendency toward grabbiness noted in this scouting report. This January scouting report from CBS agrees with all that, as does this January scouting report from a Titans site.

2:24

Jonathan "Rudy" Ford, S/CB, Auburn - 5'11", 205 lbs. with 30" arms and 8-7/8" hands. A good, versatile, fluid athlete with potential as both a Corner and a Free Safety; i.e., exactly the sort of hybrid guy who could perfect coverage-oriented Nickel and Dime packages. He has the right size and athleticism to make the leap but there are questions about his tackling and awareness with the ball in the air. He started his college career as a RB and should have plenty of room to go. Here is a CBS article on him. Ran a 4.34 at his pro day, so speed will not be a problem.

2:24

John Johnson, S, Boston College - 6'0", 208 lbs. with 32" arms and 9-7/8" hands. Another all-round, athletic safety in the multipurpose Mitchell/Davis mold. The NFL.com scouting profile is a good place to start, and emphasizes his starting experience at both Corner and Safety (shades of Sean Davis). This one-gif February scouting report will fill in some gaps. Here are two intriguing catchphrases: "Safety body with Corner athleticism" and "Most of his issue center around his unwillingness to be the ‘alpha.'" This goes to a scouting profile from a Colts POV. Johnson had a great Senior Bowl as illustrated by this snippet in a Cowboys-oriented article: "At safety, it's John Johnson of Boston College, and then it's everyone else. Johnson glides when he's on the field. He's incredibly smooth in his back pedal and release."

2:24

Desmond King, S/CB, Iowa - 5'10", 201 lbs. with 31-1/8" arms and 9-5/8" hands. [Meeting at the Combine] With shorthish 29-7/8" arms and 9-5/8" hands. Many of us have focused on the idea of a hybrid SS/LB who could serve as a puzzle piece to help Coach Butler fill in the gaps of his various Nickel packages. A hybrid Safety/Corner would serve much the same purpose, but from a coverage-first angle rather than a run-focused approach. Enter Desmond King (and Budda Baker and Chidobe Awuzie), a big hitting, quality-tackling slot corner whose lack of elite foot speed will limit his options on the outside. Per Mike Mayock: "Great ball skills... His home will be at Free Safety and Nickel." This goes to the CBS scouting profile, which deserves a quote: "an instinctive, passionate defender with the agility, ball skills and quickness to handle coverage duties in the NFL, as well as the physicality and open-field tackling skills necessary to hold up in run support... [but] a better football player than athlete [who] doesn't possess elite agility [and] doesn't possess the makeup speed to recover if he's beaten initially." That's it in a nutshell. The NFL.com scouting profile more or less agrees. This November scouting report from our sister site for the Eagles gives King an easy Round 1 grade due to system fit and need. Neither are quite as true for the Steelers. This January scouting profile is very similar - so much so that both authors ended up with a strong comparison to Antoine Winfield, the 3-time all-pro CB for the Bills and Vikings who had everything except supreme athletic talent. Here is the full length Walter Football scouting profile. This scouting profile emphasizes his "ball skills and scrappiness", en route to a fringe-2nd grade. This brief DraftWire article links King to [gasp!] that team in Baltimore. He's also been linked to that much more admirable team from Pittsburgh. And to the Cowboys; and to Da Bears; etc.

3:01

Damontae Kazee, CB, Miami - 5'10", 184 lbs. with 30-7/8" arms and 8-5/8" hands. Quoting Mike Mayock, "I love this kid like I love Awuzie... [He is] quicker than fast... Played off coverage his entire career, then showed up at the Senior Bowl and played great press. Ball skills all day long." Daniel Jeremiah agrees: "Someone is going to get great value." Bottom line: This draft features a number of natural Nickel CB's who possess superb quickness and tough minded tackling ability, but are either a bit undersized or a half step too slow to be put on the outside against the Martavis Bryant types. Senquez Golson was as good as any of them in college, but who can trust that Year 3 is the one where he'll manage to stay healthy? Here is the NFL.com scouting profile. This scouting profile from our sister site for the Jets ends with a Round 4 grade because he projects as a good role player and not a #1. This Patriots-oriented scouting profile ends on a fringe-3rd grade, and this more neutral scouting profile with a solid-3rd grade. Here is a solid scouting profile from CBS.

3:16

Corn Elder, CB, Miami - 5'10", 183 lbs. with 31-1/4" arms and 8-3/4" hands. In the words of Mike Mayock, Corn Elder is "A tough kid [who is] a Nickel all day long [and] lights people up... He's a football player at the end of the day." That pretty much summarizes everything you will read about him. Here is the NFL.com scouting profile which explains that Elder is a former basketball star (and RB) with great quickness and "twitchy click-and-close to the ball." The issue comes down to size and size alone. This goes to a March scouting profile comparing him to Buster Skrine. This is a fun scouting profile from our sister site for the Redskins. This goes to a telephone interview. Here is a combination interview/scouting profile from a Packers POV.

4:01

Nate Hairston, CB, Temple - 6'0", 196 lbs. with 31" arms and 9-1/2" hands. [Meeting at the Combine] Hairston is one of those players that Steeler Nation would love, "another tough Temple kid" according to Mike Mayock, who plays with a physical, stick-it-to-'em, team first attitude. He's not exactly slow (4.52) but he's one of those prospects people describe as "quicker than he is fast." His technique is okay, but very rudimentary because he played receiver for his entire career until the 2015 season (perhaps because his hands are kind if iffy). As the NFL.com scouting profile puts it, "Hairston is a projection-based talent who should become a much better player in two years than he is today." This goes to a video interview after his very good Shrine game showing. He particularly excelled on special teams at the Shrine game, btw.

4:01

Eddie Jackson, S, Alabama - 6'0", 201 lbs. with 32-1/4" arms and 9-1/4" hands.  A bit undersized, Jackson was a real team leader on the nation's best defense until he broke his leg partway through the season. His football IQ is unquestioned, like the leadership part, but was he a product of playing behind and around so many other great talents? Those will be hard questions to answer. His NFL.com scouting profile mentions some experience as a punt returner as well.

4:16

Xavier Woods, S, Louisiana Tech - 5'11", 197 lbs. with 30-3/8" arms and 9-3/8" hands. Woods performed well both against the run as well as in coverage. He showed a lot of versatility in where he lined up and had a knack for making plays on the ball. Ganggreennation ran a profile on him that suggests he'd fit well as a FS and attributes his versatility to coming into college as a CB prospect. Struggles against faster WRs could point to a lack of athleticism and he'll need to work on his tackling to handle the step up to the NFL. Here is his CBS scouting profile.

5:01

Jalen Myrick, CB, Minnesota - 5'10", 200 lbs. with 31-5/8" arms and 8-3/4 hands. Shot onto the scene by demonstrating astonishing speed at the Combine. Everyone knows that John Ross' 4.22 set the new Combine record. Myrick ended with a 4.28 but was clearly faster than Ross in the 10-yard split. Mike Mayock sees him as a future Nickel because he is known for extreme quickness and being intensely competitive when it comes to click-and-close tackling. The NFL.com scouting profile identifies his biggest flaws as various football IQ and technique issues, which should be coachable if he has the right stuff above the neck.

6:01

Jack Tocho, S/CB, N.C. State - 6'0", 202 lbs. with 31-5/8" arms and 9-3/4" hands. Jack Tocho is a big Corner who will probably be asked to convert to Free Safety because he's something of a tweener. His odds of success are better than most, however, because he has a renowned work ethic, probably coming from his roots as a Kenyan immigrant, and a reputation for other sterling character traits. He was (naturally) a team captain and sounds like an admirable young man in general. The big knock on his football skills, as described in the NFL.com scouting profile and noted by Mike Mayock, is a seeming terror of getting beat deep. He plays like he doesn't trust his own speed, which wasn't that bad at 4.54. Here is a brief scouting profile from a Cleveland source, and another brief scouting profile from back in December.