With the free agency train beginning to near its final stops, the NFL world has shifted its focus to the NFL Draft, which begins in only 31 days.
The Steelers were active in adding to their roster through the open market, signing five external players and retaining four more of their own in Larry Ogunjobi, Damontae Kazee, Zach Gentry and James Pierre. With just $10.7 million in effective cap space, per Over the Cap — plus needing to spend around $9.4 million in draft picks, according to Spotrac — it’s fair to expect Omar Khan not to make too many additional moves until late April.
As the Pro Day circuit has ramped up, so have mock drafts tabulating where the Steelers might allocate their first-round pick. Since the end of the season, experts have linked Pittsburgh with elite corner prospects; that certainly checks out with a projected secondary of Patrick Peterson and Levi Wallace.
Oregon’s Christian Gonzalez, Penn State’s Joey Porter Jr. and Illinois’ Devon Witherspoon have hovered toward the top of big boards for months, but other names have begun to surface in what’s widely deemed a very deep cornerback class. One player has particularly ascended: Maryland’s Deonte Banks.
Before the start of the 2022 season, Banks was hardly on any radars whatsoever. After being named an All-Big Ten Honorable Mention and manning a strong Terrapin defense, the redshirt junior saw his name creep into early Day Three consideration.
But, Indianapolis is where Banks began skyrocketing. With a 4.35 40-yard dash, 42” vertical jump and 11’4” broad jump, Banks put on an absolute show in Lucas Oil Stadium, earning a perfect relative athletic score of 10.00. Monitoring Banks’ draft growth on Grinding the Mocks is quite revealing.
It’s not only the freakish athletic measurements that have teams gushing over the Baltimore native, though. Banks’ tape is littered with traits and examples of him having the mettle to be an elite corner at the next level.
In his latest mock draft, ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. had the Steelers taking Banks at Pick 17. While Banks may not be one of the aforementioned “big three” corners, he should still have those donning black and gold euphoric if he were the team’s selection. Take a dive into what makes Banks so promising below.
Stickiness in man coverage
One of the first things I watch in a corner is his technique and skill in a man scheme. After all, if a cornerback is going in the first round, I would want to make sure he can at least hold up in man — if not be lockdown. Banks checks those boxes to a T.
When tasked with covering individual receivers, Banks employs patience at the line of scrimmage. Then, he locks in on the wideout’s hips and is able to transition from more of a traditional backpedal to a half-turn.
This play against SMU perfectly exemplifies all of those aforementioned talents. Banks stays step-for-step with the Mustang receiver and makes subtle contact to draw himself closer. Ultimately, Banks closes in on the football to break up the pass, extending his arms without making early contact.
Banks occasionally had some trouble on routes breaking back to the ball — more on that later — but this curl route against Julian Fleming of Ohio State had zero space because of razor-thin coverage. While Fleming wins initially with a quick crossover, Banks reduces separation in a hurry and runs the entire route with Fleming. Finally, Banks anticipates the throw from C.J. Stroud, attacking the ball despite being behind the receiver for a strong PBU.
As you may have inferred from Banks’ 92nd-percentile 40-yard dash, he’s incredibly fast; after all, he partook in track and field in high school. There is a difference between 40 speed and tape speed, however — and Banks appears quick on both.
Across the four games I watched of Banks, he was almost never, if at all, beaten down the field on a deep play by a faster receiver. The Maryland product’s straight-line speed is effortless.
Behold this play in which Banks stays stride for stride with Michigan’s Roman Wilson, who once ran a 4.37 in high school.
That theme of controlling deep passes with Banks in the secondary also applies on routes with different stems. Against SMU, Banks was tasked with running with a deep post, which he did extremely fluidly — cutting across the field and even beating the receiver to his spot.
Here’s one more instance of Banks keeping up with another hasty receiver: Purdue’s Charlie Jones, who was clocked at a 4.43 in Indianapolis. Banks virtually runs the 9 route for Aidan O’Connell, so much so that Jones has to play cornerback to break up the interception.
Fundamentally, Banks’ combination of man abilities and speed makes him very difficult to best over the top. That’s something that any defensive coordinator will treasure.
Playing through the catch point
On top of his man coverage and speed, Banks’ most impressive attribute may be the fact that he never gives up on a play.
In several of the clips above, Banks demonstrated the skill to outstretch his arms, utilizing perfect timing to jar the ball loose even after the receiver was in solid position. That nuanced facet to Banks’ game reflects his high football IQ, understanding that he can disrupt a play even if a rep isn’t perfect.
Beyond shrewd, late breakups, Banks also indicated a knack for mirroring receivers for very long periods of time — even more than five seconds after the ball was snapped.
In this clip in the Big House, Banks follows his receiver’s whip route well. But, even as J.J. McCarthy rolls right and up, Banks tracks his man running down the field. Once the ball arrives, Banks uses his right hand to rip through the catch point, making a terrific play.
When tasked with facing the Buckeyes, Banks lined up consistently across Marvin Harrison Jr. — widely viewed as not only the best receiver in college football, but the potential No. 1 overall pick next year. The two talents had a rather even matchup, but this play went to the corner.
As Fleming motions out of a bunch, the Terrapins adjust their coverage so that Banks follows No. 4 outside. As Stroud roams to the right, he somehow throws a strike along the sideline to Harrison. However, Banks — in his presumptive deep third (tough to tell without the All-22 angle) levitates to meet Harrison at the catch point, knocking the ball away.
While the interception didn’t count, Banks also flashed his great athleticism and ability to be a returner. What’s most impressive, though, is the way he stayed disciplined throughout the elongated play before using every inch of his 97th-percentile vertical to notch the PBU.
Physicality and tenacity
Banks’ cover prowess should be evident by this point. In conjunction with those high-level attributes, he’s also just an extremely physical player, an element that he said he thinks separates him.
In coverage, Banks implements jabs and presses both at the beginning of routes and down the field to slow down receivers. In the run game, too, he can be an asset.
This open-field tackle of Blake Corum, one of the best runners in college football, was highly impressive. Banks treads water and meets the Michigan ‘back in the hole; from there, he squares his shoulders and attacks low for the stop. There are few corners who would willingly make this play, and probably even fewer who could do it successfully on such an elusive player.
Another consistent pattern in watching Banks’ run support? He loves manhandling receivers. He frequently frees himself from blocks downfield by nonchalantly tossing wideouts, another manifestation of his physicality.
That desire to help his team at all costs saw Banks even lining up on special teams, playing 106 snaps in the third facet of the game in 2022. His impact was particularly felt when he blocked an extra point against the Buckeyes, fueling a two-point return by fellow corner Jakorian Bennett — allowing UMD to cut the lead to 10.
Areas of weaknesses
For as many upsides as Banks has, there are some facets of his game that have him slated to be the fourth cornerback selected next month.
Banks sometimes had trouble on routes that were either out-breaking or driving toward the line of scrimmage. That idea of Banks’ horizontal speed being a little troublesome reflected itself when he played in the slot. Granted, Banks only spent 63 of 1,492 career snaps — or 4.2% — inside, but Wilson gave him some trouble moving across the field for a touchdown.
Additionally, some of Banks’ angles in run support were a bit imprecise, but that criticism is somewhat trivial in the grand scheme.
Banks is rather old for a cornerback prospect — he just turned 23 — and is a Maryland native through and through. Nonetheless, he’s exactly what the Steelers are missing: a young, fiery outside corner who can play both man or zone excellently.
Maryland’s Pro Day is slated for March 29; it remains to be seen if either Mike Tomlin or Khan is in attendance, especially since nearby Pitt’s coincides. We also have no clue as to whether or not either’s attendance is a harbinger of prospect interest given that Khan is a first-year GM. However, Tomlin has had a penchant for the Terrapins: he drafted two in 2020 (Anthony McFarland Jr. and Antoine Brooks) and has consistently been in College Park given that his son Dino played there from 2019-21.
At this point, it feels like the Steelers’ top targets at CB are one of the three of Gonzalez, Porter Jr. and Witherspoon. However, it appears to be a lock that Gonzalez will be taken in the top 10, meaning a trade-up would be necessary. The latter two certainly have a shot at falling to Pick 17. If not, Banks is a very logical pick: he’s a player that both immediately fills a position of need and should mold into a star for the long term.