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Pre-combine NFL Draft rankings: Cornerbacks

The NFL Combine is coming soon — but first, we rank the best cornerbacks of the 2022 class.

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NCAA Football: Florida State at Clemson Ken Ruinard-USA TODAY Sports

In today’s positional player rankings, we turn our attention to the group of cornerback prospects entering the 2022 NFL Draft.

In the modern NFL — which features so many dynamic wide receivers and quarterbacks — corners are widely viewed as some of the most valuable players. Earlier this week, we took a big-picture look at the various approaches Kansas City Chiefs general manager Brett Veach might take to solidify the position group. Starting corners L’Jarius Sneed and Rashad Fenton will return in 2022 — but more high-quality depth is greatly needed.

The NFL Combine — set to run from March 1 through March 7 — will likely alter these rankings. But for now, this list is a personal reflection of how I think these players stack up.

1. Derek Stingley Jr. | LSU | 6 feet 1 | 195 pounds

Syndication: USA TODAY Scott Clause / USA TODAY NETWORK

In this class, Stingley has the most potential to become a truly elite corner. Period. As a true freshman for the national champion Tigers in 2019, the then-18-year-old Stingley put together the type of game tape that could have secured him as a first-round pick. These past two seasons have been less impressive — but teams can’t afford to overthink this one. Ever since that 2019 season, Stingley has been waiting for his NFL call-up. He should come off the board in the first ten selections.

2. Ahmad ‘Sauce’ Gardner | Cincinnati | 6 feet 2 | 188 pounds

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 06 Tulsa at Cincinnati Photo by James Black/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Length, length and length. Gardner has the frame of a player who can be a lockdown man-coverage corner in the NFL — or at least the closest thing to a lockdown corner we are likely to see in today’s game. He plays with a supreme amount of confidence. Gardner is at his best in press coverage, where he uses his long arms to win with physicality — and despite his slender build, he’s capable of delivering significant blows as a tackler. According to Pro Football Focus (PFF), Sauce gave up zero touchdowns in his career at Cincinnati — and in 2021, just 9.36 yards receiving per game.

3. Roger McCreary | Auburn | 5 feet 11 | 189 pounds

Auburn v Penn State Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

As listeners of the AP Draft Room might know by now, the alignment-versatile McCreary is one of my favorite player fits for the Chiefs in this draft class; he looks like a perfect match for the scheme defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo implements. McCreary lacks some arm length — but he makes up for it with his fearlessness and playing strength, which he uses to disrupt receivers throughout their routes. In the past few seasons, he’s played against many of the best receivers in college football — and always looked like he belonged. In a defense that allows him to be physically disruptive — exactly the way Kansas City would use him — McCreary can immediately become a really good starting cornerback.

4. Andrew Booth Jr. | Clemson | 6 feet | 200 pounds

Clemson v South Carolina Photo by Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images

Booth earns the fourth nod on the list from his ability to play the football in the air — especially on deep throws. Whenever necessary, he also imposes his will as a run defender. He is going to really excel at the combine, where he will flash excellent athleticism. While not as strong of a schematic fit for Kansas City — like some of these other players — his physical profile will be appetizing for any NFL defensive backs coach.

5. Kyler Gordon | Washington | 6 feet | 200 pounds

Washington State v Washington Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images

Gordon is less refined in his technique and mental processing than his teammate Trent McDuffie — but his physical upside is higher. In 2021’s film, you can find at least one snap where he looks like legendary wide receiver Julio Jones extending out to snatch an interception along the sideline. The redshirt junior has the skills to play many positions in the defensive backfield — and at the next level, he will find success with coaching that puts him in the appropriate spots.

6. Trent McDuffie | Washington | 5 feet 11 | 195 pounds

Oregon v Washington Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images

Another Washington corner on the list? Yep. At a minimum, McDuffie should be able to find a long-term home as a very good slot cornerback. Thanks to his high football IQ — and ability to diagnose route combinations from off-coverage — there’s a good chance he can play on the outside, too. Specifically with regard to the Chiefs, it would be nice to see more press/man-style reps on his tape; because they are less common, it requires extra projection to determine his fit into Kansas City’s defense. Coming out of the Washington program — a defensive back factory — McDuffie is a fierce, ultra-physical competitor who is a safe bet to become a solid pro.

7. Kaiir Elam | Florida | 6 feet 2 | 196 pounds

Capital One Orange Bowl - Virginia v Florida Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

This junior defensive back (who has some NFL family lineage) can click-and-close comfortably from off coverage — and also has the skills to successfully press the country’s best wide receivers. While Elam can’t be ranked more highly — in 2021, he was a little too susceptible to surrendering separation downfield — his upside is undeniable; during his time at Florida, he gave up a completion percentage of just 46.5. With some good coaching in his early years, he is another battle-tested player who could develop into a top-notch NFL cover corner.

8. Coby Bryant | Cincinnati | 6 feet 1 | 191 pounds

Cincinnati v Tulane Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

To be honest, the drop-off from No. 7 to No. 8 is pretty stark. But here is the other cornerback from Cincinnati’s stout 2021 defense. Bryant’s biggest strength is his ball skill, with which he snagged 10 interceptions for the Bearcats. Overall, he looks like a good fit for a zone-heavy coverage scheme that enables him to read route concepts from a cushioned alignment. But note: based on his interviews and personality, he is a player who could be made (or broken) on a lot of draft boards.

9. Mario Goodrich | Clemson | 6 feet | 190 pounds

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 06 Clemson at Louisville Photo by Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

This Kansas City native is another lengthy Clemson corner who possesses nice long speed and is a stout run defender. Entering the Combine, Goodrich is an underrated prospect. After being called a “winner” by his college head coach Dabo Swinney, he recorded a really solid performance at the Senior Bowl in Mobile. Voted a team captain (and a first-team all-conference corner) Goodrich is the kind of player who could be a real gem in the third or fourth round.

10. Josh Jobe | Alabama | 6 feet 1 | 194 pounds

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 04 Chick-Fil-A Kickoff Game - Miami v Alabama Photo by Michael Wade/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Jobe — a Crimson Tide product — missed much of the 2021 season with a foot injury. He is the kind of underrated prospect that Bill Belichick can plug into his man-cover system, developing him into a really good starter. Length and physicality are major strengths of Jobe’s game — although his recovery athleticism is a bit of a weak point. With just interceptions in 51 games at ‘Bama, Jobe’s production was low — but the 11 defended passes he recorded in 2020 are encouraging. Jobe needs to go to a team that will very often entrust him to play tight, physical man coverage.

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