Preseason Top 5: Pac-12 Cornerbacks

Photo: Oct 28, 2017; Seattle, WA, USA; Washington Huskies defensive back Myles Bryant (5) defends a pass intended for UCLA Bruins running back Soso Jamabo (1) during the second quarter at Husky Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

It shouldn't shock anyone, but the Pac-12 has some dogs at cornerback.

Remember, we're only two years removed from a 2017 Draft that saw eight Pac-12 defensive backs go within the first 81 picks. Sources tell me that is very impressive. (Sources also tell me the information came from the Bert Bell Historical Draft Library.)

I can't yet tell you how many safeties might move up into that range, but I will tell you this: I can imagine all five of the defensive backs listed below playing themselves into the Top-80 range. I'd only put the first two in that area now, but this is a high ceiling position for Pac-12 play this year.

Should be fun.

1. Myles Bryant, Junior, Washington (5'8 180)

Before I went through the cornerbacks in the Pac-12, if you had asked me to place a bet on who would be ranked No. 1, I would have bet on Byron Murphy. Just by name recognition alone, I knew he was a hyped player. If not Murphy, I would have bet Iman Marshall or Alijah Holder next. Between Julian Blackmon and Myles Bryant, it's a toss up--but on frame alone, I probably still would have bet Blackmon.

And here we are. Murphy, Marshall, Holder, and Blackmon are my second through fifth players. And Bryant beat the odds.

Myles Bryant will play nickelback at the next level, but he seems to me an already elite player at the position. I think his 2017 tape in the slot is already better than that of any slot corner we projected in last year's Draft: M.J. Stewart, Duke Dawson, D.J Reed, everyone. He would have been NCB1, if we graded players accordingly.

Bryant has impossible downhill explosiveness. His reaction time is immediate, and there is no hesitation between seeing and going. He regularly beats boundary plays to their spot and has an excellent tackle rate for a player of his size, always arriving with leverage to turn the play back into help. His blend of physicality, burst, and flexibility makes blocking him in space an impossible chore. I have not a single qualm with Bryant as my overhang defender.

As a cover man, he has shown high levels of success in essentially every technique. His physicality and burst remain prevalent in catch- or off-man coverage, his short-area quickness and fluidity make him an adept press corner, and his downhill mentality and sharp eyes help him win in short zones. I have nitpicky concerns here and there: he's not super long to affect the catch point; he will take a gather step at the top of his backpedal. But overall, it's a complete picture. He's ready to play.

What to watch for in 2018: Press. As one would imagine, despite relatively solid technique, the smaller Bryant can struggle from the press alignment. He gets a little too jumpy and aggressive, wanting to make the physical play and win early because he feels threatened by size in close quarters. If he learns how to play with a bit more smoothness and self-control, keeping his feet quiet and his weight balanced, he'll find much more success in that tight alignment.

2. Byron Murphy III, RS Sophomore, Washington (6'0 175)

Byron was thiiiiis close to CB1.

Honestly, it comes down to sample size. I don't have as much tape on Murphy as I would like because he lost a good portion of last season to injury. His production over six active games was nuts--is 7 PBUs and 2 INTs good?--but I didn't see him forced into many different roles. He could easily be an elite corner, but healthy, weekly play will tell that story.

Murphy's a playmaker. He loves to play off-coverage with deep-third responsibilities, keeping everything in front of him on the boundary and his eyes on the QB from his side shuffle. When in his zone, Murphy will leave receivers in striking distance, looking to bait QBs into making throws they shouldn't make--the cause of his excellent ball production, as well as a few unnecessary completions. He'll overlap into oncoming routes with great awareness and timing, and he has the burst to cover some real ground.

But Murphy can also mirror and match receivers, both from the line and from space. He's not a strong press corner yet given his thin frame and seemingly pedestrian length: he doesn't really create displacement or affect the route stems, just gets into the hip pocket. But he has the smoothness in his transitions to turn and run without losing a step, and his soft-shoeing technique really shines.

What to watch for in 2018: Tackling. Murphy's a hitter who has created fumbles and incompletions alike by driving downhill and striking--he really has a knack for the football. But without a runway and a stationary target, Murphy becomes an ankle-biter who does not fill aggressively downhill against the run. I'd love to see a bit of that physicality translate into a more consistent space tackler, especially if Murphy eventually transitions to nickel, which is a possibility for his frame.

3. Alijah Holder, RS Senior, Stanford (6'1 191)

Alijah Holder is the only holdover from an impressive secondary last season for the Cardinal, as both Quenton Meeks and Justin Reid moved on to NFL play. As such, I saw flashes of Holder last season, and I must say--I was pleasantly surprised by the player I found on tape. Holder can play.

Now, he's probably limited to a press-man/Cover 3 role, because he doesn't have the greatest fluidity in his hinge; he's a bit upright and tight. Accordingly, he needs to play with disciplined downfield leverage in the press, which he does very consistently. His footwork is clean and his punch is well-located and impactful in terms of disruption. When threatened by burst on a vertical stem, he has enough turn-and-run ability to get into a solid trail position, and he's effective at influencing the WR's route from that position.

When working more Cover 3 responsibilities, he's not unlike Byron Murphy in that he loves to read the QB from his shuffle and attack route concepts outside of his zone--he's a smart player. He doesn't have the same burst or pursuit speed as Murphy, but he's a solid athlete, and he does well to attack the football in the air. Again, we're gonna see some change of direction concerns if he's left on an island against a shifty WR, but he does well to mitigate those issues as best he can.

What to watch for in 2018: Ball production. Holder currently impresses in terms of his ability to track down a throw in the open field (like a safety) but in terms of affecting the catch point through contact with a WR, he's currently lacking. He must show improved technique at reading a ball's path through a WR's actions down the field and accordingly attacking the ball as it arrives. Some improved physicality in run defense wouldn't hurt either.

4. Iman Marshall, Senior, USC (6'0 205)

Last year, Iman Marshall was my CB2 (!!) coming into the season, just behind Tavarus McFadden (wow, what a sentence). It's incredible how much things can change over the course of a season.

I acknowledge the irony of that reflection appearing in a preseason ranking article, but hey, you're reading, aren't you?

Iman has the tools, man. To have that explosiveness and fluidity and his size is truly exciting. He's currently best as an off-cover corner, in that he stays on top of (and disconnected from) the receiver's initial stem, and then explodes downfield to address the catch point. When threatened deep, he's not afraid of greeting the receiver with physicality, quickly connecting within the hip pocket, and leaning into the route down the field. He has great hip hinge and should never be worried about downfield leverage.

Unless he's playing from the press.

Big enough and strong enough to succeed as a press corner, Iman's technique is far too feast or famine to be a replicable or effective style of play. Iman will launch into the receiver at the line with both hands, flying into contact without any concern for missing and having to turn and run. His feet are entirely dead, and accordingly his fluidity is significantly capped and his long speed is exposed, as receivers easily release against him and then stack him vertically.

In the trail, he panics and gets super grabby. I know he has high PBU numbers in my head, but I don't see a player with any ability to affect the catch point consistently on film; a lot of his passes defended seem situational.

When Marshall's in control, he's a great corner; once he's beat, he can't recover. It's all or nothing with him, and that is a terrible recipe for a third-level defender.

What to watch for in 2018: Motor. Nothing will turn me off from a defender quicker than a lack of pursuit. Marshall undoubtedly allows plays to extend downfield because he does not like to run and chase ball carriers. He doesn't prepare to fill against potential cutbacks or involved himself in gang tackles. I don't want players who give up free yardage on my team.

5. Julian Blackmon, Junior, Utah (6'1 190)

Want to know what's annoying and unfair? How Draft circles currently treat and view Justin Blackmon. Because I like Blackmon; I really do. I find him an interesting, high-ceiling prospect worthy of some preseason hype.

But he's getting gassed right now, and it's a classic bowl game glow-up.

Blackmon put a great game on the field against West Virginia, apparently--I didn't have the tape to evaluate it. I know two of his four INTs on the season came from that game (in which WVU QB Will Grier was not playing). But Sweet Mary, it seems as if he played like Richard Sherman incarnate.

Blackmon represent a 'project' at this stage, and we love to talk about projects in the preseason. I get it. But we still have to calibrate.

He loses his balance easily at the line of scrimmage when playing in the press, and accordingly over-shifts against jab steps and head fakes. He'll jam, but he doesn't yet understand how to turn and run in harmony with the jam. When he does open his hips, he looks fluid, but he turns to over and leaves himself susceptible to cuts back across his face.

In an off alignment, similar balance and over-reaction problems arise. He's jumpy and young to the position, and accordingly gets manipulated by savvier players. The three-step explosiveness impresses; so does the mirror quickness in space at his size; so does his length to affect the catch point. But as of today, Blackmon has tools in a toolbox, but he doesn't yet know what job needs a hammer and what issue needs a wrench. It all just kinda rattles around in there.

What to watch for in 2018: Situational understanding. Against certain alignments, or on certain down and distances, offenses will attack you in different ways. As a cornerback, you need to have a good feel for what might come at you at all times, and I don't think Blackmon has that experience yet. It comes with time, and across his second full season as a starter in 2018, I hope it'll show up more on his tape.

Keep an eye on

Ajene Harris, RS Senior, USC (5'10 190)

I like Myles Bryant a lot as a slot player; Byron Murphy too, if he moves inside. Ugo Amadi, Oregon safety, might fit best there as well. For my money, Ajene Harris out of USC, can also play nickel in the league. He's stupid quick. has good physicality at the catch point, and will mix it up with bigger guys. I have instinct/aggressiveness questions that could become a liability, but he's certainly on the radar.

Notable omission

Jack Jones, Junior, USC (5'11 170)

I don't know what's going on with Jack Jones off the field, folks. He has dealt with significant legal issues this offseason and I believe has decided to head on a JUCO route. What I do know is this: he lacks sufficient size and physicality to play boundary corner in the NFL, and his reactionary quickness doesn't deserve a letter home, either. I'm not sure if the talent is salvageable.