Though NFL general managers would almost certainly disagree, it is almost unfortunate this year’s stellar class of cornerbacks happens to have arrived at the same time as one of the more celebrated quarterback crops we’ve seen in recent years.
As a result, the 2023 class of cornerbacks — similar to the bounty at edge rusher — deserves more attention from NFL draft fans than it has received.
Oregon’s Christian Gonzalez and Illinois’ Devon Witherspoon would earn top-10 consideration any year, but with two corners getting selected this highly three years in a row, NFL teams investing premium picks at this position should no longer surprise anyone. What is notable about this class, however, is the sheer number of highly regarded prospects, as well as the position’s overall depth.
I expect every player evaluated below to be a top-100 selection next week. Among the many quality Day 2 and 3 prospects who didn’t make the top 10 but I see as future NFL starters are Miami’s Tyrique Stevenson, Purdue’s Cory Trice, TCU’s Tre’Vius Hodges-Tomlinson and Iowa’s Riley Moss.
Prior positional rankings:
1. Christian Gonzalez, Oregon, 6-1, 197, Junior
Overview: Gonzalez’s path to the first round of the NFL draft began in the talent-rich state of Texas, where then-Colorado head coach Mel Tucker convinced him to head north. Gonzalez remained committed to the Buffaloes when Tucker himself went further north to Michigan State, starting all 18 games of the 2020-21 seasons and earning Honorable Mention All-PAC-12 honors as a sophomore with 53 tackles, including 5.5 for loss and five passes broken up.
When the defensive backs coach who worked with him in Colorado — Demetrice Martin — opted to take the same job under Dan Henning at Oregon, Gonzalez decided to follow his mentor this time, joining the Ducks for the 2022 season before giving up his final eligibility to enter the 2023 NFL draft. Gonzalez starred in his only season in Eugene, earning First Team All-PAC-12 honors with a career-high 11 passes broken up and four interceptions while also logging 50 tackles and blocking a field goal.
Strengths: Gonzalez is a graceful, bounding athlete who actually plays to his timed measureables, springing out of his backpedal and effortlessly changing direction to shadow receivers in man coverage. He is among the smoothest athletes at any position in this class and Gonzalez is made even faster by his route anticipation, with some reps on tape where it looks like he is running the route in tandem with the receiver. Perhaps most exciting are the improved ballskills shown by Gonzalez this year, turning four of his 11 passes defensed this season — both career-highs — into interceptions. He showed vision and a playmaking mentality with the ball in his hand, averaging 29.5 yards after his interceptions. In a class full of rail-thin perimeter players, Gonzalez checks in with a solidly built frame with his 14 repetitions of 225 pounds an excellent mark for a player with 32″ arms. Henning, who is used to elite athletes, raves about Gonzalez’s talent.
Concerns: While perhaps imposing, Gonzalez isn’t a terribly physical player and he will need to show greater awareness and commitment in run support in the NFL. Further, while the improvements made as an interceptor in 2022 are encouraging, Gonzalez had previously struggled turning PBUs into turnovers, with just four in 20 opportunities over his college career.
Bottom Line: Gonzalez deserves every bit of hype of a top-10 pick. He boasts an exceptional combination of size, athleticism and intangibles, ranking among the safest prospects in this class.
Grade: Top 10
2. Devon Witherspoon, Illinois, 6-0, 181, Senior
Overview: Unlike the vast majority of the cornerbacks on this list, Witherspoon signed with Illinois amid very little fanfare, slipping through the online recruiting databases following a high-school career focusing mostly on basketball. The Illini were his only Power Five offer and he didn’t join the team until midway through the fall camp. Nevertheless, once Witherspoon committed to football, the Pensacola native’s athleticism and competitiveness were unleashed and he wasted little time blasting past whatever expectations there may have been for him, becoming the only true freshman to start a game for the Illini in 2019. He started three contests (playing in all 13) and recording 33 tackles, including two passes defensed.
Witherspoon would go on to start all 29 of the games in which he was healthy over the next three seasons, ranking among the Big Ten’s leaders with nine passes broken up in 2021 before taking his game to another stratosphere in 2022, when he was named the conference’s Defensive Back of the Year and a consensus All-American with 17 passes defensed, ranking second in the Big Ten and sixth in the nation.
Strengths: A tenacious competitor who sticks in the hip pocket of receivers downfield and seems to relish his opportunities to prove he is more physical than his frame suggests against the run as well, Witherspoon may have been named the Big Ten’s Defensive Back of the Year simply because no one was willing to argue with him about it. In all seriousness, he plays the role of agitator beautifully, corralling receivers at the mesh point with long arms and easy acceleration off either foot, mirroring their movements and clouding their view of the ball at the critical moment with long arms and excellent hand-eye coordination to deflect passes. Witherspoon is the rare cornerback who might be even better as a tackler than he is in coverage. He is a heat-seeking missile who craves contact, attacking in run support and as a blitzer.
Concerns: Witherspoon eased some concerns about his straight-line speed with 4.4s at his Pro Day, but that doesn’t change his tape, which shows a grabby, gambling defender called for penalties six times in 2022, according to Pro Football Focus. He was flanked by a terrific pass rush and two NFL-caliber safeties, allowing plenty of opportunities to jump routes. Witherspoon plays with zero regard for his own safety and, while that can be a good thing, he has a relatively spindly frame and missed three games over the 2020-21 seasons due to injuries.
Bottom Line: Witherspoon probably ranks as one of the favorite players in this class for a lot of scouts, as few can match his ferocity as a competitor. Witherspoon was the best player on the best defense in football last year. Man or zone, press or off, he’s a Day One tone-setter.
Grade: Top 10
Overview: Porter was born in Bakersfield, Ca. but grew up in western Pennsylvania with his father starring at outside linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers. While his name may have drawn interest from recruiters, the precocious cornerback’s frame and athleticism demanded their own attention, as he emerged as a four-star recruit fielding offers all over the country. Porter wound up redshirting his first season at Penn State but earned a starting role out of fall camp a year later, ultimately leaving the Nittany Lions with 31 starts over the past three seasons. In part because opponents went out of their way to avoid challenging him, Porter is entering the NFL with less-than-staggering career-production, including 114 tackles, 21 passes defensed and just one interception.
Strengths: Porter overwhelms receivers at the release and at the catch point with his sheer size, which includes 34″ arms. Porter is not only exceptionally long, he’s ultra-physical, bullying receivers out of the gate and harassing them throughout the route. Porter’s initial punch to the chest of receivers throws their timing off immediately. He has quick, strong hands and rare upper-body strength for the position, as his 17 repetitions on the bench press at the Combine show.
He’s a surprisingly lithe athlete for a man of his size and strength, with smooth acceleration and efficient change of direction. As one might guess, Porter doesn’t shirk from run support, aggressively attacking would-be blockers and using his long arms to lasso ballcarriers out of the reach of most cornerbacks. He worked hard prior to this season to cut down on the penalty flags and saw them drop from 10 in 2021 to three in 2022, according to Pro Football Focus.
Concerns: For a three-year starter and NFL legacy, Porter still plays the game with a slightly frenetic style, attacking the ball in flight like he’s preparing to spike it in a beach volleyball tournament and wrestling with ballcarriers rather than delivering clean, forceful tackles. He ended up with just one interception among 21 career pass breakups. A quality athlete but simple physics mean that Porter’s long legs need more space and time to change directions and, like most tall cornerbacks, Porter is susceptible to double-moves, surrendering short windows accurate quarterbacks can exploit, though he’s fast and long enough to often recover.
Bottom Line: I’ll admit it, I’m a sucker for NFL legacies like Porter, not only due to the obvious athletic genes inherited from his father, but how the experience of growing up amidst the challenges and expectations of being a professional athlete can help ease the transition rookies face in the NFL. Porter isn’t a fit for everyone — projecting best in a physical press scheme — but I see a quality starter who might only need to turn a few more deflections into interceptions to generate Pro Bowl accolades.
Grade: First round
Overview: Arizona and Washington are hardly hotbeds for SEC teams, but that is where Ringo excelled prior to signing with the Bulldogs, starring for three years at Saguaro High after previously winning state titles in the 100 and 200 meters as a freshman for Bellarmine High in Tacoma. Ringo signed with Georgia as a highly celebrated five-star recruit but his coronation had to wait a year after he suffered a significant shoulder injury, forcing him to redshirt.
Ringo seized a starting role for one of the most talented defenses in recent college football history a year later, earning Freshman All-SEC honors by leading the Bulldogs with 10 passes defensed, as well as 34 tackles. Most notably, Ringo sealed Georgia’s national championship with a 79-yard pick-six of Bryce Young to beat Alabama in 2021. He started all 15 games for the Bulldogs in 2022 as well, earning Second Team All-SEC honors with similar numbers, once again leading the Bulldogs in pass breakups (nine) with 42 tackles and two more interceptions.
Strengths: Exceptional speed for a player of his size, tying for the sixth-fastest time (4.36) recorded at the 2023 NFL Scouting Combine, with all the players quicker than him weighing at least nine pounds less and many significantly more than that. Ringo easily runs with receivers downfield, staying stride for stride and uses his frame and understanding of positioning to pin receivers into the sideline. Graceful athlete who changes directions with strong, sudden movements. Rare size for the position, possessing the frame to body-up the massive receivers in today’s NFL. Quick to read run and takes his role in run defense seriously, fighting through blockers and delivering powerful hits, which extend to his role as a gunner on special teams. Good hand-eye coordination with 19 passes defensed the past two seasons and four interceptions, including the game-sealer in the 2021-22 national title game.
Concerns: There were troubling moments on tape where he was caught falling off tackles and asleep in coverage. He’s overly reliant on his size and athleticism to “body up” receivers but shows just average route anticipation at this time, flailing his arms and grabbing cloth when he’s caught leaning. He has spotty timing and accuracy with his jam. He’s similarly lacking in his fundamentals as a tackler, too often failing to securely wrap his arms, an issue that might require a closer look by a team’s medical personnel, given that he missed the 2020 season due to shoulder surgery (torn labrum).
Bottom Line: Ringo reminds me of a young Patrick Peterson when he was entering the NFL as a massive (6-0, 219) and ultra-athletic (4.34 in the 40-yard dash) cornerback out of LSU back in 2011 and some projected that he, too, might be best suited to safety. Peterson had plenty of holes on tape, as well, but his exceptional size/speed combination earned him the No. 5 overall selection that year and might just earn him a spot in Canton someday. Like Peterson then, many of Ringo’s flaws appear correctable with more time. Very few players in this class at any position can match Ringo’s ceiling.
Grade: First Round
Overview: The most instinctive ballhawk of the Class of 2023, Forbes tracks the ball in flight like an air-traffic controller, generating a staggering 35 passes broken up and 14 interceptions over his three starting seasons. He grew up about 70 miles west of the Starkville campus, generating four-stars as a football recruit, as well as offers to play baseball. Forbes signed with the Bulldogs while they were being coached by Joe Moorhead but he stuck to his commitment after the team made the switch to Mike Leach. Perhaps the notoriously pass-happy offense devised by the late, great Leach helped refine Forbes’ playmaking instincts, as he certainly proved to be a dominant performer during their three years together, earning All-SEC honors each season and capping it off in 2022 with 46 tackles and career-highs in both passes defensed (16) and interceptions (six), returning three of those for touchdowns.
Strengths: He is a dynamic athlete – as his 4.35-second time in the 40-yard dash suggests – but plays even faster due to extraordinary field vision, which includes stellar route anticipation and absolute eagerness in run support. Forbes complements his speed with impressive body control, weaving his way around bigger, stronger receivers to get his soft hands on the ball and showing natural elusiveness with it in his hands, taking six of those 14 career interceptions back for touchdowns, setting the career FBS record in 2022, when he had three (Texas A&M, Kentucky, East Tennessee State). He has a frame that suggests durability would be an issue but played in 36 of 37 possible games over his college career, starting 34 of them.
Concerns: Forbes is rail-thin and his lack of functional strength shows up with ballcarriers carrying him for additional yardage after contact. He plays with a gambler’s mentality and is willing to lose some to win some. Attacks downhill, including in run support, leaving him vulnerable to play-action and double-moves. He has a gangly frame with long, loopy arms that are often in the breadbasket of receivers as the ball arrives, too often drawing flags (including a career-high six in 2022, according to PFF).
Bottom Line: Forbes is a dynamic player, but his slim frame will give teams pause. Though he weighed in four pounds heavier at his Pro Day, Forbes’ 166 pounds at the Combine is the same size Eagles’ wideout DeVonta Smith was measured prior to him being selected in the first round two years ago. That is notable not only because Smith has since gone on to excel in the NFL, but also because he was the lightest non-kicker selected in the NFL’s opening frame since 1942.
Grade: First round
Overview: A three-star recruit out of Baltimore, Banks hit the ground running for the home team, starting the final eight games of his true freshman season and capping the year with his first career interception in the season finale (Michigan State). He started three of Illini’s five games in the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign and, with his strapping frame and easy athleticism, Banks was seen as a trendy breakout candidate for the Terrapins in 2021 until he suffered a serious shoulder injury in their second game of the season. Banks responded in 2022 with the best season of his career, earning Honorable Mention All-Big Ten honors with 38 tackles and 8 passes broken up. Two of those came in a splashy performance against Ohio State, where he also blocked an extra point. With a career total of 21 starts, 13 passes defensed and two career interceptions, Banks opted to forgo his remaining eligibility and enter the 2023 draft.
Strengths: Looks the part of an NFL cornerback with prototypical broad shoulders, long arms and impressive overall musculature for the position. He’s an easy athlete with legitimate man-to-man cover skills, beginning with a light and loose backpedal. Banks plays on the balls of his feet, mirroring the release of receivers and bounding after them with swift strides, leaving little space for opposing quarterbacks to operate. Easily carries them downfield, ranking as one of the better deep-route erasers in this class. He’s a good communicator before and during the play, pointing out changes to teammates and showing awareness of routes developing around him, switching off from his primary assignment to follow the eyes of the quarterback to the ball.
Concerns: Banks has below-average ballskills for the position, especially given that he’s been starting games here the past four years. He tends to rip the ball as receivers attempt to secure the catch, rather than plucking it himself. Banks only has two career interceptions and one season (2022) in which he recorded more than three pass breakups. Has a similar way of playing with blinders, at times, in run support, getting so wrapped up in fighting with receivers that he loses sight of the ballcarrier.
Bottom Line: With just two career interceptions — and only one since 2019 — assigning Banks an early-round grade is not for the faint of heart. However, there is simply no denying Banks’ athleticism or the way in which he seemingly always steps up with the lights are shining brightest, including in his splashy performances against Ohio State and at the Senior Bowl. At the Combine, his 4.35-second time in the 40-yard dash, 42″ vertical jump and 11’4″ broad jump showcased him as arguably the best pure athlete of this stellar cornerback class.
Grade: Top 50
Overview: A slight frame earned Turner just a three-star grade from recruiting websites, but after a stellar prep career at North Gwinnett High School in his native Georgia, as well as the famed IMG Academy — where Turner transferred to play for his senior season — he had offers from virtually every program in the country. Turning down his home-state Bulldogs, Alabama, Clemson and the other powerhouses of the region, Turner opted to sign with Michigan, citing his preference to play press-man in college, as he did at IMG.
He was forced to bide his time behind the NFL pipeline that Ann Arbor has become again under Jim Harbaugh but emerged as a starter in 2021, registering 33 tackles and nine pass breakups with two interceptions, earning Honorable Mention All-Big Ten honors. Turner ascended to Second Team accolades this past season, recording 36 stops and leading the team with 11 passes broken up with another pick. He opted to declare early for the NFL draft, leaving Michigan with 22 starts over 36 games with 69 tackles, 20 passes broken up and three interceptions over his career.
Strengths: An absolute blur on the field, playing with the same kind of breathtaking straight-line speed that led all 2023 Combine participants in the 40-yard dash (4.26) and finished just one hundredth of a second behind TCU wideout Derius Davis for the swiftest 10-yard split (1.47). He is jackrabbit-quick out of his cuts, maintaining close proximity to receivers and harassing them the entire time with grabby hands and subtle body lean to disrupt timing and spacing. Fights above his weight class, showing some real scrappiness as a tackler and demonstrating the tenacity and spatial awareness to play inside or out, as needed. Impressive ball-skills (20 passes defensed over the last two years) with a knack for the big play, scoring touchdowns on an interception (2021) and fumble return (2022) during that time, as well.
Concerns: Just average size for the position and may already be maxed out physically with a sculpted frame but relatively narrow shoulders and hips. He raised eyebrows by opting not to ever run the shuttle drills. Turner is more pesky than punishing as a tackler and will get ‘big-boyed’, at times, in coverage, as well, showing less than ideal core strength and finishing skills in contested situations.
Bottom Line: Turner is a little shorter and slighter than teams would prefer on the outside, but he possesses the elite speed to match up with the game’s top vertical threats with the grit to handle sliding inside, as well. That positional versatility could earn him a top-50 selection and a quicker path to playing time in the NFL than he saw at Michigan.
Grade: Top 50
Overview: In a classic case of “Where did you start and where are you now,” Brents began his college career as a three-star safety recruit at Iowa, but enters the NFL as a reigning First Team All-Big 12 cornerback for Kansas State, fresh of commanding performances at the Senior Bowl and Combine, which is held, of course, each year in Brents’ hometown of Indianapolis. He looked mighty at home in Lucas Oil Stadium, enjoying a spectacular Combine workout, and showing growing comfort at cornerback for Kansas State the past two seasons, leaving Manhattan with back to back all-conference campaigns.
Strengths: Imposing defender with rare height and length (34″ arms) to corral receivers at the line of scrimmage, limiting their release and route options while stalking nearby, showing steady acceleration and surprisingly fluid change of direction for a man of his size. He’s a “freakish” athlete, as demonstrated at the Combine, where he showed both explosiveness with the longest broad jump (11’6) and fourth-highest vertical jump (41.5″) recorded in Indianapolis this year and flashed that remarkably bouncy change of direction a little later, finishing behind only Ohio State wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba in the short-shuttle (4.05) and 3cone (6.63) drills.
He’s a true football player as well as an athlete, earning high marks from coaches at Kansas State and Iowa for his smarts and work ethic. Plays cornerback like the former safety he is, sacrificing his body to take out oncoming blockers and showing good take-on power and wrap as a tackler. Showed encouraging improvement in his route awareness and timing to disrupt the catch, more than doubling his PBU numbers in 2022 and recording four of his six career interceptions.
Concerns: He will be viewed by some as scheme-dependent or better back at safety in the NFL, with his timed speed not always translating to the field. He’s still in the development stage as a processor, struggling to relocate the football when his back is turned and playing more reactive, at this point, than with the easy confidence of most ultra-athletic players. Like a lot of tall players, Brents is a little choppy in his transition, losing a step as he opens his hips to turn and track downfield.
Bottom Line: Brents’ size and arm length are sure to pique the interest of scouts looking for pure press or zone corners, but I think that is short-selling his game. The change-of-direction skills demonstrated in drills and on tape prove Brents is more scheme-versatile than his size suggests. Successful at two different positions and programs in college and checking boxes at the Senior Bowl and Combine, as well, I see Brents as one of the safest defensive backs in this class and longtime NFL starter.
Grade: Second round
Overview: A celebrated four-star recruit out of Los Angeles, Phillips initially signed with Ohio State but backpedaled from the Buckeyes when their defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach Jeff Hafley left to take over as head coach at Boston College, ultimately joining Utah as the top-rated prep of the Kyle Whittingham era. Phillips immediately and consistently proved worthy of this hype, however, starting all five games of the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign that was his first season in Salt Lake City and every remaining one of his brief career before making a very early jump to the NFL. He proved to be a playmaker from the outset, scoring on a 36-yard interception return to cap his true freshman season and emerging as the conference’s biggest playmaker in the secondary over the past two years, recording an eye-popping 27 pass breakups and eight interceptions during that time, leading the PAC-12 with six picks in 2022.
Strengths: A cat-quick cover corner who combines excellent burst, change-of-direction skills and instincts for the position, Phillips has terrorized the PAC-12 the past three seasons, returning at least one interception for a score each year and leading the conference with six picks in 2022. He is short but not small with a compact, well-developed frame that epitomizes his surprisingly intense style of play. Phillips is extremely competitive, including in the weight room, where he quietly led all cornerbacks with 18 bench-press repetitions at the Combine and plays with bravado in coverage, as well, taking chances to undercut routes, while also punching above his weight class in run support and as a tackler, overall. He was voted a team captain and the Utah coaches, teammates and press rave about him.
Concerns: Phillips comes with obvious size concerns and will be viewed by some clubs as strictly a nickel candidate. Height isn’t the only issue, as his 29 1/8 arms and 9 1/8 hands are some of the shortest and smallest of the class. While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, Phillips might be a better football player than athlete, showing less explosiveness (33″ vertical jump) and quickness (4.23 3cone) than his tape would suggest.
Bottom Line: I get the skepticism with Phillips. He has a tiny frame that suggests he is going to struggle with durability. Well, he sure didn’t at Utah, starting all 31 games of his college career for arguably the most physical program in the conference. Don’t be surprised at all if teams bypass the slighter Phillips for more prototypically built defenders and he falls outside of the Top 10 cornerbacks a few weeks from now. Don’t be surprised, either, if he ultimately proves to be a steal.
Grade: Second round
10. Cam Smith, South Carolina, 6-1, 180, Junior
Overview: Smith was born and spent much of his childhood just a few miles from the South Carolina campus and while he moved and played in the state of Maryland for three years in high school, generating interest from recruiters, he stuck close to home and signed with the Gamecocks after returning as a senior to play at Westwood High. Even as a four-star recruit heralded for returning home, Smith had to bide his time behind a depth chart that included 2021 NFL draft picks Jaycee Horn and Israel Mukuamu. Smith tied them with two interceptions while starting just three of eight games in 2020 and emerged as one of the SEC’s most feared pass defenders a year later, ranking ninth in the FBS with 14 passes defensed overall in 2021, despite missing two games. He missed two more in 2022 (including opting out of the bowl) but leaves South Carolina with an impressive three-year run of 84 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, 24 passes defensed and six interceptions.
Area of Strength: Quick of foot and mind, winning with light feet, loose hips and excellent diagnosis skills. He sneaks peeks back at the quarterback and shows impressive recognition of receiver tells, trusting his eyes and attacking. Closes downhill like he’s shot out of a cannon, projecting nicely to a zone-heavy scheme despite playing much of his time at South Carolina in man coverage. Smith has good awareness of routes developing around him and shows both the burst to close, and excellent hand-eye coordination to slap the ball away. Doesn’t own the most imposing frame but shows plenty of grit in run defense and is a clean wrap-up tackler.
Area of Concern: More physical than fundamentally sound as a tackler, resorting to wrestling opponents to the turf. Possesses a lean, lanky frame with just average muscular development. He missed two games due to injury (and opt-out in 2022) each of the past three seasons, with at least one documented concussion. Smith got pretty grabby in 2022, getting called for 10 penalties this past season after only four in 2021. He opted not to participate in the bench press at the Combine or his Pro Day.
Bottom Line: Smith paired with Darius Rush to give South Carolina the best cornerback tandem in the country a season ago. There are some warts on tape, but I see a battle-tested and scheme-versatile corner with the size, athleticism, tenacity and instincts to challenge for significant playing time as a rookie.
Grade: Second-to-third round
Rob Rang is an NFL Draft analyst for FOX Sports. He has been covering the NFL Draft for more than 20 years, with work at FOX, Sports Illustrated, CBSSports.com, USA Today, Yahoo, NFL.com and NFLDraftScout.com, among others. He also works as a scout with the BC Lions of the Canadian Football League. Follow him on Twitter @RobRang.
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