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Friday, March 11, 2011
2011 NFL draft: Cornerback conundrum

By Mike Sando

LSU's Patrick Peterson might be the best player in the 2011 NFL draft, but history stands firmly against him becoming the first overall choice.

A cornerback has never gone first overall in a draft.

Pat Yasinskas' piece on the matter got me thinking about the Arizona Cardinals' and San Francisco 49ers' outlook for the position this year. Arizona picks fifth. San Francisco picks seventh. A cornerback could stand as the highest-ranked player available when the Cardinals and 49ers choose. San Francisco in particular has a clear need at the position.

Patrick Peterson
Coverage skills and the ability to return kicks make Patrick Peterson a valuable commodity.
What to do? And what about that history on taking cornerbacks early in the draft?

Let's set aside quarterback for the sake of this discussion. The 49ers and Cardinals both need one. Both would have to strongly consider drafting one in the first round if they had one of the prospects rated highly. Let's assume, for our purposes, that they head in another direction near the top of the draft.

Scouting reports on Peterson suggest he's a special talent, not only at cornerback but as a returner. The 49ers could use his services in both capacities.

The Cardinals have more pressing needs in other areas. Their new defensive coordinator, Ray Horton, is a former secondary coach and NFL cornerback. He'll have a strong opinion on Peterson, but he also badly needs pass-rush help at outside linebacker. If the Cardinals have an outside linebacker rated nearly as high as Peterson, they'll have to consider upgrading their pass rush.

A quick look at the eight cornerbacks drafted among the top seven overall choices in the past 15 drafts, ordered by overall position:

Third overall

Shawn Springs, Seattle Seahawks (1997): Springs picked off 33 passes and went to one Pro Bowl in 13 seasons. Injuries dogged him. He started 10 or fewer games six times. Springs also served a four-game suspension for violating the NFL's policy on steroids and anabolic substances. Springs was a good player for a long time, but his raw talent suggested he would make a greater impact.

Fourth overall

Charles Woodson, Oakland Raiders (1998): Woodson is a seven-time Pro Bowl choice. He was the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year in 2009. He played a key role in Green Bay's development into a Super Bowl champion. Woodson has 47 interceptions and has returned 10 of them for touchdowns. These are the sorts of credentials that will make Woodson a candidate for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Fifth overall

Terence Newman, Dallas Cowboys, 2003: Newman has two Pro Bowl appearances in his past four seasons and 28 career interceptions. He has started 16 games six times in eight seasons. The Cowboys signed Newman to a lucrative extension in 2008. They like him. Newman is a very good player. Sometimes that is good enough, even for prospects drafted this early. The two players drafted immediately after Newman -- Johnathan Sullivan and Byron Leftwich -- make the Cowboys' decision look quite smart by comparison.

Bryant Westbrook, Detroit Lions, 1997: Injuries derailed Westbrook's career, preventing complete analysis. Westbrook suffered a torn Achilles' tendon in his fourth season and another one in his sixth season. He was out of the league by age 28. Westbrook picked off 13 passes and bounced back from injuries admirably, but they caught up to him in the end.

Quentin Jammer, San Diego Chargers, 2002: The Chargers named Jammer one of the 50 greatest players in their history despite perceptions that he hasn't quite lived up to expectations. Those perceptions could be misguided. Jammer is not flashy, but he is a good, durable cornerback. Nnamdi Asomugha and Champ Bailey have overshadowed him in the AFC West and made it tough for Jammer to earn Pro Bowl recognition.

Sixth overall

Pacman Jones, Tennessee Titans (2005): Off-field problems ran Jones out of the league. He returned with Cincinnati but has not come close to meeting expectations.

Seventh overall

Joe Haden, Cleveland Browns (2010): Haden picked off six passes during his rookie season. It's too early to size up his career, obviously, but Haden is off to a promising start.

Champ Bailey, Washington Redskins (1999): Ten Pro Bowl appearances and shutdown coverage skills make Bailey an obvious choice for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Not much more to say.