- Paul Kuharsky, ESPN Staff Writer
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What did they get with the first pick of the second round?
A team in dire need of cornerstones might have found one for the defense in Johnathan Cyprien, the strong safety out of Florida International.
Initial reports out of Jacksonville are very solid. It’s obviously early, but Cyprien could be the linchpin of a young secondary that grows up together, helping slow the run and cover the sort of tight ends who are increasingly posing matchup issues around the league.
“The thing we really enjoyed about evaluating him was his football instincts," said DeWayne Walker, the Jaguars' defensive backs coach. “Some guys, they have that halo effect where they kind of feel the game, and he has a real good feel for the game.
"We’re going to have to smooth him out, and we’re going to have to polish him up a little bit. At the same time, he definitely brings a lot of good tools to the table.”
Not too may years ago, the AFC South had a major dearth of quality safeties. Gradually, the position has gotten better. If Cyprien can be an impact guy, he and free safety Dwight Lowery can make the position one of the Jaguars’ most solid.
Cyprien comes across as a polite, confident young man eager to learn and to prove himself. He grew up admiring Sean Taylor, Troy Polamalu and Detroit Lions safety Louis Delmas, who went to the same high school and ranks as a friend who has offered a great deal of encouragement.
A late bloomer at North Miami Beach (Fla.) High School, Cyprien dreamed of playing at Texas, but had just two scholarship offers -- from Central Michigan and FIU. He stayed in Florida, and a big senior season in college turned him into a borderline first-round pick.
The Jaguars surely could have gotten good value by trading out of the 33rd position in the draft, but stayed put and jumped on him.
“It’s a big position, a big role in this defense,” Cyprien said. “You’re allowed to do a lot of things. You’re allowed to have a lot of fun. I’m planning on having a lot of fun playing that position.
“I guess you could say it could be hard for a rookie to be a leader. I wouldn’t define it as that, personally. I’m just taking it head on.”
Of eight picks in the draft, the Jaguars spent five on defensive backs: Cyprien in the second round; UConn cornerback Dwayne Gratz in the third; Florida free safety Josh Evans in the sixth; and New Mexico State cornerback Jeremy Harris and Appalachian State cornerback Demetrius McCray both in the seventh.
The Jaguars have a handful of guys with experience for the kids to look to.
Marcus Trufant, a 10-year veteran corner, played on coach Gus Bradley’s defense in Seattle, and could be the nickelback. Another free-agent cornerback, Alan Ball, has played five seasons, but struggled in Houston last year. Safety Chris Prosinski, a fourth-rounder from 2011, should be a backup at best with Cyprien on board. Mike Harris could be a nice nickel candidate in his second season.
Given the uncertainty at the position, I rank the Jaguars’ cornerback group as the most competitive unit in the division.
If Jacksonville is going to be any good on the back end, it’s likely to be because of the draft class’ contribution.
“I think it’s fun for all of us,” Walker said. “These guys were needed. We’re going to be pretty young. It’s fun for all of us to get this group and develop it and prove people wrong …
“Being able to talk with them about the league, these guys are pretty mature. Coach Bradley, [defensive coordinator] Bob Babich, all of our coaches do a good job saying the right things to these guys to get them acclimated. So I think all of our rookies, not only the rookies in the secondary, have come into a situation where we are here to help them, we are here to develop them to be competitive football players.”
Walker, who was the head coach at New Mexico State from 2009 to 2012, where he posted a 10-40 record, left in January to join Bradley's staff. Previously, Walker coached defensive backs for the Washington Redskins, New York Giants, New England Patriots and at Cal. He was also defensive coordinator at UCLA.
The assistant coach is a straight shooter who has been telling the rookies about the identity he wants his players to have, Cyprien said. They need to be sound in the techniques they are taught, and they should all look the same on tape.
“I think it’s a challenge for him, I think it’s good for him,” Cyprien said of the influx of youth in the secondary. “I know we have him excited, because we just want to run around, and we’re hungry to learn and we’re asking a lot of questions.”
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