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Packers: 15 Potential nickel cornerbacks to target for Joe Barry

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There are ton of talented slot defensive backs in the 2021 NFL Draft. Let’s take a look at 15 that could be on Green Bay Packers’ radar.

Joe Barry, the new Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator mentioned in his introductory press conference that a team can never have enough potential nickel cornerbacks.

“You better have pass rushers and you better have really good defensive backs,” Barry said. “Specifically that nickel position. That Star position. I think it’s vital…I’m from the school where I think you can’t have enough guys that are potential nickels.”

The good news for Barry is the 2021 NFL Draft is chock full of talented slot defensive backs. Elijah Molden is the best pure slot cornerback in the draft. 

There are guys like Marco Wilson and Shaun Wade that excelled in the slot in 2019 but struggled playing on the boundary in 2020. 

Then there are versatile defensive backs like Trevon Moehrig and Jevon Holland that are safeties by name but can man the slot position.

Then there are guys like Thomas Graham and Asante Samuel Jr that played on the boundary in college, but their best fit at the next level might be inside. Let’s take a look at all of them. 

Elijah Molden, DB, Washington

Let’s just start with this. Molden doesn’t meet the “RAS” or the height thresholds for the Packers. If Molden is there at 62 Gutekunst may look the other way and go ahead and select the best nickel cornerback in the draft to give the Packers a day-one starter at nickel. 

He has outstanding short-area quickness and has a high football IQ. He shows a great understanding of leverage and route recognition. 

“Pattern recognition and instincts are my two greatest strengths,” Molden said. “All that stuff has to do with confidence and trust yourself and trust what you see on tape. You don’t ever want to be thinking out on the field or else your body will be stiff and you’ll be hesitant.” 

Molden is what you want in a nickel cornerback. He has great instincts. The former Huskies cornerback has good short-area quickness. He’s a savage against the run and has plus-ball skills. 

“The nickel position at UW is important,” Molden said. “All you have to do is look at the tape and see what kind of movements we do and see that the nickel has to know the whole defense. Those skills are transferable. I’ll play anywhere I’m needed. I’m most comfortable at nickel. Only strictly because I’ve gotten the most reps there.”

Molden is at his best in the slot. However, he played some safety this past season at Washington. That type of versatility would allow Barry to get creative with how he deploys Adrain Amos and Darnell Savage Jr. 

Aaron Robinson, CB, UCF

Over the past two seasons, Robinson has racked up 1,152 snaps in the slot. In the process, the former Alabama cornerback has recorded 100 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, one interception, and 15 pass deflections.

Robinson has great short-area twitch. He has a high football IQ and shows a great understanding of route concepts. He jumps routes with great closing burst. 

Robinson has excellent footwork and fluid change of direction skills to turn and run with wide receivers. He’s able to flip his hips without slowing down.  He’s a well-put-together athlete, capable of sticking in the wide receiver’s hip pocket.

Robinson is an aggressive run defender. He flies downhill with reckless abandon and throws his body around. He does a great job of blowing up wide receiver screens.

Robinson played on the boundary during his time at UCF. But, he’s at his best when he’s closer to the line of scrimmage.

Trevon Moehrig, DB, TCU

If the Packers were to draft Moehrig in the first round a lot of folks assume it means that Darnell Savage Jr would move down to the nickel role. It’s very possible and likely that the Packers envision Moehrig playing the Star position in Barry’s defense.

Moehrig is a rangy, centerfield type safety. He also has the versatility to drop down near the line of scrimmage and man the slot, covering tight ends and wide receivers. 

He’s so smooth in his backpedal and if he gets beat off the line of scrimmage he has the recovery speed to get back into the play. MoehrigHe has the quickness to mirror the shifty slot wide receivers.

Moehrig did everything but serve the popcorn during his time at TCU. He did it all for TCU. He played safety. He lined up in the slot. He was an asset against the run. He was a game-changer. 

He’s the definition of a playmaker. Let him play the star position and the Packers could possibly get Charles-Woodson-like production. 

Jevon Holland, DB, Oregon

Holland is listed at safety, but he played more snaps in the slot (591) than he did at safety (24) in 2019. That season Holland recorded 6 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, four interceptions, and eight pass deflections. He also showed off his punt return ability by averaging 15.3 yards per return.

Holland has great instincts. He sees things before they happen. Holland is like Dr. Strange, sitting there on Titan seeing all the different scenarios play out before they happened. 

Holland has good footwork and good length. As a high school wide receiver, Holland has outstanding ball skills (19 pass deflections and nine interceptions). 

Holland, like Moehrig could be a player they target with intentions of having him play the star possession. He checks all the boxes. He’s excellent in coverage, he’s versatile, he’s solid in run support and he has outstanding ball skills. 

Zech McPhearson, CB, Texas Tech

McPhearson started his career at Penn State before transferring to Texas Tech in 2019. During his two seasons at Lubbock, McPhearson spent time playing on the boundary and in the slot. In his two seasons at Texas Tech, McPhearson recorded 104 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, 15 pass deflections, and four interceptions.

McPhearson has great short-area quickness. He has easy movement skills and is able to flip his hips to mirror wide receivers. The former four-star recruit has excellent ball skills and plays the ball like a wide receiver. 

McPhearson is aggressive against the run. He flies downhill and throws his body around. McPhearson also brings special teams value on coverage units.

The Athletic’s Dane Brugler pegged McPhearson as the 16th best cornerback in a loaded class. Here is what the NFL Draft analyst had to say about the Texas Tech cornerback.

“McPhearson has an intriguing mix of fluidity, toughness and cover skills and with improved play recognition, he should compete for NFL starting reps, fitting both man and zone teams with inside/outside ability.”

Marco Wilson, CB, Florida

If the Packers draft Wilson, they’re playing him strictly in the slot. That’s where he’s best suited to play. That’s where he played primarily in 2019 and that was his best season with the Gators, recording five pass deflections and three interceptions.

Wilson is an outstanding athlete. At Florida’s pro day he clocked a 4.34 40-yard dash. He had a 43.5 inch vertical and a broad jump of 11-4. 

The former five-star recruit is a fluid athlete. He’s smooth in his backpedal and has excellent footwork. The issue is he has no feel for the game. Right now he’s a better athlete than football player. 

Wilson is a day three pick all day long. He has the athleticism to be an outstanding nickel cornerback. There is just too much inconsistency to his game that you have to wonder if his football skills will ever catch up to his athleticism. On day three, it would be worth the gamble to find out. 

Tre Brown, CB, Oklahoma

Brown started 33 games for the Sooners during his four years in Norman. Brown is undersized at 5’10”, but he overcomes that lack of length with his game-changing quickness. At Oklahoma’s pro day, Brown ran a 4.40 40-yard dash. 

He possesses excellent footwork. He’s quick-footed to match wide receivers in press. Brown has excellent recovery speed and doesn’t panic when the ball is in the air. 

Brown looks the part of a nickel cornerback. He’s got the quickness to mirror the shifter slot receivers. However, he played mostly on the boundary at Oklahoma.

Brown is also a dynamic return man. As a sophomore, Brown earned second-team All Big-12 as a kick returner, averaging 23.7 yards per return.

That outside-inside versatility, along with his ability to contribute on special teams from day one will make him an attractive late day two target or day-three player for the Packers.

Avery Williams, CB, Boise State

Williams is undersized (5-9), but he plays bigger than his frame. He’s tenacious at the catch point. The four-year starter does a good job of playing through the wide receiver, disrupting him at the catch point. He competes with a quiet confidence

Williams has fancy footwork, with good short-area quickness. He has a high football IQ and shows good route recognition.

Williams is an absolute dog against the run. He may be undersized, but he’s as tough as nails in the box.

There may not be a better special teams player in the draft than Williams. In 2017, Williams averaged 24.7 yards per kick return. As a punt returner, Williams led the Mountain West by averaging 11.2 yards per punt return. He also returned two punts for touchdowns.

As a redshirt sophomore, Williams returned one kickoff for a touchdown. He blocked one field goal and averaged seven yards per punt return. 

Williams earned Mountain West Special Teams Player of the Year in 2019. Williams blocked two kicks and returned two punts for touchdowns. The former walk-on averaged 13.2 yards per punt return, which led the Mountain West. 

This past season, Williams blocked two punts, one of which he recovered in the end zone. He returned two kickoffs for touchdowns and averaged 28 yards per return. As a punt returner, Williams returned two punts for touchdowns and averaged 15.3 yards per return. To no surprise, he earned all-conference as a returner for the second straight year.

Williams is a player that I’d be pounding the table for on day three. He’d help the Packers on special teams from day one and would add excellent depth to the cornerback position.

Trill Williams, DB, Syracuse

Williams played everywhere in the secondary for Syracuse. He played in the slot. He played on the boundary. He played safety. 

Williams logged 576 snaps in the slot over the past two seasons according to PFF, and that’s where he may be best suited to play at the next level.

“In my opinion, I’m the best all-around football player in this draft,” Williams said. “I play multiple positions. I play safety, I play corner, I play nickel. I can be in the box. My versatility alone separates me from a lot of other players.”

Williams has outstanding size and length for the position. He smothers wide receivers at the catch point and chokes passing lanes with his length. 

In run support, Williams comes downhill in a blur. He’s willing to throw his body around. There are times where he comes in out of control and attempts the big hit, instead of just wrapping up.

Asante Samuel Jr, CB, FSU

The Packers have met virtually with Samuel Jr twice and he has the ability to play on the boundary or in the slot. 

Samuel Jr isn’t the biggest cornerback around (5’10), but he makes up for it with his outstanding footwork and reactionary quickness. He has loose hips and is able to stick in the wide receiver’s hip pocket. 

Samuel Jr has great instincts. He shows great route recognition and is able to close on the ball quickly. He has natural ball skills. He plays bigger than his frame and is tenacious at the catch point. He finished his career at Florida State with four interceptions and 29 pass deflections. 

Samuel Jr is a sure tackler. The former four-star recruit rarely gives up any yards after the catch. When he has a free lane in run support he can be a problem for opposing offenses.

Ar’Darius Washington, DB, TCU

Washington is listed as a safety, but he may be best suited to play in the slot at the next level. He logged 218 slot snaps over the past two seasons for TCU. Here is what Brugler had to say about Washington’s best fit at the next level. 

“Washington has a very small margin for error due to his lack of length, but his cover awareness and play range help make up for his size limitations. He projects best in a nickel role at the next level.”

Washington’s greatest strength is his ability to make plays on the ball. He goes up and attacks with a “my ball” mentality. The TCU safety has a high football IQ. His instincts and mental processing are second to none. 

With his smaller frame (5’8, 178 pounds) one would think Washington would be a liability against the run. That’s not the case. He comes downhill in a flash and is a sure tackler.

Washington is a playmaker. Plain and simple. If he is on the board when the Packers are on the clock in the second or third round he could be a player that Packers target to give the defense another playmaker and add versatility to the secondary.

“Where do I see myself? Wherever the ball is to be honest,” Washington said during TCU’s pro day. “If it’s going to be a run, I want to be in the box. If it’s going to be over the top, I want to be over the top. Right now I’m flexible to play any position they want me at. If they want me to play nickel, I’ll play nickel. If they want me to play safety, I’ll play safety. I’m going to be the best at either one.”

Thomas Graham Jr, CB, Oregon

Because of Holland’s presence in the slot, Graham Jr played almost exclusively on the boundary for the Ducks. Graham Jr looks like an NFL nickel cornerback with his size and short-area quickness. 

Graham had tremendous ball production at Eugene, with eight career interceptions and 40 pass deflections. If it’s in his zip code he’s going to make a play on the ball. 

He may be undersized at 5’10” but he plays bigger with his tenacity. That tenacious playstyle shows up in run support. Graham is absolutely fearless. He flys downhill like a missile and throws his body around.

Graham has good short-area quickness and excellent footwork. With his frame and fancy footwork, he may be best suited to play nickel at the next level, a position he rarely played during his time at Eugene.

Shaun Wade, DB, Ohio State

The Shaun Wade playing boundary cornerback experiment was a disaster. Throw the 2020 film on Wade in the trash and focus on what he did playing in the slot during the 2019 season. 

Wade was one of the best slot cornerbacks in college football during the 2019 season. A season in which he only gave up 261 yards in coverage and one touchdown (PFF).

Wade is at his best close to the line of scrimmage. He’s a physical open-field tackler, who has a hunger for the physical side of the game.

Wade has natural ball skills and has a high football IQ. He’s quick to get his eyes on the ball and plays with a “my ball mentality.” 

Those ball skills really shined when Wade was in the slot. According to PFF, Wade finished with four interceptions and 13 pass deflections when he was in the slot. 

Brandon Stephens, CB, SMU

Stephens started his collegiate career at UCLA as a running back. He transferred to SMU in 2019 and made the move to cornerback.

During his first season at the new position, Stephens recorded 49 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, and 12 pass deflections. This past season he recorded 43 tackles, one tackle for loss, 11 pass deflections, and one interception.

For a player that’s new to the cornerback position, Stephens has a great understanding of route concepts and is quick to break on the ball. 

Here is what Brugler had to say about the SMU cornerback. 

“Stephens was the right cornerback in former defensive coordinator Kevin Kane’s 3-3-5 base scheme, occasionally seeing snaps in the nickel…Stephens is a good sized athlete with the feet and hips that have translated well from running back to defensive back. He competes with a cover-and-clobber attitude and is still learning the meaning of “subtle” contact downfield.”

Kary Vincent Jr, DB, LSU

Vincent has speed to burn. There is a reason why he was a member of LSU’s track team. That world-class speed was on full display at LSU’s pro day when he clocked a 4.33 40-yard dash. 

Vincent has quick feet and loose hips to mirror wide receivers. He looks smooth in his backpedal. He does a good job of staying on top of the routes. 

Vincent has good ball skills, showing natural hands. He chokes passing lanes and if the ball is in his zip code he’s going to try to make the big play, rather than just forcing an incompletion. 

Aside from his speed, Vincent’s greatest strength is his versatility. He is at his best in the slot. However, he can play safety and he can play out on the boundary. 

“I feel like I’m the best slot corner in the SEC,” Vincent Jr said. “I think I’m the best slot corner in this draft.”

There is a lot to like with Vincent. With his quickness, versatility, and ball production the tools are there to be a very good nickel cornerback at the next level.

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Talferd Jude

Wow! Thank you for this. You’re right, it was prefect late night reading, esp. after I just finished skimming through PFN’s NFL Draft Guide. It was so refreshing to read an article that understands the Packer’s needs, but also understanding the Packer’s requirements for position and most importantly to Gute, RAS! I think the only guy on the list that wouldn’t measure up to the RAS standard is Ar’ Darius Washington. You article even turned me around on Asante Samuel jr. Before the read I was pretty luke warm on the guy, but now I can see him being a real asset in the slot/nickel. You even mentioned some guys that weren’t on my radar at all: McPhearson out of Texas Tech, Stephens out of SMU and Wade-OSU (I forgot how good he was in the slot). These guys had great workouts, posting RAS numbers of 9.56 (McPhearson) and 9.20 (Stephens) (Wade didn’t test). I would be happy with any of these players, given the hope that Gute wouldn’t “reach” with some. But I would be overjoyed if he maybe traded up to get Trevon Moehrig, if he is still there in the 1st at 21-22, or giving up a 4th and a 5th even to trade way up in the 2nd to get Jevon Holland (I hope Gute was at the OU pro-day to watch him). These are 2 of my absolute favorite players in the draft. I think they would have a huge impact and an immediate one, much like the impact Charles Woodson had for our Defense, a resemblance you astutely pointed out re: Moehrig. Anyway, great read! Please do more of these comprehensive, position focused Packer Draft Boards! Thank you again!

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