Chargers Draft Talk: Cornerback Targets
Head Coach Brandon Staley has said on multiple occasions that they consider themselves “a DB (defensive back) factory” and then added gasoline to that fire when he told everyone at the combine that they will “always” be looking for cornerbacks as long as he is the head coach.
I think we should expect the Chargers to draft at least two cornerbacks to add to the rotation this year. One of those could certainly come in the first round, depending on how the board shakes out in front of them. But overall, Staley is going to want to add competition and inject some juice into this unit. Thankfully, this is a deep cornerback class – at least in my opinion, so I believe we will see them double-dip.
First Round Options
Trent McDuffie – Washington
The University of Washington has become quite a “DB factory” themselves after churning out tons of NFL talent from their secondary units. Since 2015 they have had 9 defensive backs drafted, including Marcus Peters, Budda Baker, Byron Murphy, Taylor Rapp, and Elijah Molden. They’ll add two more to that list this year with McDuffie and Kyler Gordon.
McDuffie is the better option of the two and should be in the Chargers’ range with the 17th overall pick. According to NFL Mock Draft Database, he is the consensus third-ranked cornerback in this draft class. He is an outstanding prospect that has elite traits on tape, is a self-reported film junky, and apparently begged the Huskies coaches to allow him to play safety more often so he could be around the ball at a greater level. From a culture fit, and talent/ability standpoint, I have no doubt that McDuffie would be a great addition to the Chargers secondary.
The question the Chargers will have to ask themselves is if they are worried about the lack of size and length when it comes to their potential cornerback room if they were to add McDuffie into the fold. Asante Samuel Jr., whom the team drafted last year checked in at his pro day 5’10 and barely met the 30-inch arm threshold at 30.125 inches. They just signed J.C. Jackson, who checked in at the NFL combine at 5’9 and has arms measuring 31.5 inches. For comparison’s sake, McDuffie checked in at 5’10 and has sub-30-inch arms – officially 29.75 inches.
Now, McDuffie has fantastic ball skills and registered a 38.5-inch vertical jump at the Combine so he’s clearly explosive. I believe he has enough physical ability and mental capacity to make up the difference in order to play outside, but his lack of length will be a concern for several NFL teams. Maybe that applies to the Chargers situation in particular since they already have two relatively short corners locked up for the long term, maybe it doesn’t. If there’s anyone willing to go against the grain, it’s Staley.
Kaiir Elam – Florida
The folks at the database have Clemson’s Andrew Booth as the consensus fourth cornerback in the draft, but Booth has a concerning medical history (chronic knee issues/surgery and a recent core muscle surgery) that has moved him down my board in recent weeks. The primary beneficiary of that could be Elam, who does not have any medical concerns as far as I know. He also doesn’t share the same size/length concerns as McDuffie.
Elam is definitely a wildcard for the Chargers’ first-round pick, but he’s one worth mentioning. As we’ve heard from Daniel Popper last week, it does not appear Staley and company are super high on Michael Davis going forward. I expect them to be proactive in replacing him in this draft, and Elam would be a seamless replacement. His size, length, and speed profile are nearly identical to what Davis brings to the table. Elam has to work on his tackling but he is a significantly better player at this stage of his career as he’s entering the league. Pairing him long-term with Jackson, and Samuel Jr. could make a lot of sense from a diverse body type standpoint.
Hearkening back to last year, Staley mentioned how Joshua Palmer’s performance against top competition (namely Patrick Surtain II) stood out to him and was the driving factor in wanting to draft him. I’m of the belief that Elam’s performance against the pair of Alabama wide receivers Jameson Williams and John Metchie is the single best coverage game that I’ve watched on tape this season. That could be a feather in Elam’s cap as it pertains to the Chargers, just as it was for Palmer.
Note: Derek Stingley Jr. is the best corner in this draft and the Chargers do love him, but they would likely have to trade up to get him.
Third Round Options
Alontae Taylor – Tennessee
The Chargers under Staley have proven to put a lot of stock in connections that their coaching staff has. Secondary coach Derrick Ansley clearly vouched for Palmer last year, and he could do that again with Taylor – one of his former pupils. Aside from the built-in connection, I do really like Taylor and he made my personal top ten cornerback list.
He is a former wide receiver that improved each and every year in his responsibilities as a corner. He brings a big amount of speed, swagger, and ball skills to the table as an outside cornerback. I was also very impressed by the amount of physicality he brought to the position as a former wideout. Taylor is not afraid to come down and be aggressive at the point of attack, which is not something you usually see from receiver to cornerback converts. He also has taken a good amount of reps in the slot and as a box safety throughout his college career so he checks that versatility box that Staley covets so much. From a non-first rounder standpoint, Taylor is my ideal preemptive Davis replacement. I think Taylor should go in the third round next week.
Martin Emerson – Mississippi State
Sometimes the draft is about getting similar players in a later round, and Emerson to me is a very similar player to Elam but without the first-round draft cost. Both players are big, lanky, and physical cornerbacks. Elam is a better athlete and a much more nuanced coverage player. Emerson was mostly a deep zone cornerback while Elam can come in right away and play in multiple schemes.
I do believe that Emerson has a ton of good traits that are worth developing as a potential third/fourth-round pick. The two things I think he best brings to the table are his size and length (6’1 and 33-inch arms) and his ability as a read and react tackler. You can take that and work on the rest as he sits behind Davis and then potentially replaces him next year.
Damarri Mathis – Pittsburgh
Mathis is another player with connections to the Chargers coaching staff. Wide receivers coach Chris Beatty was on the Pitt Panthers coaching staff from 2019 to 2020, albeit on the opposite side of the ball. Mathis broke onto the scene in 2019 as one of the rising stars at the position and then, unfortunately, missed the 2020 season with an undisclosed non-football-related injury. Mathis returned for the 2021 season as a redshirt senior and picked up right where he left off as one of the best corners in the ACC.
Like Taylor, he also shined in position and team drills at the Senior Bowl – which is another important aspect of the scouting process for Tom Telesco historically. Mathis’ season in 2019 is probably better than anything Taylor or Emerson have put out and he is a little more explosive (jumped 43 inches in the vert and 11 feet in the broad), but teams might be wary of the injury and the regressed play so he could be pushed down the board.
Late Round Options
DaRon Bland – Fresno State. Ja’Sir Taylor – Wake Forest. Shaun Jolly – Appalachian State. Chase Lucas – Arizona State. I have not had a chance to get too much game tape of these players, but all four have met with the Chargers at some point in the draft process, be it at the Shrine Bowl or in the pro-day circuit. I think Lucas would be the first choice of the late day three guys but it obviously depends where you can get him.