Defensive backs are a vital part of defense because they can set the tone of a game with a single play. Historically, teams have drafted well in this category. Bill Walsh of the 49ers started a dynasty by drafting three defensive backs in 1981 NFL Draft. The draft picks were Ronnie Lott, Carlton Williamson and Eric Wright, all of whom proved to be the backbone of a championship-caliber defense. They provided the spark the 49ers needed to win the Super Bowl in 1981, a season which started a dynasty. Recently, the Seahawks built their defensive backfield through the draft and eventually won the Super Bowl due to their play. Players such as Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas put fear in the heart of opposing offenses for years with smart and physical play. The 2018 NFL Draft looks to be loaded with talent. A team needing help in the defensive backfield would be wise to at least look at this group of players.
Minkah Fitzpatrick – Alabama, Defensive Back
Arguably the most talented defensive player in the draft, the Alabama product is more than ready to fulfill his potential in the NFL. He joined Charles Woodson and Patrick Peterson as the only players to win both the Jim Thorpe and the Chuck Bednarick Award in the same season. He finished 2017 with 60 tackles, 9 pass breakups and one forced fumble. Additionally, he had 1.5 sacks and a single interception. While these statistics are not the most attractive keep in mind that traditionally quarterbacks tend to shy away from throwing in the direction of an elite defensive back. He had already had two years of experience going into 2017. It was his presence on the field which proved to be just enough to suffocate defenses. He finished his collegiate career with nine interceptions, including six in 2016, as well as 4.5 sacks. His college coach, Nick Saban, was very impressed with his work ethic. This says a lot because Saban has won six national championships. Fitzpatrick is considered to between positions at 6’1” 201 lbs. While many consider this to be detrimental, in this case, it is not. He has so much talent and so much intelligence he can play anywhere in the defensive backfield. The team who drafts this player will be getting a leader and a playmaker.
Derwin James – Florida State, Defensive Back
He has excellent size, 6’3” 213 lbs. and uses it to his advantage. He had 84 tackles, 11 pass break-ups and two interceptions in 2017. Due to his size, he has the unique ability to be used as a hybrid safety/linebacker. The closest comparison would be Troy Polamalu, who routinely played close to the line of scrimmage even though he was a safety.
Denzel Ward– Ohio State, Cornerback/Nickel back
Ward is possibly the best cornerback prospect in the draft. He has decent size at 5’10” 191 lbs. and solid coverage instincts. He ranked in the top 10 in the nation with 15 pass break-ups. He also had 37 tackles along with two interceptions. While the NFL is taking more notice of cornerbacks with more size, Ward should make an excellent nickel back. He will fit into any scheme due to his intelligence and instincts.
Joshua Jackson – Iowa, Cornerback
He only has one year of starting experience but he made the most of his opportunity. He had eight interceptions (which ranked for first in the nation) and had 48 tackles. He has good height, 6’1”, but needs to bulk up his 192-pound frame. While teams may be shy of his lack of experience, there is no reason to believe he is not top-25 material.
Each of these players has the intangibles and the ability to become elite defensive backs in the NFL. While some are skilled at only one position, don’t underestimate their potential. With the league becoming more pass oriented by the year, defensive backs are more valuable than ever. While it is true that a team’s coverage is only as good as its pass rush, defensive backs need to be smart with their play. These players fit the bill and have the work ethic to back up their status as first-round draft pick material. Any NFL team would be fortunate to have one of these players.