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3 severely underrated cornerback prospects in the 2021 NFL draft

EUGENE, OREGON - NOVEMBER 30: Oregon Ducks cornerback Thomas Graham Jr. #4 reacts to a play during the first half of the game against the Oregon State Beavers at Autzen Stadium on November 30, 2019 in Eugene, Oregon.
(Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)

These 3 cornerbacks have a track record of production that far exceeds their current level of hype in the NFL draft community.

Thomas Graham Jr., Oregon

Prior to opting out of the 2020 college football season due to COVID-19 concerns, Oregon cornerback Thomas Graham Jr. was in the midst of putting together a successful collegiate career that could have landed him near the top of the 2021 NFL draft. Fast forward to the present day, and Graham is one of the most underrated prospects in the entire draft class, currently ranked as the internet’s consensus No. 165 overall prospect by NFL Mock Draft Database.

When you dig into the resume that Graham was putting together in Eugene, it becomes tough to fathom why he is not getting more love.

Ranked by ESPN as the No. 8 overall recruit coming out of the state of California in the 2017 recruiting class, Graham started all but one of Oregon’s 13 games as a true freshman and went on to start all 27 of the team’s games throughout his sophomore and junior seasons. He developed into a highly active on-ball playmaker as he collected 40 passes defended over his first three seasons, which stood as the best career total among all active FBS cornerbacks entering the 2020 season.

From 2018-19, Graham recorded a pass breakup or an interception on 21.9% of the passes thrown his way, which is more than twice as frequent as the average NFL cornerback in 2020 (10.8%). He ranked at the 95th percentile among qualified FBS corners with an 82.9 coverage grade at Pro Football Focus in 2019 and was similarly tremendous in 2018 as he placed at the 88th percentile with a 79.8 grade.

The main question marks for Graham are his length and size. Possessing 31-inch arms (33rd percentile among cornerbacks) while standing at 5-foot-10 and 193 pounds, Graham is a bit on the lanky side, and that was a key factor in why he committed 21 penalties throughout his Ducks career. However, that didn’t stop Graham from thriving as a boundary cornerback. He lined up in the slot on only 0.7% of his career snaps, proving he can live on the outside despite his frame.

New York Jets, Jets X-Factor

In fact, even with his lack of bulk or length, Graham performed much better in man coverage than in zone coverage. Back in his 2018 sophomore season, for example, Graham allowed 5.0 yards per target and a 34.3 passer rating in man coverage versus 7.8 yards per target and a 94.4 passer rating in zone coverage. That year, Oregon favored zone coverage as Graham played man on only 29.3% of his coverage snaps, so perhaps he could fare even better at the NFL level if he lands in a scheme that favors man-to-man concepts for its outside cornerbacks.

Whether or not the Jets will be the right team for Graham remains to be seen. New defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich was part of a Falcons team that had its outside cornerbacks playing man coverage at about an average rate in 2020 and a top-10 rate in 2019. On the other hand, Robert Saleh‘s 49ers squad assigned man coverage roles to its cornerbacks at a substantially below-average rate in each of the past two seasons. It will be interesting to see how Saleh and Ulbrich blend their respective philosophies to mold this Jets defense.

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