The Arizona Cardinals head into the upcoming off-season with 29 players set to hit the free agent market. At the present time, no position group looks weaker than the team’s cornerback room, with Byron Murphy the only 2020 starter currently retained. With the future of former All-Pro Patrick Peterson up in the air, the Cardinals front office must look toward the future of the position in free agency and the draft. The Cardinals draft will probably have a focus on the cornerback position. This article will break down some Arizona Cardinals 2021 NFL Draft targets at cornerback.
Arizona Cardinals 2021 NFL Draft Targets, With a Focus on Cornerback
The Cardinals currently have a handful of cornerbacks under contract. Aside from Byron Murphy, Robert Alford remains under contract through 2021. However, Alford has missed the last two seasons. Injury concerns and game sharpness after a long lay-off effectively rule Alford out of effectively starting for Arizona. The team also has Jace Whittaker, who, despite being elevated from the practice squad several times in 2020, is more of a depth option at the position.
The primary absentees from the group are 2020 starters Patrick Peterson and Dre Kirkpatrick. Peterson in particular has been the face of Arizona’s defense for the last decade. Kirkpatrick, in his one year with the Cardinals, was a solid addition despite some ups and downs. However, he is likely to move on. Peterson has publicly stated his desire to stay with Arizona and that sentiment has been echoed by the team’s front office. General manager Steve Keim and owner Michael Bidwill have both noted that they would like to see Peterson retire in Cardinal red.
But regardless of Peterson’s situation, the Cardinals taking a cornerback with the 16th overall pick in the 2021 Draft is a likely option, given their lack of depth at the position. With Peterson aging, even if he remains in Arizona, the Cardinals have to think about life after the talented corner. Peterson’s tutelage could even be vital in developing a top prospect into a true NFL star.
At number 16, the Cardinals could be well poised to select from some of the best corners in the draft. Although some have suggested that no one in the 2021 class isn’t as highly rated as Jeff Okudah and C.J. Henderson were in 2020, there is still talent throughout the group.
Top Cornerback Prospects in the 2021 Draft
Arizona’s defense, under Vance Joseph, plays an aggressive style of coverage that requires impeccable technique and notable athleticism. Press man coverage is best suited to bigger corners with good footwork, fast, physical hands and exceptional discipline.
Patrick Surtain II
The son of former All-Pro defensive back Patrick Surtain, Patrick Surtain II enters the 2021 NFL Draft widely considered the best cornerback prospect. A two-year starter with the Alabama Crimson Tide, Surtain II boasts experience in an NFL-style defensive scheme. Notable footwork skills give him elite short-area quickness as well as fluidity in both press and off man coverage. Given the versatility of Alabama’s defense, Surtain II has been able to hone his abilities in various looks that include some zone coverage, although he excels in man coverage. He regularly exhibits good instincts and play recognition, as well as a willingness to play the ball. His ability to do so is testament to his skills in coverage. Comfortable covering anywhere on the field, Surtain II has the physicality and tackling ability to be effective at the line.
Surtain II’s only knock is people questioning his speed. But while he perhaps lacks elite downfield speed, his abilities in press man help to protect against getting beat deep.
It is highly unlikely that Surtain II will fall to the Cardinals at 16, with several teams above Arizona in need of help on the back end. However, in a scenario where Surtain II slides, the Cardinals would be a strong suitor. Not only would he be a perfect scheme fit in the Cardinals base defense, but he would offer Vance Joseph a little more versatility. Surtain II’s ability to play zone might help the Cardinals in the NFC West, where their man coverage has often been exploited by the shifting offensive systems of Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay.
Another second-generation star, Jaycee Horn’s father Joe Horn played over a decade in the NFL. However, after three years honing his talents in the SEC, the younger Horn is unlikely to follow his dad’s CFL route into the NFL. Another excellent man coverage player, Jaycee Horn is sharp and twitchy in coverage. He has the frame and willingness to be physical at the line of scrimmage, and he possesses the aggression to win press situations and the downfield speed to maintain tight coverage. Horn’s coverage abilities have allowed him to demonstrate a notable capacity for making ultra-competitive plays on the ball. Perhaps his best trait is his consistency in defending the ball throughout the process of the catch.
Horn’s tape reflects a player confident in his physical prowess. In some ways this is both his best and worst trait. Although talented, in some instances there are some technique issues. His fantastic closing speed covers for sometimes choppy transitions. Space has also proved an issue for Horn, who, in heads-up situations, has displayed a tendency to guess on some routes. His tackling is also not to the level expected of someone his size. Press coverage showcases Horn’s best traits whilst preventing bad habits from surfacing.
Slightly less refined than Surtain II, Horn has projections throughout the first round of the draft. With Surtain II unlikely to slide to 16, Horn could be a genuine option for Arizona. His size projects him to be a first-year starter, which the Cardinals will more or less require in 2021. A solid schematic fit, Horn is a strong candidate for the Cardinals first pick in the draft.
Rounding out the top cornerbacks available in the 2021 draft is Virginia Tech’s Caleb Farley. He has neither the SEC pedigree nor the NFL heritage of either Surtain II or Horn. However, Farley has perhaps the highest ceiling of the corners available in the 2021 NFL Draft. Farley’s projection as a first-round pick is a testament to the potential of his abilities. Despite a concerning injury history that includes a non-contact ACL injury in 2017 and only one full season in college football, Farley has showcased elite talent in a limited offering.
Farley’s past as a wide receiver is evident in his play, as he demonstrates a fantastic talent for locating the ball. This is a skill that is infinitely useful in man coverage schemes. His fluid coverage ability opens up opportunities to play the ball, and he has a motor that is on display when plays through the man and ball. He possesses the ball skills to be a playmaker in the NFL, with solid footwork and technique in the open field. Farley has true lockdown potential in coverage, although his tackling could use some work.
Injury history and lack of experience mean Farley could be a high ceiling/low floor option. Given Surtain II’s high projection and the volatility of Horn’s draft stock, Farley seems the most likely to be available later in the first round. Possibly the most dynamic of the top options, the Virginia Tech star would provide the Cardinals game-changing potential but his underlying issues could give the Cardinals front office and staff something to think about on draft night.
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