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Build-A-Ballard: Who the Colts may target at cornerback in the 2021 NFL Draft

Which corners in the 2021 draft fit Ballard’s preferred mold?

South Carolina v Vanderbilt Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

One of my favorite and most successful series with Stampede Blue is back for another run in 2021. Yes, it’s the return of the Build-A-Ballard series where we look at common themes and traits in past Chris Ballard draft picks and see which players for the upcoming NFL Draft fit the mold for the Colts.

The goal is to use Ballard’s time in Kansas City— where he was the Director of Player Personnel or Director of Football Operations from 2013 to 2016— and his time in Indy to figure out who he may covet come draft time.

We already know Ballard loves athleticism and leadership on and off the field but this series hopes to shed more light on traits he is looking for and help to uncover some of the players he may target in the draft.

The focus today will be on the Colts’ pass coverage as we look at the cornerback position. Which cornerbacks in this class fit the Ballard mold?


Past Drafted Players

During Ballard’s tenure in Indianapolis and Kansas City, his organizations have drafted twelve cornerbacks in seven drafts. Ballard seems to throw a ton of draft capital at this position, as 2018 was the only year that he didn’t use a draft pick on the position. Six of the twelve draft picks used on corners were with draft picks in the first two days of the draft.

We will examine six of the twelve prospects to find common traits. The players that we will exclude from this piece are Sanders Commings (5th Round, 2013), Eric Murray (4th Round, 2016), D.J. White (6th Round, 2016), Nate Hairston (5th Round, 2017), and Marvell Tell (5th Round, 2019) but all five of these players fit the same general mold that we will look at today.

The only new addition to this list, who will also be excluded, is Isaiah Rodgers who was a 6th round pick in 2020. He will seem like an outlier to the parameters set in this piece but Colts’ scout Mike Derice even said that he was a bit of an outlier so that will be taken into account when looking at traits of these players.


Phillip Gaines, CB, Rice (2014)— 3rd Round Pick

Size:

6’0” 193 pounds with 31 7/8 inch arms

Measurables:

40 Time: 4.38 seconds / Bench Press: 11 reps / Vertical Jump: 36.5 inches / Broad Jump: 122 inches / 3-Cone: 6.62 seconds

Career Stats:

175 total tackles, 11 tackles for a loss, 38 pass deflections, 4 interceptions, and 1 forced fumble

Overview of Pick:

Gaines was a hardworking, productive corner out of Rice. Nolan Nawrocki mentioned how he “can be deployed in zone coverage”, had “good production on the ball”, and is “tough and competitive.” His major concerns coming out of Rice were his durability concerns and his struggles in man coverage. He also had concerns with his underdeveloped technique and play.

Gaines has been an average corner in the NFL as he is now on his fourth team in six seasons. He was mostly a reserve corner in Houston this past year.


Marcus Peters, CB, Washington (2015)— 1st Round

Size:

6’0” 197 pounds with 31 1/2 inch arms

Measurables:

40 Time: 4.53 seconds / Bench Press: 17 reps / Vertical Jump: 37.5 inches / Broad Jump: 121 inches / 3-Cone: 7.08 seconds

Career Stats:

129 total tackles, 9.5 tackles for a loss, 16 pass deflections, 11 interceptions, and 1 forced fumble

Overview of Pick:

Peters was a talented, yet troubled, prospect out of Washington. Lance Zierlein noted that he excelled at “contesting catches and often comes away the winner on 50/50 throws” and how he “competes hard out of press-man coverage and tries to intimidate receivers with his physicality.” He also was noted as being “confident and tough” on the football field. His weaknesses were his raw technique and his suspensions leading to his dismissal from Washington.

Peters has had an odd NFL career as he was dominant early for the Chiefs. He was then traded to the Los Angeles Rams in 2018 then again traded to the Baltimore Ravens in 2019 just a year later. He has maintained his high level of play despite the multiple trades.


Steven Nelson, CB, Oregon State (2015)— 3rd Round

Size:

5’10” 197 pounds with 30 5/8 inch arms

Measurables:

40 Time: 4.49 seconds / Bench Press: 19 reps / Vertical Jump: 34.5 inches / Broad Jump: 115 inches / 3-Cone: 6.88 seconds

Career Stats:

122 total tackles, 2 tackles for a loss, 16 pass deflections, and 8 interceptions

Overview of Pick:

Nelson was a tough corner who played his way into the Senior Bowl out of Oregon State. Lance Zierlein had his strengths “very physical and aggressive for the position” and how he “displays closing burst and ball skills to consistently contest passes.” His biggest weaknesses were his struggles in man coverage and his overall limited athleticism.

Nelson was a bit of a disappointment for the Chiefs before turning in a career year in 2018 where he tallied 4 interceptions for the team. He is currently a lock down corner for the Steelers and one of the better players on that talented defense.


KeiVarae Russell, CB, Notre Dame (2016)— 3rd Round

Size:

5’11” 192 pounds with 31 5/8 inch arms

Measurables (Pro Day):

40 Time: 4.49 seconds / Bench Press: 17 reps / Vertical Jump: 38.5 inches / Broad Jump: 134 inches / 3-Cone: 6.84 seconds

Career Stats:

169 total tackles, 7 tackles for a loss, 12 pass deflections, 5 interceptions, and 2 forced fumbles

Overview of Pick:

Russell was a very talented yet oft-injured corner out of Notre Dame in 2016. Lance Zierlein noted his strengths as “observant from zone and off coverage” and “looks to do it the right way as a tackler.” Zierlein also mentioned how Russell had “smooth hips and light feet opening from press.” His biggest weaknesses coming out were his medical concerns and his poor overall ball skills.

Russell was ultimately a disappointment for the Chiefs as they waived him before he ever played a game for the team. He barely made an impact with the Bengals in three seasons with the team and is currently a free agent.


Quincy Wilson, CB, Florida (2017)— 2nd Round

Size:

6’1” 211 pounds with 32 1/4 inch arms

Measurables:

40 Time: 4.54 seconds / Bench Press: 14 reps / Vertical Jump: 32 inches / Broad Jump: 118 inches / 3-Cone: 6.86 seconds

Career Stats:

81 total tackles, 4.5 tackles for a loss, 14 pass deflections, 6 interceptions, and 1 forced fumble

Overview of Pick:

Wilson was a talented corner who fell to the Colts in the second round of the 2017 NFL Draft. Lance Zierlein mentioned how he “can maul receivers off line of scrimmage and eliminate them from a route if they don’t get clean release against his press” and how he was “willing to stick his nose in as a tackler.” Zielein also mentioned how Wilson was “very competitive” and “willing to accept the challenge of taking on a team’s top wideout.” His biggest weaknesses were his raw technique and below-average athleticism.

After a disappointing rookie season, Wilson turned it around in 2018 and was able to fight his way into being a top-three corner on the team. He then took a step back in 2019 with the Colts as he was a healthy scratch for a majority of the games. He was eventually traded to the Jets for a 6th round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. He only appeared in three games for the Jets before being waived late in the season. He is now a member of the New York Giants.


Rock Ya-Sin, CB, Temple (2019)— 2nd Round

Size:

5’11” 192 pounds with 32-inch arms

Measurables:

40 Time: 4.51 seconds / Bench Press: 18 reps / Vertical Jump: 39.5 inches / Broad Jump: 120 inches / 3-Cone: 7.31 seconds

Career Stats (one season at Temple):

47 total tackles, 2 tackles for a loss, 12 pass deflections, and 2 interceptions

Overview of Pick:

Ya-Sin was a Senior Bowl standout that the Colts took in the second round of the 2019 NFL Draft. Despite only playing one college season at a Division I school, Ya-Sin flew up draft boards and went 34th overall due to his play. The Draft Network’s Kyle Crabbs described Ya-Sin as “super physical” and “offers goo tackling skills.” Press man coverage and competitiveness were seen as major strengths. His weaknesses were generally viewed as his below-average athleticism and his one year of FBS experience.

Ya-Sin was a bit up and down as a rookie but finished the year strong. While there was a lot of optimism going into year two, he never took that expected step forward. He is now entering a pivotal year three that could make or break his NFL career.


Changes from last season

There won’t be too many changes to this one after this past draft for the Colts. Rodgers was an outlier to what they typically do at corner so he can’t really be factored into this process too much. Athletic concerns will be changed to “long speed concerns” though as that was a mistyped mention in my previous pieces. Ballard likes corners to be athletic but the long speed isn’t super important to him. Overall though, I think this is one of the stronger predictive positions for this series.


Common Traits

Here are the common traits that can help us build a rough mold of what Ballard might look for in rookie corners:

  • Typically likes 6’0”+ height for his corners (will make exceptions if a shorter corner is lengthy)
  • At least 31-inch arms (Nelson the only outlier)
  • Strengths: Tackling, strong in press, good in zone, competitive/tough
  • Weaknesses: Struggles in off-man, long speed concerns, injury concerns
  • Ballard Trademark: Team Captain/Senior Bowl selection

2021 Draft Players Who Fit


1.) Ifeatu Melifonwu, Syracuse

Size:

6’2” 205 pounds

Arm Length: 32.2”

Measurables:

40 Time: 4.48 seconds / Bench Press: 16 reps / Vertical Jump: 41.5 inches / Broad Jump: 134 inches / 3-Cone: 7.01 seconds

Career Stats:

88 total tackles, 5 tackles for a loss, 19 pass deflections, 3 interceptions, and 1 sack

Why He Fits:

Melifonwu has to be the most obvious Chris Ballard fit in this class at the cornerback position. At 6’2” 212 pounds, he is a strong cornerback with tackling skills that have some teams wanting to move him to safety. He also possesses great length that allows him to succeed in press coverage and has solid lateral movement for a corner of his stature. Add in that he was a Senior Bowl player as well and I’m sure he is at the top of the binder for Ballard in this class.


2.) Jaycee Horn, South Carolina

Size:

6’0” 205 pounds

Arm Length: 33”

Measurables:

40 Time: 4.4 seconds / Bench Press: 19 reps / Vertical Jump: 41.5 inches / Broad Jump: 131 inches / 3-Cone: N/A

Career Stats:

101 total tackles, 7 tackles for a loss, 23 pass deflections, 2 interceptions, 3 sacks, and 2 forced fumbles.

Why He Fits:

A bit more on the higher end of the class, every time I watch Jaycee Horn, I think of a Chris Ballard cornerback. He may not have been a Senior Bowl guy but he hits every other metric. He possesses solid size and strength as he is a very willing participant in the run game. He is sticky in man coverage and has excellent instincts when the ball is in the air. He may be a bit grabby (I know you all hate that) but there are traits there that can make a top-tier corner in this league. Plus, he has that dog mentality where he is always competing and in the face of receivers. He is my CB1 in this class and fits what the Colts want to do perfectly.


3.) Benjamin St-Juste, Minnesota

Size:

6’3” 202 pounds

Arm Length: 32”

Measurables:

40 Time: 4.55 seconds / Bench Press: 11 reps / Vertical Jump: 34.5 inches / Broad Jump: 119 inches / 3-Cone: 6.63 seconds

Career Stats:

62 total tackles, 1.5 tackles for a loss, and 11 pass deflections

Why He Fits:

Coming in at the final spot on this list is yet another Senior Bowl cornerback. St-Juste may not have the production of some of the other corners in this class, but he should be an intriguing day three guy. He has good size and is probably the best tackling cornerback in this entire draft class in my opinion. He is also at his best in the short area of the field, in underneath zones, and in press, where he can use that size to his advantage. There are some concerns with his speed and deep coverage ability but he is an interesting day three type in this class.


Honorable Mentions

  • Aaron Robinson, UCF: A bit under the height requirement that Ballard likes but Robinson is a physical corner who loves to attack receivers. I could see Ballard falling for the playstyle with him.
  • Tyson Campbell, Georgia: Campbell is a high upside corner who could end up in round one. He has great size and should test like an elite athlete in the pre-draft process as well.
  • Israel Mukuamu, South Carolina: The other cornerback in South Carolina is a bit more of a project but has insane upside. At 6’4” with a physical mindset, he could transition very well into the Colts’ defensive scheme.
  • Trill Williams, Syracuse: Now the other Syracuse cornerback (basically just watch Syracuse and South Carolina). Williams has good size and should test as an elite athlete in the pre-draft as well. A fiesty player in man coverage.
  • Keith Taylor, Washington: A former wide receiver, Taylor has the lateral movement skills and ball tracking to be a good corner in the league. He has to become a better form tackler and finish plays but he is an intriguing day three player.
  • Brandon Stephens, SMU: Former UCLA running back who switched to corner. Good zone corner who tested similarly to Ya-Sin.

Conclusion

With GM Chris Ballard’s track record for drafting corners, these are the prospects who might stand out for him during the draft. He tends to like physical corners who can play the run and excel in press and zone. He places a heavy emphasis on physicality and press ability while not worrying as much about athleticism or off-man ability.

It is important to note that this analysis could be entirely wrong as it relies heavily on his time in Kansas City. It is entirely possible that Ballard disagreed with much of the decisions made during his time with the Chiefs’ organization at the receiver position. For all I know, Ballard could take a 5’9” corner in round one. Who knows? However, this series should give some kind of insight into who Chris Ballard may want to target based on his past.