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2018 NFL Draft prospects lurk in decisive year for Dolphins cornerbacks

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A lot of cornerback talent could be had in the 2018 NFL Draft.

NFL: Miami Dolphins at Los Angeles Rams Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

The Miami Dolphins had solid contributions from multiple cornerbacks on their roster last season. But in today's NFL, solid doesn't cut it.

No cornerback on the roster is metaphorically written in permanent ink on the depth chart. Sure, we can pencil in some names for this season, but any of them can be erased for potential upgrades at this point.

Byron Maxwell finished the season strong after being benched for poor, undisciplined play, and was undoubtedly Miami's best cornerback. But he failed to be there for the Dolphins when they needed him most. It was rumored that Miami's coaching staff disliked and questioned Maxwell's effort to overcome his ankle injury for the opening round playoff game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Maxwell was ruled out for the game, only to watch the Dolphins secondary get torched.

Tony Lippett had the strongest season of his career last year, but had his share of highs and lows. He was embarrassed by A.J. Green (Cincinnati Bengals) and Antonio Brown (Pittsburgh Steelers), but shined against the San Diego Chargers and New York Jets by grabbing all four of his interceptions. He had a chance to prove himself in the playoffs while Maxwell was sidelined, but Lippett was picked on all game and showed his worst performance of the year. The ability is there but the consistency in short to medium coverage still lacks. The young (25) former wide receiver who is still learning the cornerback position needs make another step toward reliability if the Dolphins are to count on him long term.

Xavien Howard gave us a small sample size — eight games to be exact — but the rookie flashed his potential. He made his share of mistakes in each game, but he showed a lot of poise by making impressive coverage plays against some of the NFL's best receivers. After dealing with an injury-riddled season, Miami is hoping to have Howard on the field for the entire 2017 season to see what he can offer.

Bobby McCain is a bit of an enigma at nickel. For every great play that is made, a dumbfounding one is made a play later. McCain could find himself as the odd man out in a crowded secondary if his inconsistent play continues — especially after the Dolphins selected cornerback Cordrea Tankersley with the 97th pick.

Pro Football Focus ranks Maxwell at No. 10, Lippett at No. 80, Howard at No. 81and McCain at No. 69 among all rated cornerbacks in the NFL. Again, this won’t cut it against today’s NFL.

What if Miami's secondary regresses or plateaus this season? Changes will certainly be made. Look no further than the 2018 draft for them.

Honorable mentions: Demetrius Monday, Kent State; Trumaine Washington, Louisville; Heath Harding, Miami (OH); Parry Nickerson, Tulane; Jamarcus King, South Carolina; Deatrick Nichols, South Florida; Ranthony Texada, TCU; Tony Brown, Alabama

NFL: AFC Wild Card-Miami Dolphins at Pittsburgh Steelers
Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown (84) catches the ball in front of Miami Dolphins cornerback Tony Lippett (36) en route to a touchdown in the AFC Wild Card playoff football game at Heinz Field.
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

This is how I would rank the potential cornerback prospects heading into the college football season.

10. Brandon Facyson, 6’2” and 196 pounds, Virginia Tech:

In 2016, Facyson was statistically the ACC’s best cover-man corner with receivers only catching 18 percent of their targets when defended by Facyson, while drawing an ACC high 24 percent of attempted targets. He shows very good ball skills and is a physical corner who knows how to use his size to his advantage. He’s a hard worker who wants to be great. Despite his success, Facyson has tight hips and isn’t the most fluid corner when change of direction. He’ll need to improve his recovery speed and timing when turning and running.

NCAA Football: North Carolina State at Virginia Tech
Hokies cornerback Brandon Facyson (31) breaks up a pass intended for North Carolina State Wolfpack wide receiver Jumichael Ramos (85) during the fourth quarter at Lane Stadium.
Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports

9. Quenton Meeks, 6’2” and 205 pounds, Stanford:

Meeks is athletic, physical and versatile. He’s shown he can play outside corner against bigger receivers, and in the slot against smaller ones. He’s quick to diagnose plays and is rarely caught flat-footed on double moves, but has room for improvement on off-coverage and tackling. While his ability has impressed thus far, many are still waiting for him to break through and reach his ceiling by making a bigger impact on the season. He’ll have a chance to do so his junior year.

NCAA Football: Rose Bowl-Stanford vs Iowa
Stanford Cardinal cornerback Quenton Meeks (24) returns an interception for a touchdown against the Iowa Hawkeyes during the first quarter in the 2016 Rose Bowl at Rose Bowl.
Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

8. Kevin Toliver II, 6’2” and 193 pounds, LSU:

The former five-star cornerback battled through two injuries — one to the shoulder and another to the knee — and inconsistent play, while also suspended for missing team meetings. But expectations are high for Toliver. According to WalterFootball.com, an anonymous NFL scout has the LSU cornerback among his potential first-rounders for next year’s NFL draft. He’s one of the smoothest athletes in the draft and has all the physical tools you look for in a corner. His coverage is disciplined and his loose hips allow him to turn and run quicker than most corners. He’ll need an impressive bounce-back season to overcome a disappointing sophomore campaign.

NCAA Football: Jacksonville State at Louisiana State
Jacksonville State Gamecocks wide receiver Shaq Davidson (2) catches a pass in front of LSU Tigers cornerback Kevin Toliver II (2) during the second half at Tiger Stadium.
Crystal LoGiudice-USA TODAY Sports

7. Anthony Averett, 6’0” and 170 pounds, Alabama:

Averett is a corner who uses physicality and recovery/closing speed to win battles. He gets a bit over zealous in coverage, and was caught off balance in press coverage too often. He’s not a ball hawk, but he knows how to win 50-50 balls. Averett rarely gets beat deep and doesn’t fall for many double moves. He’s not fully polished yet – he’ll need to gain weight to challenge receivers at the next level – but he may come out as a better prospect than Marlon Humphrey was.

NCAA Football: CFP National Championship-Clemson vs Alabama
Clemson Tigers wide receiver Mike Williams (7) against Alabama Crimson Tide defensive back Anthony Averett (28) in the 2017 College Football Playoff National Championship Game at Raymond James Stadium.
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

6. Jordan Thomas, 6’0” and 186 pounds, Oklahoma:

Thomas has great upper body strength and length that most teams look for. He’s fast, but his hips are a bit tight, preventing him from turning and running smoothly. Though when he’s turned around, his recovery speed is exceptional. He also needs to improve his ability to stop and change direction when covering short routes against quick receivers. He gave way too much room against the Kansas receivers in last season’s game. Thomas showed ball hawk potential with a couple of highly athletic interceptions that were made during his career.

NCAA Football: Sugar Bowl-Auburn vs Oklahoma
Oklahoma Sooners cornerback Jordan Thomas (7) reaches up to intercept this pass intended for Auburn Tigers wide receiver Tony Stevens (8) in the fourth quarter of the 2017 Sugar Bowl at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

5. Iman Marshall, 6’1” and 195 pounds, Southern California

Marshall is a smooth, fluid athlete who uses great balance and bend in his technique. He needs to turn and run earlier -- questions will rise about his recovery speed -- but he does an excellent job of getting his hands on the ball, using his athleticism to jar the ball loose from the receiver. His ability to contort his body while in air is reminiscent of a receiver, showing he has the athleticism to hang with the NFL’s best talent.

NCAA Football: Rose Bowl Game-Penn State vs Southern California
USC Trojans defensive back Iman Marshall (8) celebrates after an interception in the first quarter against the Penn State Nittany Lions during the 103rd Rose Bowl at Rose Bowl.
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

4. Adonis Alexander, 6’3” and 193 pounds, Virginia Tech:

Alexander is an outstanding athlete with elite size and length. Looking for a No. 1 cornerback who can shut down receivers and let them know about it? Look no further than Alexander. He has great technique and can be counted on in man-to-man coverage to take away the best receiver on the field. Don’t expect to beat him on go-routes, and bet on him on 50-50 balls. With six interceptions and 19 pass breakups, he’ll be a potential interception machine at the next level. He’ll need to improve tackling technique – especially in run support.

NCAA Football: North Carolina State at Virginia Tech
Virginia Tech Hokies rover Adonis Alexander (36) intercepts a pass intended for North Carolina State Wolfpack wide receiver Stephen Louis (88) during the fourth quarter at Lane Stadium.
Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports

3. Minkah Fitzpatrick, 6’1” and 203 pounds, Alabama:

Fitzpatrick is the hardest hitting, best tackling cornerback in college football and showed he can transition to safety, seamlessly. Whether he’s a corner or safety at the next level, the Alabama star has been a nightmare for college offenses. Not only does he have outstanding ball-hawking skills (six interceptions last season), but he is electric in open space with the ball in his hands, returning two interceptions for touchdowns. He needs to stay disciplined on double-move routes, and turn around earlier to avoid getting beat deep, but he’s an electric football player.

NCAA Football: Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl-Alabama vs Washington
Alabama Crimson Tide defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick (29) returns an interception during the fourth quarter in the 2016 CFP Semifinal against the Washington Huskies at the Georgia Dome.
Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

2. Tarvarus McFadden, 6’2’ and 198 pounds, Florida State:

He’s smart, quick to react and lead the nation in interceptions (eight). Ideal length, speed and frame for the prototypical NFL corner, McFadden continued to improve every game last season after struggling in zone coverage. He has room for improvement in his coverage from a mental aspect, but his smooth, calm technique has potential to be special. His quick but quiet footwork is impressive when matching up in press coverage, and he has the ability to shadow any receiver in college. If he can polish his technique and consistency, he can challenge Jaire Alexander as the best corner in college.

NCAA Football: Florida State at South Florida
Florida State Seminoles defensive back Tarvarus McFadden (4) intercepts a ball intend for South Florida Bulls wide receiver Ryeshene Bronson (81) in the second quarter at Raymond James Stadium.
Logan Bowles-USA TODAY Sports

1. Jaire Alexander, 5’11” and 192 pounds, Louisville:

Alexander was ranked as the No. 1 cover corner by Pro Football Focus last year. Not only is Alexander one of the best ball hawks in college football, but he’s one of the most dangerous in the return game on special teams as well. He plays big in big games – left his mark all over the games against Clemson and FSU – forcing turnovers and locking down receivers in both games. He’s strong and fearless, but he doesn’t have a huge frame and must avoid getting flat-footed on press coverage. He’ll come into the year as the best cornerback in college football.

NCAA Football: Florida State at Louisville
Louisville Cardinals cornerback Jaire Alexander (10) avoids the tackles of Florida State Seminoles place kicker Logan Tyler (21) and linebacker Ro'Derrick Hoskins (18) to return a punt for a touchdown during the second half at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium.
Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports