Carolina Panthers

2017 NFL draft: Top 10 defensive backs | How did anyone complete a pass vs. Ohio State?

N.C. State safety Josh Jones (11) has seen his NFL draft stock rise significantly in recent weeks.
N.C. State safety Josh Jones (11) has seen his NFL draft stock rise significantly in recent weeks. ehyman@newsobserver.com

The Observer’s top 10 defensive backs available in the 2017 NFL draft:

Gareon-Conley
Ohio State’s Gareon Conley is the top cornerback prospect on our list. Paul Vernon AP

1. Gareon Conley, CB

College: Ohio State.

Ht.: 6-0. Wt.: 195.

Projected round: 1st.

Comment: Conley just barely edges out Lattimore as CB-1 because he doesn’t have the injury history, and is a top-tier athlete.

2. Malik Hooker, S

College: Ohio State.

Ht.: 6-foot-1. Wt.: 206.

Projected round: 1st.

Comment: One of the elite athletes in this draft class, Hooker is the top safety despite having only one full year of experience - his instincts are that good.

Jamal-Adams
LSU safety Jamal Adams is blazing fast and a big hitter – and confident enough to expect a hall-of-fame career. Gregory Payan AP

3. Jamal Adams, S

College: LSU.

Ht.: 6-0. Wt.: 214.

Projected round: 1st.

Comment: Blazing fast with a hit stick that makes up for his relative lack of experience, Adams already projects himself having a Hall-of-Fame career.

Marshon-Lattimore
Ohio State cornerback Marshon Lattimore (2) is a early option – if teams aren’t afraid of his repeated hamstring issues becoming chronic. Sue Ogrocki AP

4. Marshon Lattimore, CB

College: Ohio State.

Ht.: 6-0. Wt.: 193.

Projected round: 1st.

Comment: The only way Lattimore drops outside the top round of the draft is if teams are worried about his repeated hamstring issues becoming chronic. Regardless, Lattimore is an incredible athlete.

5. Kevin King, CB

College: Washington.

Ht.: 6-foot-3. Wt.: 200.

Projected round: 1st/2nd.

Comment: As athletic as he is long, King ruled the Pac-12 alongside teammate Budda Baker. King can play in any defensive back position as well as in the slot - which may keep him in the first round.

6. Chidobe Awuzie, CB

College: Colorado.

Ht.: 6-0. Wt.: 202.

Projected round: 1st/2nd.

Comment: Awuzie can also play all over the secondary and would be a big asset to a team that utilitzes a nickel corner.

Budda-Baker
Washington defensive back Budda Baker (32) plays smart, fast and bigger than his frame. Rick Scuteri AP

7. Budda Baker, S

College: Washington.

Ht.: 5-10. Wt.: 195.

Projected round: 1st/2nd.

Comment: Don’t let Baker’s size fool you – he plays smart, fast and bigger than his frame. He’s often compared to LSU and Cardinals undersized phenom Tyrann Mathieu.

8. Josh Jones, S

College: N.C. State.

Ht.: 6-foot-1. Wt.: 220.

Projected round: 2nd.

Comment: Some do have Jones projected as a first-rounder, but the top picks are so clogged with defensive backs that it’s more likely he falls to the second. Jones is really quick despite his size and a very hard hitter.

9. Obi Melifonwu, S

College: UConn.

Ht.: 6-foot-4. Wt.: 224

Projected round: 1st/2nd.

Comment: Melifonwu is an absolute athletic freak, with low 4.4-second 40-speed and a 44-inch vertical to go along with a huge frame and long arms. He’s a tempting pick for teams who prize athletes like Dallas, but there is buzz about a hesitation to overdraft a somewhat rough talent just because he’s insanely athletic.

10. Jabrill Peppers, S

College: Michigan.

Ht.: 5-foot-11. Wt.: 215.

Projected round: 1st/2nd.

Comment: Peppers gets a top-10 nod not just because he’s a solid safety, but because he can play just about any skill position on the field - and did so while at Michigan. A team could jump early on Peppers, depending on their plan for his talents.

Panthers’ perspective

Just because Carolina is open to drafting another cornerback and/or safety does not mean it will – or should – happen early. In fact, this draft goes four rounds deep – at least – with some truly stellar talent at both positions, and the Panthers made all the right moves in free agency to shore up every tier of their defense.

A perfect draft selection for the Panthers would be a player who has experience at safety and nickel corner – to back up Mike Adams, Kurt Coleman and Captain Munnerlyn for the price of one. Guess what? This draft is deep with those guys too!

A corner to back up second-year players James Bradberry and Daryl Worley (who are on a development path to being a special set of corners) would also be a solid plan. Carolina doesn’t need another starting corner or safety – just players who can rotate in and are better options than Tre Boston and Zack Sanchez.

Local connection

N.C. State’s Jones’ stock has soared in recent weeks, and he reportedly drew interest from the Panthers.

Sleeper

Johnathan “Rudy” Ford, a defensive back out of Auburn, could be quite the bargain as a mid-round pick. The 5-11, 205-pound Auburn product is a little on the smaller side but he makes up for it with his versatility. Ford plays well both at safety and as a nickel corner, making him a potential two-for-one backup option to Adams, Coleman and Munnerlyn.

Worth noting

Keep an eye on Maryland’s Will Likely, who, before his ACL surgery, was one of the most prolific kick returners in college football and is a reliable corner. ... Corn Elder from Miami is also a dependable option with experience in the slot. ... Florida safety Marcus Maye is a really strong prospect who would likely make a top-15 list and is gettable for Carolina in the second round. ... There is a safety out of Kansas whose name is “Fish Smithson.” ... Florida corner Teez Tabor is also a potential mid-to-late second rounder, and the Panthers reportedly used a top-30 visit on him.

Jourdan Rodrigue: 704-358-5071, @jourdanrodrigue

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