There are a lot of names currently up for debate regarding the Houston Texans’ third overall selection in the 2022 NFL Draft.
Many analysts, especially nationally, project NC State’s Ikem Ekwonu or Alabama’s Evan Neal as the first pick to provide a young, foundational tackle as the team enters a rebuild. Others project Oregon’s Kayvon Thibodeaux and Georgia’ Travon Walker to be a force at the point of attack for new coach Lovie Smith’s Tampa 2 defense. Everyone wants to build the trenches.
However, everyone is also taking note of how Smith talked about his secondary last week. In particular, he addressed weakness at the cornerback position during 2021 and the necessity to improve if teams want to win more games.
Lovie on CB: “Our play at the CB position last year was not good enough … if we brought somebody back, we have faith in them, we think they can fit into the mix some kind of way … We can’t play the type of football that we want to play until we get better at the CB position.” pic.twitter.com/HUmxt9aI6h
— Rivers McCown (@riversmccown) April 11, 2022
Smith’s April 11 meeting with the Houston media also included talking about his optimism for safeties Jonathan Owens and Eric Muray, the latter of which has proven himself not to be a starting NFL-caliber safety during his tenure in Houston.
These comments, paired with an excellent draft-season process, have elevated former Cincinnati cornerback Ahmad Gardner firmly into contention for the Texans’ selection at third overall. Previously it was discussed that he was a lock for the top-5 by virtue of the New York Jets.
Gardner is one of two consensus elite defensive backs in this class alongside Notre Dame safety Kyle Hamilton. However, Hamilton’s stock looks very different. Hamilton opened the draft season as a top-8 lock and, since running his 40-time, is now no longer considered likely to go in the top-10.
This juxtaposition is particularly interesting when examining the prospect profiles. There are very few analysts that would say Gardner is a better prospect than Hamilton, in fact Hamilton is nearly consensus ranked higher. NFL.com (1st vs. 6th), The Draft Network (1st vs. 10th), ESPN (4th vs. 5th) and Sports Illustrated (3rd vs. 7th) all have Hamilton graded as a better prospect than the Cincinnati corner.
Entering the draft prospect it was nearly a consensus opinion that Hamilton was one of the few elite players in the draft and the best defensive back. All of this discussion and resolution has occurred under the context of no football games being played. All the same, there isn’t a single mock draft today that would say Gardner isn’t selected before Hamilton.
This exercise and comparison begs an interesting question. Why is an elite corner considered more valuable than an elite safety prospect? Is the value of cornerback such that an inferior prospect is worth the gamble over a superior player? What does this tell us about today’s NFL?
Traditionally corners have been able to have a more immediate and visible impact. They’re closer to the line of scrimmage to make tackles on running plays that move towards the outside and they can “lock down” elite receivers to remove them from game equations. It’s hard to have more value than an elite Darrell Revis coming out to eliminate a receiver for 60 minutes. Today, Jalen Ramsey creates both an island for wideouts and tackles like a linebacker in run support.
Meanwhile, safeties haven’t been schemed to be immediate impact. The position is asked to be the last line of defense to stop the passing game from generating huge gains and to give run support should running backs make it to or past the second level of the defense.
Simply put, safety is a position that the NFL has historically undervalued. Things are beginning to change though, Pro Football Focus recently published an article that said safeties are the third most valuable position on the field behind quarterback and wide receiver.
When asked about this change in value, The Draft Wire’s Luke Easterling, who has Hamilton as his number one overall prospect, had this to say on the process.
I think we’re still stuck in this “safeties aren’t a premium position” mindset for some reason, but the way defense is played in the NFL right now just doesn’t agree. It’s hard to find safeties who can do everything at a high level, and the few that can are valuable weapons for their teams right now. Sure, a shutdown corner can erase a team’s top receiver, but a shutdown safety can have a similar impact, just in many different ways, against both the run and pass.
Gardner has the traits, mentality and potential to be in that realm, sure. But it’s going to come down to being able to maximize those physical tools, polish his technique, and get smoother in his transitions (something that’s typically a challenge for taller corners like him). College QBs knew better than to test him, but NFL QBs will want to know if he can be that same guy at this level, and we won’t know until it happens.