NFL Draft 2021: Rough Diamonds Series: Defensive Backs

This is the last part in the series where I take a quick look, position by position, at my favourite Day 3/Undrafted guys from the 2021 NFL Draft.

We’ll finish up this look back at the 2021 rough diamonds, with the Defensive Backs. I’ve lumped the Cornerbacks and Safeties in together, as these days there’s a lot of interchange between the two positions. There’s plenty of names to choose from as there were 37 selected on day three of the draft, but I’ve chosen 4 that I think went later than they should have done. All-Pro’s like Richard Sherman (Round 5, 2011), Kam Chancellor (Round 5, 2010), Josh Norman (Round 5, 2012) and Chris Harris (Undrafted, 2011) have been taken after the first two days of the draft, so there’s plenty of hope for these guys below…..

Shemar Jean-Charles: Appalachian State (Round 5, Pick 178 Green Bay)

A very lightly recruited player out of Florida, Jean-Charles flipped his commitment from Bowling Green to play for the Appalachian State Mountaineers. After redshirting in 2016 he spent the next two seasons mostly on special teams, waiting for his chance to get a shot on defense. That shot was given to him in 2019, and he took it with both hands.

 In two seasons of starting at cornerback, he amassed a whopping 26 passes defensed and 2 interceptions, illustrating his knack of getting his hands on the ball. I caught one game of his in 2019 (ULL) and four this past season (Charlotte, Marshall, Coastal Carolina & ULL), and he stood out in every single game. 

Now he doesn’t have the ideal length or height you want in a starting cornerback, but what he does bring is aggression, anticipation and ball skills. He played in all types of schemes but excelled in press and off man coverages. He displayed great mirroring technique and when in trail position he locates the ball quickly, to contest the catch. Is physical and will jam a receiver at the line of scrimmage and disrupt the timing, and will attack all underneath routes, regularly undercutting the receiver to the ball. 

Being a 5’10 corner at 184lbs does mean he has some limitations. He contests the catch point well with receivers that are up to 6 inches taller, and 35lbs heavier, and he did that well in the Sun Belt Conference, but the NFL will be a different story. His lack of size and length may mean he moves inside to play the nickel, but here his hip tightness may be more exposed, along with the tendency to get a bit grabby on two-way go’s. He tested OK at his pro day, and I liked him enough to stick a 4th round grade on him, but he went where most expected, at the end of Round 5 to Green Bay. Now Green Bay spent their 1st Round pick on cornerback Eric Stokes from Georgia, but they obviously felt the need to double-dip at the position and take Jean-Charles as well. Cracking this roster will be difficult, but he has plenty of special teams experience and his best route onto this team will be to challenge for the nickel back role.

Jason Pinnock: Pittsburgh (Round 5, Pick 175 NY Jets).

Pinnock was a three-star recruit out of Connecticut, where he played wide receiver as well as cornerback. He committed to Boston College, but flipped to Pittsburgh after a very impressive senior season in high school.

He first caught my eye as a sophomore, where in the ACC Championship game against Clemson and Trevor Lawrence, he had 3 pass break-ups and gave up just 3 catches for 22 yards. Now Pitt were well beaten by Clemson on the day, but Pinnock was the clear bright spot. He continued this high level of play as a junior in the games I saw, including an impressive effort against Miami, where he didn’t give up any catches and had two pass break-ups as well. He finished the season with another no catch contest against Boston College, and he was firmly becoming one of my favourites.

He entered the 2020 season still barely thought of as a draft prospect, but he would go on to start all 10 games of Pittsburgh’s Covid shortened season, and although not quite as dominant as he was as a junior, he still played at a high level. His five-game stretch to end the season saw him give up just 2 catches against Clemson, 1 against Notre Dame and Miami, and none against Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech. 

Pinnock is a long (6’0), big (204lbs) corner with good arm length (over 32”) who is aggressive with receivers throughout their routes. He can flip his hips nicely making transitions smooth, and his old receiver skills shine through as a corner, with the way he contests catches and consistently gets his hands on the ball. Now the big knock on him was his long speed, which was evident when trying to defend deeper routes, and many experts had him in the 4.6 range which would have left him undraftable. He defied the odds again by blasting a 4.49/40 and produced above average jumps and agility drills too. Now does he play to that speed, possibly not, but we now know he can do it.

As a criminally underrated prospect, I’m absolutely delighted that he got drafted in Round 5 by the NY Jets, three spots before Jean-Charles. It’s all change in New York for 2020 and Pinnock joins a team rebuilding with a new staff in place, and with the limited talent on this roster, he has a chance to make this team, and hopefully shine the brightest of all the rough diamonds!

James Wiggins making a tackle vs. UCF Photo Credit: GoBearcats.com

James Wiggins: Cincinnati (Round 7, Pick 243 Arizona)

Wiggins was a three-star recruit from Florida, who had the audacity to flip his commitment from his home state Miami Hurricanes, to the AAC’s Cincinnati Bearcats. It certainly appeared on paper an odd thing to do, but perhaps Wiggins was worried about getting buried on a depth chart with 4 and 5-star recruits playing at The U.

Wiggins ended up redshirting in 2016, and only managed 3 defensive snaps in 2017, mainly playing on specials teams instead. It would have been very easy for him to question his decision not to attend Miami whilst riding the bench at Cincinnati, but perhaps that was the fuel that lit the fire for an incredible redshirt Sophomore season in 2018.

From out of nowhere Wiggins would start all 13 games and introduce himself to the scouting community. He played both in the box and as a single high safety, with a smooth backpedal and quick change of direction, he was always around the ball and creating big plays. He excelled in zones, showing great anticipation to close catching windows in both short and deep areas. He attacks the ball like a corner would, aggressively fighting through contact to make plays. I caught four games, and the amount of plays he made in them, particularly in the UCLA and SMU games, were incredible. He had 4 Interceptions on the year, and three of them were game ending, showing what a clutch player he was developing into.

After announcing himself onto the stage in such aplomb as he did in 2018, the hope was to see him back that up in 2019, and possibly declare for the 2020 NFL draft. Unfortunately, just two days before the season opener, Wiggins tore his ACL and would go on to miss the entire season. After such a cruel blow, the plan was now to rehab and get back on the field in 2020 and show scouts he was still the same high impact player he was in 2018. That didn’t quite happen, as although he would play in nine games, he suffered an arm injury late in the season that would cost him playing time and he also missed the season finale bowl game against Georgia. The 2020 version of Wiggins was still a good player, showing evidence of that anticipation and playmaking ability, but there seemed to be more hesitancy in his game, and there were noticeable missed tackles too in there. Obviously, recovering from a torn ACL during a global pandemic couldn’t have been easy, and with Covid still affecting training and playing routines in 2020, just getting Wiggins back on the field should be considered a success. 

All eyes were on his pro day, where he measured in bigger than expected at 5’11 209lbs, and he showed his knee was fine by clocking a lightning 4.42/40. He had great jumps too, posting a 38” vertical and a 10’7 broad jump, both really good numbers for a safety. Now he did hurt his hamstring during the pro day work-out, and he couldn’t do the agility drills, and this continuous injury worry was probably why he fell so far in the draft. He is a lot like another rough diamond, Cam McGrone (go back and check him out in the Linebacker edition), where there is one exceptional season of tape out there, but inconsistency and big injury concerns have meant early round talent slipping, in Wiggins’s case, to the very last round.

Landing in Arizona is great spot for him. Budda Baker has one safety spot nailed down, but Wiggins will compete with Charles Washington and Deionte Thompson for the other spot, and if fully healthy that’s a competition I expect him to win.

Talanoa Hufanga: USC (Round 5, Pick 180 San Francisco)

Hufanga was a consensus 4-star recruit who garnered offers from all the big schools in the PAC 12, and Alabama and Notre Dame among others outside of that conference. Hufanga chose to stay on the west coast with USC, a school renowned for producing NFL calibre safeties over the years. 

He was starting by the fourth game of his true freshman season, which shows how talented he is and how quickly he digested the playbook. He certainly didn’t look out of place, and he was having his best game of the year against Arizona State, when he broke his collarbone, and was ruled out for the rest of the season. He was all healed up and ready to go as a sophomore in 2019 and didn’t disappoint by starting 10 games and filling up the stat sheet. He was really impressive in the three games I caught, Stanford, Utah and Arizona State. He was becoming a leader of the defense, and his all action displays earned him a reputation as someone to watch in 2020.

With the PAC 12 season starting late because of Covid, USC only got 6 games in. Hufanga started all of them and ended up being voted the PAC 12 Defensive player of the year. He was lined up all over the place, but he excelled up in the box and being a force against the run. He has the size to take on tight ends and disengages well to fill run lanes and cause disruption. He can also play single high, making plays in front of him and he reads the Quarterback really well, using anticipation to get to the right spots. He snagged four interceptions in six games, showcasing his great ball skills and willingness to get himself into positions to make plays. He plays so aggressively that he will overrun plays sometimes, and consequently miss the odd tackle as he over pursues. He lacks the elite range to play as a single high in the NFL, and there will be a few teams who may look at him exclusively as a box safety. There’s not much to not like with Hufanga. He is a leader who can play multiple roles and his style of play is infectious and momentum changing. While not an elite athlete, his high football IQ always puts him in positions to make plays. I had him with a third-round grade, so I was very surprised he fell until round 5. 

The 49ers pulled the trigger, and I have high hopes for him in San Francisco. In Jimmie Ward and Jaquiski Tartt the Niners have their starters in place. Depth behind them is thin though and Tartt was only resigned to a one-year deal, meaning there is a path to a starting gig here, if Hufanga shines in 2021.

And that concludes this series. It’s been great talking about these underrated guys, some of whom may shine and some who may fail to catch on, but the talent is there will all of them. It’s now how they do in camps and pre-season that will determine their status for the 2021 NFL Season, but I’ll be rooting for every single one of them!


Follow Keith on Twitter @lordlucken

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