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Contrasting styles at stake with some top cornerbacks
By Bob LeGere | Daily Herald Staff

Illinois defensive back Vontae Davis makes a catch as he runs a football drill at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis.

 

Associated Press

Oklahoma State quarterback Zac Robinson, left, breaks away from Oregon's T.J. Ward, center, and Jarius Byrd, right, on a short run during the first quarter of the Holiday Bowl.

 

Associated Press

Illinois' Vontae Davis (1) carries the ball whiel returning a kick against Eastern Illinois during NCAA college football game at the University of Illinois in Champaign, Ill., Saturday, Sept. 6, 2008. Illinois won 47-21.

 

Associated Press

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Published: 4/23/2009 2:46 PM

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Illinois Vontae Davis and Oregon's Jairus Byrd, two of the top corners in this year's draft, are a study in contrasts.

Davis is supremely gifted, and he knows it. That attitude got him demoted by Illini coach Ron Zook last year during spring practice, and then benched at the start of the Iowa game last season.

Physically, Davis has all the tools to be a star in the NFL, but his biggest enemy may be himself. Like older brother Vernon Davis, the 49ers' tight end and another freakishly athletic player, there is an annoying touch of arrogance and an uncoachable element to Vontae's game.

According to Nolan Nawrocki in Pro Football Weekly's 2009 Draft Preview, Davis "is the most physically gifted cornerback in the draft but falls alarmingly short in areas of discipline, desire and coachability." Davis has proved to be "a constant headache to coaches during his three years in college."

Byrd is almost the polar opposite of Davis. He is the son of Bears assistant defensive backs coach Gill Byrd, who was a two-time Pro Bowl cornerback for the San Diego Chargers and holds the team record with 42 interceptions. According to Nawrocki, Jairus Byrd has a "tremendous work ethic - football is important to him and he takes his craft seriously."

Davis will probably go 20-30 picks ahead of Byrd. Davis is an inch taller, about two steps faster in the 40, and a lot stronger (he did 25 bench-press reps of 225 pounds to Byrd's 15). But their times in the 20-yard shuttle and the three-cone drill, which test quickness and agility, were almost identical. And they were among the best of all the 330-some players at the NFL Scouting Combine, although Byrd didn't post his numbers until a private workout a month later because he was recovering from a groin injury in February.

Davis said he allowed just 1 TD pass last season, and he offers a typical - for him - explanation:

"Most teams found out how good I was as a sophomore," he said, "and as a junior, they respected me more."

Byrd tried initially to offer up some braggadocio, but he couldn't go through with it when he was asked at the Combine who was better, him or his father.

"Me," he blurted out. "Well, actually, I take that back. He's proven himself. So with all due respect, he's the better player. But I hope to surpass him someday."

Davis avoided going to Maryland in order to establish his own identity.

"Long story short, I didn't go to Maryland because my brother went there," Davis said. "Why Illinois? I went to Illinois, because I wanted to be a difference maker. I wanted to be more of a person who steps in there and makes a dream come true. I don't want to be known as Vernon Davis' little brother."

Because he's physical but not very fast, Byrd is better suited to play in a Cover-2 scheme, which the Bears favor in most passing situations. What about playing for his dad?

"I don't think it'd be weird at all," the younger Byrd said. "It'd be business as usual. I understand this is a business, and when it comes to this, there are no family ties. If I'm not getting the job done, I'm out the door."

Byrd was out the door at Oregon with a year of eligibility remaining, but he left with 17 interceptions, just 1 short of the school record. He said he talked with his father about leaving school early, but the decision was all his to make.

"He respected me," Byrd said. "I'm a grown-up young man. He was just there to hear what I had to say."

With Byrd, NFL teams know what they're getting. Any team drafting Davis, especially with a mid-first-round pick, will have to hope he matures quickly.

NFL draft preview: Cornerbacks

Bob LeGere breaks down the Bears' depth, draft history and top prospects for the April 25-26 NFL draft.

Bears depth chart: Three years ago starting corners Charles Tillman and Nate Vasher were considered one of the better tandems in the NFL, hence their huge contracts. Tillman is a big, physical corner capable of matching up with the biggest wide receivers in the league, but his play has fallen off a bit. Vasher picked off 13 passes in his first two seasons (2004 and '05), but he had just 5 picks in the next three seasons, and he missed 20 games in the past two seasons with injuries. Now Vasher has to win back his job from Corey Graham, a fifth-round pick in 2007 who is more physical but not the ball athlete that Vasher is (or was). Trumaine McBride and Marcus Hamilton provide decent depth. Current Grade: C-plus.

Bears 10-year draft history at CB

Year: Player (Round)

2008: Zackary Bowman (5)

2007: Corey Graham (5)

2007: Trumaine McBride (7)

2006: Devin Hester* (2)

2004: Nate Vasher (4)

2004: Alfonso Marshall (7)

2003: Charles Tillman (2)

2002: Roosevelt Williams (3)

2000: Reggie Austin (4)

1999: Jerry Azumah (5)

* Hester was drafted as a CB/RS but moved to WR after his rookie season.

Best pick: Tillman

Worst pick: Williams

Rating the top CBs

LeGere's draft position grade: C-minus. Of the top two corners, Ohio State's Malcolm Jenkins might be a better safety in the NFL, and Illinois' Vontae Davis may be Excedrin Headache No. 36 for his coaches because of attitude concerns. Most of the rest of the top corners lack size or speed. If it weren't for a massive influx of juniors, this position might get an "F" grade, since as many as six of the top 10 picks at corner could be underclassmen.

Name School Height Weight 40 time Skinny
Malcolm Jenkins Ohio State 6-0⅛ 204 4.55 Has every tool in the shed except for great speed; could move to safety
*Vontae Davis Illinois 5-11⅛ 208 4.42 An attitude problem waiting to happen but an elite athlete and potential star
Darius Butler Connecticut 5-10⅜ 183 4.47 Rare athlete with excellent cover skills, but he's frail and doesn't like to hit
Alphonso Smith Wake Forest 5-9 193 4.51 Quick, instinctive ball athlete with 21 picks but lacks a little speed and size
*Jairus Byrd Oregon 5-10⅛ 207 4.65 Sturdy, smart, strong ball athlete who lacks top-end speed
*D.J. Moore Vanderbilt 5-8 192 4.58 Too small and slow but makes great plays on the ball; could be ideal nickel
*Donald Washington Oregon State 6-0¼ 197 4.53 Athletic competitor has 45-inch vertical but was benched last season
*Asher Allen Georgia 5-9½ 194 4.51 Plays bigger than his size and helps on returns but lacks recovery speed
Sherrod Martin Troy 6-1 198 4.49 Has skill set for CB but played FS in '08 and could wind up there in NFL
*Sean Smith Utah 6-3½ 214 4.53 Huge, physical vs. the run can handle bigger WRs but is raw as a CB

* Junior