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2020 NFL Draft

Deep class of DBs ooze confidence at NFL Combine

INDIANAPOLIS — Eli Apple came to Ohio State as a skinny kid from East Voorhees, New Jersey. He left as one of the program's best cornerbacks in recent memory. And as the NFL Combine draws near close, Apple might have solidified himself as a first-round draft pick come April.

"I know how good I am, I know from watching film of myself and just going out there and competing at a high level against guys you see on this platform I do well against the top receivers and that's where my confidence comes from," Apple told reporters during his Saturday media session.

Apple — who helped lift the Buckeyes to a national title and 26-2 record as a starter — walked the talk Monday morning when he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.42 seconds, making him one of the fastest defensive backs at the league's annual event.

To be sure, he's part of a particularly strong class of defensive backs to take center stage in Indianapolis. His teammate, safety Vonn Bell, is also projected by analysts to be a first-rounder. Florida State's Jalen Ramsey and Florida's Vernon Hargreaves are considered top-five picks by some. Virginia Tech's Kendall Fuller, who did not participate in drills this week as he nurses a knee injury, was an impact player for the Hokies.

So why does any of this matter?

The Browns enter the offseason potentially in search of additional players who can fit a new scheme and new philosophy under Ray Horton, the defensive coordinator who was hired last month to revitalize the unit.

"We've got to find a way to become a suffocating, championship defense," Horton said two weeks ago in his first press conference since returning to Cleveland after two seasons with the Tennessee Titans.

And the Browns — who hold the second and 32nd overall draft picks — will use said selections on the best players available regardless of position, coach Hue Jackson said Tuesday.

That, of course, includes moves to shore up the future of a secondary that finished 22nd against the pass game last year.

While Joe Haden has been a star in Cleveland, injuries hampered his production last season (though Horton said he expects big things out of the Pro Bowler next season). Tashaun Gipson, who has snatched eight interceptions in the last three seasons, is a free agent. Donte Whitner, a two-time Pro Bowl selection, and Tramon Williams, one of the team's most consistent defensive backs in 2015, are respectively entering their 11th NFL seasons.

Against that backdrop, Apple — among others like Ramsey, Hargreaves and Fuller — offer potentially promising options as Cleveland enters something of a new era under Jackson.

"I've been a playmaker, I'll always be a playmaker, I guess you just have a natural knack to it," said Bell, who left Ohio State with 175 tackles and nine interceptions. "It's going to be a little harder in the NFL, you just have to have a little more film study, little more preparation … if you always have that playmaking ability, it's always going to stick with you.''

Hargreaves, who is considered a top-five pick by draft some analysts, said his "talent level" and "natural ability" set him apart from the rest of the class.

"I started playing football when I was in high school and it's all been natural," he said. "I don't think a lot of guys can naturally just go up and press somebody. Most guys have to learn, but for me everything comes natural to me."

Fuller, who was regarded as one of the nation's top corners before a meniscus injury cut his junior season short last year, spoke of the competition between members of the draft class.

"We've got good guys. I mean, you've got Jaylon, you've got (Clemson cornerback) Mackensie (Alexander), Vernon, Eli, me. I know those guys personally, coming out with them. I expect all those guys to come out here and say they're the best corner," Fuller said.

"That's the competitive nature that they have. That's how we all respect each other, but you know I'm gonna also say that I'm the best one coming out in the country."

And if the Browns indeed decide they want a defensive back, there appears to be neither a shortage of options nor confidence.

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