Over the next few weeks, as the 2021 NFL Draft gets closer and closer, we're spotlighting a different position group or draft storyline at ClevelandBrowns.com.
In our Road to the Draft series, we'll take a deep dive into the top prospects available at each position group. We're starting with the cornerbacks, a group that always requires depth on any roster and will be of interest for the Browns as early as Round 1.
Why the position matters for the Browns: Cleveland's cornerbacks fought through injuries for the entirety of last season, which showcased just how important it is to have quality depth at the position. Denzel Ward fulfilled his role as the top leader of the group with two interceptions and a career-high 18 passes defensed in 12 games, but the Browns spent the whole season without 2019 second-round pick Greedy Williams, who missed the entire 2020 season with a shoulder injury, leaving starting roles open for Terrance Mitchell and Kevin Johnson, who have signed elsewhere. Williams is expected to return for the start of training camp and join Ward and Troy Hill — who signed with the Browns in free agency after a career season with the Los Angeles Rams — for the top jobs at the position. M.J. Stewart Jr., A.J. Green, Robert Jackson and Brian Allen are also on the roster.
The top dog in this year's class: Patrick Surtain II is widely considered the top cornerback of the class after recording four interceptions, four forced fumbles and 31 passes defensed in three years at Alabama. At 6-foot-2 and 208 pounds, Surtain is widely projected to be selected within the first 15 picks — well out of the Browns' range with pick No. 26. Even though he'll likely be the first cornerback off the board, several analysts don't necessarily believe he has the highest ceiling among the cornerbacks available (more on that later). But the earliness of his selection could be meaningful in predicting where other top cornerbacks could land in the first round.
Rounding out the top five: Jaycee Horn (South Carolina) and Caleb Farley (Virginia Tech) are the next two names likely to be selected after Surtain, but the consensus on where they'll fall has grown increasingly murky over the last month. Farley missed his pro day with a back procedure, which has caused him to slip near the end of the first round in several mock drafts, and Horn's projection has appeared to fall in recent weeks, too, with other positions taking higher first-round stock. Some analysts still believe Farley and Horn could have as high of potential as Surtain, however — Bruce Feldman of The Athletic said last week on Best Podcast Available that Horn could be the best CB of the class, while ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. wrote in his most recent mock draft that believes Farley has the highest ceiling. Greg Newsome II (Northwestern) and Asante Samuel Jr. (Florida State) round out the rest of the class, with Newsome appearing to hold the best shot of a first-round selection.
How many first-rounders?: Surtain and Horn are first-round locks, while a second-round slide for Farley or Newsome would be surprising, although not impossible. Farley's draft projections have been scattered from the early teens to one of the first picks on Day 2, while Newsome's stock has steadily increased and placed him in position to possibly be the second cornerback off the board behind Surtain. To sum things up: After Surtain, the projections of the remaining top cornerbacks are far from consistent.
A sleeper or two?: Elijah Molden could be one of the top players available in Round 2 and has been projected to the Browns in a few multi-round mock drafts — and he'd be a great pick. He held First Team All-Pac 12 honors in his final two seasons at Washington and broke out in 2019, when he led the Huskies in interceptions (4), passes defensed (17) and tackles (79). One other player to monitor would be Ifeatu Melifonwu, who recorded 20 passes defensed in his final two years at Syracuse.
Quote to note: "(Surtain's) got basically everything you look for, but Farley, he's not the tackler. He's not quite as tough and physical, but I would say, if you gave one one-on-one against a No. 1 receiver, I would probably choose (Farley) over Surtain." - ESPN's Todd McShay