Malcolm Butler will make at least a year-long stop in the desert. Robert Alford is back after consecutive season-ending preseason injuries have painfully put off his Arizona Cardinals debut.
Byron Murphy returns for his third season hoping to lock down either in the slot or the outside, if needed.
So the Cardinals’ cornerback position group, despite losing Patrick Peterson, at least isn’t in as dire of a situation as was once perceived. Still, the 2021 NFL Draft class lines up general manager Steve Keim to draft defensive coordinator Vance Joseph a CB of the future with Arizona holding the No. 16 pick.
The uncertainty beyond the 2021 season and Murphy’s fit — be it as a nickel or outside or both — will dictate how the Cardinals perceive the top cornerbacks. That’s if they decide CB is the position to go with, depending on who else is available.
“For us to have a guy like Byron Murphy, who can play inside and outside, it gives us tremendous value,” Keim said last Thursday. “But there are guys (in the draft class) who can play inside and outside in this draft, some guys that can only play outside with their length and their movement skills.
“So really feel good about that position and the opportunities that may present themselves but those top three are very, very good.”
Here’s a quick look at those top three players.
Patrick Surtain II, Alabama
None of the prospects on the board have as much competitive game film — nearly three whole collegiate seasons — as Surtain, whose father played in the NFL. Surtain has the size at 6-foot-2, 208 pounds, and the experience to project him as an immediate impact player on the outside.
In 2020, the junior compiled 38 tackles with 12 passes defensed and an interception.
Writes The Draft Network’s Jordan Reid:
The junior cornerback’s length, discipline, and mild-mannered playing style are the best attributes of his game. Surtain II’s deep speed will be the biggest question that he will need to answer on the next level as there have been some occurrences of where he’s surrendered throws into the deeper portions of the field.
That might be the most questioning of Surtain II’s game, because NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein has this tidbit on how often Surtain has been beaten on deep throws:
He was beaten in true man-to-man battles for 29-plus yards just five times during his career.
Jaycee Horn, South Carolina
Another of the top cornerbacks with direct NFL ties, the son of former receiver Joe Horn has a big, physical profile to play on the outside.
Horn earlier in his college career worked in the slot, which may or may not be enticing to Arizona as it determines what its options are this season and beyond, with veterans Butler and Alford possibly gone in 2022.
Over seven games this past season, Horn recorded 16 tackles with six passes defensed and two interceptions. He opted out after the firing of Gamecocks head coach Will Muschamp. He also cited COVID-19 concerns in his decision.
Horn can line up in any cover scheme and often traveled with the opponent’s most talented target. He plays with desired eye discipline from zone and the talent to impede release from press. He does an above-average job of closing, crowding and eliminating comfortable windows for quarterbacks to throw into, but his route anticipation is average.
Caleb Farley, Virginia Tech
Farley checks in as the biggest boom-or-bust guy among the consensus top-three cornerbacks.
He has the least amount of time at the position after playing quarterback in high school and receiver to begin college. He suffered an ACL injury in 2017 and switched to defense for 2018. Farley put together a great 2019 campaign — 20 tackles, four interceptions and 12 passes defensed — before missing two games with back issues. According to NFL.com, he underwent a minor back procedure in February 2020.
Farley began sitting out this year due to COVID-19 concerns and then in March underwent another back surgery that have some teams worried about his long-term health (he is expected to be recovered by training camp this year).
All that said, Farley’s limited tape shows enough where he still could be the first cornerback off the board if a team isn’t worried about his injury history. He’s a naturally gifted corner who has the length and size to disrupt receivers in press man coverage, according to Zierlein:
He needs to continue to improve his technique and discipline as he displays inconsistencies staying connected to routes at times. Farley is an ascending talent who fits more cleanly in a press-heavy scheme. Might require early patience as he continues to gain the polish necessary to become a quality NFL starter.
Keim notably said Farley is “scratching the surface,” which either says Arizona views him as the most raw of the top corners or a risk worth taking since he at least won’t be the No. 1 or 2 cornerback this coming season.