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Top defensive backs to watch at the Senior Bowl

With the Senior Bowl kicking off this week, we continue our preview series with a look at the top cornerbacks and safeties to watch in Mobile.

University of Michigan vs University of Washington, 2024 CFP National Championship Set Number: X164476 TK1

The 2023 NFL season is over for most NFL teams—our Atlanta Falcons included—and that means it’s time to turn our attention to 2024. With free agency fast approaching and the 2024 NFL Draft close behind, we’ve got a lot of ground to cover over the coming months. The first big event on the offseason calendar is the Senior Bowl: a massive scouting event collecting some of the top prospects from college football in Mobile, AL for a week of practice and interviews. This year’s event takes place from Tuesday, January 30 through Saturday, February 3.

I’ll once again be on-site in Mobile to cover the event for The Falcoholic and the Dirty Birds & Brews podcast, and will be providing daily updates here on the site. Before we get down to Mobile, I’ll be previewing some of the most critical positions for the Falcons and giving you a breakdown of some players to watch heading into the week.

Today we take a look at the defensive backs, where Atlanta has an immediate need for a starter opposite Jessie Bates at safety and plenty of room for depth upgrades at cornerback.

Cornerbacks

Quinyon Mitchell, Toledo

One of the biggest risers this season, Toledo’s Quinyon Mitchell dominated the competition in the MAC. He’s a tremendous ballhawk, with six interceptions over the past two seasons and elite instincts in zone coverage. Mitchell is an explosive athlete and easy mover, capable of instant click-and-close when he sees a play developing in front of him. He’s a ferocious and feisty competitor with an electric energy on the field.

Mitchell’s ballhawking instincts can sometimes get the better of him, as he’s constantly looking for the turnover and can get baited into mistakes. His frame is solid at 6’0, 195, but he doesn’t have the high-end length and size that NFL teams covet at the top of the draft. He’ll get his toughest test yet in Mobile, and could easily become a first-round fixture with a strong week.

Kalen King, Penn State

Penn State’s Kalen King is one of the most consistent corners in this class. An experienced and scheme-versatile talent, King is comfortable in both man and zone and in a variety of alignments. He’s got tremendous instincts for the position and plays with a ton of confidence, leading to a lot of pass breakups. King is physical and technically sound as a run defender and won’t let down a defense as the outside defender.

King has terrific lateral mobility, but I’ve got concerns about his ability to match up with speed on the outside. He’s also on the smaller side (5’11, 185), which has led some to suggest a move to the slot. I think King is a very good CB2 prospect, and he’ll have an opportunity to address the speed and size concerns at the Senior Bowl.

Mike Sainristil, Michigan

Arguably the best slot cornerback prospect in the draft, Michigan’s Mike Sainristil is an elite ballhawk with a feisty competitive streak and a ton of versatility. He’s aligned all over the defense from outside, to slot, to safety, and can be an ideal nickel defender. While his size (5’10, 180) limits his appeal on the outside, Sainristil has elite instincts and is a tremendous player in zone coverage. He’s got outstanding athleticism, long speed, and lateral mobility to match up with a variety of opponents.

Sainristil is a capable run defender and lethal blitzer, and I love his fit as a CB/safety hybrid in Atlanta’s secondary. The only issue is...he’s probably too good to be on Atlanta’s radar, as Sainristil could go early on Day 2. He’ll still be one of the top DBs to watch in Mobile this week.

Josh Newton, TCU

TCU’s Josh Newton is a scheme-versatile and alignment-versatile cornerback prospect who brings a lot to the table. While he lacks high-end athleticism and size, Newton does all the little things at a high level. He’s got great instincts and short-area quickness in zone and can handle man thanks to his toughness and physicality. Newton is a high-IQ corner who matches up well with a variety of concepts and can hold his own in the run game.

There are questions about Newton’s ability to handle elite speed and his size to match up with NFL outside receivers that could necessitate a full-time move to the slot, but Newton’s tape is very good. He’ll have an opportunity to address those concerns at the Senior Bowl.

More players to watch:

D.J. James, Auburn
Caelen Carson, Wake Forest
Nehemiah Pritchett, Auburn
Khyree Jackson, Oregon

Safeties

Javon Bullard, Georgia

Georgia’s Javon Bullard is a terrific safety prospect with some awesome tape who is held back by size concerns. How much those concerns matter to you probably depends on where you project Bullard. I love Bullard a bit further from the line of scrimmage, where he can use his instincts and athleticism to make plays on the ball and clean up mistakes in the secondary. He’s got exceptional instincts and a fiery play demeanor that is infectious and fun to watch.

At 5’11 and under 200 pounds, Bullard is undoubtedly undersized for safety. Some have him projected as more of a nickel corner prospect, but I think a hybrid or mostly safety role is still best for him. He’s a high-effort and physical player despite his stature. Bullard is one of the more interesting players to monitor in Mobile this week.

Kamren Kinchens, Miami

Miami’s Kamren Kinchens is one of the top safety prospects in the 2024 NFL Draft. He’s got a solid build (6’0, 205) and high-end athletic traits that allow him to play just about any role in the secondary, from slot defender to single-high safety. I love Kinchens’ aggressive style and his competitiveness in coverage, and he’s an undeniable playmaker.

Kinchens does have a tendency to be overaggressive, leaving him susceptible to big plays. He’s also got a lot of development to do before he can be trusted as a consistent man coverage player. While he doesn’t lack physicality, his technique in as a tackler and in run defense needs work before he can be relied upon in the box. Kinchens has a sky-high ceiling but is far from a polished prospect. A strong week at the Senior Bowl could solidify his place early in the draft.

Sione Vaki, Utah

One of the most unique players in this draft class, Utah’s Sione Vaki is a true two-way player who started at both safety and running back in 2023. Strangely, Vaki was pretty good in both roles, although his overall tape is pretty limited. As a box and slot defender, Vaki excelled with his physicality and athleticism. As a runner and receiver, Vaki showed off excellent speed, burst, and exceptional hands.

He’s a tough player to place. I love his versatility and think he could carve out a special teams role, as well. Vaki reminds me a bit of Avery Williams, who Atlanta drafted as a cornerback before converting him to running back (and primary punt returner). Vaki can do a lot of the same things, bringing depth at multiple spots and helping to fill out special teams. The big question is how well can he can play as a pure safety/nickel defender, and the Senior Bowl could be big for his evaluation.

Jaden Hicks, Washington State

If you’re looking for the latest in the line of big-bodied “big nickel” defenders, Washington State’s Jaden Hicks certainly looks the part. At 6’3, 212, Hicks has outstanding size to match up with tight ends and brings plenty of physicality in the run game. As a coverage player, he’s very effective in man where he can use his length to smother pass catchers. Hicks plays with high energy in both the run and pass game and doesn’t shy away from contact.

I love his competitiveness and size profile, and he’s an immediate asset in man coverage. However, while Hicks brings plenty of aggressiveness, he can be prone to mistakes. His instincts in zone coverage could use further development. There are also some long speed and agility questions given his frame. Still, Hicks offers an enticing package of traits and offers enough against the run and in man to get on the field early in his career. He’s got a chance to raise his draft stock significantly with a strong week in Mobile.

More players to watch:

Tykee Smith, Georgia
Beau Brade, Maryland
Malik Mustapha, Wake Forest
Cole Bishop, Utah