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Five big DB questions heading into the 2019 season

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Kristian Fulton
Kristian Fulton (AP Images)

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Pro Football Focus is an invaluable resource to dive deeper into statistics when thinking about college football and the NFL Draft. Here is a breakdown of five defensive back storylines heading into next season, what their numbers could mean down the road and the opinion of National Recruiting Director Mike Farrell.

Can LSU's Kristian Fulton emerge as a first-round talent?

Overview: Fulton was a high four-star prospect and the No. 1 player in the Louisiana state rankings for the 2016 class, but he had to serve a suspension of nearly two years after trying to fake an NCAA-mandated drug test. It was a whirlwind of a story that saw Fulton sidelined for a lengthy period of time and it surely slowed his development in the college game.

But last offseason, Fulton was reinstated and he shined in LSU’s defense, playing in 10 games and recording 10 pass deflections, only one fewer than Greedy Williams. His overall Pro Football Focus grade was the second-highest in the SEC behind only Georgia’s Deandre Baker. Fulton opted to return to LSU for next season instead of testing the NFL Draft waters and with some NCAA issues in the rear-view mirror and Williams off to the NFL, a huge season could be ahead.

Farrell’s take: Fulton should have a big year and will be next up at LSU, which considers itself DBU, as the star of the defensive backfield. The NCAA issues will follow him to the NFL and could hurt his stock there, but on the field I have no question that Fulton will have a great year and be one of the best cover men in the SEC.

Is Bryce Hall going to be a huge name at the position?

Overview: When it comes to Virginia defensive backs, safety Juan Thornhill is receiving all the attention this offseason. He could be one of the first players at his position taken in the NFL Draft and he led the Cavalier in tackles and interceptions last season with 98 and six, respectively.

But now with Thornhill out of Charlottesville, Hall could be the big fish heading into next season and everything is lining up for him to have a huge year. The former two-star athlete out of Harrisburg (Pa.) Bishop McDevitt had a higher overall grade by Pro Football Focus than Thornhill and he had the second-highest overall grade among Power Five cornerbacks behind only Washington’s Byron Murphy. Plus, Hall totaled 22 pass breakups last season which was by far a team-high for the Cavaliers.

Farrell’s take: It’s hard to be a huge name at Virginia, so I doubt he becomes a big national name, but on the ACC level he will be one of the best in the league and earn accolades there. Virginia has had some very productive defensive backs over the last few years and Hall is the next one. This is the year he breaks out on his own without being overshadowed.

Shyheim Carter: Next first-rounder for Alabama?

Overview: Alabama is no stranger to having first-round talent in the NFL Draft and more Crimson Tide players will be taken next month, but one top defensive back decided to return to school - and it could pay off if he has a huge senior season.

Carter was ranked as a four-star athlete, but he has shined at defensive back for Alabama especially late in the season when the lights really came on and he could emerge as a top cornerback discussed for the NFL Draft after next season. He had two interceptions and 10 pass deflections last season and he graded out as the third-best SEC corner last season behind Baker and Fulton. Alabama is loaded with young talent, but one more go-around for Carter could prove huge.

Farrell’s take: Carter has the talent and instincts to be great and to be a first-rounder if he can improve in some areas and add more strength. He has natural instincts, good speed and he’s being coached by the best so I could see a big year ahead. It will all depend on how he tests next year at the NFL Combine but his film should be excellent.

Why haven’t former No. 1s had a bigger impact?

Overview: While Patrick Surtain had a solid first season by getting thrown into the fire at Alabama and 2019 No. 1 prospect Derek Stingley, Jr., is already receiving rave reviews through spring practice at LSU, the two former No. 1 cornerbacks in the 2016 and 2017 classes have yet to make any significant impact on the college level after shining bright in high school.

Florida State’s Levonta Taylor has battled some injuries but even still he has not become a dominant force in the Seminoles’ defense heading into his senior year and maybe even more surprisingly Penn State’s Lamont Wade has hardly made any strides with the Nittany Lions. Wade considered transferring from Penn State this offseason but was talked into returning to State College. Taylor and Wade were both undersized corners coming out of the prep ranks but that has hardly held back others.

Farrell’s take: I’d point to the size issue for both as Wade was thick but short and Taylor was short and wasn’t very big, but when you see guys like Murphy as potential first-rounders you can’t always point to size. Cornerback is very hard to gauge at the high school level because they rarely get tested in game action, but I’m still surprised that Taylor and especially Wade haven’t done better.

What can we learn about the safety position?

Overview: The highest-graded Power Five safety by Pro Football Focus last season was Alohi Gilman, who played at three different high schools and then went to Navy before transferring to Notre Dame and becoming a star. Arguably the top safety coming up in the NFL Draft is Nasir Adderley, an unranked athlete in the 2015 class who went to Delaware. Also high on the board is former three-star Taylor Rapp, who had a phenomenal career at Washington.

There is Caden Sterns and Jaiden Woodbey and phenomenal-looking safeties all across college football, so is this year just an anomaly where players like Gilman, Adderley, Rapp and others have high grades or is there something to learn when evaluating and ranking players at this position - that maybe athleticism and ranginess is not enough and that playing the position with smarts and toughness might even be more important?

Farrell’s take: It’s just an anomaly as guys like Derwin James and Jamal Adams were first-rounders, very highly ranked out of high school and are making a huge impact in the NFL. Length isn’t the only thing needed in a safety as Adams proves and instinct is the most important yet hardest asset to track. And many cornerbacks in high school like Jabrill Peppers end up moving to safety in college so it’s a bit of a crapshoot. I don’t think this year proves anything except it’s a down year at safety overall.