Michigan State’s Trae Waynes firmly solidified himself as the No. 1 cornerback Monday at the NFL Scouting Combine, and could be emerging as a top-10 pick in this year’s draft.
Waynes ran the 40-yard dash in 4.31 seconds, the second-fastest time overall during the four days of on-field workouts in Indianapolis.
"He just made a statement about ‘I want to be the No. 1 corner in this draft,’" NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said. "When you add it all up — length, a (4.31), he tackles, he comes out of a great college system — you know what you’re getting with this kid."
The Detroit Lions passed on another MSU cornerback, Darqueze Dennard, with the 10th pick overall in last year’s draft, but that might have been different had it been Waynes. He’s already widely considered the top corner entering the combine and has far exceeded the performances of his closest competition.
Deion Sanders, a Hall of Fame cornerback, gave his stamp of approval.
"Everything that I saw on that film, I like, and the things I wasn’t crazy about, I can work with them very easily," Sanders said of Waynes.
The one concern based on the tape is that Waynes can be susceptible to back-shoulder throws.
"Sometimes he gets too high in press," Mayock said. "That’s easily correctable.
"He’s so athletic. He gets on top of some of these receivers and they throw that back shoulder against him."
Even Waynes’ college coach, Mark Dantonio, had to smile after the 40-yard sprints. Dantonio was sitting in the stands watching and got caught on camera with some rare emotion.
"I never see him smile," Mayock said. "That’s cool."
Waynes (6-foot, 186 pounds) is exactly the type of cornerback the Lions could use, but there’s little or no chance he’ll be around when they’re on the clock with the 23rd pick overall.
Former NFL scout Daniel Jeremiah projected Waynes as the No. 13 pick in his pre-combine mock draft. Jeremiah, an analyst for the NFL Network, now believes Waynes could be taken in the top 10.
This remains a major position of need for the Lions, despite drafting five cornerbacks over the last three years.
They appear to have hit on at least one of them with Darius Slay, a second-round selection out of Mississippi State in 2013. Slay bounced back from a rough, injury-plagued rookie year to establish himself as a legitimate NFL corner this past season.
Two of those other picks — Chris Greenwood (fifth round in 2012) and Jonte Green (sixth round in 2012) — are no longer with the team.
The jury is still out on the other two — Bill Bentley (third round in 2012) and Nevin Lawson (fourth round in 2014) — both of whom missed most of last season because of injuries.
Bentley played only four games, including three starts, as a rookie in 2012 because of shoulder surgery and then suffered a season-ending knee injury in the 2014 opener after winning the No. 1 nickel cornerback job.
Lawson replaced Bentley as the top nickel, but Lawson then suffered a horrific dislocated foot in the next game at Carolina and was taken to a hospital there for immediate surgery. It has been a slow, unpredictable recovery process, making it difficult to determine the possible long-term effects.
"I had never seen that injury he had in the 20-plus years I’ve been around the NFL, so that’s a difficult one to gauge," Lions general manager Martin Mayhew said. "We do expect him back at some point this offseason and expect him to be able to compete during training camp."
The Lions’ starting corner opposite Slay has been Rashean Mathis, who is an unrestricted free agent. Detroit is expected to re-sign him, but Mathis will be entering his 13th NFL season and health becomes an even greater concern at that point of a career.
Either way, the Lions need to establish his heir apparent because that player probably isn’t on their roster at this time.
Mayhew, like all NFL evaluators, is trying to identify cornerbacks who can compete with the big receivers who have taken over the league.
"The answer for that on the defensive side is longer corners," Mayock said. "There’s a quest to find these gifted, longer press corners a la Richard Sherman."
Sherman is a 6-foot-3, first-team All-Pro cornerback for the Seattle Seahawks.
The top prospects after Waynes, based on Mayock’s rankings entering the combine, are Washington’s Marcus Peters (6-foot, 197 pounds), LSU’s Jalen Collins (6-1, 203 pounds) and Florida State’s P.J. Williams (6-foot, 194 pounds).
Peters, who got kicked off his college team after repeated run-ins with his coaches, ran the 40 in 4.53.
Collins, who has had questions raised about why he wasn’t a regular starter during his college career, was clocked in 4.48.
Williams, penciled in as a possibility for the Lions in Jeremiah’s first mock draft in mid-January, ran 4.57.
Jeremiah projected all four of these cornerbacks for the first round in his latest mock.
Another player to watch is Connecticut’s Byron Jones (6-1, 199 pounds), who was the talk of Monday’s defensive-backs workout after putting on quite a show of athleticism. His broad jump of 12 feet, 3 inches easily surpassed the all-time combine record.
Mayock called him a "verified freak."
Jones, who suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in the seventh game last season, also had a vertical jump of 44 1/2 inches, the second-best mark overall this year.
He chose not to take part in 40-yard dash because he was only recently cleared to run following his surgery and is still trying to get back to top form. Jones plans to run at U-Conn’s pro day on March 31 and is expected to be timed in the 4.3-4.4 range.
Jeremiah ranked Jones as the No. 50 prospect overall, the fifth cornerback, entering the combine.
The Lions arguably could have bigger needs this year at defensive tackle and offensive line, but at some point they’re going to have to find another standout corner.