National Football League
2024 NFL Draft: Why Iowa's Cooper DeJean could lead a renaissance at CB
National Football League

2024 NFL Draft: Why Iowa's Cooper DeJean could lead a renaissance at CB

Published Apr. 11, 2024 1:47 p.m. ET

Iowa cornerback Cooper DeJean, one of the most talented athletes in the 2024 NFL Draft, would provide playmaking ability and swagger for the San Francisco 49ers as they look to return to the Super Bowl. 

That's if he's still available when they pick at No. 31 overall — the team's first opportunity to select on Day 1 since 2021.

Of course, the 49ers could and likely would have to move up to grab DeJean, who put up some eye-popping numbers at his pro day. The 6-foot, 203-pound DeJean ran a 4.42 40 and posted a 38-inch vertical jump, showing NFL scouts that he's fully recovered from the broken right leg that forced him to miss the last four games of the 2023 season.

The 49ers are uniquely set up to unlock DeJean's full potential as a flexible defensive player and return man. San Francisco promoted Nick Sorensen to defensive coordinator and brought in longtime NFL DC Brandon Staley, allowing the 49ers to create a hybrid defense that combines some of Seattle's Cover 3 schemes and Staley's experience with 3-4 principles. 


Staley, a protégé of longtime NFL defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, used Jalen Ramsey and Derwin James at his versatile "Star" position at his stops with the Rams and Chargers. DeJean could follow in the mold of those players if the 49ers implement some of Staley's schemes in the secondary.

Charvarius Ward has developed into one of the top corners in the league, but the 49ers could use a talented player sticky in coverage opposite of him.

[Williams: As 49ers reload for another Super Bowl run, CB upgrade a priority]

DeJean follows a strong lineage of Iowa defensive backs for longtime Hawkeyes head coach Kirk Ferentz. Several of them have gone on to have successful NFL careers, including Micah Hyde, Geno Stone, Amani Hooker and Desmond King. Just last year, Iowa's Riley Moss was selected in the third round by the Denver Broncos

DeJean and Moss have more than Iowa in common: They're both white corners. The NFL has not had a white cornerback playing full-time on the perimeter since Jason Sehorn more than 20 years ago. White players with DeJean's athleticism and skill set are often transitioned to safety or receiver in college. 

But FOX Sports NFL analyst Bucky Brooks believes DeJean could be the player who bucks that trend because of his combination of physical tools and mental makeup.

"It's unfortunate, but I think guys are sometimes conditioned to put players who look a certain way in certain spots," Brooks said. "If we were to approach it from a color-blind approach, I think he would play corner and we would move him around. In a perfect world, with the skills that he brings to the table, you want to maximize that.

"Think Jalen Ramsey. My feeling is [DeJean] is the same player, and his skill set is very similar. The Rams took Jalen Ramsey from the outside, moved him inside and allowed him to play. To me, you follow the Jalen Ramsey blueprint with Cooper DeJean. I think you use him how you need him every week. That means some weeks he may play outside, some weeks he may play inside and some weeks he may play high safety. But to have that kind of player is like having a queen on the chess board. You do whatever you need to do to win, and you utilize him to put yourself in a position to win each week."

DeJean has been a special playmaker since his early days in the small town of Odebolt, Iowa. In high school, he played football, basketball, baseball and ran track. He was a dominant athlete, leading his football team to back-to-back state titles as a dual-threat quarterback. DeJean also averaged 26 points a game in basketball and won the state long jump and 100-meter state titles his senior year. 

That athleticism showed up on the football field in Iowa, where he mostly played on the perimeter at corner and returned punts. DeJean finished with 20 pass breakups and seven career interceptions, returning three for touchdowns. He also averaged 13.1 yards per punt return. 

For his part, DeJean told reporters at the NFL Combine that he's fine playing wherever a team chooses to put him on the field. 

"I think being able to play multiple positions definitely helps me become a better football player in general," DeJean said. "And I feel like Iowa has prepared me for that, being able to play multiple, different positions, and understand the ins and outs of a defense."

FOX Sports NFL draft analyst Rob Rang has DeJean ranked as his No. 4 cornerback and compares him to Pittsburgh Steelers do-everything safety Minkah Fitzpatrick because of his ability to take the ball away.

[Rob Rang: 2024 NFL Draft CB rankings: 5 first-round grades among top 10 prospects]

"Minkah moved all over the place at Alabama and had the same kind of ball skills," Rang said. "He was one of those guys who could play anywhere you want. It was just: Where do you want him?

"To me, that's one of the things that you like about Cooper. I just think he has a different level of instincts as a corner, so that's one of the reasons why I could see him getting moved to safety. You've got a guy that instinctive, it allows him to stare down the quarterback the entire time, rather than turning his back and running deep down the field. 

"I just see the same type of range, size, open-field tackling ability, and then he's got special hands and tracking skills." 

Brooks said DeJean could be a trendsetter for other white players who want to play cornerback, and it will take an out-of-the-box approach to unlock his unique skill set. The 49ers have already had success with Christian McCaffrey, one of the few white running backs in the league.

"One of the things a white cornerback has to be ready for is what the kids call, ‘They gonna get all the smoke,'" Brooks said. "They are going to get all the attention. In a way, it's like being a Black quarterback in reverse back in the day. You have to be able to handle all of the noise that comes along with being one of a few. The Black quarterback thing has changed. But for the white cornerback, if Cooper DeJean takes on the challenge and has a lot of success, I think it opens up the door for others to do it. 

"The Julian Edelmans and Wes Welkers of the world, they could just as easily have been cornerbacks, but somewhere along the way they got shuttled to the wide receiver line instead of the DB line. And if DeJean has success, makes all-star games and is an All-Pro, it now allows others that look like him to have the same type of dreams and goals to do what he has done. 

"So he has an opportunity to not be a pioneer, but he could lead a renaissance at the position." 

Eric D. Williams has reported on the NFL for more than a decade, covering the Los Angeles Rams for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Chargers for ESPN and the Seattle Seahawks for the Tacoma News Tribune. Follow him on Twitter at @eric_d_williams.


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