Athletic ability is more important for defensive backs than any other position in the NFL. Even the most cerebral cover men play a reactionary position. Safeties and cornerbacks have to react what other extreme athletes like Odell Beckham, Antonio Brown and Travis Kelce do throughout their scripted routes. Then, when the play breaks down and the pass rush fails to get home, defensive backs have to be improvisational and keep up with these receivers of all shapes and sizes. Youth also helps when analyzing the current level of defensive back athleticism.
This list certainly favors cornerbacks over safeties. As we featured with edge players and linebackers, below is a list of the five most athletic defensive backs — not necessarily the best defensive backs — in the NFL, in alphabetical order.
Malik Hooker – Not all athletes are comparable with numbers alone. Hooker was unable to perform at the combine because of an injury. What Hooker has is basketball-like fluidity, loose hips, ball skills, and the ability to abruptly break on the ball from a deep safety position. Hooker makes going from Point A to Point B look effortless despite not having extensive football experience. He is the ideal athlete for a single high safety in today’s NFL with an amazing ability to make quarterbacks pay dearly for testing him. The future is extremely bright for Hooker. His new coach, Chuck Pagano, surely sees his new Ed Reed in the Colts’ first-round pick.
Byron Jones – He might just take the cake as the NFL’s most athletic defensive back. Physically, Jones can do anything asked of him at any defensive back position. He can play free safety well away from the line of scrimmage. He can play the run in the box or play man coverage against tight ends, wide receivers or slot guys. He can blitz. Jones is just scratching the surface.
Of course Jones runs very well while showing smooth and distinct change of direction skills at a very good size for a defensive back, but this guy posted a 44.5-inch vertical and a simply amazing 147-inch broad jump at his combine. Jones doesn’t only test well. His great athletic ability translates very well to the football field and he could be on the cusp of greatness in his third season.
Obi Melifonwu – Is there something in the water at the University of Connecticut? We obviously don’t know if Melifonwu can translate his freakish athletic ability to the NFL or not, but what he has is truly amazing. How about these for workout numbers: a 4.4 flat 40-yard dash, a 141-inch broad jump, and a simply amazing 44-inch vertical jump. That is at 6-4 and 224 pounds!
Calvin Johnson didn’t jump at his combine, but Melifonwu compares very favorably to the freakiest wide receiver of all time in Johnson. Melifonwu has a ways to go with his recognition skills and all the finer points of the position. At this point, it is uncertain how Oakland will employ him, but there isn’t a better physical specimen to handle today’s athletic tight ends one-on-one than Melifonwu. Soon every team might be looking for his replica.
Patrick Peterson – He is the prototype. He also happens to be the best cornerback in football. Peterson’s weight ballooned at one point, but he got that under control and his game just soared as a result. He is still built like a big safety and has that sort of physicality along with rare movement skills for a cornerback that big.
Early in his career and in college, Peterson’s athletic ability showed up on special teams as a return man. He is dynamic with the ball. What is remarkable is that Peterson ran a 4.34 40-yard dash at his combine at 219 pounds. He is still that fast and explosive. The first defensive back taken in the 2011 draft, Peterson isn’t a young man anymore, but he is playing incredibly well and shows zero signs of slowing down anytime soon.
Jalen Ramsey – He and Peterson actually have a lot in common athletically. Someday, Ramsey very well could challenge Peterson for the mantle of being the NFL’s best cornerback. Ramsey’s jumps at the combine were noticeably better than Peterson’s, and he is taller with longer arms. He was also the ACC’s long jump champion and a member of the 4 x 100 relay team… just something Ramsey did on the side at Florida State.
Jacksonville hasn’t done much of it yet, but Ramsey is capable of lining up all over the defense. Such extreme versatility shows what kind of athlete Ramsey truly is. He is everything you look for and a future superstar.
Others to consider: Ronald Darby, Chris Harris, Adoree’ Jackson, Janoris Jenkins, Tyrann Mathieu, Terrence Newman, Jabrill Peppers, Marcus Peters, Quinton Rollins, Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, Desmond Trufant, Jason Verrett