One look at Ohio State’s list of recent defensive backs selected in the first round of the NFL Draft will leave no doubt as to why the Buckeyes have designated themselves of late as BIA (Best in America).
In fact, last year was only the second since 2014 in which an Ohio State DB did not get selected through the first 32 picks. Bradley Roby, Eli Apple, Marshon Lattimore, Malik Hooker, Gareon Conley, and Denzel Ward together represent a significant portion of the first round talent that the NFL has received from Columbus over the last half-decade plus.
The 2020 NFL Draft already promises to add to that trend. Jeff Okudah appears locked-in as a top five pick, with a great chance to go as high as third overall to the Detroit Lions. That would be the highest selection for a DB that Ohio State has had among the players previously listed.
But lost in all of Okudah’s well-deserved hype during this draft cycle has been his running mate in the Buckeyes’ secondary, Damon Arnette. While Okudah’s range of selection in this draft remains about as much of a mystery as whether or not Carole Baskin fed her husband to tigers, Arnette’s projections fluctuate wildly from analyst to analyst.
Both evaluations of his skills as a corner and forecasts of which team he could end up with remain wide-open for debate merely a week before the draft will begin. Draft experts have graded Arnette as high as the third best corner in this draft, while some outlets such as Pro Football Focus don’t even have him listed among the top ten players at his position. Some are optimistic he can sneak into the back of the first round, while others have him firmly slotted as a mid-third round pick or lower.
That means, when it comes to figuring out if Arnette has realistic first round value, it’s important to focus on two key components. One, what does everyone agree are Arnette’s best skills; and two, which teams of those picking in the back of the first round have need for a corner of Arnette’s profile?
What He’s Good At
If there’s one component of Arnette’s game that draft gurus seem to agree on, it’s that his press skills are top-notch. Benjamin Solak of The Draft Network gave a pretty comprehensive assessment of Arnette’s skill in that area:
Shows success in both soft-shoe and kick-step techniques and has the requisite length and agility to win in both. Feet can deaden and weight can rock back at the snap when soft-shoeing, which allows releases to immediately work to his outside shoulder, but his recovery footwork and angles are delightful, and he never misses an opportunity to crowd in the contact window. Aggressive kick-step technique works flawlessly and he can open his hips and speed-turn with success to respond to release moves. It’s all there. —Benjamin Slovak, The Draft Network
Indeed, Arnette’s press prowess forms the base from which the rest of his skill set branches off. His physical style of play lends itself to both great run support skills along the line of scrimmage as well as excellent ability to stick close with receivers on their routes. Arnette showcased as much during the Buckeyes’ game against Indiana this past season that featured Ohio State’s secondary matching up with a host of tall, strong receivers:
Arnette’s constant crowding of his coverage assignments explains why he totaled 22 pass deflections across the three seasons he started for Ohio State. He only recorded four interceptions in that same span, but much of that is attributable to Arnette having his back to incoming throws since he spends so much time getting in the receiver’s personal space. That’s a risky style of coverage that remains difficult for any corner to execute consistently, but Arnette proved time and time again that he makes it work for himself:
Finally, one of the big selling points Ohio State’s defensive back prospects will have going for them in this draft and beyond is the ability to play multiple coverage schemes. This is particularly important for Arnette’s draft value because while his physicality would normally have him projected as a man coverage specialist, there are doubts about how he will hang with NFL speed mavens on downfield routes.
Fortunately, Arnette got a fairly large amount of work playing zone coverage in 2019 following the departure of Greg Schiano. Scouts are optimistic he can deliver results in a professional zone scheme due to his great footwork, range of motion, and instincts for meeting receivers at legal points of contact:
What Needs Improvement
Aside from a need to prove himself against players with elite speed, the biggest knocks on Arnette’s game mostly appear in the mental capacity. So much of his success as a player comes from his instincts given his play style. He roughs up a receiver’s route at the line, tracks their eyes while the ball is in the air, then reacts accordingly to disrupt the catch. Corners already have slim margins of error in their assignments, and Arnette’s approach to the position reduces that margin even further, but he makes it work for him.
Arnette’s problems come when he’s forced to read and diagnose the offense in front of him instead of just playing within his strengths. His aggression at the line of scrimmage can create problems behind him when he gets pulled into underneath plays after playing off his man at the snap, regardless of what coverage he’s in. This is something that a team could potentially resolve with a press-heavy scheme that focuses on one style of coverage (i.e. keeping things simple), but Arnette will need great coaches around him to help him overcome this area of his game.
The other side of the mental drawbacks with Arnette come from the character perspective, though strictly in the football capacity. Going into 2019, Arnette had a bit of a reputation as a selfish player that didn’t always see eye-to-eye with Ohio State’s staff:
Some predraft scuttlebutt labeled Arnette a “character concern.” Perhaps that traced back to Arnette’s own admissions — in articles written before last season — that he did not always get along with the previous Ohio State defensive coaches. Arnette also conceded a poor attitude through his junior season — something he recognized and worked to correct. —Nathan Baird, Cleveland.com
As that paragraph illustrates, Arnette himself was even aware of this perception. Moreover, when he talks about who he his now versus who he was earlier in his career at Ohio State, he seems to confirm it as reality. But Arnette became a father about a month before the NFL Combine, and knowing the new responsibilities that would await him at the end of his college career seemed to change his outlook all for the better:
“I had a natural chip on my shoulder my whole life,” Arnette said. “My goal of playing football hasn’t been to prove people wrong but to prove myself right.
“So with that on top of now having a son, things are different now. That fire in my heart — that burn that I have for the game — grew some more, because I’m no longer doing it for myself.”
Really, the only character issues that are probably fair to attribute to Arnette at this stage come from his post-play reactions. Even in his final year at Ohio State, he consistently celebrated wins on defense with greater exuberance than they probably deserved. This made Michigan State receiver Darrell Stewart Jr. particularly upset earlier this year, and after Arnette got caught out of position and surrendered a touchdown later in the game, Arnette went out of his way to shove a helmet-less Stewart well after the play:
One play does not a player make, but unnecessary post-play activities such as these will often give coaches and scouts at the next level pause when considering prospects.
Who Would Take Him in the First Round?
This is where it gets tricky. First, to set the parameters of where to expect Damon Arnette will go if he goes in the first round, let’s keep three things in mind:
- One, the best case scenario for Arnette is he’ll be the third player at his position off the board following Jeff Okudah and Florida’s CJ Henderson.
- Two, this draft is ripe with prospects at wide receiver, the edge rusher/linebacker positions, and linemen along both sides of the line of scrimmage. That means a good majority of the first two thirds of the draft should be those players, which pushes DB prospects towards the back third of the first round and beyond.
- Three, recent history shows not only that teams aren’t afraid to pick Ohio State DBs in the first round, but they’re also not afraid to reach if necessary. The New York Giants shocked many in football circles when they selected Eli Apple at 10th overall in the 2016 NFL Draft ahead of highly touted prospects such as Vernon Hargreaves, Artie Burns, and Xavien Howard.
So if Arnette is going to sneak into the first round, he’ll likely have to do it on one of the final picks, with a handful of corners already off the board, and the team will have to be in a position where reaching for a corner doesn’t totally doom their draft or outlook for 2020.
This is exactly the type of scenario that Bradley Roby found himself in during the 2014 NFL Draft. Roby ultimately went to the Denver Broncos at 31st overall, a team that already boasted the likes of Chris Harris Jr. and Aqib Talib in its secondary. Roby ended up providing quality play as a slot corner on Denver’s league-wrecking defense that won the Super Bowl during his rookie season.
Fast forwarding to 2020, and the team picking at 31st in this draft is the San Francisco 49ers. The 49ers are fresh off a loss in the Super Bowl to the Kansas City Chiefs, but it’s easy to forget that just a year prior, they had one of the worst secondaries in the NFL. They attempted to rectify this last year with a vastly improved pass rush, acquiring Dee Ford via trade and Nick Bosa via the draft.
The 49ers pass defense greatly improved with this strategy, but outside of pro bowler Richard Sherman, their secondary remains thin. Despite this, and even in the wake of a loss in the Super Bowl, many would agree that San Francisco remains the deepest team in the NFL from position-to-position. That means the team can afford to take risks while still addressing the areas on their roster that require immediate attention.
Nick Bosa proved the 49ers right when they picked a Buckeye No. 2 overall in the NFL Draft a year ago, and if the Ohio State brand has rubbed San Francisco the right way, then they may be open to Arnette at No. 31 overall. He would give them a great No. 2 corner to install opposite of Sherman while having enough infrastructure around him to mitigate rookie mistakes. The 49ers having a pass rush on par with what Arnette became used to playing alongside at Ohio State will only help his learning curve against NFL passing schemes.
Arnette began his career at Ohio State with frustrating promise that for a while appeared doomed to never see realization. One year after he needed convincing to return to school and polish his game, Arnette looks to have grown up on and off the field. He deserves late first round consideration, and though he may not hear his name called on Thursday night, Damon Arnette will be ready to make many teams proud from the moment he laces up.
Don’t be surprised if by this time next week he’s the latest Buckeye to earn an NFL club’s top pick.