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Aarion Penton is a great college corner. Can he translate that to a high NFL pick?

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The NFL Draft is over but NFL Draft season never truly ends. Several Tigers on the 2016 team could work their way into the 2017 draft, this is our series on how that happens.

Aarion Penton, Cornerback (5'10, 190, Sr.)

The first thing people will say about Penton is that he's too short to be a top draft pick in the NFL. This is a sentiment strengthened by a recent trend toward taller/longer corners and popularized by Pete Carroll and Richard Sherman of the Seattle Seahawks.

The nickel defense has become the "base" defense for the majority of NFL teams, which means teams investing in a nickel corner who is both physical against the run but athletic enough to cover in space.

Let's compare Penton's stats to players similar to him from the past NFL Drafts. I chose not to include Cyrus Jones here despite the physical similarities because he was more of a return man at Alabama.

Corners
Year Missouri Conf Class Pos G Solo Ast Tot Loss Sk Int PD FR FF
*2013 Aarion Penton SEC FR DB 9 12 3 15 1.0 0.0 1 1
*2014 Aarion Penton SEC SO DB 12 22 14 36 2.0 0.0 3 10 1
2015 Aarion Penton SEC JR CB 12 41 18 59 4.0 0.0 1 8 1
Career Aarion Penton 75 35 110 7.0 0.0 5 19 0 2

Year Florida Conf Class Pos G Solo Ast Tot Loss Sk Int PD FR FF
2013 Vernon Hargreaves SEC FR DB 12 26 12 38 0.0 0.0 3 10
*2014 Vernon Hargreaves SEC SO DB 12 31 19 50 2.0 0.0 3 13 2
2015 Vernon Hargreaves SEC JR DB 12 24 9 33 1.0 0.0 4 4 1
Career Vernon Hargreaves 81 40 121 3.0 0.0 10 27 2 1

Year Clemson Conf Class Pos G Solo Ast Tot Loss Sk Int PD FR FF
*2014 Mackensie Alexander ACC FR CB 10 15 6 21 2.0 0.0 0 6 1
2015 Mackensie Alexander ACC SO CB 13 18 5 23 2.0 0.0 0 5
Career Mackensie Alexander 33 11 44 4.0 0.0 0 11 1 0

Year Virginia Tech Conf Class Pos G Solo Ast Tot Loss Sk Int PD FR FF
*2013 Kendall Fuller ACC FR CB 13 38 20 58 2.5 0.5 6 11 1 1
*2014 Kendall Fuller ACC SO CB 13 32 22 54 4.5 2.0 2 13 1
2015 Kendall Fuller ACC JR CB 3 3 4 7 1.0 1.0 1 1
Career Kendall Fuller 73 46 119 8.0 3.5 8 25 2 2

Here I'm looking at the pass defensed and interception numbers. Penton is on pace with the three shorter corners above, but he'll need to improve his interception numbers to impress NFL scouts. Yes, Mackensie Alexander had zero in his entire career, but that was considered a red-flag against him throughout the evaluation process.

The thing that stands out to me is all three of the players above left by their junior year, while Penton tested the NFL waters and was told he wasn't a first- or second-day pick and should return for his senior year. Does that mean scouts want to see more production from him, or were they worried about him being "too" short?

So, about "short" corners? What do their combine numbers look like?

Name (Draft) Height Weight Arms Hands 40 Bench Vertical Broad 3 cone Shuttle Drafted
Vernon Hargreaves (2016) 5' 10" 204 30⅝" 8¾" 4.50 15 39" 130" 3.98 1-11th
Mackensie Alexander (2016) 5' 10" 190 31⅜" 9⅛" 4.47* 11 37½"* 121 7*.17* 4.21* 2-54th
Kendall Fuller (2016) 5' 11" 187 31½" 10" 15 3-84th
Tavon Young (2016) 5' 9" 183 30⅝" 9⅛" 4.46 9 34½" 118" 6.80 3.93 4-104th
Ronald Darby (2015) 5' 11" 193 31⅜" 8⅝" 4.38 12 41½" 129" 6.94 4.14 2-50th
Senquez Golson (2015) 5' 8⅝" 176 29¾" 9⅜" 4.46 15 33½" 120" 6.81 4.20 2-62nd
D'Joun Smith (2015) 5' 10" 187 30⅜" 8⅛" 4.45 18 36" 124" 6.96 4.26 3-65th

Mackensie Alexander's numbers come from his Pro Day, and Pro Day 40s are usually considered a bit faster than what he might do at the combine.

Kendall Fuller injured his knee and was thus unable to record measurables before the draft. It reportedly caused him to fall.

What you see is not only straight line speed but also incredibly agile athletes who are also able to jump high enough to compete against taller receivers. Sub-4 second shuttle and 7-second 3-cone drills mean great hip flexibility and acceleration, traits necessary for corners who operate in space.

Missouri's most recent cornerback draftee, EJ Gaines, was a sixth-round pick despite 70+ tackles, five interceptions, three pass breakups and four TFLs which earned him an All-SEC first-team nod in his senior year at Missouri. What hurt him was spending little time in the nickel slot, while NFL scouts projected that as his position. Gaines still earned the Rams' starting job, making 63 tackles, two interceptions and 15 pass breakups, good for a PFWA All-Rookie award.

Here are Gaines' Pro Day numbers. What I notice is that, for as fast as we thought he was, he was less explosive and agile than any of the players in the above chart.

2016 - Name Height Weight Arms Hands 40 Bench Vertical Broad 3 cone Shuttle Drafted
EJ Gaines 5'9⅝" 190 30⅜" 9⅜ 4.51 14 31½" 105" 7.13 4.28 6-188

Last year, Penton was one of the top five corners in the SEC according to PFF. Missouri's new defensive schemes reportedly will free the corners from much of their responsibilities against the run, perhaps allowing them to make more plays in coverage. That should really help Amp's stats. However, Penton has two prior citations for pot, which the NFL loves to use to knock player's draft stock down. And he doesn't yet have the production of Gaines.

Early prospects for the 2017 NFL Draft include LSU's Tre'Davious White, Michigan's Jourdan Lewis and USC's Adoree' Jackson. They are all similar in stature to Penton, being listed around 5'10 and 175-190 pounds with considerable athleticism and comparable career stats.

What I see is that there is absolutely a place for short but incredibly athletic corners to get drafted on the first or second day. Let's say that Penton is truly 5'10 and 190 pounds and can improve his ball-hawking skills. If he notches more than five interceptions, and greater than 10 total passes defensed from primarily the slot position, posts measurables like Senquez Golson, and stays healthy, he can be a Day 2 selection. Right now, despite being a great college corner, I think he's around a fifth-round pick.