With the Cleveland Browns’ selection of Denzel Ward with the No. 4 overall pick in last week’s NFL draft, Ohio State tied its own record by having a cornerback selected in the first round for a third consecutive year.
Ohio State could extend that streak to an unprecedented four years in the 2019 NFL draft.
It might seem like a long shot. The Buckeyes don’t have an established star at cornerback going into the season, and they no longer have Kerry Coombs, the coach responsible for developing five first-round cornerbacks in the past five years. But if Kendall Sheffield can play up to his potential this fall, he has the tools to emerge as Ohio State’s next top-tier prospect at the position.
Initially a five-star recruit out of Missouri City, Texas in 2015, Sheffield is entering just his second season at Ohio State but is already going into his fourth year out of college – after initially redshirting at Alabama, then spending a year at Blinn College before transferring to Ohio State – which gives him the option to enter the 2019 NFL draft should he choose to do so.
Sheffield didn’t appear to be close to NFL-ready in his first season as a Buckeye, when he was the No. 3 cornerback on Ohio State’s depth chart and battled inconsistent play, especially early in the season. It’s still likely, though, that Sheffield will be on NFL scouts’ radar going into his second season as a Buckeye.
According to The Athletic’s Ari Wasserman, Sheffield was already on at least one NFL scout’s radar last summer – as he would have been eligible for this year’s draft, too – before he even played his first snap as a Buckeye.
NFL scout who watched practice told me top 4 prospects on OSU's roster are Denzel Ward, Billy Price, Kendall Sheffield and Dre'Mont Jones.— Ari Wasserman (@AriWasserman) August 12, 2017
It’s easy to see why NFL scouts would be keeping a close eye on Sheffield. He has legitimately elite speed – breaking Ohio State’s school record in the 60-meter dash (6.63 seconds) while moonlighting in indoor track this winter – and also has good size for the cornerback position at 6-foot and 193 pounds.
Sheffield didn’t have a great first season for the Buckeyes, but while he became known for pass interference penalties and also had some noticeably blown coverages early last year, he quietly got better as the season progressed. When Ward decided to sit out the Cotton Bowl to preserve his draft stock, it was Sheffield who took over as the Buckeyes’ No. 1 cornerback, playing every snap of the game but one.
Considering that he had been on campus for less than a year, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Sheffield had some growing pains last season. Also because of that, there’s reason for optimism that Sheffield will elevate his game to a new level this season.
For Sheffield to emerge as a future first-round pick – and more importantly right now, for Sheffield to be successful as the No. 1 cornerback the Buckeyes are expecting him to be on a regular basis this season – he needed to continue to improve his game this spring. He’ll need to continue to hone his skills in preseason camp, too. But new Ohio State cornerbacks coach Taver Johnson likes what he’s seen from Sheffield so far.
"I think the sky is the limit for Kendall," Johnson said at the conclusion of spring. "The one thing that he made a lot of strides at was really, really trying to be very detailed in exactly what we were asking him to do. It really did show up for him this spring, and he made some great strides for sure."
Describing Sheffield as "a physical guy and a physical specimen," the one area where Johnson wants to see Sheffield improve most is playing with physicality. But Johnson believes Sheffield will do so more in time.
"He wants to," Johnson said. "Most of that (not playing physically) comes when you are trying to do it exact, you are thinking too much. Now hopefully those instincts can take over, now that he understands."
The results of Sheffield’s development won’t be clear until the actual games begin this fall, but he has as much upside as just about any player on the team, and he’ll draw substantial interest from the NFL – interest that could entice Sheffield to leave a year of eligibility on the table – if he can capitalize on that upside.
“I think the sky is the limit for Kendall.” – Ohio State cornerbacks coach Taver Johnson
According to a roundup by Inside The Pylon’s Jeff Feyerer, 10 cornerbacks not named Kendall Sheffield have already been projected as possible first-round picks in early 2019 mock drafts, with Georgia’s Deandre Baker and LSU’s Greedy Williams leading the group as of now.
A ton of 2019 Mock #NFLDraft came out following the conclusion of this year's.— Jeff Feyerer (@jeff_feyerer) May 1, 2018
Those mocks mentioned 94 different players as 1st round picks.
Here's the consensus breakdown on those mocks and all the potential 1st rounders mentioned. pic.twitter.com/3MydqMBqf3
Sheffield’s absence from those early projections doesn’t mean much, though, because of his relative inexperience and potential to emerge. Ward was in a somewhat similar position going into last season, having only been the Buckeyes’ No. 3 cornerback the year before; Marshon Lattimore had barely played in his first two years on campus before his breakout seasons two years ago, which led to him being a first-round pick in the 2017 draft.
Sheffield isn’t the only Ohio State cornerback who could potentially emerge as a coveted NFL prospect with a great 2018 season. Damon Arnette, who will also be a fourth-year junior this season, likewise has the physical tools to rise up draft boards if he can improve his consistency this season.
Ohio State’s best defensive back prospect for the 2019 draft if he chooses to declare a year early might be safety Jordan Fuller, who performed well in his first season as a starter in 2017 and is expected to be the leader on the back end of the Buckeyes’ defense in 2018. While he’s not a cornerback, Ohio State would still be the first team to have a first-round defensive back in four straight years if Fuller was to be a top-32 pick in 2019.
Looking way ahead to the 2020 draft, Ohio State already has a cornerback who looks primed to potentially be a top prospect then in Jeffrey Okudah; that’s very hypothetical, of course, as he has yet to even start a game for the Buckeyes, but the five-star recruit showed enough flashes as a freshman to position himself as a talent to watch for the future.
But before any streak can continue in 2020 – a draft that still potentially could include any defensive back on Ohio State’s roster, as none of them are seniors – it must continue in 2019, and specifically in regards to the cornerback position, Sheffield is the Buckeye who has the most potential to keep the streak going.