Ball skills separate elite DBs from good

Some defensive backs are consistently able to get into position to break up passes and live to play another down, but the true ballhawks break games open by making the interception.

Ball skills are one of the five position-specific traits we use to evaluate defensive backs, and today's Nickel Package breaks down the 2011 prospects who grade out the highest in that department.

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1. LSU CB DC Patrick Peterson (6-foot-0¼, 219 pounds; Grade: 97)

Peterson is a big, fast and athletic cover corner who is at his best in press-man coverage. He can turn, locate and play the ball, and he is aggressive without drawing pass interference calls. Peterson's bigger frame also allows him to consistently hold his own in jump-ball situations.

He notched six interceptions and 24 pass breakups the last two seasons (26 starts), and while it's rare to see a premier cover corner fielding kicks at the next level, Peterson's ball skills show up there as well and he has proved reliable (and explosive) in that role. Overall, he is one of the four elite prospects in the 2011 class and I can't imagine him falling past the San Francisco 49ers at No. 7.

2. UCLA S Rahim Moore (5-11¾, 202; 87)

Moore shows great instincts and takes excellent angles to the point. He is aggressive when the ball is in the air, will go up and contest, and he consistently attacks the ball at its highest point. He also has great hand-eye coordination and strong hands.

Although Moore's production dipped in 2010 while teams worked hard to make him a bystander in the passing game, he did finish his career with 14 interceptions (10 as a junior in 2009). He should be the first true safety prospect off the board somewhere in the second round, and teams with need at the position include the Jacksonville Jaguars, Minnesota Vikings, New Orleans Saints and Dallas Cowboys.

3. North Carolina CB Kendric Burney (5-9⅜, 186; 68)

Burney is undersized with below-average top-end speed (4.74-second 40-yard dash), which is why his name won't be called in the first two rounds. But he''s quicker-than-fast and more physical than his size indicates, and Burney is an instinctive playmaker in coverage. Burney recorded five interceptions in 2009 and notched two more in just six starts during a suspension-shortened 2010 season, and he could really excel in a zone-heavy scheme.

4. West Virginia S Robert Sands (6-4⅜, 217; 53)

Sands is unusually tall for a safety and shows a lot of stiffness in his hips, which will lead to matchup limitations in coverage at the next level. But he is feared over the middle of the field, fills hard in run support and is a menace when the ball is in the air. He shows strong hands when in position to make a play on the ball and is tough to throw around because he's so long (33⅜-inch arms) and has above-average leaping ability.

Sands picked off six passes in the last two seasons, five of which came in 2009, and he grades out as a Day 3 pick with value right away on special teams. He eventually could push for a starting job if he can learn to mask his tightness and coverage limitations.

5. Virginia CB Ras-I Dowling (6-1⅜, 198; 82)

Dowling is a tall, fluid cornerback with good instincts and speed. He piled up eight interceptions and broke up 28 passes during his first three seasons (2007-09) before an injury-riddled senior campaign. Dowling played in only five games in 2010, battling hamstring and knee injuries before breaking his left ankle.

We gave Dowling a first-round grade coming into the 2010 season and he's a better all-around athlete and player than Chris Cook, who was drafted by the Vikings in the second round last year. Dowling has a chance to be a second-round steal if he can kick the injury bug, and the Detroit Lions, Oakland Raiders, Philadelphia Eagles and Baltimore Ravens are among the teams that could target him in Round 2.

Honorable Mention

Appalachian State S Mark LeGree

Florida S Ahmad Black

North Carolina S Deunta Williams

Southern Illinois CB Korey Lindsey

Clemson S DeAndre McDaniel