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2023 NFL Draft Preview: Eli Ricks — The tempting enigma at corner

None better with the ball in the air.

Alabama v LSU Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Of all the Tide NFL prospects in this week’s draft, perhaps none represents quite the wildcard that Jr. CB Eli Ricks does. His tempting ball skills were too often a forgotten piece of the secondary, and Ricks was more notable for his absence than his on-field play.

The five-star Ricks was the No. 6 player in the 2020 class, and the No. 1 overall corner in the nation. Ricks size, ball skills, and stout competition at IMG Academy had schools drooling too: 6’3”, 200 pounds, and a lethal hawk with the ball in the air. To no one’s surprise, he started as a true freshmen for the woeful LSU Tigers and was an undeniable bright spot on a crapulent defense. His four INTs, two pick-sixes, and 5 PBU earned him Freshman All-American honors.

Unfortunately, that freshman campaign has so far been the highwater mark of Ricks’ career to-date. And you can pin his slow growth as a player on the fact that he is injury prone. As a sophomore, he had a bit of a regression, with his season derailed by a year-ending shoulder injury that required surgery and extensive rehab. He opted out midway through the year, and then would transfer to Alabama.

At Alabama, unfortunately, it was more of the same. First, Ricks missed time in Fall camp with a nagging foot injury. While Saban downplayed it at the time, it’s clear that it took significantly longer for Eli to fully recover and trust that foot again. But, he was still easing his way into lineup when, in the sixth game of the year, he suffered a concussion and head injury in the first play vs. Ole Miss, and was again sidelined.

It would not be until Week 8 when Ricks was finally fully healthy and integrated into the starting lineup. But in those last four games, Ricks was highly productive, notching 3 PDs, 4 PBU, 11 tackles, and a TFL. His promise was truly a what-if for the Tide, because for all intents and purposes, Ricks’ playing experience is on par with a sophomore, and most of that was in LSU’s zone. He did not fully become a mostly-man corner on the outside until he was with the Tide.

As a player, there is so much to like about him. Ricks has very fluid hips, cuts off moves to the inside using his size, and can stay in phase with his man as well as anyone on the ‘Bama roster. In terms of playing the ball in the air, he was the best player on the Tide roster. He’s very aggressive and handsy in bump, and absolutely excels as a zone defensive back. What you really like about his game is that Ricks is also alert in run support, a sure tackler, and has chalked up TFL every season in that role. He won’t thrive being put out there by himself, but he’s a good support player.

Still, aside from the inexperience, Ricks has two strikes against him that will likely prevent him from being drafted higher.

The first, is that for all of his size, Ricks has been overpowered by significantly more physical wideouts. He won’t be wrestling with AJ Brown going down the field; not that many do, but with Eli it’s a bit more noticeable. The second is a lack of sheer straight-line speed. His lack of speed pegs his athleticism as merely average for the position. And throughout his career, he’s been beaten by elite speed. His size makes his speed a bit slower to begin with, and that slow jump and lack of elite top-end make him unsuitable as a slot corner. In turn, the inability to play the slot limits his utility and thus his draft value.

But if you want someone to cover short- and middle-level passes, Ricks is such a tantalizing prospect. He’s so good with the ball in the air and can win more than his share of battles when airborne. In many ways, Ricks would probably be better suited as a safety: support the run, rely on not getting beat off the line, and play the ball in the air.

His intriguing talent and playmaking ability will get him a look. Teams can never have too many DBs. But his lack of elite athleticism likely will sideline him as a starter. Ricks best projects as a rotational DB, perhaps even a move to safety — something that will disguise his lack of speed and allow him to do what he does best: make plays in the air.

Ricks is probably a late middle-rounder, though some have projected him as high as a Third. So, even his draft projections are a mystery. It will be interesting to see how Ricks is used as a pro. He has a specific skillset that will require landing with the right scheme and playing under a coordinator that understands how to leverage his talents while minimizing mismatches against his speed.


Where will Eli Ricks be drafted?

This poll is closed

  • 2%
    First two rounds
    (11 votes)
  • 15%
    Middle rounds (3rd — 5th)
    (68 votes)
  • 13%
    Late rounds (6th — 7th)
    (56 votes)
  • 62%
    Undrafted free agent
    (267 votes)
  • 6%
    Honestly can’t even begin to guess.
    (26 votes)
428 votes total Vote Now