INDIANAPOLIS — NFL head coaches at the scouting combine over the last week treated the question as if it was a request to reveal their organization's free-agent wish list.
Asked about the characteristics the Seattle Seahawks look for in evaluating defensive backs, coach Pete Carroll meandered through a 200-word answer, ending it with the acknowledgment that "I told you absolutely nothing, which was my goal."
Oakland Raiders coach Jack Del Rio rattled off just about every potential attribute of a top cornerback rather than focusing on one or two defining ones. And then there was Ravens coach John Harbaugh, who thought about the question for a bit and then cited Malcolm Gladwell's 2005 book, "Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking."
"The basic thing is because of all of the years of experience in looking at something, you know it when you see it," Harbaugh said. "For me, that's what it is. I think it's a combination of things that fit together in a certain way that you recognize."
Harbaugh declined to publicly reveal what those "things" are that the Ravens primarily look for in cornerbacks. In the pass-happy NFL, quality cornerbacks who can match up with top receivers are gold. They come in different styles, shapes and sizes, but all 32 teams are desperately looking for them.
The good news for the Ravens and everybody else is this year's cornerback draft class, featured today and on Monday's final day of the scouting combine, continues to draw rave reviews. Some draft analysts have billed the defensive back class as the deepest they've ever seen.
"I had some coaches tell me the other night that 'we're going to get a guy in the fifth round that would typically go in the second or third round,'" NFL Network lead draft analyst Mike Mayock said Saturday. "Twelve corners [have gone] in the first three rounds over the last five years; that's the average. I'm getting into 17, 18 names that I have grades one through three [in terms of what round they should be drafted], when there's typically only 12."
Mayock had previously said that come April's draft, teams will potentially be able to find starting corners through the first three, if not, four rounds. That bodes well for the Ravens, who have the 16th overall pick and a roster that is perilously thin on proven corners.
Jimmy Smith has struggled to stay healthy. A fourth-round pick last season, Tavon Young had a strong rookie year, but his 5-foot-9, 177-pound frame makes him vulnerable in matchups against bigger receivers. Injuries and on-field struggles have made veterans Shareece Wright and Kyle Arrington potential salary cap cuts. Maurice Canady, Robertson Daniel and Sheldon Price are all young and unproven.
For a second straight year, the Ravens, who might not have the salary cap space to bid on A.J. Bouye, Stephon Gilmore and the other top free agent cornerbacks, seem likely to draft at least two cornerbacks.
Drafting corners this year "is going to be kind of pick your flavor based on what's important in your scheme," Mayock said.
For the teams that prioritize athletic corners and have an early first-round pick, Ohio State's Marshon Lattimore stands out. Washington's Sidney Jones is known for his eye discipline and ball skills. Alabama's Marlon Humphrey has ideal size (6-foot-1, 196 pounds) and length. Florida's Teez Tabor and Louisiana State's Tre'Davious White are technicians. Southern California's Adoree' Jackson just makes plays.
Guys such as Florida's Quincy Wilson, Ohio State's Gareon Conley, Clemson's Cordrea Tankersley, Michigan's Jourdan Lewis and Tennessee's Cam Sutton all possess their share of attributes that teams are looking for in cornerbacks, as well.
"I counted like eight to 10 corners that were 6-2 [or] longer," Mayock said. "If you go back five, six years, you wouldn't have four guys. People are looking for longer corners and there's more 6-foot guys than I've ever seen."
Fourteen cornerbacks at the combine this week measured at least six feet and had 32 inch arms, according to ESPN. Length — height, wing span, arm length, etc — has become the popular buzzword in evaluating cornerbacks, as teams look to match up with tall and rangy wide receivers, such as A.J. Green and Julio Jones.
Corners can use their size to press receivers at the line of scrimmage, muscle them off their routes and also make more contested plays on the ball. At his best, that's how the Ravens' Smith, who is 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds, plays.
Carroll's Seahawks have exemplified that approach in the secondary, finding and developing starting corners such as Richard Sherman (6-foot-3, 195), Brandon Browner (6-4, 220) and DeShawn Shead (6-2, 212). Atlanta Falcons head coach Dan Quinn, Seattle's former defensive coordinator, has looked for similar qualities in building the Falcons' secondary.
Viewed widely as one of the top corners in the class, the Huskies' Jones seemed almost incredulous Sunday to hear that his less-than-ideal wing span could negatively impact his draft status.
"That doesn't affect me at all," he said.
While size and length might factor prominently, teams also aren't forgetting about other physical or mental attributes, such as confidence, speed, flexibility, physicality, aggression, ball skills, eye discipline and change-of-direction ability.
"It's a unique position and it calls for a makeup, a mentality, first, before the physical part of it so we are looking for the guys who have the right mentality and are willing to be challenged and know that they are on the hot seat and going to have to bounce back and be very resilient and have a very good mental state for that," Carroll said. "There are all kinds of heights and weights and speeds."
Said Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera: "When you look at it with the different types of athletes that are playing the wide receiver position, you've got to have a mix of those types of players. You've got to have corners with length to match up with the Julio Jones' of the world. You've got to have the quick, maybe a little bit shorter corners who maybe don't have that length to match up with the Brandin Cooks' of the world. So you really have to evaluate and break down these guys for their individual skills and abilities."
The Ravens haven't selected a cornerback in the first three rounds since they used a first-rounder on Smith in 2011. This year, they'll have plenty to choose from if they go that route again. It's just up to them to decide who is the best fit.
"I feel like I'm the best player in the draft — not just the best corner," said Tabor, a Washington native. "That's just the confidence I have in myself and the ability to play football."