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NFL Draft

The sharpest corner around

Peterson’s stock through the roof

By Shalise Manza Young
Globe Staff / April 23, 2011

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In terms of pure talent and potential to be great in the NFL, many believe that cornerback Patrick Peterson is the best player available in this year’s draft.

The Louisiana State product has the body of a safety — he measured 6 feet 2 inches, 219 pounds at the NFL combine last month — but the speed and skills to cover the best receivers in the league.

As if that weren’t enough to make him a darling of scouts, he also is an explosive returner with great vision who averaged 29 yards on kickoffs and 16 yards on punts last season.

That package has him in consideration for the top overall pick, which means he could eclipse former Patriot Shawn Springs as the highest-drafted cornerback in league history. Springs went third to Seattle in 1997.

After Carolina, Denver holds the second pick, and Buffalo is third. Both the Broncos and Bills need defensive help, though they could look to the front seven first.

This time of year is all about hype and hyperbole, but in Peterson’s case, the evaluations may actually be grounded in reality.

“He’s one of those rare corners who can come in and be a very, very high pick,’’ said Titans coach Mike Munchak. “You saw what happened with the Jets and the guys they have and how important it is to have a guy [Darrelle Revis] who can take the best receiver and shut that guy down.

“We interviewed [Peterson] for 15 minutes at the combine. This guy seems special, listening to him talk about his trade and his mind-set and how he plays different coverages. He’s going to be a special player.’’

To say Peterson, a native of Pompano Beach, Fla., was impressive last year as a true junior is a bit of an understatement. He was not only the Southeastern Conference’s defensive MVP, but also the special teams MVP.

He was not only the Thorpe Award winner as college football’s top defensive back, he also took home the Bednarik Award as college football’s best defensive player. He was named first-team All-American by no fewer than seven organizations.

All of which led to Peterson declaring for the draft.

“I believe I achieved all the goals I went to LSU for, which was to win the Jim Thorpe and the Bednarik,’’ he said. “I wanted to give a push for the Heisman. I believe I left LSU in good hands with the great secondary guys they’ve got there. I just wanted to take my game to the next level and that’s to pursue an NFL career.’’

Though he’ll enter the league with a truckload of honors and expectations, it won’t be a first for Peterson.

When he walked onto campus in Baton Rouge before his freshman year, he was the reigning USA Today national high school defensive player of the year, a USA Today and Parade All-American, and a five-star prospect of the major scouting services.

Peterson played every game his first season, though he didn’t become a starter until the 10th game.

Once he got to the top of the depth chart, however, he stayed there.

As a sophomore, he had 13 pass breakups and two interceptions, one of which he returned for a touchdown. He added another score when he returned a blocked field goal against Ole Miss.

By last fall, teams had learned not to throw Peterson’s way; he had 42 tackles and six pass breakups, plus four interceptions.

His pick of Ole Miss quarterback Jeremiah Masoli proved to be the final play of the game and preserved a 43-36 win. On special teams, his 932 kickoff-return yards set a school record.

Peterson gave up just one touchdown last year, to Alabama’s Julio Jones, who is 6-4 and also projected to be a high first-round pick.

Playing against the likes of Jones and Georgia receiver A.J. Green, another highly touted prospect, helped Peterson elevate his game, he said. He knows that in the NFL he’ll face receivers every week that are of their caliber or better.

Peterson gets high marks for his ability in man-to-man coverage, but that is the way the Tigers play in the secondary.

“I’m very comfortable playing ‘press man’ because that’s pretty much all I’ve been taught,’’ he said. “The aggressive style of play we played at LSU, you want to get after the receiver, you don’t want those guys to get the best of us, because most receivers don’t like press.

“I want to work on my zone coverage; we barely did that at LSU. A lot of people are saying I can’t backpedal and things like that, but I definitely can. I was just going through the style of play that [defensive backs] coach [Ron] Cooper taught me.

“I can backpedal and change direction as well.’’

Because of his size, Peterson could play safety, but with receivers getting taller and faster, he’s needed as a corner.

And also because of his size, he’s hard to take down as a kick returner.

“It’s huge,’’ Rams general manager Billy Devaney said of Peterson’s potential to contribute in two phases of the game. “Absolutely huge. Impact guy at both spots, it’s extremely valuable.’’

Hall of Famer John Elway, who is now vice president of football operations in Denver, did little to hide his feelings on Peterson when he spoke at the combine.

“He is a guy that can do a lot of different things for you,’’ said Elway. “Athletically, he’s as good as anyone in the draft — he can run and has good size for a corner and is a guy that can make some big plays.’’

The Broncos hold the second pick, and will be looking to improve a pass defense that ranked 25th in the NFL last year, allowing 236 yards per game, including 12 completions of 40 yards or more.

Adding Peterson could be a big step in the right direction.

Shalise Manza Young can be reached at syoung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @shalisemyoung.

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