By Matt Stevens - IlliniGuys Football Writer/Analyst
April 29, 2023
(Cover photo courtesy Ron Johnson/USA Today Sports)
The second day of the 2023 NFL Draft saw a pair of Illinois defensive backs selected within the first 70 selections of the process.
Jartavius Martin and Sydney Brown, both of which saw their prospect stock continue to rise throughout the offseason, combine and workout phases of the draft process, were selected No. 47 and No. 66 overall on Friday evening.
Martin, who was selected in the second round by the Washington Commanders, started all 13 games for Illinois in 2022 at the nickel cornerback position producing 64 tackles, three interceptions, and 11 pass breakups on the season. The 5-foot-11, 194-pound defensive back from Lehigh Acres, Fla. was a All-Big Ten second team selection by the league’s media contingent.
“It’s my understanding of the game,” Martin said Friday in the conference call when asked of his playing strengths. “Just being able to play any position in the back end at any given moment just shows my understanding of the game and my football IQ. Football has just always come natural [to] me.”
According to Pro Football Focus, Martin missed only seven tackles in 129 attempts over the past two seasons, a significant rate for a defensive back who plays the majority of his snaps in space. Martin led Illinois in solo tackles (51) in 2022. He ranked 22nd in the nation and third in the Big Ten Conference in passes defended (14) and eighth in the Big Ten in interceptions.
Martin really saw his draft stock rise after the scouting combine in Indianapolis when he record a 44-inch vertical leap, which is tied for the eighth-best jump in combine history and then added an 11-foot-1 broad jump and ran a time of 4.46 seconds in the 40-yard dash.
Martin joined Devon Witherspoon, who went No. 5 overall to Seattle on Thursday night, as drafted players from defensive coordinator Aaron Henry’s Illini defensive backfield. With Martin and Witherspoon, Illinois had two top-50 picks for the first time since A.J. Jenkins and Whitney Mercilus went in the first round of the 2012 NFL Draft. The Illini had two defensive backs drafted in the top 50 for the first time since the NFL-AFL merger.
Washington’s secondary was among its most pressing needs coming into the draft and the Commanders proved that point by taking Mississippi State cornerback Emmanuel Forbes Jr. in the first round after the Bulldogs star tallied 14 career interceptions in college, including six returned for touchdowns.
Henry, who was the Illini cornerbacks coach before being promoted this winter to defensive coordinator, was in Florida on Friday night to accompany Martin’s draft party in Orlando when he got the call from Washington general manager Martin Mayhew.
"What makes Quan special is his versatility," Henry said. "I think obviously at the NFL level you can never ever have I have enough DBs, especially ones that can play, that can go from corner to nickel to safety, you know his position flexes. I've never had a player like that. I've never had a player literally go in a game go from corner to nickel to safety.
Sydney Brown, who started 50 games over five years during his Illini career, was selected early in the third round by the Philadelphia Eagles as the defending NFC champions continue to look to build depth in a defense that kept its opponents to just three scores (up to 24 points) in 15 of its 20 games last season. In the first round on Thursday night, Philadelphia traded up one spot with the Chicago Bears to draft Georgia defensive lineman Jalen Carter at No. 9 overall and then took Georgia speed rusher Nolan Smith with the No. 30 overall selection.
For his career, Brown had 319 tackles, 10 interceptions, 26 passes defended, 10.0 tackles for loss, and four forced fumbles. He was a two-time All-Big Ten selection, earning honorable mention accolades as a junior in 2021 before becoming a first-team pick by the coaches in 2022.
Illinois head coach Bret Bielema made the trip to London Ontario, Canada to be present for both Illini brothers Sydney Brown and Chase Brown getting drafted this weekend. Chase Brown, the Illini’s finalist for the 2022 Doak Walker Award, is still undrafted but expected to be selected early in the process when the final rounds 4-7 of the draft begin on Saturday afternoon.
Brown became a projected day two selection after his work in the Senior Bowl practices in Mobile, Ala. and then his numbers at the scouting combine that included the 5-foot-11 and 211-pounder running a time of 4.47 seconds in the 40-yard dash, which was fourth among all safeties in the 2023 draft class and a 1.51-second time in his 10-yard split, which was third among safeties.
“Yeah, well, I mean, I was just doing what I was supposed to do at the Senior Bowl,” Brown said at the combine. “I don't expect anything less out of myself, so that was just the expectation that I set. But, yeah, just kind of building on that, coming out here, having fun and enjoying the experience.”
The Eagles had a clear need at the safety position. Both of their starters from the 2022 season left in free agency. Marcus Epps joined the Raiders as a free agent and C.J. Gardner-Johnson joined the Lions.
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