As the NFL landscape has changed on both offense and defense over the last decade or so, the evolution of the football player has forced scheme changes as well as rule changes from the commissioner’s office. NFL offenses went from sweep right, sweep left to the K-Gun with Jim Kelly. The spread, or run-and-shoot offense – which displayed Warren Moon’s talents at slinging the ball around the yard and Randall Cunningham’s athleticism to adlib on the move – has also come back full circle, joined by the read option. Today’s NFL offense features multiple receiver formations, with the quarterback in the shotgun a high percentage of the time.
The changes on offense have forced the other side of the ball, the defense, to alter schemes to counter the multiple receiver sets and apply continuous pressure to squeeze the pocket. Having a stout defensive front seven (defensive linemen and linebackers) allows defensive coordinators to move CB (cornerbacks) and DB (safeties) around like chess pieces, working to exploit and attack the weaknesses of an offensive formation. It’s all part of building a scheme that will interrupt the timing and anticipation of the offenses seen every Sunday in the NFL, using multiple blitz packages with zone and man coverage, or a combination of both.
The general purpose of the cornerback and safety positions consists of defending against wide receivers, tight ends and running backs in passing situations, as well as bringing force in stopping the run, along with blitzing depending on the scheme. Defensive coordinators’ counter to the multiple receiver formations was substituting an additional defensive corner on passing downs, switching from their base defense to sub-packages and removing their weakest linebacker in pass coverage and also adding pass rushing defensive linemen. Having an additional cornerback on the field, totaling five, is called the “nickel back” (three defensive corners and two safeties). When there are six players defending the secondary, that is called “dime” (combination of corners and safeties). In nickel coverage, this extra player is generally a corner and is aligned inside vs. the slot receiver. This player must be wired right with very good FBI (football instincts), and he is generally smaller and extremely gifted when it comes to read reaction quickness, awareness, burst and acceleration, and COD (change of direction). As a source told me, this concept was introduced by the Miami Dolphins in the late 1960s/early ‘70s, and the term “nickel defense” is now used from little league, to high school and throughout all college levels of competition.
The cornerback position has multiple alignments and must win early in the route – at all costs – with strong UOH (use of hands) to steer, redirect and disrupt the timing off the receiver. This process, of course starts at the line of scrimmage. Cornerbacks are skilled players with fluid and flexible hips to flip and mirror receivers throughout the route. They must have keen awareness, great ball skills and instinctive finish on each and every play. While the corners defend the edge, the back end of the secondary is controlled by a strong safety and free safety. These defenders are interchangeable pieces; they are larger in stature and more physical, with explosive tackling skills and ball-hawking properties. The strong safety is the enforcer, a thumping tackler who typically falls slightly short in coverage skills. With the spread offense dominating the landscape of college football, however, these defenders have developed better coverage skills and are able to cover slot receivers. The safeties’ responsibility against the run is to force and close angles to the ball carrier and take away seams in the vertical passing game. They must also possess range to help defensive corners on the edge.
Character: Leader in the locker room, community involvement, off-field issues (arrest, drugs, assaulting women, guns, tickets, etc.).
Football Intelligence: Student of the game, film study, playbook memorization, ability to process and regurgitate information with recall.
Leadership: Natural-born leader, vocal, quiet, leads by example, traffic controller in the secondary.
Competitiveness: A win-at-all-costs attitude, with a high level of intensity. He exhibits pride and is at his best under adverse situations. He is confident in himself, and his teammates have confidence in him.
Toughness: A nasty inline defender to consistently deliver under pressure and refuses to be defeated. His ability to play both injured and hurt when the team needs him.
Production: Produce under pressure in critical situations.
Athletic Skill Set
Instincts: Key and diagnose; instinctive reactions; awareness of ball and receivers, ball skills with track-and-intercept production.
Communicator: Hand signals, vocal communication.
Speed: Quick feet; turn and burst deep, “quicker than fast,” build up acceleration, recovery speed.
Feet: Step and replace, quickness, COD (change of direction).
Pedal: Traditional over toe technique, open bale, foot quickness/speed; smooth hip transition; upright in movement, smooth, stiffness, struggles in/out of transition; COD with burst; stem and adjust to receiver routes; maintain cushion and accelerate pedal.
Plant/Burst: Body control and balance in plant; transition smooth without hesitation; click and drive, initial burst to close on ball and receiver in space.
Bump/Press: Physical toughness, competitive, strong UOH, arm length is critical, win at LOS, aggressive hand combat, re-route receiver.
Pursuit: Relentless chase and pursuit with production.
Man/Zone Coverage Skills: Instinctive and physical in man, zone awareness, mirror receiver short and deep; awareness of both ball and receiver in open and tight space; closing quickness; range; jumping ability; reaction quickness; catch-up speed, instant acceleration, overall quickness; proper angles, lean and locate on mirror, positive swagger, angles, range to edge, speed to defend seams.
Ball Skills: Track, play ball at highest peak, ball hawk.
Hands: Soft or hard, sure.
Blitz: Natural body balance and control, elusiveness on the move, skinny in hole or off edge, relentless effort.
Run Support: Read reaction quickness; explosive force, strong tackling skills; willingness; soft, play off blockers; toughness; production.
Tackling: Arrows through snow, accelerate through contact, sink hips and short stride with strike, effective tight/open space, strong tackling skills, breakdown sink hips and strike, wrap up; explosive; collision with wrap, chop tackler, big hitter; drag down arm tackler, run through.
Strong UOH (use of hands): Plays with arms, grab and steer, stab and punch, double arm bar, single arm bar, press and release.
Football Intelligence: High football IQ, football instincts, awareness, read reaction quickness on the move, blocking recognition of pulling and trapping offensive linemen, locate and track ball in box, nose for making plays inside box.
Strength: Functional strength and explosion, maintain leverage.
Against the run: Defeat blocks, neutralize and explode into blocker; split and defeat double team; shed blockers on the move; stack and control POA; press off, base strength with strong anchor.
Nickel/Dime Back: Lateral movement: exceptional burst and acceleration, first-step quickness; man coverage skills, clear feet and work over and through trash; COD and redirect with burst, exceptional FBI (football instincts).
Pursuit/Range: Intensity; relentless; flatten down LOS, sacrifices body; chase with short area burst and speed.
Durability: Stamina; endurance; injury history for position and the ability to play hurt.
Physicality: Collision player, thumper, violent, intimidator to evoke fear in receivers.
Confidence: Unflappable confidence, short term memory, swagger.
Special Teams: Coverage skills; ability to block punts and PATD/FG off edge, PR (punt return), KOR (kickoff return) skills with production, gunner, vice.
Michigan State Trae Waynes 6’0 – 186 Top 10
Washington Marcus Peters 5’11 – 198* Top 15 (C)
Wake Forest Kevin Johnson 6’0 – 188 1st Rd
Florida State PJ Williams 6’0 – 194* 1st Rd – 2nd Rd (C)
LSU Jalen Collins 6’1 – 203* 2nd Rd (X) Foot
Connecticut Byron Jones 6’0 – 199 2nd Rd
Alabama Landon Collins 6’0 – 228* Top 20
Arizona State Damarious Randall 5’10 – 196 1st Rd – 2nd Rd
Samford Jaquiski Tartt 6’1 – 221 2nd Rd
Washington Shaq Thompson 6’0 – 228* 2nd – 3rd Rd
Virginia Anthony Harris 6’0 – 183 3rd Rd
Others to Watch
Gerod Holliman 5’11 – 218* FS
Florida State Ronald Darby 5’10 – 193 CB
Mississippi State Justin Cox 6’0 – 191 DB
Miami (OH) Quinten Rollins 5’11 – 195 CB
Louisville James Sample 6’2 – 209 DB
USC Josh Shaw 6’0 – 201 CB (C)
Oregon Troy Hill 5’10 – 185 CB
Kansas JaCorey Shephard 5’10 – 199 CB
Florida Atlantic D.J. Smith 5’10 – 187 CB
Northwestern Ibraheim Campbell 5’11 – 208 DB
Stanford Alex Carter 6’0 – 196 CB