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 DCs (cornerbacks) and DBs (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. 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. 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 at the 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 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, 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.
*Dee Milliner CB Alabama 6’0-201 32 8 3/4 A junior with an excellent combination of size, speed (4.37) and length, he has the versatility and experience to play inside in sub-packages and on the edge with production. Smooth, upright peddle with good feet and hip flex to flip, burst and mirror receiver in short, intermediate routes. Nonetheless, he finds himself in trail mode too often; peeks at quarterback drop zone and loses receiver in route in several games viewed. A zone defender who prefers open bale technique, Milliner can allow too much separation and receivers to run past him; suddenness and closing speed do not match timed speed, despite being sound in technique. Good FBI (football instincts) and read reaction quickness, with awareness of both ball and receiver to compete at the highest point with ball skills and PBU (passes broken up) production. An aggressive corner on force whose explosive tackling skills couple with arrows through snow (chop tackler) in tight and open space. Flashed double arm bar separation and is aggressive to shed. Is an effective blitzer – but not trained killer. Milliner is a versatile corner, though all of his 2011 starts came from the inside alignment in sub-packages. This corner has all of the positional attributes and skill set, with upside, to develop into a good pro. He also represents an outstanding gunner on special teams. First-round talent/top 10 pick.
*Xaiver Rhodes CB Florida State 6’1-210 33 3/4 9 Excellent athlete with a great combination of length, speed, foot quickness and lower-body explosion. Might be the best man press corner in the draft, thanks to sharp positional attributes and long arms with double and single arm bar jam and press-and-release technique, which disrupts timing of receiver off LOS (line of scrimmage). Rhodes has good over toe technique in peddle and possesses natural movement skills to flip hips (slightly tight); smooth in transition with burst to mirror receivers, with PBU (passes broken up) production, but recovery suddenness is spotty. He has very good awareness and FBI (football instincts) to read receivers’ eyes and hands with timing and anticipation. Good leaping ability to jump with receivers; competes at the highest point. Can and will run routes for receivers; smart, alert and aware of opponents’ route tree. A defender who is not as effective in zone coverage, despite good awareness, his read reaction quickness and closing ability to maintain relationship befits man coverage. A good face-up collision tackler vs. force with wrap and finish; will ear hole receivers on peek-a-boo hits. Very good double arm bar technique, pull and jerk with shed and excellent lateral chase and pursuit. Rhodes is extremely effective on goal-line blitzes with collision and production. Movement is that of an athletic safety with corner skill set. Will align at the safety position in sub-packages. First-round talent/top 20 pick
*Matt Elam DB Florida 5’10-208 32 5/8 9 A good athlete and emotional football player who plays with a chip on his shoulder, not to mention unflappable confidence. Is extremely passionate with a ton of desire each and every time he steps on the field. Elam is competitive, tough and “flashed nasty.” A versatile safety, he can align deep in the back end with good speed in range or around the box; lateral movement and production are very impactful. Has a compact and muscled-up frame, plus good foot quickness with slight, upright peddle; can stick foot in ground to COD (change of direction) with short-area burst. Elam is a slobber-knocker of a tackler who accelerates through contact, to say nothing of his very good collision and explosion. Slings, grabs or tosses with wrap and finish; can and will lower the boom on running backs or receivers. Has very intense, occasionally reckless temperament in chase and pursuit. Plays downhill right now, with no wasted motion. Good zone coverage skills deep with range and speed to close on ball and receiver. Has solid man cover skills vs. tight ends and covers slot receivers well; size doesn’t make him a liability in man coverage. Has soft hands and is very instinctive in tight and open space. A few teams are digging into his off-field issues, but the majority of clubs don’t see them as a major concern. First-round talent, mid-late first-round pick.
Kenny Vaccaro FS Texas 6’0-214 32 3/4 10 Very good athlete with fluid, natural movement skills. Good diagnostic abilities; instinctive reactions with read reaction quickness. A competitive and tough football player. The free safety possesses good, not great speed, and runs the alley with range. Possesses excellent man cover skills vs. slot receivers, but will need to employ UOH (use of hands) technique to re-route receivers off LOS (line of scrimmage). A high school corner who convered to safety, Vaccaro’s smooth hips and short-area COD (change of direction), click and drive, and burst and acceleration, as seen within his DNA (tape), showed up in the short shuttle (4.06) results at the combine. This player is very versatile, with good FBI (football instincts) and awareness in space. Good force with eyes to attack running backs or receivers; explosive, missile tackler with consistent collision. Takes inconsistent angles in space, though, and needs better wrap technique; will launch himself and whiff, an area that must be shored up for the next level. Vaccaro is a very solid and disruptive blitzer, aggressive and relentless in chase and pursuit. Good RAC (run after catch) skills. Decision-making within a game is spotty, as evidenced by late hits out of bounds that resulted in penalties. Off-field issues were addressed with all teams at combine. It’s time for this former Longhorn to grow up. First round talent/mid-late first-round pick.
Jonathan Banks CB Mississippi State 6’2-185 33 7/8 9 /14 Great size, length and FBI (football instincts) accompany much burst and acceleration. Sixteen career interceptions are no fluke. Banks has anticipation and timing, along with awareness that put him in position to make plays on the ball in the SEC. A very good athlete who won’t time fast, but the man cover skills and fluidity in movement are unquestionably there. He is an absolute ball hawk with body balance and control to jump and contort his body while competing with receiver for balls at the highest point. Tall corner with slight upright peddle, good feet COD (change of direction) with short-area burst and acceleration. Smooth to flip hips, transition and mirror receivers; quickness and suddenness keep this player in position. Very comfortable in open bale technique, and best as a zone defender. When aligning vs. a slot receiver, lacks consistent UOH (use of hands) to jam and redirect receivers; allows free release too often. Solid tackler with wrap and finish; will grab, drag and sling tackle a high percentage of the time, flashing peek-a-boo, explosive hits on receivers in crossing routes. Very good blitzer with second effort, good collision and explosion. Very aggressive and plays with desire in lateral chase and pursuit, creating many a forced fumble, interception and TFL (tackle for loss) production. Has the most natural ball skills of all of the corners in the draft. Soft hands to high point and pluck balls outside of his frame, RAC (run after catch) skills and a nose for the goal line. Interception production is off the charts, as he finished with 16 for his career and 320 yards in returns. First-round talent/bottom first-round pick.
Others to Watch
Tyrann Mathiew CB LSU
Desmond Trufant CB Washington
Blidi Wreh-Wilson CB Connecticut
*Logan Ryan CB Rutgers
*David Amerson CB North Carolina State
Jonathan Cyprien DB Florida International
Baccari Rambo DB Georgia
Eric Reid DB LSU
Shawn Williams DB Georgia
DJ Swearinger DB South Carolina
Phillip Thomas DB Fresno State