NFL schemes continue to evolve as spread offenses become more popular at the collegiate level. There are many elements of smash mouth football in use, but the majority of production from offenses is coming from the passing game. All but two offenses favored passing the ball more than running it, and the formations used are forcing defenses to become more versatile.
In the just the last few seasons, the idea of a “base defense” has changed considerably. No longer is a “4-3” or “3-4” the most important distinction for a defense, rather how are schemes adjusting to three wide receiver sets.
According to Pro Football Focus’ game-tracking data, of the 34,661 total snaps during the 2013 season, 57 percent of snaps (19,731) saw the defense utilize at least five defensive backs. The extra defensive back is very often a nickel, or slot, cornerback.
The role of a nickel cornerback is vast, as they not only have to cover, but also take the place of the outside linebacker they’ve replaced. Nickel corners must be willing run defenders, but have to overcome mismatches against slot receivers as well.
Whether facing smaller, shifty slot receivers like Wes Welker or T.Y. Hilton or big slot receivers like Marques Colston or Larry Fitzgerald, nickel cornerbacks have a difficult job. They don’t have the sideline to use to their advantage like outside cornerbacks.
The skill set for a nickelback unique as well. They must be more agile than fast, possessing quick foot speed and quick-twitch reflexes. Height is an overrated asset, but length is not. And of course, closing speed and ball awareness are two of the most important traits.
The combination of those skills isn’t easy to find, and now nickelbacks are in demand more than ever.
Thus, we will look at the top-10 nickel cornerbacks in the NFL right now. To qualify for this list, the player must have played at least 50 percent of their total snaps as a nickelback in the past two seasons. For players who have played only one season, they are eligible if the majority of snaps were as a nickelback in their rookie season. Statistics are a considerable measure but so is how well the player uses his natural talent.