In the last two decades or so, the NFL has become a pass-first league. Before this time, championships were thought to be won on the backs of a dominant running attack and a stingy defense. You didn’t need an elite quarterback to win it all, and in some cases an average one would suffice.
Those times are gone. Between developments in offensive schemes and rules adjustments by the league that give offenses advantages, defenses find it harder and harder to keep points from being scored.
This effect has made the values of certain positions fluctuate. For instance, pass rushers are now at a premium, whereas traditional strong safeties that specialize in stopping the run have seen their value diminish in the eyes of NFL talent evaluators.
Cornerback is one of the positions that certainly is held at a higher value now that offenses utilize the pass more and more. This year for example, Patrick Peterson is being realistically discussed as a top-five pick, something that was previously a faux pas among NFL front office personnel because of the lack of involvement a corner has on many plays.
Peterson certainly looks the part. He is the size (6’0”, 219 pounds), speed (4.34 40-yard dash) combination that talent evaluators dream of. With his measureable qualities and talent, he is the ideal candidate to be matched up against the big, fast deep threat receivers that dominate the league.
Drafting corners is not as simple as looking for the biggest and fastest defensive backs available though. There is another phenomenon that has made another type of corner increasingly valuable: the slot corner.
Slot corners are commonly referred to as nickel corners. Historically, when teams were faced with obvious passing situations such as third and long, they would institute three receiver sets. To mitigate the mismatch this creates, defenses would bring on another corner in lieu of a linebacker. The extra corner was named after this defense, the nickel, because it features five defensive backs.
Due to the fact that nickel corners were only used a certain percentage of the time, it was a low priority for teams to fill with talented players. The evolution of offenses in the NFL is changing that though.
For West Coast and spread offenses in the NFL, three receiver sets are the norm as opposed to the traditional group of two wide outs. Also, the slot receiver is becoming much more of a staple of the offense.
For an example, think of Wes Welker of the New England Patriots. In 2009, his last healthy season, he managed 123 receptions for 1,348 yards. While this is a high yardage total, it only averages to 11.0 yards per reception, an unusually low number for a productive receiver. In contrast, Andre Johnson tallied 1,569 yards on 101 receptions in the same year, good for 15.5 yards per catch.
Receivers like Welker create terrible mismatches for defenses. An average safety cannot match the speed of these receivers, but even the previously mentioned longer, fast corner has trouble in coverage. While big corners might have straight line speed in spades, they often do not possess the quickness and ability to change direction necessary to cover someone like Welker.
This trend is evident in statistics. The average yards per reception of the top-10 receivers in the league has declined every season in the last five years. In 2005, the top-10 receivers averaged 14.02 yards per catch. Last year, the average was all the way down to 11.57.
More of these receivers are flooding the league every year. Examples of recently drafted receivers of this ilk are Dexter McCluster and Percy Harvin. This year, Randall Cobb and Jerrel Jernigan will be taken by the end of round two.
So how can defenses combat against this type of offensive weapon? Slot corners. Notice that I did not call it a nickel corner, because gone are the days that this type of defensive back only sees the field in obvious passing situations.
If a team is lucky enough to find a safety who can cover in the slot, this alleviates some of the need for a slot specialist. If a team is not so lucky, or they prefer two deep safety sets, they must find a corner specifically for this task.
This type of corner must have the quickness to be able to play in space, even more so than an outside corner. A corner on the outside can use the sideline to his advantage against a receiver, whereas a slot receiver has the advantage on the inside because he has a full lateral range of motion.
A slot corner must also have the strength to play press man. The slot receiver will usually be the “hot read” for a quarterback under pressure, so for blitzes to be effective the slot corner must be able to redirect that route because the quarterback will be throwing to a spot where he expects his slot receiver to be.
Another reason that slot corners must be strong is that they often have to cover H-backs such as Dallas Clark who often line up wide of the offensive line. Furthermore, since the slot usually takes the place of a linebacker or safety, he must be willing to support against the run as offenses will try and take advantage of the usual defender’s absence.
The most underrated quality of a slot corner is intelligence. In zone, he must know all of the assignments of the linebackers, safeties and other corners around him because he will usually cover an underneath zone. Communication is also important with those players when switches are required.
Brandon Harris of Miami is a good example of the slot corner. At 5’9”, he would normally not be considered as a first-round or even second-round prospect. His quickness, strength and football intelligence, however, have made him an ideal slot corner and therefore that valuable to NFL teams.
Marcus Gilchrist of Clemson is another player that has benefited from this occurrence. Gilchrist played both free safety and corner in college, and his ability to cover in the slot makes him extremely valuable in the NFL because his defensive coordinator will not have to be as strategic with personnel packages.
It is a mistake to dismiss the slot corner position as an afterthought. Even with two good corners on the outside, teams can still nickel and dime their way down the field. Do not underestimate the importance of a slot corner because as you will see during the draft, NFL teams are not.