NFL's Passing Revolution Has Defenses Scared, but Draft Promises Help Aplenty

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterApril 11, 2019

SANTA CLARA, CA - JANUARY 07: Clelin Ferrell #99 of the Clemson Tigers rushes the quarterback against the Alabama Crimson Tide during the College Football Playoff National Championship held at Levi's Stadium on January 7, 2019 in Santa Clara, California. The Clemson Tigers defeated the Alabama Crimson Tide 44-16. (Photo by Jamie Schwaberow/Getty Images)
Jamie Schwaberow/Getty Images

Let's say the Cleveland Browns line up one day early next season with three receivers on the left side of the formation: Antonio Callaway wide, then Jarvis Landry, then Odell Beckham Jr. closest to the offensive line. Tight end David Njoku is on the right side, but he's also split out like a wide receiver. Nick Chubb is in the backfield. Beckham has that look in his eyes. Baker Mayfield is licking his chops dangerously.

You're the defensive coordinator. How do you prevent a disaster against that formation?

If Beckham burns a safety (or, heaven forbid, a linebacker) while your best cornerback covers someone else, you're fired. If Njoku posts up some 5'10" defender over and over again, you're fired. If all your defensive backs are 185-pounders who cannot tackle and Chubb runs up the gut for 250 yards…you get the idea.

And if you don't have a solution for stopping the New Browns on the Block, good luck with the Chiefs, Patriots, Rams, Saints, etc.

NFL defenses face these mismatch headaches with increasing frequency every year: tight ends who run like receivers, running backs who catch like receivers and smash the line like battering rams, receivers who end up dancing in the end zone before the defense knows what blurred past it.

But this may be the year defenses can finally catch up. The 2019 draft is loaded with defenders who provide solutions to the problems that lead to 54-51 final scores and defensive coordinator migraines.

Here's how this year's draft class can help put an end to the NFL's offensive revolution.


Pass Rushers by the Bundle

The best way to stop a receiver like Beckham is to make sure the ball never reaches him.

This is the best draft in recent memory for pass-rushers, and while only the teams at the top of the board will have access to Ohio State's Nick Bosa or Kentucky's Josh Allen, potential double-digit sack generators like Mississippi State's Montez Sweat, Clemson's Clelin Ferrell and Florida State's Brian Burns will be available later in the first round.

There will even be bargains available on Day 2. Intriguing talents like Michigan's Chase Winovich (a top athlete overshadowed by teammates), Louisiana Tech's Jaylon Ferguson (a kick-down-the-door type), Old Dominion's Oshane Ximines (a crafty, slippery small-school guy) and others may slip through the cracks, especially if there's a run on this year's so-so quarterbacks.

Teams should take advantage of the talent surplus and draft edge defenders two or three at a time this year. That way, a Mayfield or Patrick Mahomes can't just scramble away from trouble. At the same time, teams can't just load up on 240-pounders with nifty spin moves, or the Patriots will run the ball down their throats.

Luckily, this year's edge defenders come in all shapes and sizes, and later rounds of the draft will be full of high-motor defensive ends with funky moves (Eastern Michigan's Maxx Crosby, Wyoming's Carl Granderson), stout tough guys who do the dirty work as run defenders (Iowa's Anthony Nelson, TCU's L.J. Collier) and other mix-and-match options.


"James Gang" Safeties

If you still think in terms of 3-4 and 4-3 defenses, it's time to put your CD collection in the attic and retire the old dial-up modem. Nickel defense is now base defense, and "heavy nickel"a third safety instead of a third cornerback—has been a trendy buzzword for so long that it's not trendy anymore.

Johnathan Abram led Mississippi State in tackles last season with 99, 53 of which were made solo.
Johnathan Abram led Mississippi State in tackles last season with 99, 53 of which were made solo.Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Derwin James of the Chargers is the new prototype safety who hits like a linebacker and blitzes like a defensive end. And while players like James don't come around every year, there's a lot of the next best thing in the 2019 draft class.

Mississippi State's Johnathan Abram is the best known of this year's James Gang: a walloping hitter who can handle fast tight ends and running backs in coverage. Maryland's Darnell Savage is similar, with a knack for blowing up wide receiver screens and other plays designed to get the ball to Tyreek Hill-types in the open field. Iowa safety Amani Hooker plays the run like a linebacker and ran a 4.48-second 40 at the combine, making him fast enough to cover just about anyone.

These safeties should not be thought of as backups or "hybrids." Offenses move their tight ends and running backs all over the formation. Defenses need to abandon the 3-4/4-3 mindset and find players who can move with them.



Slot receivers aren't all 5'10" waterbugs these days. Some are tight ends like Njoku, Travis Kelce or Zach Ertz. Others are moonlighting running backs. In many formations, the slot receiver is someone named Beckham, Antonio Brown or Keenan Allen.

Moving the star receiver inside now and then to exploit a mismatch has been a successful tactic since you first figured out how to do it in Madden NFL 2004. But defensive coordinators, with their static formations and outdated counting-based coverage systems (outside cornerback covers the No. 1 receiver, nickelback takes the No. 2 and whichever safety or linebacker is left covers the No. 3, whether that's Julian Edelman or Rob Gronkowski), are still playing catch-up.

Just as "heavy nickel" safeties need to bridge the linebacker-safety gap, modern nickelbacks must be part cornerback, part free safety. Good thing this class has several players who fit that bill.

Want a cornerback who can hit like a safety in the running game? There's Temple's Rock Ya-Sin or Vanderbilt's Joejuan Williams. Want a safety who won't get melted if matched up against a quality receiver in the slot? There's Delaware's Nasir Adderley and Florida's Chauncey Gardner-Johnson.

There are also plenty of traditional safeties and corners in this draft class: Washington's Byron Murphy (cornerback) and Taylor Rapp (free safety), LSU cornerback Greedy Williams, Alabama safety Deionte Thompson and so on. Teams need plenty of these guys, too. Someone has to run deep with Beckham or Brown.


Don't Forget the Middle

Defensive tackles and linebackers still matter, and this is an excellent draft to stock up on the types of interior defenders who can make life easier for the guys on the perimeter.

Though projected as a middle-round pick, Texas A&M's Daylon Mack has an explosiveness every team covets in the middle of a defense.
Though projected as a middle-round pick, Texas A&M's Daylon Mack has an explosiveness every team covets in the middle of a defense.Michael Wyke/Associated Press

This is a banner year for interior disruptors at defensive tackle: Alabama's Quinnen Williams (tough guy and technician), Notre Dame's Jerry Tillery (big/quick/smart/scary), Houston's Ed Oliver (basically Sabretooth), Western Illinois' Khalen Saunders (lovable small-program thumper) Central Florida's Trysten Hill (huge, ornery to a fault), Ohio State's Dre'Mont Jones (maybe the best pass-rusher of them all) and so on, down to guys who will be available in later rounds.

Heck, Daylon Mack of Texas A&M weighs 336 pounds and bursts off the ball like he's on ACME rocket skates; NFL.com projects him as a fourth-rounder.

As for linebackers, this draft class is thin once you get past the Devins: LSU's Devin White and Michigan's Devin Bush, a pair of hyper-athletic speedsters. Later-round talent is out theresmart, fast thumpers like New Mexico State's Terrill Hanks and BYU's Sione Takitaki should be on the board Day 3but defenses trying to match up with modern offenses should focus on those nickel defenders if they can't draft a Devin.


Quelling the Revolution

A team that stockpiles edge-rushers, acquires starting-caliber nickel safeties and corners and seeks middle-of-the-field disruptors is ready for anything a top NFL offense can throw at it.

Hiding a Beckham or Brown in the slot? The nickel cornerback can follow him without getting broiled, at least long enough for the edge-rushers and interior disruptors to get to your quarterback.

Attacking the perimeter with Alvin Kamara or Saquon Barkley? The nickel safety can chase him down. Moving a tight end all over the place? Our extra defensive backs have him covered. Want to hammer the middle of the line from a spread formation? Those extra defensive backs can hit harder than you think, and the defensive line is stacked.

Got any more bright ideas, offensive gurus?

The only downside to this defensive draft is that most teams only have about seven selections. Even with so much depth, no team will be able to draft all the defenders it needs or wants.

But teams hoping to halt the offensive explosionand upgrade their defenses for the modern erawill find lots of what they are looking for this April.


Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier.

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