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Nickel Corners, Slot Receivers and the Seattle Seahawks

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Discussing the upcoming NFL Draft, Greg Cosell wrote on the NFL Films Blog about slot receiver and nickel corner prospects that are being undervalued not because of limitations in their play but because they are "only" slot receivers or nickel corner specialists. One could argue such undervaluation contributed to Doug Baldwin dropping out of the draft, though he would undoubtedly would have been drafted had any NFL team figured on him being this good a slot receiver.

Why does this undervaluation make little sense? As Cosell points out, a lot of NFL teams use three-wide sets as their base offensive package, and that's not even factoring in receiving tight ends running routs from inline or motion spots. PFF's Mike Clay (as quoted here) has talked about the increase in nickel sets as well, also noting that the team to use the most nickel sets in the NFL is the Super Bowl Champion New York Giants.

This is getting to be pretty common knowledge at this point. I don't think many of us would bat an eyelid if Pete Carroll starts running out a 4-2-5 base set, in light of which the proposed Mark Barron pick is not unthinkable (though not, I feel, all that likely). For me, that wasn't really the "hmmm, interesting" part of this piece by Cosell. I've been banging the "slot/nickel guys are like .75 of a starter" hammer for a while now, their value is really close to that of your starters, and you could well use high-level players at the slot and nickel spots if you want to compete in the modern NFL.

I'm bringing up the article more to discuss his notes on the nickel corner "fit" and the concept of "kicking inside":

Keep in mind teams also run three-wide groups in normal down and distance situations as a regular feature of their offense. What burden does that place on the defense, as it specifically relates to the slot corner? It means he has three responsibilities: cover man (the most apparent), blitzer and run defender (not talked about enough). Those are three distinct skill sets, but they are all required of a slot corner.

Think about that for a minute. It's not a filler position, simply employed because the offense lined up with three wide receivers. It's a well-defined position that is essential to NFL defense, and it demands a specific set of attributes. Look at the Philadelphia Eagles last season. They had three very good NFL corners: Nnamdi Asomugha, Asante Samuel and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. All three are perimeter corners. The Eagles believed they could put Rodgers-Cromartie and/or Asomugha in the slot, solely because they were athletically talented players. It doesn't work that way, so things didn't play out as the Eagles expected. Neither Rodgers-Cromartie nor Asomugha possessed the combination of traits necessary to play effectively in the slot, and it proved to be a primary contributing factor to the Eagles' struggles in 2011. As the Eagles now know, a slot corner is a key component to defensive success.

This is a very important notion that gets ignored a bit too much. The idea of a slot receiver is pretty embedded, if routinely simplified too much ("Golden Tate is small so he must be a slot guy"), but the nickel corner is often thought of as "your third best cornerback". The Eagles have decisively proven that it does not work that way, and you can not simply kick good perimeter corners inside and expect them excel as a regular part of your defense.

Fans often hate specialization, because specialization takes away from depth. This is true in many ways, and you don't want too many overly specialized players on your roster, but at some points it is a value versus cost calculation that tips well in favor of value. You need specialized players for these multi-receiver sets and defense.

This doesn't limit itself to having a slot corner. The Shurmer-popularized Big Nickel/Wolverine package (nickel safety) has been making a strong comeback of late, and in many ways requires a hybrid safety/linebacker skillset from the safety who plays the big nickel spot. For the Seahawks, in 2010, Jordan Babineaux played about 40% of the defense's snaps as the Big Nickel, with Roy Lewis playing an additional 20% of the defensive snaps as the nickel corner, before landing on IR in W15-16. In 2011, Atari Bigby was our primary big nickel, with Walter Thurmond and Roy Lewis playing the nickel spot. Due to roster changes, injuries of players and scheme, the Seahawks ran multi-DB packages less in 2011 (and were near the top of the NFL in using our base 4-3-4 D, at 56% of the time). That's not ideal, and more flexibility is needed, which would require a bigger investment in the big nickel spot than an Atari Bigby. Though one thing to be said of the like of Babineaux, Bigby and Thurmond is that they make decent backups for your starters as well, and that's pretty important.

As flexible as our coaching staff is moving front 7 pieces around, that's how inflexible they are when it comes to cornerbacks. One plays left, the other plays right, the nickel plays man on the slot. It's rigid, but if you follow Cosell's reasoning, it's rigid for a reason. I toyed around with the idea of Brandon Browner or Richard Sherman kicking inside to cover tight ends for a while, but I don't think it's something our coaching staff would do, and it makes sense because Browner and Sherman are inexperienced perimeter corners with very specific skillsets, not necessarily having the short-area quickness and route smarts of a nickel corner, or the necessary skills to shed blockers as a run stopper or pass rusher from the nickel spot.

The topic of nickel corners is becoming more relevant to the Seahawks now that it seems like Walter Thurmond (who flashed excellent nickel corner skills) has had a setback in his rehab. The Seahawks added Roy Lewis and Marcus Trufant in quick succession, both decent stopgaps for the nickel spot, when needed. Lewis was terrible in coverage in 2011 but adequate in 2010, and possesses good run-stopping instincts. Trufant balances more towards the coverage side of things and is a solid tackler, but would be learning to play a new position.

On the big nickel side, we have...nothing really. I suggested a year ago I could see Byron Maxwell play Big Nickel more than I could see him player regular cornerback, and that's still true, but I didn't get to see enough of him to comment further on this. This is where the Barron pick could add some value, provided either Barron or Kam Chancellor can play man coverage on a TE. The big nickel is a good formation for run defense and TE coverage, but your SS has to be capable of playing man coverage on TEs as well, which was not on display from Kam Chancellor this last season.

On the opposite side, the slot receiver, we seem pretty well set with Doug Baldwin, and I have no reason to doubt his long-term future, but neither would I be shocked to see a slump in this coming season, be honest, it's just one of those things that happens, and that shouldn't overly concern fans. Golden Tate is often cited as his backup but the FO seems to envision Tate more as a perimeter guy and I agree. Tate has a capacity to kick inside as a traditional slot receiver that Rice and Williams really do not, but ideally he'll be fighting for time on the outside as well, as he has the speed, athleticism andstrength to do a lot of damage near the sideline, while he doesn't have the route-running precision or sharp cuts of an inside receiver.

On balance, this is a position the Seahawks have adequately filled on both sides of the ball. Walter Thurmond was an injury question mark coming in to the league and injuries have plagued his career so far, so he might not be a long-term answer. The big nickel question is unanswered from the outside looking in but that does not mean they don't have a plan with a player currently on the roster. There's not enough question marks here to warrant and high pick investment unless a golden opportunity presents itself, but I could easily see a late pick or some UDFAs being brought in to try and bolster both our 3-wide attack and (big) nickel defense.

Editor's note: Unlike most of my writeups this one wasn't preceded by tape review. I'm operating purely on notes and memory here since my external HD containing my copies of the Seahawks games died on me, right as I started work on a series of video play reviews with commentary (CB press-man play would've been first). I will most likely go silent for a while article-wise, until this problem is fixed.