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A Deeper Look at Potential Needs in the NFL Draft and Free Agency

Why your team may be looking for a backup this offseason.

Michael Schottey

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Football is not played on paper.

Draft time gives fans and media time to reassess the team that they love, but too often, the assessment falls far short of how teams actually judge their roster. Google “[insert team] draft needs” and you should find a bevy of columns from sites small and large alike doing the same exact thing: taking a look at the depth chart and finding the spots of weakness that could be upgraded in April.

That’s not how teams do it.

First off, there’s a whole opposite way of looking at team building that largely ignores the “biggest need” positions and focuses on simply acquiring the best players—the New York Giants, New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens are all good long-time examples of this. There’s also the idea that the draft should be used to strengthen strengths just as much as patching up weaknesses.

Let’s save those theories for another column…

Instead, let’s focus on the all-important fact that football is not played off of a two or three-deep depth chart. Yes, 11 players march out to the field, but rarely is it in the neat little formations that get hung up on the locker room bulletin board or posted online.

Rather, football is a game with limitless roles and rotations that effect the game in massively important ways and that rarely get their due. Understand that these positions are not necessarily “more” or “less” important than the starters. In fact, depending on the team and the scheme, there’s a good chance a team will view these positions as equally important as the first 11 guys that head on out to the field.

The more we take a step back from the depth chart and recognize the importance of the various formations, rotations, niche players and limited but important roles, the better we understand the game as the coaches and personnel guys do.

 

Nickel Cornerback

Typically referred to as the “third corner” or listed behind one of the starters on the depth chart, the nickel cornerback is an almost more important position these days than the starting cornerbacks. In fact, it should not surprise any of us if a team goes into the offseason “OK” with a lack of talent at one of the perimeter positions but focuses on upgrading their ability to defend the slot.

This is not just an area to stick the third-best corner on the team, but it’s quickly becoming an area to maximize the abilities of guys who excel in space and don’t need the boundary to help them defend a receiver. Often times, as No. 1 receiver move around to avoid press, the ability for a slot corner to defend them is the chessmatch within the game that can secure victory.

 

Slot Receiver

Why are nickel corners so important?

Well, because teams are not only using slot receivers more and more as spread offenses take over the NFL en masse, but also because they’re finding more and more prospects who are absolutely fantastic at putting pressure on defenses from the slot.

Teams are spending up to 50 percent of the time (or more) in spread offenses and that’s pressuring defenses to do the same. Of course, that means we’re not just looking for the third-best receiver to throw out there in the slot, but (as mentioned) rotating top receivers into the role and acquiring the kind of receivers who can win there: typically smaller prospects with elite lateral athleticism and ability after the catch.

 

Big Nickel Corner/Nickel Linebacker/Dime Corner

Last thought on subpackages, I swear…

Depending on the division and opponents a team has to worry about, this extra trip down the nickel rabbit hole can become an even more importance exercise. If an offense is consistently trotting out four or five receivers, it’s less crucial to spend cap space on two great corners and more important to spend on guys with talent four or five deep on the roster.

That takes on a few different looks depending on the coach, the scheme and the available talent.

Have a few athletic tight ends that worry you? Utilizing an extra safety in the nickel back role could potentially be the path to success. A decade ago, extra safeties were rotational (at best) and more often simply special teams players, but some teams are looking to go three or four-deep on safeties for this purpose.

What about a running back that burns you out of the backfield? In that instance, a team might have a linebacker whose sole purpose is to replace the middle linebacker on passing downs yet may not even be a starter in the base set.

What if a team is doing all of the above? Well, focusing on finding that fourth cornerback (or safety to play there) may be the goal this offseason.

 

3rd Down Back

We live in an era of uber-specialization when it comes to running backs.

Gone are the days where a team simply hitched it’s proverbial wagon to a stud rusher and built their team around his talents. No, instead we see not only multiple guys splitting carries, but we increasingly see starters who aren’t trusted in passing situations.

In that regard, “third-down” becomes a misnomer, because teams will use the passing situation back on first, second, third down…all the way down the field if the matchup calls for it.

A big reason for this is the increasing rarity of finding a back who can do it all. Spread offenses in college football have changed the way backs are coached. Maybe a guy can run with the best of them. Maybe he can catch. Maybe he can run a full route tree. And, maybe he can pass block. Finding a guy who can do all of the above is insanely difficult these days.

So, finding a guy who can do the last couple of things on that list really well becomes important, even if he sits behind two better overall backs on the depth chart.

 

Goal Line/Swing Tackle

The days of all five offensive linemen ideally playing all of a team’s snaps is over.

Now, in short-yardage, red zone or goal line situations situations, an extra tackle is being utilized more and more. Sometimes it’s a tight end who is a blocking specialist. Other times, it might be an athletic/smaller tight end who could run a route in certain situations.

More than that, though, we’re seeing an balancing out between the importance of right and left tackles. Defenses can bring pressure from every where, now…not just the blind side and that means having two good pass-blockers on the perimeter is important.

Combine all of the above with the potential of injury and the increased use of bigger splits between linemen and two-point stances and all of a sudden, the first lineman off the bench becomes almost important as the top middle reliever in a baseball bullpen. It’s gotta be a guy who can come in for a six-to-ten snaps a game, player either side, move inside if needed and maybe even run a route for you.

Is that a role some team is going to chase in the first round? No, probably not…but if you think your team is “set” on linemen, you’re almost certainly wrong.

 

Rotational Defensive Linemen

Our last position is a bit of a catch all, because the exact type of player depends a lot on the types of front a team runs, the specific scheme they’re looking to implement and the kinds of offenses they’re looking to defend against in specific situations.

The most lucrative example is the on-going trend of one-dimensional pass-rushing ends and linebackers coming into the NFL every season. Seattle Seahawks’ Bruce Irvin wasn’t the first guy like this, but he was the harbinger of an era where teams willingly take a guy in the first and second round that they have no desire to ever put on the field in run situations.

The Cleveland Browns’ Barkevious Mingo, Detroit Lions’ Kyle Van Noy and others in recent years fit that bill nicely, as do prospects in 2015 like Clemson’s Vic Beasley.

In addition to a one-dimensional pass-rusher on the outside, more teams are utilizing a more-liberal rotation on the interior of the defensive line. Some defenses will use the “NASCAR” set of smaller, quicker pass-rushers all across the defensive line. Others, will grab an extra nose-tackle type to really bog down the middle and allow their linebackers to move freely.

——

While the offseason is a perfect time to talk about this because teams will focus on acquiring players according to these roles and rotations, it’s always important to start thinking about the game in ways that go past the antiquated notion of “starters” and “backups” that is too-often reinforced by Madden and Fantasy Football.

The game isn’t played on paper, and our discussion of the game shouldn’t be focused there either.

Michael Schottey has been covering football in various capacities for a decade and his work can be found in numerous outlets around the globe, primarily Bleacher Report where he is and NFL National Lead Writer. Schottey has appeared regularly on CNN, Headline News, Al Jazeera America, Sirius/XM and countless other national and local radio spots.

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