In the second week of the 2016 preseason, Dontrelle Inman of the San Diego Chargers learned a lesson that many receivers are quickly figuring out: Crossing the middle of the field against the Arizona Cardinals is a bad idea.
Just when the pass from Kellen Clemens arrived, so did a 6’1, 216-pound blur of red that separated Inman from both the ball and his helmet.
It’s exactly the type of play the Cardinals had in mind when Deone Bucannon was selected in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft. The All-American safety reveled in contact at Washington State and didn’t take long to find playing time with the Cardinals as a rookie.
But with Daryl Washington out of action due to a suspension that he never returned from, Bucannon lined up as an inside linebacker for the Cardinals far more often than at safety. Much different than the typical linebacker and still wearing a No. 20 jersey, Bucannon was somewhere between the two positions.
So the Cardinals made a new one. In October 2015, the term "moneybacker" was born.
"God gave me this ability to play in the box and also cover people. Now there are a bunch of guys in the draft that could do the same thing."
Box safeties willing to step up and stick their nose into the action at the line of scrimmage are not new.
The NFL has plenty of other strong safeties who look more like linebackers, and it has for a long time. The difference is that their responsibilities have increasingly transitioned to plays at the line of scrimmage rather than in space.
"God gave me this ability to play in the box and also cover people," Bucannon told AZCardinals.com in May. "Now there are a bunch of guys in the draft that could do the same thing as well. I’m happy that me and also [Los Angeles Rams linebacker] Mark Barron were the first people to do it. The Cardinals paved the way for me."
Barron, the No. 7 overall selection in the 2012 NFL Draft by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, struggled early in his career but has excelled after moving closer to the line of scrimmage following a trade to the Rams. He is listed as a linebacker/safety on the team’s roster.
Before ever drafting Bucannon, the Cardinals relied on Adrian Wilson to handle the strong safety duties for 12 years. The 6’3, 222-pound defensive back earned five trips to the Pro Bowl during his career with the team.
"It’s not completely different [than what I did]," Wilson said of the moneybacker position in a phone interview. "I’d say the package is probably different. I did it in nickel situations, [Bucannon]’s doing it in nickel and regular defense. He’s definitely a full-time linebacker. I was more like a safety in regular defense and I’d move down in nickel and dime [packages] as a moneybacker, so to speak."
Seattle Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor, a four-time Pro Bowler on one of the league’s most dominant defenses, has become the symbol of physicality in an NFL secondary. But like Wilson, Chancellor’s time as a linebacker comes in sub packages and he’s a strong safety in Seattle’s base defense.
Other defensive-minded coaches from the Pete Carroll coaching tree, like Gus Bradley of the Jacksonville Jaguars and Dan Quinn of the Atlanta Falcons, have tried to replicate the position away from Seattle.
The Jaguars selected Johnathan Cyprien with the first pick of the second round in the 2012 NFL Draft, and the Falcons’ most recent first-round pick was Keanu Neal with the No. 17 overall selection in 2016. Both raised eyebrows in college for their ability to deliver big hits, and aren’t that dissimilar from Bucannon.
"The only difference is that we use Cyprien more in space than maybe Arizona uses their guy," Jaguars defensive backs coach DeWayne Walker said in a phone interview. "He’s mostly like a linebacker so he’s in the box almost 24/7. While Cyprien is in the box quite a bit, he also has to function in space and play some other schemes as a box safety."
Bucannon is — for all intents and purposes — a linebacker. But a lighter, faster one who is the culmination of years of defensive evolution.
"All these guys kind of revolutionized offense, so defensively you have to adjust and you adjust with speed."
It’s not a secret that it’s getting easier to pass in the NFL.
A year ago, Danny Kelly called defensive backs "sitting ducks" with recent rule changes favoring receivers and punishing coverage that is too tight. But it wasn’t anything new. The NFL had long favored scoring and offense, forcing defenses to do their best just to slow down the attacks headed their way.
"There’s been an evolution of the tight end position and evolution of the halfback position nowadays with running backs coming out of the backfield and catching 70 balls," Wilson, now a scout with the Cardinals, said. "[Offenses] want to have matchups where they feel very secure with Antonio Gates, Jimmy Graham and guys like that back there.
"Then there’s Priest Holmes — you’ve got to think about guys like Priest Holmes — who is huge, catching passes all over the place. Marshall Faulk. All these guys kind of revolutionized offense, so defensively you have to adjust and you adjust with speed. You adjust with guys who can go down in the box and handle those offensive linemen and different types of looks they see down there, but also bring elements of speed."
Yes, the transformation of strong safety into a linebacker has less to do with adding size to the secondary than adding speed to the front seven. A linebacker — still willing to be as physical as any other linebacker — but built like a safety can help nullify the matchup issues that speedy running backs and slot receivers, or giant tight ends, present to the secondary.
Bucannon showed this ability on a short crossing route that Aaron Rodgers tried to fit in to tight end Richard Rodgers:
The Cardinals moneybacker is able to jam the 6’4, 257-pound tight end at the line of scrimmage and stay right on his hip. When Rodgers decides to throw, the play is already as good as over, and Bucannon is able to easily knock the pass away.
In a Week 8 game earlier in the season, the San Francisco 49ers sent Vernon Davis out wide with motion, forcing him to be covered by a linebacker. There was never a doubt that Colin Kaepernick was throwing to the matchup, trusting his athletic tight end to beat a linebacker ... except the linebacker was the Rams’ similarly athletic Barron.
It was far from perfect coverage, but Barron ran step for step with Davis, a tight end who once ran a 4.38 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine. When the pass arrived he wasn’t open and — even though Barron didn’t get his head around to look for the ball — it was knocked away for an incomplete pass.
But those are the advantages of adding speed to the linebacker corps with hybrid players. A drawback is that there is less weight up front to help in run support.
The added speed can help blow up plays, but only if the player is instinctual enough to diagnose and attack, and willing to blast through contact along the way.
Finding defensive backs who fit that mold physically isn’t that hard, but finding ones mentally ready to be linebackers can be a challenge.
"He wants to hit, he wants to hurt you and he wants to cause physical pain to you. That’s him in a nutshell."
The defensive changes aren’t due to an influx of a new kind of talent, but a new way to use players who have always existed.
"Twenty or 30 years ago, [Bucannon]’s probably an outside linebacker," Wilson said with a laugh. "Deone Bucannon is all linebacker mentality. He wants to hit, he wants to hurt you and he wants to cause physical pain to you. That’s him in a nutshell. He’s zero to 100."
Teams looking for a Bucannon or Barron or Chancellor of their own have to battle with the fact that so few players with that kind of speed are utilized as linebackers in college. Both Bucannon and Barron, now primarily linebackers in the NFL, were safeties at Washington State and Alabama, respectively.
Finding the next generation of speedy, hybrid linebackers probably means continuing to look behind the front seven.
"[It’s not that hard to] find guys like that in college," Walker said. "Getting them and teaching them, because they’re like baby linebackers, run fits and how to play certain runs is the challenge. In college most safeties are space safeties, so you don’t see these schemes in college a whole lot."
What can be especially dangerous is that teams can’t really know how a player will react to an entirely different position until they’re thrown in the fire.
"Once you get them in the building then that’s when you start looking at the mentality and see if they can handle that type of workload," Wilson said. "Being mentally adept to handle that workload of different positions, different checks, different aspects of how you see the offense. All of it is different. You’re on different levels of the defense so you’re seeing things from three different perspectives on the field."
Still early in their NFL careers, Bucannon and Barron seem to have thrived in the roles, although neither is considered a star player just yet.
* * *
The Jacksonville defense now features Telvin Smith and Myles Jack, two players who were considered undersized linebackers and even discussed as possible safeties. But Walker doesn’t think the day is near when every team will be turning to moneybackers to shut down opposing offenses.
"It’s all scheme based," Walker said. "It’s not something that everybody is doing or will be doing. I think just based off defensive scheme and the defense that you want to play in those particular schemes."
Still, Wilson doesn’t see the change slowing down any time soon. While schemes will dictate how players are used, he considers speed a must.
"The NFL is going to continue to revolutionize offense and give offense pretty much all the rules," he said. "Then defensively, you have to match that somehow and you match that with personnel. You have 5,000-yard passers and 45-touchdown guys. You have to be able to adjust to what offenses are doing."
For now, that adjustment is to add as much speed as possible to the middle of the defense, and players like Bucannon and Barron are leading the charge.
* * *