While the free-flowing nature of those two sports lends to evolution, the roles in football have been much more strictly defined. Two safeties and two corners used to make up the secondary. That’s changed as an answer to the wide-open nature of offenses. Offenses evolved to get more speed on the field, and defenses followed suit. Enter: The nickel.
While nickelback typically refers to CBs who cover inside WRs, the best modern nickels have versatility that makes their position tough to nail down to only one role. If your NFL team hasn’t fully embraced the change, get ready because the college game is sending more polished players within the archetype every year.
“It’s a different type of position,” new Miami Dolphins draftee Minkah Fitzpatrick told SB Nation at the NFL Combine. “It’s kind of a combination between corner and safety. You can make calls like a [corner]. You can make calls like a safety. You can rush, you can fill the holes and the gaps like a safety. But then you can cover man to man on pass downs when you need to, just like a corner. So I like playing both corner and safety, so I think slot corner’s just the optimal position.”
Nickel started out as a simple substitute package. Take a lumbering linebacker off the field, and put a quicker cornerback in on an obvious passing down situation. Then teams started passing more often, and defenses needed to counter four- and five-receiver sets more often, as well as match up with elite tight ends.
It’s the natural evolution of the game: offenses do something, and defenses react.
In 2008, NFL teams played nickel 43.4 percent of the time. Now, it’s up to 63 percent.
NFL teams now consider nickelbacks to be starters. College offenses have been fanning out in spread schemes for years, and the NFL has come to follow suit. The Eagles won the Super Bowl with their primary nickel corner, Patrick Robinson, playing 69 percent of their defensive snaps. According to the counts at Pro Football Reference, 21 of the league’s 32 teams had three different corners play more than 50 percent of the time.
Nickel is the foundation of football’s positionless movement on defense, but it’s also the clearest example because you can easily track the evolution of the position. No longer is it just a fast third cornerback. Your nickel can be a rover or a third safety or or whatever it takes to get the job done. You can call it whatever you want to. Alabama, for instance, calls it the star. The Arizona Cardinals refer to their hybrid position as the moneybacker.
And it’s not just limited to the secondary. Big guys like Jadeveon Clowney blur the lines between conventional defensive end and outside linebacker.
It still takes a special DB to do it all.
That’s Fitzpatrick rushing from a typical outside linebacker alignment. He’s flat-footed at first and isn’t tipping the rush at all before rocketing into the backfield and forcing Deondre Francois out of the pocket.
Here’s newly drafted San Diego Charger Dewin James rushing with the presence of mind to come straight upfield and keep width so Alabama’s Jalen Hurts can’t just get outside of him and make a play outside the pocket.
Plays like these are common in the sport, but you didn’t always see defensive backs doing them. The fact that both Fitzpatrick and James will likely be selected in the first round show how positionless players have fully embedded themselves at the highest level of football.
Teams now draft these exceptional athletes first and figure out how best to use them later. They’re picking them earlier and earlier, too.
As the position evolves and nickels become more elite, NFL teams have no choice but to select them early.
That’s exactly what James expects to happen to him when his name’s called.
“I’m going top 10. I know I’m going top 10,” James said. “I’ll play for anybody.”
One popular destination for James in mock drafts this offseason is the Dallas Cowboys, owners of the No. 19 pick in the first round.
“I don’t think I’m going to go that late,” James said. “I feel like once [I] come out and show people what I can do, once I get done with all these meetings, I feel like they’ll have to trade up to get me.”
Honestly, where do you put a guy like James who has measurables like this ...
... who could do things like this as a 19-year-old?
The answer is: wherever the best matchup presents itself for your defense.
The foundation for Fitzpatrick is his coverage skill, and he was a conventional corner first at Alabama. Standing at just over 6’0, he’s more of a conventional corner’s size too. Watch him explode from a backpedal to change direction in a combine drill.
Then when Fitzpatrick puts the pads on, he puts his closing speed on full display on plays like this, where he comes down with force to make a strong open-field tackle.
Yet his threat as a blitzer allowed Bama to plausibly bluff that he’d blitz up the middle, a distraction for the protection.
But James — even more than Fitzpatrick — truly embodies the positionless nature.
You can get away with leaving Fitzpatrick as an outside corner thanks to his size. Some teams view him like that, but could still move him inside later. And it’s that versatility that makes him valuable and could keep him on NFL rosters for years to come.
With Reshad Jones and T.J. McDonald, the Dolphins don’t necessarily need a safety. However, James is much more than just a single-position player. Miami can play James as a slot corner, as a roving linebacker and even as an edge rusher.James may get listed as a safety or a linebacker on an NFL team’s depth chart, but when he actually hits the field on Sundays pay attention to where he lines up. He’ll be everywhere.
Ed Reed was a player who exemplified this style of play throughout his career and someone like Tyrann Mathieu was a key part of the next wave. The positionless DB is here; what’s next is for there to be more of them so we can see how they’ll continue to change the game.