Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his notebook. The topics of this edition include:
— Why the Titans shouldn’t make a long-term commitment to Derrick Henry.
— The potential first-round pick you probably still aren’t familiar with.
But first, a look at the teams that boast the best duos at a crucial position in a pass-happy league …
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The best NFL front offices work hand in hand with the coaching staff to bring in players that perfectly match their scheme. I believe that’s what we’re witnessing with the Miami Dolphins, whose fans should be excited about free-agent addition Byron Jones teaming up with Xavien Howard to give coach Brian Flores an elite cornerback tandem to build his defense around.
Now, I’m not ready to put Jones and Howard in the same class as the last five-star duo to man the corner position for the Dolphins — Sam Madison and Patrick Surtain were Pro Bowl regulars when they played together from 1998 to 2004 — but the new kids on the block could vault to the top of the charts playing in a man-heavy scheme. As bump-and-run specialists with outstanding size, length and athleticism, the Dolphins’ duo could thrive in an old-school defense that puts cornerbacks on an island. Keep in mind that the Detroit Lions, New England Patriots and Houston Texans were the only teams to play more man-coverage snaps than the Dolphins last season, per Pro Football Focus. Flores has followed the blueprint established by his mentor (Bill Belichick) and made Cover 1 the featured coverage in Miami’s playbook.
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"Belichick is a big believer in man coverage because it is the easiest to teach and it eliminates most of the easy throws available to the quarterback," a former NFL defensive coordinator told me. "His teams run it from Day 1 of OTAs and they become better at it because of repetition and technique. They don’t switch or banjo [a switch technique] against stacked alignments or bunch formations because he wants to eliminate any confusion or potential communication errors that could lead to coverage busts and receivers running wide open down the field.
"To play that coverage extensively, you have to have courageous cornerbacks with size, length and athleticism to match up with the big-bodied physical receivers or the shifty, shake-and-bake guys. You also need guys with the mental and physical endurance needed to focus on each and every play on the island. … It’s hard to find those guys."
That’s why I wasn’t surprised to see the Dolphins pay big money to acquire a cornerback with elite man-to-man cover skills. Remember, the Patriots signed Darrelle Revis and Stephon Gilmore while Flores was a defensive assistant under Belichick, so he undoubtedly appreciates the value of having a top-tier CB1 on the field.
In Jones, the Dolphins are getting an explosive athlete with an extraordinary combination of speed, quickness and leaping ability. He became the world record-holder in the broad jump (12-feet-3 inches) at the 2015 NFL Scouting Combine, where he showcased his dazzling athletic traits (44.5-inch vertical jump, 6.78-second three-cone drill, 3.94-second 20-yard shuttle and 10.98-second 60-yard shuttle).
It took a few years before Jones emerged as a top-tier defender, though. His breakthrough campaign coincided with his move from safety to cornerback prior to the 2018 season. Since then, he’s exhibited outstanding athleticism and movement skills shadowing receivers in tight man coverage. The sixth-year veteran challenges receivers at the line of scrimmage with strong jams and continues to maintain hip-pocket positioning down the field while pinning receivers to the sideline. In fact, Jones has been of the NFL’s best in press coverage since 2018. He’s forced a tight window on 59% of his press targets in that span, which is the second-highest rate in the NFL (minimum 30 targets), per Next Gen Stats. Although Jones’ skeptics can point to his low interception production (two INTs in 79 career games), let’s not overlook the fact that it’s hard to create turnovers on the island with your back toward the quarterback. Considering the amount of man coverage that Jones has played over the past few years, it’s not surprising to see low interception totals with his eyes affixed to his assigned receiver instead of the quarterback while in coverage.
As for Howard, he’s an established playmaker with outstanding instincts, awareness and ball skills. He was the NFL’s co-leader in interceptions in 2018 with seven picks and his versatile playing style should enable him to thrive utilizing bump-and-run or shadow technique on the island. He’s coming off an injury-plagued season that limited him to playing in five games, but I expect Howard to team with Jones to give Flores a pair of standout corners to build his defense around in 2020. With the defensive-minded head coach opting to build his defense from back to front, the Dolphins could surprise in the AFC East behind a cornerback duo that has a chance to emerge as the best tandem in the league.
This new pairing in South Beach led me to think about where it would rank among the league’s best at the position. Here are my top five cornerback tandems right now:
1) Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters, Baltimore Ravens: The Ravens’ decision to trade for Peters in October helped the defense emerge as one of the NFL’s top units in the second half of the season and gave coordinator Don "Wink" Martindale the league’s best cornerback tandem. Peters lived up to his reputation as a dynamic playmaker with three picks in 10 games with the Ravens, including a pair of pick-sixes. He played with better discipline in coverage after coming over from the Rams, and his improved attention to detail resulted in more consistent performance. Humphrey has quietly emerged as one of the best cover corners in the game, particularly as a bump-and-run technician on the perimeter. He aggressively challenges receivers at the line and does a great job of maintaining hip-pocket positioning down the field. With Humphrey playing at a high level in coverage and Peters providing timely playmaking on the island, the Ravens have an elite set of corners.
2) Stephon Gilmore and Jason McCourty, New England Patriots: Gilmore, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, teams with McCourty to give the Patriots a formidable tandem. The duo excels at snuffing out WR1s in the Patriots’ man-heavy scheme without having to deviate from their straightforward approach. Gilmore routinely takes on the challenge of shadowing the opponent’s most dangerous threat, while McCourty blankets the sidekick on the opposite side of the field. Each guy has thrived in his respective role, which is why the Patriots’ stifling pass defense was the talk of the town for much of last season.
3) Byron Jones and Xavien Howard, Miami Dolphins: As I mentioned earlier in this piece, Brian Flores believes in playing man coverage and the Dolphins have invested heavily at cornerback with two of the top three highest-paid players at the position (in average salary per year). Jones and Howard are bump-and-run specialists with the combination of size, length and athleticism to challenge receivers all over the field. Considering how each defender forces quarterbacks to make tight-window throws on the perimeter, the Dolphins’ blanket corners should cause problems for plenty of opponents in 2020.
4) Casey Hayward and Chris Harris Jr., Los Angeles Chargers: The Bolts’ veteran duo should stifle foes with their wisdom, experience and collective instincts. Hayward is a rock-solid cover corner with outstanding technical skills. No. 26 is always in the right place at the right time and makes the plays that are expected of a CB1. Harris might have lost a step at this stage of his career, but his savvy and awareness enable him to compensate for his waning athleticism. With the former All-Pro moving into a zone-based scheme that will enable him to play with vision on the quarterback, Harris could continue to play at a high level as the wise old man on the island.
5) Joe Haden and Steven Nelson, Pittsburgh Steelers: Don’t let the Steelers’ zone-blitz reputation fool you into believing the team’s corners aren’t capable of locking down opponents on the perimeter. Haden and Nelson (and nickel back Mike Hilton) are versatile corners with the capacity to come up with big plays in man or zone coverage. Each is adept at clueing the quarterback to get quicker reads on throws, and their superb technique enables them to maintain proper leverage on their receivers down the field. Given their individual and collective consistency in coverage and their overall physicality/toughness, it is time for the Steelers’ corners to get their props for the solid work they do each week.
DERRICK HENRY: Tennessee should take safe approach with bruising back
At a time when executives and scouts across the NFL are contemplating how to incorporate marquee running backs into an effective, long-term team-building philosophy, the Tennessee Titans are providing the league with a blueprint for how to construct a team with an RB1 as the centerpiece of the offense.
Instead of committing big money on a multi-year deal to a running back in the middle of his prime, Tennessee is treating Derrick Henry like a luxury rental car by keeping him around on a franchise tag. Sure, the Titans are committing $10.3 million in 2020 to the reigning NFL rushing king via the franchise tag, but they aren’t making a significant long-term investment in a depreciating asset.
I know that might sound harsh or disrespectful to a player who has worked his way into the conversation as one of the elites in the league, but we’ve seen how big-money running backs have failed to play up to their compensation levels in recent years. Playing tag with Henry this year (and maybe next) is the safe approach. It’s the smart approach.
Look, I’m going to be honest: I’ve gone back and forth with how to treat this position in a league that has steadily transformed into much more of an air show over the past couple decades. I still wholeheartedly believe in the immense value of a steady ground attack — especially down the stretch of the regular season and into the playoffs, when weather typically becomes more of a factor and games are played with thin margins. But it’s impossible to ignore the declining ROI on the highest-paid players at a position with famously-short shelf life.
That’s why I applaud the Titans for slapping the tag on Henry this offseason, given the 26-year-old’s bruising style and the fact that he just posted career rushing highs in carries (303), yards (1,540) and touchdowns (16). Seeing how a massive chunk of those yards were amassed after contact, it is fair to wonder how long the big-bodied runner can hold up playing as the sledgehammer of Tennessee’s offense. Considering that reality, the Titans are wise to refrain from committing substantial dough on a long-term deal. Much better to pay top dollar for this year and reassess the situation again next offseason. That way, the team’s covered if the 247-pounder’s production dips in 2020.
Does Henry get a raw deal in this scenario? That’s a fair question. Yeah, he does. But the truth is, he didn’t have the leverage to really do anything about it, which is why he signed his franchise tender this week to ensure an eight-figure payday for the season.
The more I think about this position’s role in the modern game — and the financial risks that are unavoidable, given the inherent volatility of RB production from year to year — the more I believe in a straightforward (albeit admittedly cold-hearted) calculus. I think the plan should be to draft a running back early and then keep him in the fold by using the franchise tag (or a series of tags), thus tying him to the team while paying out maximum dollars on short-term commitments. Utilizing this strategy enables a team to keep its RB1 on the roster for 5-7 years before cutting bait when the production starts to decline due to wear and tear.
For instance, the Titans drafted Henry in the second round and signed him to a four-year, $5.4 million deal. Even including the price of this year’s franchise tag, they’ve still committed less than $16 million for five years of his prime. Considering the Titans are likely to give Henry another heavy workload this fall, the astute move is taking a wait-and-see approach before potentially re-upping him on the tag again in 2021.
I’m reminded of a player who starred in Seattle back when I was a Seahawks scout: Shaun Alexander. Taking the starting reins in his second season, Alexander averaged 1,283 rushing yards from 2001 through 2004, piling up 70 total touchdowns in the process. With Alexander set to hit free agency in 2005, the ‘Hawks wisely gave him the franchise tag … and he proceeded to earn MVP honors, carrying the ball a whopping 370 times for 1,880 yards and 27 touchdowns — all league highs.
But then, in the ensuing 2006 offseason, Seattle handed him an eight-year, $62 million contract. He never reached 1,000 yards again and was completely out of the league by the end of 2008.
That’s why I cringe when I hear Titans GM Jon Robinson discussing his desire to reach a multi-year deal with Henry before the July 15 deadline for franchise-tagged players. Robinson has all of the leverage in this negotiation, and operating on a year-to-year premise enables him to keep his top offensive weapon on the roster without potentially wrecking the future salary cap structure of the team.
While it’s a little unfair to Henry and the RB marketplace to play this little game of tag over the next couple years, it should be an approach that more teams explore in team-building.
DRAFT SPOTLIGHT: Jeremy Chinn, S/LB, Southern Illinois
In every first round, there is a shocking pick that seemingly comes out of nowhere.
Love ’em or hate ’em, mock drafts have become a pretty reliable source for predicting the group of players who will be selected in Round 1. Throughout the pre-draft process, everyone gets familiar with all the names. Or at least, the vast majority of them.
Every year, though, it seems like a selection or two on the draft’s opening night catches everyone by surprise. That’s why I want to give the draftniks a few weeks to acquaint themselves with Southern Illinois safety Jeremy Chinn.
I know most football fans haven’t watched any Salukis football or checked out No. 2’s highlights on YouTube. But I’d advise you to enter Chinn’s name into your favorite internet search engine and read up on this 6-foot-3, 221-pound thumper with a versatile game that has NFL defensive coordinators salivating over his potential as a hybrid playmaker.
While everyone’s quite aware of Clemson’s Isaiah Simmons and his game-changing potential as a multi-positional chess piece, scouts have started to home in on Chinn as another rare talent in a similar mold.
Studying the coaches tape on Chinn, it is easy to see why scouts are smitten with his versatile skill set and high potential. As a four-year starter for Southern Illinois, Chinn amassed 243 tackles, 13 interceptions, 31 passes defended and six forced fumbles. He logged starts at safety and cornerback, while flashing a number of skills that could make him a game-changing Swiss Army Knife for a creative defensive coordinator with a voluminous playbook featuring exotic blitzes and coverages.
As a run defender, Chinn is an instinctive playmaker with a strong nose for the ball and rock-solid tackling skills. He stones running backs in the hole and displays dependable wrap-up skills while corralling receivers in the open field. Chinn’s tackling skills, aggressiveness and overall physicality make him a potential disruptive force as a box-area defender at the next level. He has a knack for finding the ball and his instincts stand out when studying the tape. With Chinn also showcasing explosive playmaking skills on blitzes, he could be an intriguing defender to build a scheme around.
In pass coverage, Chinn is a rare safety with cornerback-like cover skills. He is a dynamic athlete with the speed, quickness and movement skills to control the middle of the field as an occasional post player or deep-half defender in split-safety coverage. Although he is ideally suited to line up as the robber (box-area defender), he flashes enough athleticism and range to play as a deep defender in a single-high scheme.
As a man defender, Chinn’s athleticism enables him to cover tight ends and receivers all over the field. He capably maintains hip-pocket positioning on his assigned pass catcher down the field and his shadowing skills could enable a defensive coordinator to stay in a base defense against regular or spread personnel. And given his starting experience at cornerback, the big-bodied athlete is a unique defender with the capacity to play any secondary position or as a nickel linebacker in a multi-faceted scheme.
As a small-school standout, Chinn’s solid performance throughout Senior Bowl week validated his talent and potential. Throw in a stellar showing at the NFL Scouting Combine (SEE: 4.45-second 40-yard dash, 41-inch vertical leap, 138-inch broad jump and 20 reps of 225 pounds), and Chinn’s rise up the charts shouldn’t surprise astute observers putting all the pieces of the pre-draft puzzle together.
With a number of teams searching for a Kam Chancellor-like presence to feature in the middle of the defense, Chinn’s versatility, physicality and playmaking ability could make him a Day 1 pick when it’s all said and done.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.
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