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Windmill Series: The Value of Nickel Cornerbacks and Brandon Flowers

Looking at the value in cornerbacks who play nickel roles and Brandon Flowers

Outside of a few teams that have an overwhelming level of talent that allows them to be proactive and dictate what they do against NFL offenses, NFL defenses are typically reactionary entities that are forced to adapt and evolve because of their offensive counterparts. For a very long time, that meant focusing on stopping the run because offenses were built around players such as Jim Brown, John Riggins, Eric Dickerson, Barry Sanders and Emmitt Smith.

In recent years, things have changed.

No longer do offenses build around the running game and no longer does the defense focus on setting themselves up to stop it. Instead, the defensive focus has shifted to the quarterback position and the passing game as a whole. Much of this is a reflection of the high number of exceptionally talented quarterbacks playing the game today, but it also is a reflection of how offenses have evolved. Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Cam Newton and Andrew Luck have all broken records in recent years because their talent has combined with more advanced offensive schemes and philosophies that ask them to carry the offense.

Naturally, those on the defensive side of the ball have adapted to try and counter this.

Iniitially, franchises began to favor pass-rushers and defensive backs over run-stuffing defensive linemen and tough tackling linebackers. There was nothing radical to the new approach, teams just drafted pass-rushers earlier or signed defensive backs to bigger contracts(or visa versa) and plugged them into their current defensive setups. Slowly, it became clear that that wouldn't be enough. With teams like the New Orleans Saints and New England Patriots taking advantage of different matchups on seemingly every single play against base and nickel defenses, a new philosiphical approach needed to be sought out.

 TeamDefensive Line SnapsLinebacker SnapsDefensive Back SnapsNickel Cornerback
1 Seahawks: 4-3 Base 4524 2911 5236 407
2 49ers: 3-4 Base 3041 4937 3041 1255
3 Bears: 4-3 Base 4276 2647 4836 510
4 Broncos: 4-3 Base 4072 3015 5695 558
5 Falcons: 4-3 Base 4680 2553 5463 676
6 Steelers: 3-4 Base 2659 4030 4473 563
7 Dolphins: 4-3 Base 4437 2942 5225 605
8 Bengals: 4-3 Base 4655 2926 5288 982
9 Texans: 3-4 Base 3050 4315 5869 461
10 Patriots: 4-3 Base 5181 2868 5942 947

The above chart tracks the personnel usage of the top 10 ranked defenses from last season. As the chart shows, more and more defensive backs are being used today. No longer do teams just add better pass-defenders and pass-rushers, they design different defensive packages that allow them to have greater resiliency against the run while still being flexible against the pass. Instead of keeping a run-stuffing 3-4 nose tackle who can't rush the passer or a 4-3 strong-side linebacker who couldn't cover in space, teams now focused on finding ways to get versatile defensive linemen and cornerbacks who weren't liabilities against the run on the field together.

Ultimately this past season, that led to some nickel cornerbacks playing dramatically more snaps, as the chart above shows, but also it blurred their status as a defensive back. While the outside cornerbacks and deep safeties still almost exclusively focus on being strong in coverage, the defensive backs who were asked to play closer to the front seven where balancing somewhere between playing the role of a linebacker and playing the role of a defensive back.

Why is this important for fantasy football owners? It's simple.

Predicting the fantasy impact of defensive backs from season-to-season can be very difficult. Because they not only play on the unit that doesn't directly decide where the ball goes and because they are put in much more space than other players, it's not as easy for them to register in the box score in the same way a running-back does. It is possible to project interceptions, pass deflections and forced fumbles, but the safest projection to make is more often than not about projecting tackles.

Linebackers typically make the most tackles in football, therefore if you find a defensive back who is often lining up in a position closer to that of a linebacker simple logic says he should make more tackles. Simple logic in football is often misguided logic, so deeper analysis is needed.

Listed on the chart below are the top 53 tackling cornerbacks from last season. 

PlayerDefensive SnapsTacklesTackles Per SnapMinimum Snaps in Slot
Buster Skrine 745 85 0.114 176
Joselio Hanson 571 61 0.107 298
Corey Graham 588 60 0.102 205
Cortland Finnegan 1031 101 0.098 379
Cortez Allen 563 55 0.098 204
Josh Norman 788 73 0.093 15
Charles Tillman 938 86 0.092 25
Marcus Gilchrist 640 59 0.092 336
Antoine Winfield 1106 101 0.091 422
Robert McClain 676 61 0.090 293
Kyle Arrington 844 74 0.088 265
Josh Robinson 651 56 0.086 8
Terence Newman 878 75 0.085 7
Javier Arenas 724 60 0.083 284
DeAngelo Hall 1155 95 0.082 271
Jason McCourty 1144 92 0.080 31
Cassius Vaugh 840 66 0.079 16
Derek Cox 776 60 0.077 11
Alterraun Verner 1063 81 0.076 28
Dunta Robinson 1069 80 0.075 48
Keenan Lewis 943 71 0.075 9
Janoris Jenkins 982 73 0.074 16
Antoine Cason 1050 73 0.070 28
Josh Wilson 1065 74 0.069 47
Casey Hayward 769 53 0.069 338
Cary Williams 1101 75 0.068 12
Johnathan Joseph 843 57 0.068 17
Tim Jennings 898 60 0.067 14
Sheldon Brown 903 60 0.066 18
Chris Harris 935 61 0.065 325
Captain Munnerlyn 935 61 0.065 397
Champ Bailey 1048 66 0.063 29
Quentin Jammer 1016 64 0.063 28
Chris Houston 931 56 0.060 11
Richard Sherman 1099 64 0.058 19
Patrick Robinson 1115 64 0.057 3
Stephon Gilmore 1082 61 0.056 28
Corey Webster 1042 58 0.056 11
Tramon Williams 1102 61 0.055 32
Sean Smith 1068 59 0.055 37
William Gay 1034 57 0.055 280
Tarell Brown 1050 57 0.054 34
Carlos Rogers 1060 56 0.053 437

If you separate those on the above table into defensive backs with at least 100 snaps in the slot and defensive backs with less than 100 snaps in the slot, the results heavily favour those who played more in the slot. Sixteen of those listed above played over 100 snaps in the slot and they averaged .082 tackles per snap opposed to the 27 other defenders listed above who averaged .069 tackles per snap.

Furthermore, if you only consider the top 10 performers from each category, the gap widens.

PlayerDefensive SnapsTacklesTackles Per SnapPlayerDefensive SnapsTacklesTackles Per Snap
Buster Skrine 745 85 0.114 Josh Norman 788 73 0.093
Joselio Hanson 571 61 0.107 Charles Tillman 938 86 0.092
Corey Graham 588 60 0.102 Josh Robinson 651 56 0.086
Cortland Finnegan 1031 101 0.098 Terence Newman 878 75 0.085
Cortez Allen 563 55 0.098 Jason McCourty 1144 92 0.080
Marcus Gilchrist 640 59 0.092 Cassius Vaughn 840 66 0.079
Antoine Winfield 1106 101 0.091 Derek Cox 776 60 0.077
Robert McClain 676 61 0.090 Alterraun Verner 1063 81 0.076
Kyle Arrington 844 74 0.088 Dunta Robinson 1069 80 0.075
Javier Arenas 724 60 0.083 Keenan Lewis 943 71 0.075
Total: 7488 717 - Total: 9090 740 -
Average: 748.8 71.7 0.096 Average: 909 74

0.081

When targetting cornerbacks in fantasy drafts, it's worth valuing players who are going to play more in the slot. The obvious choices are Cortland Finnegan, Deangelo Hall and Lardarius Webb. Each of those players are top-tier talents who will be expected to play significant snaps outside in base defenses and inside in nickel formations. However, each of those players should be amongst the first cornerbacks taken in any draft.

Instead of worrying about overdrafting a cornerback for the sake of having a player who fits the nickel description, Kansas City Chiefs' cornerback Brandon Flowers could present much better value at the position. Flowers is the 18th ranked cornerback on FootballGuys' cumulative IDP rankings, but he has the potential to be the most productive player at his position. 

He has been a consistent performer in fantasy throughout his career despite never hitting the heights of some of his peers. Much of the blame for Flowers' limitations can be put on his situation rather than his individual talent. The 27-year-old is considered an elite talent who has one major limitation by most NFL analysts. That limitation was his usage. Throughout his career so far, Flowers has almost exclusively played at the left cornerback spot on defense.

He was able to stay in that spot because he and former teammate Brandon Carr established themselves as arguably the best cornerback tandem in the NFL after being drafted in 2008. Carr and Flowers were not just exceptionally talented, they were exceptionally well-rounded which meant that they could match up to almost any style of receiver no matter how good they were. Furthermore, the arrival of slot cornerback Javier Arenas and safety Eric Berry through the draft gave the Chiefs less incentive to move Flowers away from his familiar sideline.

With both Carr and Arenas playing elsewhere ahead of this season, the Chiefs' cornerback depth chart has been almost completely revamped. The lone familiar face is Flowers, but he looks set to fill an unfamiliar role.

The Chiefs signed Sean Smith and Dunta Robinson this off-season. Smith is a rangy cornerback who doesn't have the same fluidity as Flowers, while Robinson is a fluid athlete but reckless and lacks the body control to be trusted inside. It's much less difficult for the Chiefs to ask Flowers to adjust to an unfamiliar role than to make Smith a more fluid athlete or get Robinson, a nine year veteran, to suddenly completely change how he plays the game.

Flowers had only 15 plays in coverage from the slot last season, but his exceptional ball-skills, very quick feet and outstanding balance should allow him to excel in the role if he can find his comfort zone. Most important for all, he is also a strong tackler despite his slight frame who should be able to stand up to the rigours of a 16 game season playing inside.

His statistical output last season is an unfair reflection on Flowers' potential for this season for many reasons. He finished the year with 48 tackles, one sack, 13 pass deflections and three interceptions on his 882 snaps. Those 882 snaps came on a losing football team that was too often playing from behind however. That, combined with the fact that the rest of the defense around Flowers was so porous meant that it was easy for offenses to avoid involving him in any facet of the game.

Because Flowers couldn't move around the field, he couldn't proactively put himself closer to the football or in the way of ball-carriers. If, as expected, he is able to do that this season, then the impact will not only be massive for his value as an IDP option but also for any receivers who are facing him.

Flowers only failed to cover receivers on 17.8 percent of his snaps in man coverage last season. That is an elite number that was actually higher than Richard Sherman's number under the same criteria.

However, because Flowers didn't move around the field enough, the impact of that number wasn't really felt. Sherman didn't move around the field either for most of the season, because just like Carr and Flowers had done in previous years, he and Brandon Browner were playing as well as any cornerback tandem across the league. However, later on in the season when Browner was suspended, he did move around the field and continued to play to a very high level.

When the Seahawks' secondary was weak in other areas, Sherman moved. When the Chiefs' secondary was falling apart around him, Flowers still stayed in one spot. Offenses were often able to take Flowers almost completely out of the game by simply moving their better receivers to different parts of their formation. For example, when the Chiefs played the Lions Flowers saw more of Titus Young than he did Calvin Johnson, against the Cowboys he saw Kevin Ogletree as often as he saw Dez Bryant.

Instead of constantly following the oppositions' best receiving options all season long, players like Eric Weems, Ogletree, Randy Moss, Santana Moss, Deion Branch, Louis Murphy, Brandon LaFell, Mario Manningham, Earl Bennett and Edmund Gates were able to combine for 74 qualifying snaps. The ability to move those types of receivers onto Flowers allowed opposing teams to put their star receivers onto lesser cornerbacks.

Presuming that Flowers is able to adjust to playing in the slot and on the right side of the defense, then he should dramatically impact the production of the receivers he is lining up against.

That flexibilty in Flowers' game should be a big part of the Chiefs' improvement as a whole on defense. However, Flowers' teammates will benefit as much from him as he potentially can from them. Smith and Robinson are not star cornerbacks, but they are both former starters who impressed in different ways with their previous teams. If Flowers is following the opposition's first choice receiver regularly, they should get more favourable matchups, making it more difficult for the quarterback to throw around his primary target.

Furthermore, the improvement on the offensive side of the ball should allow the Chiefs to be more competitive, putting every individual defensive player in a better situation to benefit. That combined with a new coaching staff should also allow the team's talented pass-rush to prosper.

Of course, no defensive back can be successful in anything he does without a proper pass-rush to rely on. They weren't on show much last season because of the team's overall situation and some curious coaching calls, but the Chiefs do have two of the most impressive outside linebackers in the NFL.

If unleashed properly, Tamba Hali and Justin Houston could be forcing the offense to completely alter their approach on the Sundays that they face the Chiefs. They combined for 19 last season, but if used more aggressively, they should be pushing closer to the 30 mark as a combination.

 

Name

Passing SnapsPass Rush Snaps%
1 Dwight Freeney 436 414 95.0
2 Demarcus Ware 482 420 87.1
3 Connor Barwin 620 533 86.0
4 Aldon Smith 588 503 85.5
5 Clay Matthews 423 357 84.4
6 Tamba Hali 469 393 83.8
7 Shaun Phillips 485 403 83.1
8 Ryan Kerrigan 678 561 82.7
9 Brooks Reed 357 292 81.8
10 Ahmad Brooks 564 461 81.7
11 Erik Walden 458 369 80.6
12 Robert Mathis 351 283 80.6
13 Paul Kruger 448 359 80.1
14 Courtney Upshaw 401 302 75.3
15 Sam Acho 520 360 69.2
16 Justin Houston 508 339 66.7
17 Calvin Pace 503 331 65.8
18 Lamarr Woodley 362 235 64.9
19 Anthony Spencer 461 299 64.9
20 James Harrison 477 294 61.6

Houston in particular has a variety and ability to his game that will always make him a valuable player in coverage, but he is at his most valuable to the defense as a whole when he is chasing down the quarterback. For the most part, Andy Reid's teams had aggressive defenses during his time in Philadelphia. Even though he may not have played a huge role with those defenses, it makes sense that new defensive coordinator Bob Sutton, a long-time Jets defensive coach, will look to follow in that mold.

Uncertainty is always going to be there when drafting defensive backs. But that doesn't make the position any different from any other really. That uncertainty can be managed by balancing opportunity with talent. With Flowers, you are guaranteed the talent part and his opportunity can only be greater after last season.

Pro Football Focus provided some of the statistics for this article.

You can follow Cian Fahey on twitter @Cianaf


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