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In a passing league, defensive backs more important that ever

Cornerbacks and safeties won't work out here at the combine until Tuesday, but the positions have already been hot topics through the first three days of the NFL Combine. Ten different quarterbacks threw for at least 4,000 yards last season in the NFL, which smashed the old record of seven set in 2007. Although the Jets and Ravens showed that defense and running the football are still reliable ways to win in January, the NFL is clearly becoming a passing league.

Rule changes and spread offenses have put a premium on fast, athletic corners and safeties who can run and cover without making physical contact with wide receivers.

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"Regardless of how the flow of the league is going, if you find a guy that can cover people, that's huge," said Browns general manager Mike Holmgren. "How many guys you have on your roster has changed. You see way more since I first got in of open formations spread out all over the place.It's very much a matchup situation where a smart offensive coordinator is going to look and see he's got all his six guys out and he knows that guy's better than that guy.

You might have to think about having more cover corners to play in those type of situations."

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That's one of the reasons Tennessee safety Eric Berry is projected in some mock drafts to be one of the first three picks. Some teams even believe he has enough athletic ability to play corner, although the player he's most often compared to is Ed Reed. Florida cornerback Joe Haden could also be a Top 10 pick, and Alabama corner Kareem Jackson, Texas safety Earl Thomas and USC safety Taylor Mays have also been projected in the Top 20 in several places.

The Ravens are clearly in need of some help in their secondary, especially after knee injuries to Lardarius Webb and Fabian Washington late in the 2009 season. The led the league in pass interference penalties last season, and Reed's potential retirement certainly doesn't help matters. It's one of the reasons several mock drafts have the Ravens picking Boise State's Kyle Wilson or Devin McCourty of Rutgers in one of the first two rounds.

The prevalence of spread offenses in high school and college has made it more difficult to evaluate certain positions like tight end and quarterback, but in some respects, it's also made it easier to evaluate cornerbacks and safeties. At least that's the feeling of some coaches and general managers.

"What we are seeing now is because of the wide open offenses, and increasing number of pass attempts at the college level, we get more opportunity to evaluate (cornerbacks)," said Titans coach Jeff Fisher. "We get to evaluate them in space, we get to evaluate them as a zone player, as a man player, but probably most importantly you get to evaluate them as an open field tackler because you have this quick passing game and screens and all these things that are taking place. So it makes it a little easier to evaluate now as it was 10 years ago."

But is it preferable to build your secondary around cornerbacks or a standout free safety? It depends on how good your safety is, according to Bengals coach Marvin Lewis.

"Those safeties that can dominate a game, they've been rare," said Bengals coach Marvin Lewis. "But when you look down through the history of NFL football they have been very effective on their teams. I think they allow you to put the game together differently and coaches have done a nice job doing that. If you've gone another way where you've taken the cornerback and you build it differently on that side. My experience has been. We had two fine players in Pittsburgh and we had a mix. In Baltimore we had two fine corners that enabled us to do great

things and our two young guys are doing a great job right now. And yet the development of our two corners has been because of what the safeties have been able to add and the professionalism of playing NFL football."

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