Roster building strategies in the NFL are extremely interesting. There are many ways to go about building a championship roster. Due to the nature of the game, short professional careers, the salary cap, and other factors; teams in this league are basically incapable of “having it all.” Decisions have to be made regarding where to put resources and where to cut corners.
On defense, defending the pass is without question the top priority in this league now. But there are arguments to be made if more resources should be dedicated to the pass-rush or to coverage. Should teams cut corners on their big men or cut corners at cornerback?
Much excellent research on this topic has been done over the past few years from an analytical perspective. This research shows that getting quality cover men is the clear answer to this dilemma. In fact, this is the approach that the Giants have taken as they have put quite a bit of recent draft capital (Deandre Baker, Julian Love, Corey Ballentine and Sam Beal) and money (Janoris Jenkins) into the cornerback position.
The logic is that if a defense is very strong and deep at cornerback, it can create pressure through blitz because they don’t mind stressing their coverage players. Also, if you think about it, there are more men on this planet that are the shape and size of NFL cornerbacks than there are to pick from in the 240 to 320-pound neighborhood. In the world of recruiting, athletic defensive tackles are the hardest type of player to find and generally speaking, these young men go to the top football factories rather than smaller universities.
No one should ever fault an NFL team for grabbing what seems like an “extra” cornerback in the draft even if it looks as though that isn’t a position of need. The more the merrier and finding useful cornerbacks in the middle rounds are not uncommon at all.
That being said and with all respect to those doing the research, I am a little bit old school in this conversation. I want to win in the trenches. Sure, the passing game rules this league, but that doesn’t mean that defending the run or controlling the line of scrimmage has no value.
In fact, ideally, I want to bring waves of defensive linemen at my opponent, almost like hockey lines. We see top football programs like Alabama bringing waves and waves of great specimens up front on defense. As offensive linemen do not rotate, this can pay off massively, especially in the fourth quarter. Philadelphia did this exceptionally well during their Super Bowl run two years ago. The Giants may have created something along these lines at defensive tackle after drafting Dexter Lawrence to team with Dalvin Tomlinson and B.J. Hill. If this threesome can stay fresh throughout the game, they should cause major problems for the guards and centers they play against for years to come deep into games.
If an NFL defense can utilize six, seven or even eight defensive linemen of all shapes and sizes throughout the course of a game, it isn’t hard to see what an advantage that becomes as the game goes on. Not to mention, the level of athletes that are coming into the league nowadays massively favors the defensive linemen over those doing the blocking in an offensive linemen starved league.
Now, neither approach is perfect. Offensive schemers have become great at getting the ball out of their quarterback’s hands quickly to nullify the pass-rush. But if the offensive side of the ball has a harder time running the ball, they should more often find themselves in less manageable down and distance situations in which the quarterback likely will be holding the ball for a longer amount of time. Of course, having great big people on defense also allows for easier double teams of star receivers as well as simply having more bodies in coverage on most given plays. That also allows for better coverage camouflages and disguises as well as a better ability to spy running quarterbacks.
There isn’t a perfect solution here and in some ways this is a chicken or egg situation. Having great players anywhere makes scheming much easier. Holes in the defense will almost always get exploited.
Having a shutdown cornerback like Darrelle Revis or Deion Sanders gives the defensive coordinator plenty of options of what to do with his other 10 players. But with today’s league rules that are so advantageous to the offensive passing game, it might not be a coincidence that the NFL no longer has true “shutdown corners.” Plus, if a great cornerback is in a shadow situation, the offense has a great idea of who will be covering the other skill position players. Give me a guy like Aaron Donald or Fletcher Cox that influences play after play a few feet away from the quarterback over a top cornerback in today’s NFL.
This is still a physical game and call me a relic if you choose, but I still want to win games in the trenches while making the opposing quarterback distrust his blocking play after play. And hey, a little bit of run defense doesn’t hurt either.