For the second straight season, NFL teams put defenses with six defensive backs (dime defenses) more often than they did with four defensive backs (base defense). Nickel defenses — those defenses with five defensive backs — have become the new base defense, and that’s a trend that’s increased and advanced for years. But it’s not just nickel — at this point, the standard base defense has found itself trailing in the schematic race.
In 2019, per Sports Info Solutions, NFL teams went all in on this trend…
You know the whole “Nickel is the new base” thing? Very true, as nickel made up 59% of all dropbacks. But this surprised me — in 2019, defenses played more dime (20.9%) than base (18%). Which means that defenses are putting six DBs on the field more than they’re putting four.
— Doug Farrar (@NFL_DougFarrar) July 9, 2020
…and the same was true in 2020. Including the postseason, NFL teams played base defense on 3,063 snaps, which represented 19.5% of the league’s 18,934 total dropbacks. Teams put four defensive backs on the field just 3,063 times, or 16.2% of the time. Nickel was once again the new base, with 11,813 snaps against the pass, representing 62.4%.
With that in mind, it’s not surprising that the 2021 draft class has a high number of defensive backs who have excelled in multiple positions — everything from the slot to the box to the defensive line to outside cornerback and free safety. Because in today’s NCAA and NFL, the more you can do, the better your chances are of seeing the field sooner than later. Here are five prospects with specific leanings to the NFL’s current multiplicity paradigm.
(All advanced metrics courtesy of Pro Football Focus and Sports Info Solutions).
Owusu-Koramoah is the most prominent multi-position defender in this class, and he could be this year’s Isaiah Simmons — which means that he brings special athletic attributes to the table, and also that his NFL coaches will have to know what to do with him. It took the Cardinals a few minutes to figure that out with Simmons after selecting him eighth overall in the 2020 draft. Owusu-Koramoah projects as an early-to-mid first-rounder, so the pressure to make the most of his athletic gifts will be similar.
At 6-foot-1 and 221 pounds, Owusu-Koramoah could be called a linebacker, though many who have studied his tape think of him more as a safety. He’s also dangerous in the slot — last season, he gave up just 14 catches on 25 slot targets for 152 yards, 101 yards after the catch, one touchdown, one interception, and an opponent passer rating of 70.8. Overall, Owusu-Koramoah had 331 snaps in the slot in 2020, 212 in the box, 88 along the defensive line, and 14 at outside corner — usage patterns that were pretty closely mirrored in 2019. So, it’s clear that he’s a versatile guy; the question becomes whether his NFL team will succumb to the “piano in the room” dilemma and struggle to know where to put him.
You will not find a more impressive play in coverage from a linebacker prospect than this one from Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah
The processing speed here is unrealpic.twitter.com/SKq7WvO6sk
— Mike Renner (@PFF_Mike) April 15, 2021
Moehrig is the consensus top safety in this draft class, and he projects well as a deep-third defender. But he’s able to do so much more than that, which just adds to his NFL value. Last season, he lined up 172 times as a free safety, 198 times in the box, 313 times as a slot defender, and once as an outside cornerback. As a pure slot defender, Moehrig gave up 14 catches on 28 targets for 107 yards, 35 yards after the catch, no touchdowns, no interceptions, and an opponent passer rating of 59.7. Factor that into his overall coverage numbers — 20 receptions on 41 targets for 208 yards, 77 yards after the catch, one touchdown, two interceptions, and an opponent passer rating of 51.7, and it’s clear that Moehrig has what the modern NFL wants — the ability to shut down a passing game from anywhere on the field.
Grant’s history as a high-school track and field champ and the 4.47 40-yard dash he ran at his pro day don’t always show up on the field — there are instances in which he’s a half-step slow to get somewhere, though his diagnostic abilities tend to make up for it. Grant’s positional versatility will also have teams valuing him for that more than they ding him for any deep speed concerns.
Grant proved to be an especially valuable slot defender for the Knights in 2020, when he allowed just seven catches on 20 targets for 125 yards, 52 yards after the catch, one touchdown, two interceptions, and an opponent passer rating of 34.4. Overall, Grant lined up 236 times in the box last season, 225 times in the box, 145 times in the slot, and 10 times on the defensive line. Grant has also been highly versatile throughout his collegiate career, with 1,122 snaps at free safety, 810 in the box, 695 in the slot, 23 along the line, and five at outside cornerback over four seasons.
Norwood has already shown up on my radar before when I investigated the best draft-eligible defensive backs in different types of coverage — he had among the best numbers for Cover-3 defenders. But more than that, he’s proven to be a multi-positional defender with great ability to read what’s in front of him. In 2020, he tied with Virginia Tech’s Divine Deablo (more on him in a minute) with three interceptions from the slot — the most from any defensive player in 2020 from the 2021 draft class.
Norwood started his time with the Sooners as a cornerback, missed the 2019 season due to a torn ACL, and then came back as more of a safety/slot hybrid. Last season, he had 179 snaps in the slot, 180 in the box, 81 at free safety, 33 at outside cornerback, and five on the defensive line. Overall in 2020, he allowed 16 catches on 30 targets for 124 yards, 84 yards after the catch, two touchdowns, five interceptions, and an opponent passer rating of 46.4. Any team playing single-high zone or man concepts in need of a difference-maker in the second or third days of the draft would do well to look Norwood’s way.
At 6-foot-3 and 226 pounds, Deablo looks more like a modern-day linebacker than his positional designation of safety, but as we’ve discussed along here, positional designations don’t matter as much as they used to. It’s a matchup league, and that’s why Deablo could be prized in the second or third round. Last season, he had 259 snaps in the box, 201 in the slot, 155 at free safety, 10 at outside cornerback, and 18 along the defensive line. And if you want a big, imposing slot defender, this could be your guy. On 120 coverage snaps from the slot in 2020, Deablo allowed six catches on nine targets for 48 yards, 18 yards after the catch, no touchdowns, three interceptions, and an opponent passer rating of 40.3. When you’re picking off half as many passes as you’re allowing catches, that’s pretty good.
Over his three seasons with the Wildcats, Davis’ presence in the slot increased from three to 25 to 119, and with those 119 slot snaps last season, he allowed 12 catches on 14 targets for 97 yards, 37 yards after the catch, one touchdown, one interception, and an opponent passer rating of 89.6. Davis is still getting the hang of coverage all over the field, but he had five total pressures, 30 stops, and three interceptions in 2020, so he projects well to any NFL team with a need for a developmental ‘backer who’s already played all over the place. Last season, Davis also had 463 snaps in the box, eight on the defensive line, and one at outside cornerback.