Saturday, March 25, 2017

Slot Corner Becomes Need In Wake Of Ryan's Departure, Butler's Ambiguity

What makes an effective slot corner?

A better question may be, do the New England Patriots have one?

Also known as a nickel back, a slot corner is best described as a press-man cover who works best in tight spaces, plays the run like a linebacker, is more agile than fast with long arms and cat-quick reflexes and the instincts of a hammerhead shark. A slot corner must be dexterous enough to change direction in time to mirror shifty garden gnomes like Julian Edelman and T.Y. Hilton...
Jones' skill set makes him a viable slot candidate despite issues as rookie

...while being long enough to get their arms around taller men playing out of the slot to knock the ball away from them - it is truly a combination of athleticism and physical make up that is rare - and even more rare is the guy who can play inside out, pressing from the slot and playing trail technique, vertically, to the sidelines.

In many ways, a slot corner's job is more difficult than a traditional outside-the-numbers corner, and the 2014 post-season gives us decent example of how rare this cover corner truly is.

In the AFC Championship game against the Indianapolis Colts, then-Patriots' slot corner Kyle Arrington shut down the Colts' speedy slot man T.Y. Hilton, allowing just one reception on six targets by jamming Hilton at the line and not allowing him to release to the inside where he could rub out Arrington by taking him through traffic.  Instead, Arrington man-handled to demure Hilton and took him to the outside where the sidelines and over-the-top safety help were available.

But in the Super Bowl two weeks later, Arrington was absolutely abused by Seattle Seahawks' depth receiver Chris Matthews, as Matthews had seven inches in height and nine inches in reach on Arrington, who again played inside technique, but got toasted by the much bigger Matthews when the Seahawks had him release to the sidelines where he easily won 50-50 balls on his sheer height advantage.

So badly burned was Arrington that Patriots' head ball coach Bill Belichick removed his charred remains at halftime and inserted a little known undrafted free agent named Malcolm Butler in his stead.

The rest, as they say, is history.

In reality, Belichick switched things around after inserting Butler, and put uber-physical and much taller corner Brandon Browner on Matthews and lined Butler up with Jermaine Kearse on the outside where they both could match up better, though Browner and Butler would switch up on the last defensive play of the game, Browner jamming Kearse at the line of scrimmage to allow Butler to break on slot receiver Ricardo Lockette, intercepting the pass intended for Lockette and saving the Super Bowl for the Patriots.

Butler said in the weeks following that game that he didn't want to be remembered just for being the guy that made that play - that he didn't want to join the ranks of the "one hit wonders" that seem to make a play in the biggest of games, then fade in obscurity.  For sure, that has not been the case, as Butler has become one of the best corners in football, and is now embroiled in a contract dispute with New England.

Butler stands even shorter than Arrington, but has the fiestiness and competitiveness required of a press corner, and the requisite springs in his legs to challenge along the sidelines.  In that manner, Butler is the perfect slot corner, and it is that same nastiness and athleticism that makes him a pretty damn good wing corner as well - and maybe that's what Belichick was thinking when he brought in lengthy corner Stephon Gilmore from the Buffalo Bills.

Together with like-sized (6' 1") third-year man Eric Rowe, the Patriots suddenly have two big, capable fly corners, and having Butler play in the slot - the Patriots are primarily is a base nickel or Big Nickel about three-quarters of the time - would give New England one of the best, if not the best, corner tandems in the NFL.

Of course, having Butler in the slot plays right into his strengths, and would produce some eye-popping numbers insofar as passes defended, interceptions and tackles - he has the physicality, quick-twitch athleticism and jack-in-the-box springs to cover taller receivers without breaking stride, though many only look at his work on the outside as dismiss him as a capable - perhaps elite - slot corner.

Last season, the Patriots had Rowe and Butler on the outside with Logan Ryan in the slot to form one of the better secondaries in the league, but now that Ryan has gone on to play for the Tennessee Titans for $10 million a year, the cupboard is bare of proven slot corners.

The list of candidates that currently reside on the roster hardly causes opposing offensive coordinators sleepless nights, as names like Justin Coleman and Jonathan Jones are mainly special teamers and former second-round pick Cyrus Jones melted down like the wicked witch of the west in his rookie campaign, though his skill set matches exactly what New England looks for in their slot men.

And that may be the plan, as Butler's resistance to playing nice with his restricted free agent tender has cast some ambiguity on the depth chart, due to his insistence on getting paid big bucks now instead of waiting until 2018, when he could rake in millions on the open market.

Cyrus Jones started slowly at Alabama and gradually became one of the best shutdown corners in college ball, not to mention it's premier punt returner.  Patriots' fans will all tell you that Jones started very slowly in his professional career as well, particularly as a return man, fumbling away five of his 18 touches in the kicking game and eventually being benched by Belichick.

But if history holds, Jones should begin to display his wares in season two.  Jones' background in football was as a wide receiver, making the transition to cornerback in his sophomore year with the Crimson Tide and contributing in his Junior season after a frightful sophomore campaign, so a blueprint for Jones does exist.

Coleman (5' 11", 185) is slightly under-sized for the slot on the professional level, but gets by on hand fighting underneath and touch tackling in run support, while Jonathan Jones is even smaller but with elite speed that makes him a core-four special teamer.

Neither of those guys are the long-term answer, and if Cyrus Jones doesn't lick it into high gear, he won't be either - but Patriots' fans needn't fret, as Belichick does have a couple of options, the first of which is to retain Butler by either matching any offer sheet that comes his way or to offer his a long-term contract themselves, though Belichick is not the kind of guy to surrender leverage to a player just for the sake of keeping him around...

...nor is he the kind of guy that signs someone in free agency out of desperation, which is what it would appear to be if he did something weird like offer a deal to apparently washed up fly corner Darrelle Revis, as media-generated rumors have been suggesting.

Revis has the size and the length to compete in the slot, and was thought of as a nickel back coming out of college and some even suggested that he would make a better safety due to his innate instinctual ability to visualize a play unfolding in front of him - but Belichick nixed that notion after the 2014 season when he told Revis that his skill set didn't translate to safety in the Patriots scheme.

That doesn't mean that his skill set wouldn't translate to safety elsewhere, just not in New England where the predominant defensive look is in the nickel package, usually with a third safety instead of a third cornerback - a scheme that calls for a box safety to become, essentially, a weakside linebacker, a free safety to become a slot corner and a combination safety to become the football equivalent of a centerfielder.

Of course, Belichick could have just been telling Revis that because he didn't want to re-sign him to a big-money contract just to convert him to safety when his value had always been as a shutdown, fly corner - so Revis went onto his original team in New York, who signed him to a five-year, $70 million contract only to watch his skills diminish to the point that there are now general managers around the league who claim that they wouldn't sign him for free.

The draft offers a few names that may help, such as Michigan's Jourdan Lewis, Florida's Quincey Lewis and Colorado's Chidobe Awusie, though Belichick is far more likely to draft a box safety like Louisville's Josh Harvey-Clemons to compete with the disappointing Jordan Richards or to prepare for the end of the line for long-time starter Patrick Chung.

So what would be the best scenario for the Patriots would be to get restricted free agent Butler to sign his first-round tender that will guarantee him $4 million for this season, then work towards a long-term deal during the season or prepare a rookie to take his place if he hits unrestricted free agency after the season.

Judging from the lack of movement towards a rumored deal with the New Orleans Saints for Butler - due to what can only be described as either a disagreement between the teams for compensation for the corner or a lack of salary cap space in New Orleans, or both - it appears that the Patriots will have the proper leverage to coax another year out of Butler...

...but wouldn't preclude a pre-draft or even a mid-season deal between the teams for Butler's services - but Patriots' fans can rest assured that Belichick won't leave his secondary devoid of a proper slot corner, whatever happens.

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