Outside cornerbacks are big-money, high-profile players who get lots of attention. They get cool nicknames such as Prime Time, Revis Island and Night Train. After pass rushers, outside cornerbacks are considered the most valuable defenders on the field. But as teams throw more frequently and run more plays out of three wide receiver sets, the slot corner, or nickelback, has gone from a backup to what is effectively a starting spot in every NFL defense.
“It’s such an important position with so much [three-receiver] being played right now,” Chicago Bears Coach Matt Nagy said. “You’ve got to be able to have a guy that can play in that slot, that can cover a wide receiver that’s a good route-runner, that can do things underneath, but he’s got to be a tackler coming off the edge to be able to blitz and make different tackles."
This offseason’s free agency period, which officially opens Wednesday at 4 p.m., will be the latest indicator of just how much the NFL values its slot cornerbacks. The Baltimore Ravens recently recognized the increasing importance of the position by signing Tavon Young to a three-year, $25.8 million contract extension, with $13 million guaranteed, to make him the highest-paid slot cornerback in the NFL. The Bears are in a similar position with Bryce Callahan — one of the top performers on their league-leading scoring defense a year ago — who will become an unrestricted free agent Wednesday. There was a report Monday that former Seattle Seahawks slot corner Justin Coleman could receive a deal from the Detroit Lions that tops Young’s.
“The market is going up for those type of guys,” Nagy said. “It’s a hybrid position. When there’s not a lot, the supply and demand drives that up. It will be interesting to see how that goes.”
In the 2008 season, NFL offenses used 11 personnel — which features three wide receivers, one tight end and one running back — 34 percent of the time, according to statistics website Pro Football Focus. In 2018, offenses used 11 personnel 64 percent of the time. The shift in offensive ideology has forced defenses to adjust their own personnel approach, including dedicating a fifth defensive back to covering the slot.
“The slot position, I’ll tell you how important it’s become,” said Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman, now an analyst for Fox. “They basically now have a spot on the all-pro roster for a third corner, because the third corner, slot corner, is so prevalent in today’s game. . . . Who can cover that guy inside? There’s a lot of great corners in this league that can’t play inside because of two-way breaks and you’ve got more space around you. … If you’re going to be great in today’s game as a defense, you better have somebody who can play it very, very well.”
The recipient of that all-pro spot last season was Chargers slot corner Desmond King. A fifth-round draft pick out of Iowa in 2017 who fell amid concerns about his speed and athleticism, King has developed into a multipurpose weapon for L.A.'s defense — a player whose coverage skills and strong tackling ability make him an asset in the modern game.
“The nickel guys are probably the most important people out there on the field on third down,” King said. “A lot of people tell me they would rather play outside than inside. Sometimes it’s not always a corner, it’s more of a linebacker. People have their different [opinions] about the position, but to me . . . it’s a key position on the defense because you have to play the run and you have to play the pass.”
The role is made more complicated by the diversity of pass-catchers who run routes out of the slot. While the archetype for the position is the small, shifty Edelman, slot corners also line up opposite rangy tight ends such as the Chiefs’ Travis Kelce, or dynamic dual-threat running backs such as the New Orleans Saints’ Alvin Kamara. And while there is a perception that elite wideouts only line up outside, tell that to slot corners who have to face off against the Minnesota Vikings’ Adam Thielen, who tied for fourth in the NFL in receptions this season with 113 and ran the majority of his routes out of the slot.
Factor in that slot corners are expected to be active tacklers against the run, pass rushers on a blitz, communicators between the outside cornerbacks and linebackers, and defenders against inside- or outside-breaking routes without the benefit of the sideline, and it’s a lot to handle.
“I couldn’t do it,” Hall of Fame cornerback Deion Sanders said recently on NFL Network, noting his tendency during his playing days to gamble and jump routes in the hopes of making a big play. “In that slot, man, you’ve got to be on it. You can’t guess. You’ve just got to play it honest, because you’re involved in so many different [things]. . . . Especially when it’s all-out blitz, that ball is coming out of there quick and it’s coming to your guy oftentimes. It’s tough.”
Coaches are quick to point out that playing outside cornerback is a lonely job. Outside corners are left all alone against some of the best athletes in the world, with the directive to shut them down. And when they get beat, they are often left flailing and chasing out in the open for all to see.
“In a lot of ways, [playing slot corner is more difficult]," Fox analyst and former safety Charles Davis said. “The outside corners would tell you: ‘That’s cool, I get all that. But the horses still run outside. I’ve still got to go cover Julio [Jones]. I’ve got to cover Odell [Beckham Jr.]. Oh yeah, I get used to these big horses, and now I’ve got to go cover Tyreek Hill, who plays outside.’ Both sides can make their case, and there’s pros and cons.”
The highest-paid cornerbacks in 2018 all played primarily outside, and that isn’t likely to change anytime soon. Even as the value of slot corners’ on-field contributions has risen, their compensation off it lags behind. At the time of Young’s deal, for example, it only ranked 20th among all cornerbacks.
“Just go back in history and think of the players who have dominated as outside, one-on-one, shutdown corners,” said Louis Riddick, an ESPN analyst and former member of the Washington Redskins front office. “That’s where the money goes. But we know, in order to survive in the NFL right now and in order to play good defense, you do have to have very good inside, slot corners. They are important. They’re not going to be paid the same way that outside lane one-on-one players are going to be paid. Nevertheless they are important.”
Four-time Pro-Bowl linebacker Chris Spielman believes the money situation has the potential to change over time. The current Fox analyst thinks those slot corners could get similar money to high-priced linebackers. That assertion is backed up not just from the recent contract extension for the Ravens’ Young, but also in how teams are developing options at the position. The Vikings employed a two-pronged approach to the role this season: Jayron Kearse (6-foot-4, 215 pounds) to defend bigger pass-catchers and Mackensie Alexander (5-10, 192) as a smaller nickel option. The Redskins used Fabian Moreau, who they view as a promising young cornerback at 6-foot, 200 pounds, in the slot for much of last season.
“From our standpoint, it’s one of the [most vital] positions, because so many people play 11 personnel against us,” Redskins defensive coordinator Greg Manusky said. “They should get paid higher because, No. 1, they’ve got to know exactly what [their responsibility] is and they have to be a space eater. They have to play in space a lot more than the [outside corners].”
Spielman took things a step further in describing slot cornerbacks’ value.
“I think it is probably the most difficult position to play on the field,” Spielman said. “I really believe that on the defensive side.”
Young, Callahan and the rest of the league’s slot corners can only hope that’s one day reflected in their paychecks.