It is not that Barry Cofield felt disrespected out of high school, when his home state Ohio State Buckeyes had other targets, and he signed with Northwestern. “At this point, I can’t imagine having gone anywhere else,” he said. It’s not that he felt overlooked in the NFL draft, when the New York Giants selected him in the fourth round, after 123 other players were off the board. “I don’t feel like I was drafted too low,” he said.
And it’s not even what happened to him last year, when those same Giants — for whom he started 78 of a possible 80 games in his five years in the league, “obviously a guy you would feel comfortable taking in the first round,” he said — tried to trade him to New Orleans for a second-round draft pick. When Cofield and his agent couldn’t work out a suitable contract extension with the Saints, Cofield remained with New York, but without a lucrative deal and in something of an awkward situation. “I have no regrets,” he said.
There is, though, the cumulative effect of it all, which helps shape the Cofield who will line up Thursday night for the Washington Redskins in a preseason game at Baltimore, the Cofield who is expected to make a big impact at nose tackle after signing a six-year, $36-million contract as a free agent.
Cofield wasn’t the splashiest offseason acquisition in Redskins’ history. His move didn’t send ripples around the NFL. That suits him fine.
“I wasn’t the top recruit in high school,” Cofield said. “I was a second-day draft pick. I played in the shadows of some Pro Bowl-slash-Hall of Fame players in New York. I’ve kind of always been below the radar.
“But I think that’s changed now with this new contract and this new city. I feel like I’m going to get a lot of attention, and that’s something that I’m ready for and I’m going to embrace.”
As the Redskins continue their transition to the 3-4 scheme that Coach Mike Shanahan hopes will define their defense for years to come, nowhere is the change more noticeable than up front, where at least half of a six-man rotation along the defensive line will be different than last year. Free agent Stephen Bowen will start at right defensive end. Powerful rookie Jarvis Jenkins has already spent time at both end positions. And in the middle will be Cofield, perhaps more vital than anyone else on the entire defense, new or old.
“That’s the No. 1 position,” said defensive coordinator Jim Haslett. “That’s the most important position.. . . It’s like a catcher in baseball. You kind of build from that, from in to out.”
Last year, when the Redskins failed to convince Albert Haynesworth that he could excel at nose tackle, they tried to rely on veteran Ma’ake Kemoeatu, who had missed all of 2009 with a torn Achilles tendon. The combination didn’t work. Haslett noted Washington struggled to pressure the quarterback from the nose tackle spot in 2010. “I don’t think we had a hit last year,” he said, half-joking. In the Redskins’ first preseason game earlier this month against Pittsburgh, Cofield hit the quarterback twice.
“He’s exactly what you’re looking for in a nose,” Haslett said.
Maybe not exactly. Cofield figures the prototypical NFL nose tackle weighs 340 pounds. Cofield, who played in a 4-3 scheme in New York, is listed at 6-foot-4, 306 pounds. He scoffs at that number. “I’m not 22 anymore,” he said. “I’ve matured.” But he also won’t say how much he has put on since he was drafted in 2006. “A gentleman never reveals his weight,” he said. He will allow this much: He is somewhere between 306 and 340. After this season – “after I have a great season” – Cofield said he would divulge the specifics.
The reasons the Redskins feel Cofield will be a success in their system go beyond size, because they believe he’s capable of doing more than taking up space. “Barry’s a playmaker,” said London Fletcher, the inside linebacker who serves as a defensive captain. “He’s not your typical 3-4 nose tackle.”
Start with Cofield’s hands. Redskins veteran Artis Hicks -- who played against Cofield both when Hicks was in Minnesota and last year as a Redskin – said that an offensive lineman gains an advantage if he can get his hands on a defender with a quick punch. “You get good hand placement,” Hicks said, “and the battle’s over.” Cofield, though, makes that difficult.
“He’s knows how to use his hands to get your hands off of him,” Hicks said. “That’s always what you hate as a guard. He’s such a fast-twitch guy, he can combat your hands with his own.”
That commitment to technique goes back to Cofield’s days in high school in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. When Mike Jones arrived to coach Cleveland Heights High, he inherited an exceptionally gifted 6-foot-3, 265-pound three-sport athlete who was being used as an offensive tackle.
“He had it,” said Jones, now an assistant at Case Western Reserve University. “He just didn’t know what to do with it.”
So Jones began teaching Cofield what he could become. Cofield gave up baseball for track, not only putting the shot, but competing in the 100 and 200 meters, an unusual path for a future NFL defensive lineman. But Jones wanted Cofield, who Jones said could run the 40-yard dash in 4.6 or 4.7 seconds, to capture his natural athleticism.
“He learned how to run,” Jones said. “He learned how his body worked.”
On the football field, the staff moved Cofield to tight end on offense. Eventually, they worked him up and down the defensive line, determining opponents’ weak spots and playing him wherever he was most likely to break through. He ended up in the offensive backfield in goal-line situations. By his senior year, he was occasionally the only ball carrier in a single-back set.
“He was just a fast, strong, committed person,” Jones said. “He was a sponge. He wanted to learn so much.”
Over the past 18 months, Cofield also has learned about the business of the NFL. He didn’t complain openly about the Giants’ attempts to trade him, and the club actually ended up using him more during the 2010 season, particularly in passing situations. He responded with his best year, setting career highs in tackles (54) and sacks (4). (In Washington, Haynesworth and Kemoeatu combined for 35 and 2-1/2, respectively.) The Giants even made Cofield a contract offer when free agency began, but they couldn’t make the commitment the Redskins did. And Cofield still had those lingering feelings about the proposed trade.
“I know that I wasn’t indispensable to them,” Cofield said. “That just gets you thinking: Nothing’s guaranteed in this league. I was driven by the circumstances of being tendered [a low-end contract, rather than a lucrative extension], not knowing which play might be your last, not having any long-term financial security. Those are all things that drove me.”
Now, with a deal that includes $12.5 million in guaranteed money, he has no contract for which to play. He is established, not slighted, and essential to the improvement of a defense that has much improving to do.
He knows the particulars of his new team’s season opener: “Sept. 11, 4 o’clock, against the New York Giants,” he said.
Not that he feels slighted. Really.
“It’s almost like a script,” he said. “I couldn’t be more excited. I know I have a lot of work to do, joining this new defense and this new scheme, a lot more to learn. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have that game circled, starred, highlighted – all of that.”