Training Camp Position Battles: Nickel Cornerback
June 22nd, 2010
On the Defensive side of the ball, the Steelers only have one real battle going on and that’s at Nickel Corner. That battle is going to involve 4 players. One of which is William Gay who was a starter last year, but he will most likely see a reduced role since the reacquiring of Bryant McFadden. The middle 2 are second year players Keenan Lewis and Joe Burnett. The last person aiming for the spot is rookie Crezdon Butler.
Some might not consider this a battle due to the fact that it is not technically a starter, but with the emergence of the air attack that has taken over the NFL in recent years, the nickel package is on the field more then your base defense. Quarterbacks tore apart the league last year. There were 10 QB’s with over 4000 yards passing. If you have a 4,000 yard passing year, you normally are an all pro, but this year you weren’t even guarenteed to make the Pro Bowl. In a normal NFL Season, a player with 25 touchdown passes was considered elite. Last year over 1/3 of the Quarterbacks reached and surpassed this total. Not all of these QB’s are elite. This is just how much more advanced the game is now, and it makes you realize how important this position on the field is for your team.
The quarterbacks are not the only reason this position is important. You now have tight ends that are more like receivers then old time tight ends. Teams have guys like Dallas Clark, Chris Cooley and Jeremy Shockey lining up in the slot. They are just as fast as receivers and as big as offensive tackles. They are a nightmare for linebackers in coverage. They almost force you to play with your nickel package on the field. They need a more skilled player to cover them. Even if you put a safety on the tight end, you still need another player in coverage that is athletic enough to cover the area vacated by the safety.
Lastly and probably the scariest reason you need a good nickel corner is because you have the quickest and smoothest receiver on the field playing in the slot. They look for the opening and sit in it or run quickly across the field and just outrun your players in man or the coverage in zone. The best example of this is Wes Welker. He lines up in the slot runs five yards, catches the ball then gets another 5-10 YAC. Welker has the most catches of anyone over the past 3 seasons. The slot is not a position of weakness anymore.
The Steelers have a great deal of options at the position. All are young but also capable. They can step in and make the plays. Let’s take a look.
Option 1 is William Gay. Gay was made the starter last season with the loss of Bryant McFadden to free agency. Gay struggled in his first year as a starter. In my opinion, he was out of position and not given the chance to succeed. Gay played the nickel corner on the Steelers Super Bowl team which was the best defense in the NFL if not the best defense of all time. He was where he is comfortable and had help around him anytime he was out on the field. He is a natural slot cover guy, not an outside corner. He needs help around him and can’t be one on one with a receiver. After last year’s performance, I lost some confidence in Gay. He was exposed and once that happens you have a hard time coming back and not being attacked over and over by a good quarterback. I still think that Gay is one of the better options.
Option 2 is Keenan Lewis. This is my favorite option. Lewis is being compared to Ike Taylor in his coverage ability. If that is the case, he could be the next great Steelers corner since Ike Taylor would be a top 5 corner in the NFL if he could catch. Lewis is a tall corner who loves to hit. He also belongs on the outside which excites me because I think McFadden will elevate his play tremendously on the inside versus the slot. Lewis is ahead of the curve when learning the defense as well. He did not spend much time on the field due to injury last year but overcompensated that with more film study. He still has much to learn, but that is also a good sign that he will do whatever he can to get better.
Option 3 is Joe Burnett. Burnett is my favorite player of this group. He is still raw and needs some more game experience. This kid has playmaker written all over him though. He always seems to be where the ball is. In his limited time on the field last year he had 17 tackles and dropped one interception. During the preseason he had a pick six and had 4 pass defenses. He always seems to make plays on the ball when he gets out there. I do not think he is a good option for the nickel though. He would be perfect for our dime scheme but still has a long way to go before he becomes a big player in this league.
Option 4 is rookie Crezdon Butler. Just like Burnett, he is loaded with potential. Butler was a borderline first round pick in 2009. He decided to stay in school and did not have the year he expected and dropped to the fifth round. All you heard out of OTA’s were great things about this kid. The coaches seem to love everything he does. I think this could be a hidden gem in years to come. His shot to be the nickel corner though is slim. He will need time to learn the system and get comfortable with his surroundings.
This one has a lot more light shed on it already with the way practice went with OTAs. With the way the Steelers play defense, the corners have set sides. Thus, with a player like McFadden who can thrive on the inside, you have to look at who the Steelers have lined up as his backup so that the position can be filled by that player. During OTAs, that player was Keenan Lewis. As I said earlier, I love this lineup. It was my favorite option and I would be extremely happy if things end up this way.
Final Pick: Keenan Lewis
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