(Field Yates, a former Chiefs scouting assistant under general manager Scott Pioli, continues a month-long series offering insight into how teams scout for players at each position.)
POSITION: Slot/Nickel Cornerback
OVERVIEW: By title, the slot/nickel cornerback, known as the “star” corner, is not a starter. In terms of his overall impact in today’s NFL and his value to a roster, he ought to be considered a starter – that’s how important he is to a defense. With passing offenses clicking at an all-time rate in today’s NFL, the need for not just two, but at least three capable cornerbacks is ever growing. Additionally, a star cornerback who can match up with the increasing number of effective slot receivers is invaluable. There are no indications that the NFL is heading toward a regression as it relates to passing offenses, meaning that the need for quality cornerbacks in a great quantity is likely to continue to increase.
DESIRED TRAITS: A star is going to work from the slot, which automatically decreases the amount of space that he will be responsible to cover. He has natural boundaries in the middle of the field and the perimeter receivers, and the slot is generally congested. While this lessens the premium on top-end speed among stars, it heightens the need for a very good reactive athlete with quick-twitch movements and the ability to trigger out of his backpedal. He’s going to work in tight spaces and face a number of cuts, zigs, zags and plants from his receiver; the star must be able to match these movements and not lose the trail of the offensive player.
Although schemes will vary from team to team and throughout the course of a game, a star cornerback must be able to handle press-man responsibilities. This involves being able to square up a receiver, keep his feet underneath him, and deliver a strike to impede a receiver’s ability to get into his stem. Stars can ill-afford to overextend themselves or “open the gate” for a receiver to blow by. Forceful but controlled jams do the trick.
A star must also be a willing tackler. He won't necessarily be an every-down run defender, but teams can still effectively run the football from their spread offensive formations, meaning a star must be ready to support and set the edge when needed.
Beyond run-stopping and pass-coverage tasks, a star is a player who can be used as an effective disguised blitzer. In Green Bay, savvy veteran Charles Woodson is a master of subtle disguise and execution of blitzes off the edge. A player who can creep toward the line of scrimmage while not showing his cards can catch an opposing offense off-guard.
SPECIAL TEAMS ANGLE: Stars can play a variety of roles in the kicking game, both as returners of kicks and punts and members of the core special teams. Because of their speed and quickness, the tougher stars are often used as gunners and vices on the punt and punt-return teams.
PATRIOTS TAKE: As was mentioned during Thursday's installment of the Scout’s Notebook, the Patriots have work to do and much to prove in the secondary in 2012. As it relates to the star spot, the team seems to have a number of options to look at. The likely candidate to hold down this role given his skill set and track record is Kyle Arrington, a bright spot last season. Arrington has the requisite reactive athleticism and change of direction skills to challenge slot receivers, and is a reliable tackler. That will not preclude him from being a starter in base defense, as he will likely be that as well; rather, he would shift to the inside in sub situations. Beyond Arrington, the team could turn to veteran Will Allen, rookie Alfonzo Dennard or potentially second-year man Sterling Moore. The team will have to do some trimming in the secondary before the final roster cut down, and at that time we’ll have a stronger sense of how the defense will align.