Position Breakdown: Defensive Backs

The way NFL football is evolving, defensive backs are playing an ever increasing role in the outcome of games. Teams need to be strong on the back end of the defense so that teams aren’t putting up points in bunches on them.

Coverages can be mixed and matched to better play to the combination of personnel in the back-seven, but there are a few traits that I want to see out of every defensive back. Corners should be very reactive to be able to mirror opponents in man coverage. All defensive backs should be able to break quickly on the ball but have the instincts not to be baited by a good quarterback or his receivers.

Here’s what I’m looking for when scouting defensive backs:


A cornerback is so much about reactive athleticism. A true lockdown corner is physical at the LOS and is a stud in press man coverage. There isn’t a specific body type or size to a prototype CB. They can come in many shapes and sizes. Ideally, he would have very good height and length with some heft to him to be able to come up and make tackles. However, this is tough to find because longer players tend to have less change of direction ability which is a major asset to a good CB. Any corner 5’10” or below, it’s even more important to evaluate the player’s ability to go get the ball in the air and his ability to take on larger receivers. If it’s not elite, he may be relegated to a nickel back role or to spot duty shadowing smaller receivers. The main job for a WR is to get separation, get open, and catch the ball. Therefore, it is obvious that the main job for a CB is to keep a WR from getting separation and giving himself an easy catch. This is done through good speed, smooth and quick ability to change direction, and body control. To be able to do this a good CB will show the ability to quickly and smoothly “flip his hips” 180-degrees. Anticipation and good ball skills are traits that are needed to turn a good corner into a turnover machine – by anticipation. I don’t mean guessing. Corners who guess aren’t fit for the NFL. Anticipation means seeing a play develop and then having the instincts to KNOW what a receiver and QB are going to do and to be in the appropriate place before it happens. A good CB shows physicality at the LOS and a willingness to fight through blocks and take on a running back head on. A CB who can take on a WR’s block, get leverage, and turn the WR can tilt an entire play in his favor. It’s important for a CB to be good in space (strafing, angles, tackling) to ensure he is good in zone coverage. It is a must for a team to have 3 starting caliber CBs on its roster at all times due to the increasing number of WRs that stay on the field. The nickel corner or “star” may have the toughest job on the entire field as he’s usually facing a laterally explosive, quick, shifty, hard to cover wide receiver who lines up in the slot and therefore has more route options due to the amount of field on each side of him that he has to work with. This is where reactive athleticism is either shown or the lack of it is exploited. The corner must be quick twitch and be able to trigger quickly out of his backpedal. The nickel corner must also be strong against the run as he sometimes will be expected to set the edge and force a runner back into traffic. With a propensity for complicated blitz schemes it is also useful if the star corner is a good blitzer. It’s also important to have a CB that has good size, length, and physicality that can cover an explosive tight end. This player can even be a situational player that is only active to handle this responsibility. Ball skills specifically include the ability to turn and locate the ball in the air, get the body in position to knock it down or catch it, how well he can attack the ball at it’s highest point, and hands to catch the ball. Hand eye coordination is so important for a CB. He must be efficient in his movements and not make false steps, which is the result of smooth transitions from backpedals to driving on the ball, or from shuffling to running. Note: I’m a supporter of the shuffle technique over the backpedal for outside CBs, especially with corners who have stiff hips. If the technique is done correctly, a CB shouldn’t lose sight of the ball (except to turn on run on go routes) but be in a better position to move with the WR in any direction. Fast feet are something I love to see in a corner. It at least means that he can be trained to get himself into the right positions on time with his footwork. Ernie Accorsi used to say that you could look at the size of a guy’s ankles and know how fast he was. The mentality of a cornerback is very important. One blown coverage or misstep typically leads to 6 points by the other team. A CB must have a mental toughness to shake off bad plays and come back and do his job on the next play. A short memory will also help the CB maintain confidence which is necessary for him to attack the ball and not play soft. Cornerbacks are often put out on an island against a team’s best receiver. There is no margin for mistakes or backing down from the challenge.

Free Safety:

Good tackling and instincts. Good play recognition. Football intelligence. Physical. Very good ball skills and coverage ability. And in my evaluation, I want elite speed out of my FS. The best free safeties in the game, their speed is what sets them apart from the rest (much like I feel pocket presence separates the best QBs from the rest). Anything the FS is asked to do, he has to do it as fast and as physical as possible. It can be evaluated in the player’s ability to respond to an action and then cover as much ground as possible in the shortest amount of time. Range comes from recognition, response, speed, and delivery of the appropriate action at the end of the play. He often will play centerfield and will need to get to the sideline on a go route or to hide his blitz 8 yards from the LOS and still get to the QB before he releases the ball. He needs to recognize plays developing and close a gap and smash a RB in the hole before he hits the open field. A free safety must trust his read, commit, and get to a “meeting point” on the field as fast as humanly possible. He doesn’t have to have a good 40-time to be fast on the field as most of his closing speed comes because he recognizes the play early in it’s development, sometimes even pre-snap, and that shaves seconds off of meeting the ball at the appropriate point. A good FS will often be described as “flying around the field” and creating havoc. Polamalu, Ed Reed, and Earl Thomas are perfect examples. Sometimes the FS will be asked to cover a WR or TE in man coverage, drop into the box to defend against the run, or to drop to the deep middle of the field and then fly to the sideline to swat a ball down before a wide open receiver can haul it in. He may even have to deliver a big hit to a TE coming across the middle for a catch. He is the ultimate multiple phase player. He’s going to be in on a lot of passes defensed as well as a ton of tackles. He’ll need to have the strength and toughness to hold up to the demands of the position. He’s the last line of defense so it’s important that he is disciplined to his assignment and not free roaming all over the field and leaving teammates out to dry. These guys will sometimes make the secondary adjustments pre-snap and so they must be hard workers in the film room, attentive, and good communicators. His mentality must be that of an attacker on every play but maintain the awareness of when to actually attack and when a miss could be devastating.

Strong Safety:

A strong safety is more likely to find himself lined up overtop of a TE, down in the box to help set the edge on runs, or in man coverage on a WR. The SS needs to be heavier and even more physical than a FS. Speed and play diagnosis are vital as well because in deep half coverage he’ll still need to react with swiftness and authority. The SS doesn’t find himself in single high coverage often so he can be more aggressive than the FS. A strong, thick core and upper body are necessary to take on big TEs, FBs, RBs, and offensive linemen at times. He should have the ability to stack and shed a WR’s block with relative ease. He should also be a big hitter that his good timing and accuracy with his hits on receivers to make sure to separate the ball without drawing a penalty. A SS is essentially a 4th LB with more speed and better coverage ability, and can play in space a little better. Closing speed while the ball is in the air or while a RB is trying to get the edge is important to disrupt plays.

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