Who is the greatest defensive back of all time?
If you said Deion Sanders or Ronnie Lott, or if you're one of those old-timers always nattering away about Night Train Lane, you're wrong. The correct answer is Rod Woodson. He was the most complete and dominant defense back in the NFL for most of his 17-year career. He played every secondary position and often in the same game. He was a lock down cornerback and centerfielder. He could man up on the outside against your best receiver and move inside to play the slot and play the run as well as some linebackers. He was also a playmaker in the secondary. He ended his career with 71 interceptions, a number that Ed Reed, one of the greatest ballhawks to ever play, probably won't reach. The fact is, all but his rookie year and his final season when he only played ten games, he had 3 or more interceptions. Even the two guys ahead of him can't boast that kind of consistency altho Paul Krause and Emlen Tunnel certainly had impressive careers albeit in a very different era. By the way, please don't make this a discussion of who is the greatest defensive back of all time. I know it is an opinion and I am just using mine to illustrate a point.
What is the point? Before Dom Capers and Dick LeBeau took over coaching defense in Pittsburgh, Woodson was simply one of the best cornerbacks in the league (defensive backs coach John Fox by the way) in the final years of the Chuck Noll regime. In 1992, Bill Cowher took over the organization and brought in Dom Capers and Dick LeBeau to coach the defense and defensive backs respectively. What they did with Woodson, transformed him from a great cornerback to one of the greatest defensive players period to ever play the game (he would win the defensive player of the year award in 1993).
What did they do? They took an outside cornerback and moved him closer to the ball. In nickel situations he would often move over to cover the slot man. From that position he would cover slot receivers, rush the passer, and blow up run plays. The theory being to take your most dynamic playmaker and get him around the ball as often as possible and he certainly made plays. This was a prelude to his eventual conversion to playing free safety in Baltimore. This past season a rookie playmaker, was put in a similar role and succeeded marvelously. Tyrann Mathieu took the league by storm and looks like he will be a playmaker to contend with for years to come.
Looking forward to this year's draft, I am sure teams are looking for a player in that mold to stick in their defense. A guy who can play safety or cornerback and cover slot receivers but also be dynamic playmaker rushing the passer and defending the run from that inside spot will be a hot commodity. Lamarcus Joyner seems to very much be in that mold. He is an undersized defensive back who is nevertheless a playmaker and a sure tackler and run defender as well as a pretty dynamic pass rusher all in one package. He has the versatility to play both cornerback and safety well and despite his size, I see him garnering plenty of first round interest.
There is at least one other guy in this year's draft who can also do some of those things. Altho not the talent that Joyner is, Jemea Thomas of Georgia Tech has filled those roles. He has played cornerback and safety as well as the Rover which is a sort of hybrid position that the Ramblin Wreck used to employ. He is not a spectacular technician at either of these positions, but he has some of the skills and plenty of the talent to succeed covering slot receivers and playing the safety position either in the box or in a deep zone. He is certainly a playmaker for their defense and has the athleticism to develop into a good pro. He may be undersized for a Rex Ryan safety, but if he drops to the later rounds he could be a guy who is brought along in subpackages and has the upside to develop into a centerfielder as well. With the proliferation of spread offenses and nickel packages to counter, the slot defender is becoming increasingly important. Having a guy who can play the slot man and be a solid defender against the run and also have a role in the base package is a valuable commodity. Check out his game tape and links to a couple of scouting reports below. What do you think? Let me know of any other prospects who look like that Rod Woodson-hybrid slot defender type that are of interest?
A couple of online scouting reports: