Evaluating CB Needs For Teams That Use Man/Zone The Most

By LOGAN KING

Sports Info Solutions (SIS) brings you the second annual edition of The SIS Football Rookie Handbook, with scouting reports and statistical breakdowns on over 280 college football players who are likely to be drafted or signed as rookie free agents in 2020 (a glossary for the below stats can be found here). New features for this year include unique and informative NFL team pages, research deep-dives by the SIS R&D team, and—for the first time ever—the NCAA version of their flagship football statistic, Total Points

With the 2020 NFL Draft right around the corner, this article follows last week’s offensive line draft recommendations, focusing on potential draft targets for the 2019 league leaders in percentage of coverages from zone and man concepts. 

Each team is examined in terms of their coverage tendencies last season, projected coverage tendencies for this season (based on coaching changes), and potential draft picks (based on scheme fit, roster needs, and draft position). More information on these prospects can be found in the SIS Football Rookie Handbook.

The table below displays the league leaders in percentage of coverage schemes from both zone and man. 

 

2019 Coverage Tendency Leaderboards
Man Coverage Zone Coverage
Rank Team Percent of Plays Rank Team Percent of Plays
1 Patriots 54% 1 Chargers 75%
1 Lions 54% 2 Panthers 68%
3 Dolphins 44% 3 Seahawks 66%

Man

New England Patriots

It should come as no surprise that the Patriots lead the league in percentage of defensive plays run from man coverage, as this is the third year in which the team has led the league in this statistic. Additionally, the rest of the top three teams in man coverage usage are all led by coaches from the defensive side of the Bill Belichick coaching tree. Belichick will lead the defense once more in 2020 after a near historic first half of the season in 2019 and a very strong defensive season overall.

New England returns its core group of corners from 2019, which includes four players all ranking in the top 15 at the position in Total Points per snap. While the team will likely look to address more pressing needs at other positions early in the draft, some depth options for the Patriots’ man-heavy defense in the later rounds include:

  • Noah Igbinoghene, Auburn; Projected Position: Outside/Slot Corner
  • Kindle Vildor, Georgia State; Projected Position: Outside Corner
  • Thakarius Keyes, Tulane; Projected Position: Slot Corner

Detroit Lions

The Lions tied for the league lead in percentage of plays run from man coverage in 2019, but finished 29th in EPA against per play when playing man. Detroit moved on from defensive coordinator and primary defensive play caller Paul Pasqualoni this offseason in favor of former Eagles DB’s coach Cory Undlin. 

Matt Patricia began to take over some of the defensive play calling responsibilities for the Lions towards the latter part of last season, so it remains to be seen as to who will call the defensive shots for the team in 2020. However, given Philadelphia’s strong performance against the pass when in man coverage during Undlin’s tenure (top 5 in EPA against per play in three of the last four seasons), Detroit appears to be sticking to its heavy man-coverage strategy, moving forward. 

With the departure of their two primary outside corners from 2019, Darius Slay and Rashaan Melvin, the Lions are among the teams who have lost the most in terms of Total Points at the cornerback position this offseason. While the addition of Desmond Trufant partially addresses this issue, outside corner is a primary concern that should be addressed in this draft. With the third overall pick and nine picks total, potential prospects for the Lions defensive system include:

  • Jeffrey Okudah, Ohio State; Projected Position: Outside/Slot Corner
  • C.J. Henderson, Florida; Projected Position: Outside Corner
  • Kristian Fulton, Louisiana State; Projected Position: Outside Corner

Miami Dolphins

The Dolphins come in at third in percentage of plays in which man coverage was used in 2019, but next-to-last in EPA against per play on those plays. Despite a new face at defensive coordinator in Josh Boyer, the defensive approach isn’t expected to change drastically as Boyer has worked with head coach Brian Flores ever since starting with the Patriots in 2006. 

Miami made a big splash in free agency with the signing of Byron Jones, who ranked 30th in Total Points among corners last season and will step into an outside corner role for the team. The secondary has strong depth with the versatile Nik Needham (50% of snaps from outside and 45% of snaps from the slot) and slot corner Erik Rowe both ranking in the top 45 in Total Points at the position, which will come in handy with Xavien Howard facing league discipline for off-the-field issues. While likely looking to address other needs early in the draft, Miami has 14 total picks in the draft and can certainly add depth, should Howard be gone long-term. Potential players who fit in the Dolphins’ man-heavy scheme include:

  • Jeff Gladney, TCU; Projected Position: Outside/Slot Corner
  • Damon Arnette, Ohio State; Projected Position: Outside Corner
  • Troy Pride Jr., Notre Dame; Projected Position: Outside/Slot Corner

Zone

Los Angeles Chargers

Much like the Patriots and man coverage percentage, the Chargers led the league in percentage of plays run from zone coverage for the third straight year. With Gus Bradley remaining at the helm, not much is expected to change by way of defensive philosophy in 2020. 

Following a top 10 finish at the corner position in Total Points last season, LA adds Chris Harris Jr. to an already stout group. Harris was lined up outside on 70% of his snaps last season and finished 83rd in Total Points among corners. However, he finished 21st in Total Points at the position in 2018 as he lined up in the slot on 73% of his plays. Ideally, Harris will aid Desmond King II in the slot, after King’s regression last season. 

On the outside, LA boasts two players who finished in the top 20 in Total Points at the position in Casey Hayward Jr. and Michael Davis. With the sixth overall pick, the team will look to improve at other positions early on in the draft. Here are potential options to add depth to the Chargers’ zone-heavy scheme in the later rounds:

  • Josiah Scott, Michigan State; Projected Position: Slot Corner
  • Lamar Jackson, Nebraska; Projected Position: Outside/Slot Corner
  • Shyheim Carter, Alabama; Projected Position: Slot Corner

Carolina Panthers

In the first season under head coach Matt Rhule and defensive coordinator Phil Snow, it is unclear what the defensive philosophy will be for Carolina. With the majority of the defensive back position still intact from the previous season and the coaching staff’s recent experience against Big 12 offenses, the Panthers may stick to a zone-heavy approach in pass coverage. 

Through the offseason, the Panthers lost the 20th ranked cornerback in terms of Total Points when James Bradberry left. Bradberry’s departure leaves a large hole on the outside, where he played 76% of his snaps. Ross Cockrell ranked 25th in Total Points among corners while playing 55% of his snaps in the slot and 37% on the outside, but the team’s remaining options at corner, Donte Jackson and Javien Elliot, ranked 66th and 112th in Total Points, respectively, among the position. With the seventh pick in the draft, Carolina could address their need for an outside corner. Possible prospects include:

  • Trevon Diggs, Alabama; Projected Position: Outside Corner
  • Bryce Hall, Virginia; Projected Position: Outside Corner
  • A.J. Terrell, Clemson; Projected Position: Outside Corner

Seattle Seahawks

In his second season as the Seahawks defensive play caller, Ken Norton increased his team’s frequency of zone coverage, rising to third place in percentage of plays run with zone coverage. With few changes to the coaching staff, Seattle’s defensive approach should remain zone-focused in 2020. 

The signing of Quinton Dunbar, who ranked 31st in Total Points per snap among the position, brings an improvement to a Seahawks CB group that ranked 28th in Total Points in 2019. Tre Flowers and Shaquill Griffin led the team in both snaps from the outside and snaps from the slot last season. Ranking first in percentage of snaps from base defense (four defensive backs) in 2019, Seattle is looking for corners who can play both inside and outside, rather than specialize in one area. With four picks in the top three rounds, Seattle has the potential to address this need early. Potential fits for their system include:

  • A.J. Green, Oklahoma State; Projected Position: Outside/Slot Corner
  • Lamar Jackson, Nebraska; Projected Position: Outside/Slot Corner
  • Delrick Abrams Jr., Colorado; Projected Position: Outside/Slot Corner

 

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