Fourth-round draft bust. Bring up B.W. Webb to a Cowboys fan, and those words will almost always come up, as if by magic. Mr. Webb has been weighed and measured, and he has been found wanting; just one more in a long list of small school cornerbacks that didn't pan out. Not even through training camp of his second year, and already there are growing murmurs that B.W. Webb is on the bubble and in danger of being cut.
I don't believe that Dallas will answer those calls. First, they knew going in that Webb would be a project. Coming from William & Mary, Webb came into the league incredibly raw. According to NFL.com's combine profile, some of Webb's main weaknesses were technique and scheme based; he was rarely asked to backpedal and had never really played man coverage. Also, he had poor route recognition and way too often relied on "looking into the backfield". This meant veteran quarterbacks could easily look him off of routes.
So why did Dallas draft him? For starters, because he's an athletic freak. Webb put up some pretty incredible measurements at the combine, especially in events that rank quickness and explosiveness. NFL.com rated him a "top performer" in the vertical jump, broad jump, 20-yard shuttle and 60-yard shuttle. Here is how he has ranked among cornerbacks in those events since 2010.
|20 Yard Shuttle||3.84||1st|
|60 Yard Shuttle||11.06||T-7th|
He was also impressive in the 3-cone drill, posting the 8th best time among cornerbacks in the 2013 combine.
It was those numbers; that rare blend of burst, change of direction, and agility, that make B.W. Webb such an intriguing prospect, and one that the Cowboys will give time to develop. Could those numbers (and believe it or not his small size) foreshadow a new kind of "specialist" corner in the NFL?
Okay, that's a pretty big claim! So let me attempt to back it up. To do so we need to look at two distinct trends that are emerging on the offensive side of the ball, and that defenses have to adapt to in different ways.
The first trend is pretty simple. Offensive players are becoming monsters. Players like Dez Bryant and Calvin Johnson at wide receiver, and Jimmy Graham at tight end are just too big and strong for most cornerbacks to cover. Our very own Gary Morris wrote an excellent post on how defenses are countering this trend. As he pointed out, cornerbacks are getting bigger themselves, as teams are looking for the next Richard Sherman.
However there is another trend that's happening that really puts defenses into a bind. And that is the growing emphasis on space, and space players. Offensive coordinators are increasingly finding ways to utilize smaller, quicker players and getting them into space or isolating them against bigger slower defenders. Richard Sherman is a great cornerback, but put him in space against Cole Beasley, and Beasley will likely win that matchup. And it's not just Beasley. Offenses are splitting out RB's and running more routes out of the backfield. Most teams won't invest high draft picks on them, but every team is looking for the next Wes Welker. DeSean Jackson used to be the prototype small WR, a burner who would take the top off the defense. Today more and more teams are looking for a small WR who may not necessarily be a burner, but is quick in and out of his cuts and can constantly move the chains.
What's a Defense to Do?
So how can defenses respond? Their number one priority is still going to be contain the stars; it's foolish to game plan for Cole Beasley when you're facing Dez Bryant. But then the question is; after you've drafted cornerbacks, and safeties built to match up with Dez Bryant and Jason Witten, who do you have that can match up to Cole Beasley? Not a safety or linebacker. And how is that 6'1 defensive back going to cover a ball thrown low and outside to the 5'8 Bease?
That's where guys with Webb's skill-set come in. Much like Beasley and other diminutive players, Webb is not an every-down player; he will probably never develop into a "starting" CB. He'll probably never be as good a nickelback as Orlando Scandrick has been the last few years. But that doesn't mean he can't have a role on the team. As offenses become more and more specialized, defenses will have to adapt to match. Webb is an offshoot of that, a player with a distinct set of skills that make him uniquely suited for one specific role. Could Webb, or someone similar, be a "stopper" on opposing team's space players?
The Mobile QB Corollary
The league is evolving, especially at the quarterback position. Pure pocket passers are no longer the rage; as defensive players got bigger, quicker, and faster, offenses had to adapt. While we still tend to break down quarterbacks into "pocket passer" or "scrambling" categories, today's pocket QB is much more mobile and athletic than the average pocket passer of 2001.
That's where we are with B.W. Webb, except at cornerback. Even if he fails, the instinct is right. The cornerback position is changing. And while Richard Sherman is considered the future, remember, B.W. Webb's skills, if not the player himself, could be the future, too.