Recently we offered up an argument for why the Cowboys were right to move on from Byron Jones, including the fact that the last three seasons have seen a slight majority of the league’s top ten pass defenses do so without a premier cornerback on their roster.
While there’s hard evidence that shows teams can have elite pass defenses without a top corner, the reality is that this conversation about top cornerbacks is all wrong to begin with. With the evolution of the league to more pass-happy offenses, the way that defenses defend the pass has changed as well.
Rarer are the days of having players like Darrelle Revis or Deion Sanders line up one-on-one against the team’s best receiver and taking him out of the game. With teams running three-receiver sets more often than ever before, having a good nickel corner is just as important as having good outside corners, and arguably even more important explains Danny Kelly of The Ringer:
In fact, the slot receiver designation is becoming less important, as many of the league’s top pass catchers now regularly line up on the inside, too. Keenan Allen ran routes from the slot on 49 percent of his snaps last year, per Pro Football Focus; Larry Fitzgerald, on 62 percent of his snaps; and Adam Thielen, on about 49 percent. Tyreek Hill played in the slot on 35 percent of his snaps; Michael Thomas, 24 percent; and Julio Jones, 22 percent.
There’s no officially recognized positional title—“middle-of-the-field second-level coverage defender” is probably a little too wordy—but with NFL passing games increasingly targeting defensive weaknesses in that area, defensive backs who play in the slot are poised to make up the NFL’s next premium position.
So as the NFL continues to evolve towards more pass-oriented offenses, defenses will need to prioritize the slot corner role. At a certain point, it’ll be necessary to have a top cornerback playing out of the slot as well. But it’s not as easy as just having a shutdown outside corner like Stephon Gilmore or even Byron Jones move inside. Former NFL safety Matt Bowen explains in Kelly’s article what is specifically required from a slot corner:
“Your footwork, your hips, your change-of-direction speed: all that stuff needs to mesh to play inside because you have so much more area to cover. If you get beat on a crossing route in the NFL, you’re not going to catch up. You’re not. It’s not going to happen.”
“Inside the numbers, you’re going to have to make more open-field tackles. Not just contain a guy or force a guy to the edge … but to tackle in space, and [often], that’s against big-time running backs. There is an element of physicality there.”
The talent threshold is a little different for a slot corner because there’s more potential threats against them. For example, a receiver that lines up out wide has a limited amount of routes to run because the sideline serves as a barrier for them. But in the slot, a receiver can run any number of routes in any direction. Additionally, slot corners are much more likely to factor into run defense than outside corners.
So by this logic, you could argue the Cowboys should be looking to field a secondary that has a premier slot corner, rather than someone who can thrive on the outside. The thing is, Dallas already has a great, albeit underrated, slot defender in Jourdan Lewis.
Lewis has long been thought of as a player who could only play in the slot due to his height, but Lewis displayed in both college and his time with the Cowboys that he can perform well anywhere.
At Michigan, Lewis played outside in base formations and moved to the slot in nickel packages, and he thrived in both roles. He was particularly great in the slot, allowing just 0.35 yards per coverage snap in addition to breaking up 35 passes and notching six interceptions in his three years as a starter. He also showed good tackling skills, only missing 13 tackles out of 114 attempts in college.
Lewis continued that kind of play in Dallas. Despite only starting 13 of the 46 games he’s played in, Lewis has logged 17 pass breakups and four interceptions. He’s also missed just five tackles in the last two years, and showed some ability as a blitzer in 2018 as well, generating pressure on 20% of his blitzes and turning all but one of those pressures into sacks.
In his rookie year, Lewis played a large portion of snaps on the outside since Orlando Scandrick was their top nickel option at the time. Even on the outside, Lewis displayed the necessary skills to perform at a high level. Take these examples against the Packers. In the first clip, Lewis lines up against Davante Adams at the top of the screen and maintains such good position that he’s able to knock the ball away on a quick slant pass:
On this play, Lewis is at the bottom of the screen playing press man against Jordy Nelson, who runs a fly route. Lewis mirrors him well and matches his speed to keep up with Nelson, and then Lewis does a great job of knocking the ball away at the catch point without initiating too much contact.
Lewis has displayed even better production out of the slot, especially in 2019 when he was finally given more snaps. While Lewis allowed completions on nearly 69% of his targets, he allowed an average of just 6.6 yards after the catch; additionally, Lewis allowed a passer rating of 86.8, which was actually lower than what Byron Jones gave up.
These next two clips from 2019 show just how good Lewis can be in the slot. This first one, against the Rams, has Lewis in the slot against Robert Woods on the offense’s left side. With the Rams in a trips left formation, Lewis plays off but still maintains a close tie to Woods before showing off his click-and-close skills to break up the pass.
This clip comes from the Bills matchup and has Lewis guarding Cole Beasley in the slot on the offense’s right side. Beasley runs a quick in-breaking slant and gives a clean fake to the outside first. Lewis does a great job of mirroring Beasley’s hips, which puts him in a great position to either follow Beasley outside or break inside. Lewis then closes in on Beasley for the pass breakup, whereas many other corners in 2019 got fooled by the initial fake.
One of the more underrated aspects of Lewis’ game that makes him an ideal slot corner is his physicality when it comes to tackling. While Lewis doesn’t compare to Sean Lee as a tackler, he’s quick to break on the play and brings his guy down. Take this clip for example. Lewis is at the top of the screen on what ends up being an outside pitch to his side. Lewis recognizes it and immediately comes downhill, making a nice move past a pulling lineman to get to the running back.
Here, Lewis is lined up in the slot for what ends up being a run to the offense’s inside right. Lewis once again does a good job of recognizing it’s a run and gears downward. After the running back cuts upfield, Lewis manages to redirect and get the back down by his ankles.
On this run play, Lewis comes down on a blitz from the slot and gets a free path, using his precise footwork and agility to twist sideways and stop the run before it gets upfield.
The physicality that Lewis plays with makes him perfectly suited for the slot, where he’d be asked to go up and hit ballcarriers much more frequently than outside corners. Lewis rarely ever makes business decisions or shies away from contact, and his tape proves that he can be a highly effective cover corner in both press and off man coverage, as well as zone. And as everyone knows, Lewis also has a nose for the ball, which is the top trait this new coaching staff is seeking:
Lewis hasn’t been given a full season’s worth of snaps yet in his career, but he’s consistently shown that he can be a highly productive and stingy cover corner with the physicality to thrive in the slot. And while there are questions about whether he could hold up on the outside full time, the league trends suggest that Lewis can remain in the slot and still be the team’s top cornerback.
So while the Cowboys will still almost definitely look to find an immediate starter on the outside in the 2020 draft, it doesn’t necessarily need to be a top-tier kind of player. Jourdan Lewis has already shown he can be that guy, and should be that guy going into 2020.