How far must a nickel stretch?
For the Carolina Panthers, as far as he can. The premium placed on the nickel back, or “slot cornerback,” has skyrocketed.
In fact, the Panthers operate out of their nickel package so much that some players have joked in the past that it’s their base defense, a 4-3 front with an extra cornerback instead of a third linebacker, two outside cornerbacks and two safeties.
But they’ve had to do so. Teams are getting faster and more versatile. Offenses are passing the ball more than ever, and it’s no longer unusual to see a No. 1 wideout running a large percentage of his routes out of the slot, as well as running backs and tight ends. Teams are running three-receiver sets — “11 personnel” — more than any other offensive grouping, on average, according to the “Football Outsiders” database, and twice as much as they were in 2008, says Pro Football Focus.
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Defenses must keep pace — and that means a nickel is doing more than ever before.
“I definitely think nickel is a position that’s become very key in the NFL now,” said Boston College cornerback Hamp Cheevers at the 2019 NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis last week. “It’s basically becoming another starting job now ... I feel like nickel is something you have to be able to do.”
With the value of the position increasing, smaller corners who might be overlooked as outside players now have more of an opportunity to land with an NFL team in a featured role.
Especially on a team like the Panthers, where there is both a heavy reliance on the nickel package and a need at the position after recent roster moves.
The Panthers released veteran nickel Captain Munnerlyn late last month. They have a potential replacement on the roster in incoming third-year player Corn Elder. Elder was originally drafted to compete for the nickel job, but spent the majority of his rookie season on injured reserve (knee).
It’s not yet Elder’s job to lose. In fact, the nickel position now is among the higher priorities on defense this spring.
And the most important qualities a nickel can have, aside from the obvious speed, is a technical understanding of the position and a demonstrated ability to make plays on the ball..
The latter is something the Panthers would like to improve — Carolina’s defense has ranked in the middle to lower third of the NFL in takeaways for the past two seasons.
“You have to have ball skills,” said Cheevers, who entered the draft a year early after an FBS-leading seven interceptions in 2018. “I think that with being an athlete in high school, that gave me great ball skills. I was a wide receiver, a running back too. I feel like teams need guys who are going to get turnovers.”
Because they’re covering the middle of the field, nickels must also be sure tacklers with strong spatial awareness and knowledge of how all the puzzle pieces of a defense fit together.
“I think nickel requires a high I.Q. to be successful at,” said Julian Love, who is one of the NFL’s top cornerback (and nickel) prospects after a record-setting career at Notre Dame in which he broke up 36 passes in two seasons.
“It’s different, for sure. You have (more of the field) to work with. And you have to be smart, a student of the game to be successful at nickel.”
“Big nickel” also has become a larger position of need in Carolina, after the team informed longtime starting linebacker Thomas Davis that his contract would not be extended.
That means linebacker Shaq Thompson, who formerly was the go-to player in the big nickel package against bigger slot receivers and tight ends, will slide into a more traditional linebacker role. The Panthers must tab another player as their “big nickel” option.
In the past, the Panthers have used safety Colin Jones in that role, but are more likely to turn toward second-year safety Rashaan Gaulden and linebacker Jermaine Carter Jr. in the future.
Love is 5-foot-11 and 195 pounds. But he thinks he can play in the NFL as an outside cornerback, and fill both a small and big nickel role with a smart game plan for the latter, in which he’d be matched up against much bigger players.
“I think with big guys, you have to look at how they break on their routes,” he said. “Not many (big) guys are very agile...I can play off, not lean into their body because they’re heavier than me, and then just wait for them to break. Because I can break faster than them.”
That might increase his appeal to teams — a nickel who can stretch a little further. It would certainly add crucial depth at a variety of position in the Panthers’ secondary.
“I have the ability to play multiple positions,” said Love.. “Every corner coming out now should be versatile....A lot of teams, they’re rotating guys. They’re scheming to have three solid outside and inside corners on the field at one time.”