The inability of the Steelers in recent years to draft and develop quality defensive backs has been a popular target of criticism at BTSC. Recent articles by DaveinNE and Flip Fisher, however, have highlighted that this is not just a Pittsburgh problem. Turning college DBs into quality NFL players, especially those drafted beyond the 2nd round, has been an issue with which many teams have struggled. Why, though? What makes drafting defensive backs, particularly, so difficult? Why does it seem harder to project college DBs as pros than other positions? And what does this mean for the Steelers going forward? Let’s take a look.
REASON #1: SUPERIOR QUARTERBACK PLAY
Consider this excerpt from an article by Darryl Slater that appeared on nj.com in 2014 about the difficulty of transitioning from college to pro defensive back. It describes the experience of former 49er DB Eric Davis, who had a long and successful pro career:
The 49ers had drafted Davis, a cornerback, in the second round that spring, and now, in their second preseason game, he was sprinting stride for stride with a Denver wide receiver who had run a 15-yard route toward the middle of the field. The receiver had no space. Davis blanketed him. In college, quarterbacks never threw the ball in this situation.
“There’s no way the ball is coming,” Davis recalled thinking. “I have my assignment done.”
Then he heard the whistling. He turned his head and saw John Elway’s pass zipping into the receiver’s hands for a completion. Elway, fitting the ball into the tightest of spaces, threw it so hard that it created that whirring sound as it spiraled through the air.
On the ground after making the tackle, Davis felt stunned and amazed — at the chutzpah, the accuracy, the speed of this throw. He realized, there on the grass at Mile High Stadium, that playing cornerback in the NFL looks, feels and even sounds so much different than college.
To illustrate the point Davis was making, watch this throw from Ben Roethlisberger to Juju Smith-Schuster late in the fourth quarter of Pittsburgh’s comeback win against Jacksonville last fall. Juju isn’t matched up against some rookie Roethlisberger is picking on. He’s up against Jalen Ramsey, one of the best man-coverage corners in the league. Ramsey had intercepted Roethlisberger three times in their past three meetings, including twice in this very game. And yet, despite excellent coverage, Roethlisberger is unfazed by Ramsey as he guns in this impossible-to-cover back-shoulder dart for a huge play. The NFL is different, indeed.
Obviously, not every pro quarterback is John Elway or Ben Roethlisberger. And not everyone can make the throw that Davis described or the one by Big Ben above. But most of the 32 starters in the league are closer to Elway or Roethlisberger than they are to the starter at Illinois, or Syracuse, or Kansas, or Utah State or whomever most college DBs see on a weekly basis.
In fact, most college DBs never see a professional-quality quarterback. Even the guys who play at the big schools. Last year, 13 college quarterbacks were selected in the NFL draft. In 2017, 10 were selected. In 2016, it was 15. The year before it was just 7. That makes 45 quarterbacks selected in the past four drafts. Of those 45, only 13 have become NFL starters. The odds that a defensive back played against a future starting NFL quarterback while in college, then, are slim.
To get a feel for the QBs a typical college DB does face, let’s examine last year’s 1st round pick for the Steelers, safety Terrell Edmunds, who played at ACC school Virginia Tech. In his two seasons as a starter, Edmunds faced the following QBs:
2016: Stephon Masha, Josh Dobbs, Blake LaRussa, Daniel Jones, Ian Book, Nathan Elliott, Tobias Oliver, Anthony Brown, Kenny Pickett, N’Kosi Perry, Bryce Perkins, Isaiah Green, Hayden Moore.
2017: Will Grier, Joe Walker, Gardner Minshew, Steven Williams, Kelly Bryant, Anthony Brown, Chazz Surratt, Jones again, Malik Rosier, Ta’Quon Marshall, Pickett again, Kirk Benkirk, Mason Rudolph.
That’s quite a list of relatively obscure passers. Dobbs and Rudolph are the current Steeler backups, so at least you’ve heard of them. West Virginia’s Will Grier is a projected mid-round pick and may catch on as a backup, too. Only Duke’s Daniel Jones, a likely 1st round pick, looks like a bonafide professional starter. In 26 college games, then, Edmunds probably played against one future NFL starting QB.
Obviously, this required some adjusting on Edmunds’ part once he got to the League. Criticisms of his play this past season focused on his struggles with communication, with switching routes as they developed and with getting beat over the top. These are all fair points. Edmunds indeed struggled at times in these areas. How much of that was a product, however, of learning to adapt to the superior level of quarterback play?
This year alone, Edmunds lined up across from Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Patrick Mahomes, Matt Ryan, Phillip Rivers and Cam Newton. Even the next tier QBs he faced -- Derek Carr, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Andy Dalton, Joe Flacco, Jameis Winston and a still-developing Baker Mayfield -- were better than anyone he ever faced in college. All of these QBs possessed some combination of arm strength, coverage recognition, release time, ability to look off defenders and/or general football IQ that were on a level Edmunds had not yet encountered. Throw in the fact that NFL receivers are typically faster and run better routes than college players and it is easy to understand why the rookie at times struggled.
Here’s an example of what Edmunds had to face last year. Below we see the Steelers in their soul-crushing week 15 loss to New Orleans. The Saints are in a heavy formation with four blockers to the right of the center. The Steelers, who are in 3-3-5 personnel, kick their front to the overload and slant to it on the snap. The slant is supplemented with a weak side blitz by nickel back Mike Hilton. The Steelers are trying to disguise Hilton’s blitz by making it seem like he is in man coverage against the slot receiver while Joe Haden matches Michael Thomas and Edmunds provides safety help over the top. In reality, when Hilton blitzes, Edmunds will roll down to cover the slot.
There’s one problem with this: Brees sees it coming from a mile away. The Steelers disguise it pretty well but there are subtle tips that a seasoned pro like Brees can diagnose. For starters, Edmunds is just a bit too tight to be a true help safety. If this were cover-1 he would be in the neighborhood of fifteen yards deep. Here is he aligned at eleven. And Hilton, were he really in man coverage, would have his eyes glued to the slot receiver so he could read his release. Instead, he is looking in at Brees, trying to anticipate the snap so he can time up his blitz. The tip-offs prompt Brees to check to a blitz-beater that gets the ball out of his hand quickly and makes it impossible for Edmunds to rotate down on the slot in time. The result is an easy pitch and catch for a first down.
This isn’t Brees picking on Edmunds, necessarily (although, in real time, I’m sure more than a few frustrated fans yelled at the rookie for not covering tightly enough). Rather, this is Brees demonstrating his ridiculously advanced understanding of defenses. He knows the blitz is coming, knows how the Steelers will roll their coverage with it and knows what check will exploit it.
I used this GIF to underscore the point that rookie defensive backs rarely, if ever, encounter college QBs who possess this level of understanding. Drew Brees has a doctorate in diagnosing defenses while the QBs Edmunds until recently faced were, both literally and figuratively, undergrads. Pro QBs can exploit weaknesses in both players and schemes in ways that young DBs simply are not accustomed to.
REASON #2: THE COMPLEXITY OF NFL PASSING GAMES
So, pro quarterbacks are much better than their college counterparts. Fine. But isn’t that true of every position group? Aren’t pro-everything better than college-everything? And given that they are, doesn’t it stand to reason that other position groups would struggle just as much as DBs?
The short answer is this: some do. But there is a common thread to the groups that struggle.
According to Nate Silver and his stat geeks over at FiveThirtyEight, it’s very difficult to assess the success or failure of entire position groups because variables like coaching, scheme, injury and even team culture have significant impacts upon the performance of draftees. However, using Pro Football Reference’s Approximate Value (AV) chart, which estimates the odds that a player’s performance will live up to the expectations of where he was drafted, we find that offensive and defensive linemen typically exceed their AV while quarterbacks and wide receivers struggle. Defensive backs do better than their offensive counterparts, though not as well the linemen.
Why do backs and receivers, the so-called “skill” players, struggle more than guys in the trenches? What is the common thread? To answer this, let’s look at how typical rushing and passing games are structured at both the college and pro level.
In both college and the pros (and even at many high schools), the run game is built around the inside and outside zone plays. Inside zone, in particular, is popular because it can be executed from any personnel group against any defense. Without getting into the weeds on the scheme, inside zone features rules that are easily adaptable and provides answers to problems that might defeat other schemes. Whether you are a 10 personnel team that spreads the field with wide receivers or a 22 personnel team that loads up with big guys, you can run inside zone. It is the Swiss Army knife of run plays.
The compliment to the zone blocking scheme is the gap scheme, which features angle blocking and pulling linemen. Plays such as sweep, power and counter are common to this scheme. Again, these are plays that are often taught to some degree from 9th grade through the NFL. If you are an offensive lineman, you most likely learn to zone and gap block from the time you are 14 years old. If you are a defensive lineman, you learn to work against the double teams and the down, reach and kick-out blocks that are staples of these plays at about the same age. As you progress, the players get bigger and faster but the schemes, in large part, remain the same.
Contrast that to the passing game. With so much emphasis on speed and tempo these days, high school and college passing games are built on RPOs, half-field reads that get the ball out of the quarterback’s hands quickly and single-read “shot” plays (deep balls) that attempt to isolate a superior athlete on an inferior defender. Defenses are often limited in their ability to utilize complex blitz schemes or coverages because of the tempo at which the game is played and the speed at which the ball comes out of the QB’s hands. Receivers run less intricate routes and defenders must concentrate more on playing in space than on recognizing and defending full-field route concepts. A corner or safety on the back side of a QB’s initial read is often a bystander. Rarely do QB’s get to the back side in their read progression.
Once a QB, DB or receiver gets to the NFL, all of that changes. Most teams huddle up, which gives coordinators time to get deep into their game plans. As a result, coverages are better disguised, blitz packages are more exotic and route concepts are more complex. In college, “Air Raid” teams (i.e. - any team from the Big 12) number their passing routes according to the old-school receiver route tree. These routes divide the field in half, with receivers on one side running one combination of routes and receivers on the other running another. Because of the emphasis on tempo and getting the ball out quickly, QBs will make only half-field reads based on coverage. In the NFL, passing schemes provide front and back side options with quarterbacks routinely getting into their third and even fourth read in the progression. Therefore, DBs don’t just have to defend the kind of throws Eric Davis described above but they must cover a lot more of the field in the NFL as well.
The biggest difference, however, is that the pro game relies much more on pre and post-snap recognition. The disparity in talent is much smaller at the NFL level than it is in college. There are no Alabama vs. Middle Tennessee matchups where one team has a bunch of five-star recruits and the other has one-star guys. Everyone in the NFL is elite, which means talent alone is not enough.
In February, I attended a coaching clinic and sat in on a seminar on defensive back play given by one of the New York Giants’ assistants. He did a full hour on how the Giants teach press technique to their corners. He talked about the patience a corner must have in letting a receiver commit upfield before reacting to him. He talked about hand placement to neutralize his release. He talked about hip rotation. He talked about knowing what inside and outside releases the receiver could make based on his alignment. He talked about how a receiver will have to drop his shoulders to make any cut and how a corner should play fade until the shoulders drop. If they don’t play fade immediately they will get beat. If they jump too fast at the receiver’s initial movement they will get beat. If they don’t strike the receiver in the chest when they shoot their hands they will get beat. On and on he went, in fantastic detail, for a full hour, covering only what happens within the first second the ball is snapped.
What I realized from his presentation was that the jump from what college coaches ask of their DBs -- execute coverages, don’t get run behind, keep everything in front of you -- to what pro coaches expect is enormous. I’m not selling college coaches short. Many schools teach great detail and complex schemes as well. But when your guy is a 1st round draft pick and their guy would struggle to make your travel team, the details and the complexity often don’t matter. An NFL defensive back must be an elite athlete but he must be able to think, react and communicate in equal measure. The guy who can’t marry the mental with the physical part of the game is going to get left behind.
The transition for receivers, defensive backs and quarterbacks, then, is often more difficult than it is for linemen because the difference in the pro passing game is so much greater. Quarterbacks are far better, schemes are much more complex and the attention to detail needs to be much greater. It is that last aspect that is often the undoing of young DBs.
REASON #3: THE PERILS OF “SWAG”
If we were to speculate on which Steeler offensive lineman gave up the most sacks last season, we might get a variety of answers. Was it Ramon Foster? Maurkice Pouncey? AV? DeCastro? Honestly, I don’t know. I didn’t bother to look it up.
Now let’s speculate on which Steeler DB gave up the most big plays in coverage. I don’t know that answer, either, but it’s a safe bet that Artie Burns, had he not been benched, would have been the winner. Burns has struggled mightily so far in his career and has earned the enmity of much of the fan base as a result. He’s a professional football player and if you play poorly you are going to becoming a target for the fans. That’s just part of the deal.
For defensive backs, though, the mistakes they make are magnified by the space in which they play. DBs exist on islands while linemen toil among a clutter of bodies. Miss a block that gets the running back stuffed at the line? Few may notice. But whiff on a tackle in the open field? Everyone knows it’s you. Give up a sack and a few more may notice. But God forbid you get beat deep for a touchdown.
The result of this magnified scrutiny is that DBs have been known to suffer from the disease of lost confidence. Much like baseball players who become jittery and lose the ability to execute simple throws, DBs who lose confidence can also lose their careers.
Draft gurus talk about a DB prospect’s confidence the way they talk about a running back’s vision or how much an offensive lineman can bench press. Ike Taylor used to say “Swaggin’,” as a means of introducing himself on televised broadcasts of Steelers games. Taylor said he did so as a reminder that a DB has to be sure of himself at all times. Offensive coordinators often test this swag by going right after a new DB who enters a game. If successful, the OC will keep coming back. You need a short memory and a “next play” mentality to play defensive back, or as Mike Tomlin likes to say, “a big windshield and a small rear-view mirror.” A DB who loses his swag is like Austin Powers when he lost his mojo.
The decline of Artie Burns has been linked to confidence issues. After getting benched last season, Burns told an AP reporter, “I don’t feel like I’m really confident right now. I’ve got to get back to the basics and make the plays I should make.” No one doubts Burns has the talent. He is long and fast and looks the part of an NFL corner. But if he can’t master the details of the job and if his waning confidence inhibits his ability to play on an island in front of thousands of fans and millions of TV viewers, he may never return to form.
WHAT DOES ALL OF THIS MEAN FOR THE STEELERS, THEN?
Given the combination of superior quarterback play, complex passing games and the mental toll playing defensive back can take, the transition from college to pro football for many of these young men is enormous. Terrell Edmunds was a 1st round pick, which means, with experience, he should have the ability to catch up. But Artie Burns was, too. And what about the 3rd, 4th and 5th round guys who are less physically gifted or less instinctual than Edmunds and Burns? What happens when they have to make the same adjustments? The truth is, many can’t. The learning curve is simply too steep.
It’s hard to say why the Steelers have drafted defensive backs at a below-average rate in recent years. Edmunds, Burns and Sean Davis are high-upside players at various stages of development. Although Burns has been disappointing and Davis mediocre, it’s still too early to draw a conclusion on them. Edmunds looks like the best of the three but is a work in progress nonetheless. Marcus Allen, Cam Sutton and Brian Allen are projects who appear more likely to wash out than to succeed. Senquez Golson and Shaq Richardson couldn’t stay healthy. Shamarko Thomas, from most reports, couldn’t grasp the mental aspect of pro ball. Guys like Doran Grant and Gerold Holiman simply weren’t good enough. It’s been a mixed bag of disappointments the past five years.
Similarly, the Patriots have struggled to draft and develop receivers. The Jets have bombed on two decades worth of quarterback selections. Some teams are simply unable to find the right fits at certain skill positions. Drafting these positions is hard, though, because playing these positions in the NFL is hard.
There are a few things I would recommend for the Steelers, however, when considering defensive backs in the upcoming draft. One is to steer clear of “project” guys like Allen and Terry Hawthorne. Those types of players might have tantalizing measurables but the NFL is not a developmental league. We need to target accomplished players who understand how to play their respective positions. The Steelers under Mike Tomlin have shown they are not great at developing DBs so why try? Don’t waste a pick taking a flyer on a high-upside guy who doesn’t understand the position. Seek experienced players with sound fundamentals and lots of game reps who fit the scheme we are looking to run.
Also, what is their work ethic like? And what is their football IQ? Guys who may be physical freaks but who might not put in the work to perfect their craft should be avoided. Talent alone does not get it done in the NFL, especially at defensive back. I would prefer the Steelers take a high-character, hard-working player who wants to get better over a guy whose ability outweighs his effort. To quote an old coaching adage, “Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.” For the Steelers, this philosophy should drive our search for that elusive quality defensive back.