Happy Monday, friends. Yesterday, Jeff Legwold wrote a very Legwoldian article. That is, it made a really obvious point, which is that the Broncos struggled to defend tight ends in the passing game during the 2012 season.
It also made references to what “people in the NFL” think, in sweeping generalities, and really didn’t go very far in suggesting real solutions for how the Broncos could solve the problem in 2013.
That way, if the Broncos draft anybody in the defensive back seven, Jeff will be able to say, see, I told you – they want to defend the TE better. What would make me laugh (again) would be if the Broncos took somebody that Legwold had never even heard of (again) with their top draft pick.
(Side note: the stuff about Stewart Bradley being any kind of solution in pass coverage is laughable. The reason he keeps getting benched is that he can’t cover anybody. This is a guy who played only 39 snaps on defense in 2012 for the ultra-talented Cardinals.)
See, the Broncos do have a problem defending TEs. So do most teams, because TEs are definitionally difficult to guard. They’re big and fast, and most defenses don’t have the kind of athletes who can match up with the combination of height, bulk, and speed that they present. Even if they do have those types of athletes, they’re being used as pass rushers.
The answer, particularly for a team that plays a lot of man-to-man, like the Broncos do, is the matchup safety. I’m ahead of the curve on this idea (who’da thunk it?) so if you don’t remember my article from last June, hit that link, and check it out. We’ll wait.
Okay, so I believe strongly that the Broncos’ biggest roster priority should be to find a matchup safety. The closest thing they have to one on their roster is Mike Adams, who had a fairly solid 2012, but who was a big part of giving up all the TE production that Legwold cited, if we're being fair about it.
My favorite DB in this draft class is a guy whom I view as a matchup safety. I wouldn’t be surprised if he wasn’t on Legwold’s radar, either. He’s David Amerson of North Carolina State, who had 13 interceptions as a sophomore in 2011. That was the second most in a season in college football history.
Amerson was listed at 6-3 in college, but he measured at 6-1 in Indianapolis. He’s long, though, and he ran a 4.44-second 40. He was used as a man-to-man CB often in college, but was primarily a safety in high school.
Check out these highlights on Amerson:
One should always be careful watching only highlights, but I think they're pretty representative of the football I've seen Amerson play. I see a guy who can really drive on the football, and who can adjust to catch it at its highest point. I think he’s going to continue to be a turnover machine at the NFL level, and he’s pretty awesome with the ball in his hands, when returning an interception.
Amerson was viewed as a possible top-five pick entering the 2012 season, so what happened? Well, his production dropped to “only” five interceptions, and he also got beat deep a couple of times on double-moves. The Wolfpack also underachieved as a team, aside from one night against Florida State, so Amerson didn’t get as much publicity.
To me, though, he has the best combination of size, speed, and (especially) ball skills in this class. The fact that he has some safety skills makes me like him even more.
As I said in last year’s article, the best way to find a matchup safety is to go get a big CB, and teach him how to do some safety things. I’ve always liked big corners, and unlike Mike Klis, the success of Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman in Seattle didn’t surprise me.
There is, however, a prejudice that exists in the NFL against tall corners. Coaches and scouts know that taller/longer is better, all things being equal, but they tend to be suspicious of the ability of taller cornerbacks to move with enough fluidity, and change direction well enough.
For that reason, even if a tall/long guy can run and move, he tends to be undervalued in the draft process, because many teams won’t even look at those guys. A bias simply exists that tall guys aren't capable of moving well.
I think back to the early part of the 2009 draft cycle, maybe February or March, when I was on the staff at MHR. It was definitely before Jay Cutler had been traded to the Bears. John Bena emailed us all, and asked us who we’d take with the 12th pick in the draft. He had to make a pick for MHR in an SBN mock, and he was being democratic about it, to an extent. I advocated for 6-4 corner Sean Smith of Utah, who I’d just seen dominate the SEC Freshman of the Year (some big, fast dude named Julio Jones), in an absolute thrashing that the Utes put on Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.
Nobody else liked that idea, and really, Smith was ranked as a second-rounder, so it would have taken some balls to pick him. I was confident that he was the best cornerback in that class, but I was the lone wolf. Bena picked “CB” Malcolm Jenkins in the SBN mock. Jenkins barely played as a rookie, and ended up being more of a matchup safety, and not a corner. Smith has started 56 of the 63 games in which he’s appeared, and ended up being the highest paid and most sought-after corner in the 2013 free agency class. He is more of a good player than a great one, but he was indeed the best cornerback in that 2009 class.
I said it last June, and now I’m saying it again. The days of the box-focused strong safety are coming to an end. Teams want to pass the ball, and the John Lynch-type can be easily exposed by flexed-out tight ends. John and other thumpers were great in their eras, but the paradigm is shifting, and to some extent, has already shifted. The model that teams need to go to is to have a centerfielder-type (like Rahim Moore), and a man coverage-type at safety.
This current Broncos defense is really well-equipped to switch to this new model now, because they hardly ever have to play eight men in the box, which highly limits the need for a box safety. Because their front four is so good against the run, (and it should be even better in 2013, swapping in Robert Ayers for Elvis Dumervil), the linebackers can flow to the ball, and the Broncos can generally keep their safeties in a two-deep shell.
I like Amerson as a guy who could be the matchup safety that I think the Broncos need. The way he reacts to a ball in the air, and can break on a throw from an off position, makes me think that he can play a deep half, and be a ballhawk there. I’m also convinced that he can cover tight ends man-to-man, and I think he can even play wide receivers outside if you need him to.
I view Amerson as a top-ten talent in this class, who is just out of fashion right now, for illogical reasons. Todd McShay has him 13th among corners, and that just mystifies me. At worst, with Amerson, you have a physical, press-man, Sean Smith-type who catches the ball better. At best, he works out the way I see him, and you have a big-time playmaker who makes your defense really flexible and responsive to the threat posed by 12 personnel packages.
I’d be happy if the Broncos took Amerson at #28; I’d be even happier if they traded down to the #35-42 area, picked him there, and copped an extra fourth-rounder, and maybe something else. What do y’all think?
Note: A clarification seems to be in order. A reader on Twitter said (correctly) that the Wolfpack rarely used Amerson in press-man technique. I didn't mean to suggest that they did; they used him primarily in off-man technique, with some zone work mixed in. What I did mean to suggest is that I find it easy to project that Amerson is likely to be successful with press-man technique; I base that upon his size, length, speed, and physicality. Sorry if that was confusing.