Whenever a team wins a Super Bowl, it's a team effort. Yet, NFL teams are always constructed around a number of key components rather than 53 equal parts.
The New England Patriots have just been crowned this year's Super Bowl winners. Most of the focus is on Tom Brady's legacy and THAT play call from Darrell Bevell. If we look past those factors and examine the construction of the winning roster, we'll find one key component who took the road less travelled to becoming one of the very best players in the NFL. That component is starting free safety Devin McCourty.
It's hard to sell McCourty as an underdog overcoming odds that were stacked against his success as he was a first round pick back in 2010 before enjoying a rookie year that earned him an All-Pro spot. McCourty is very physically talented and has always been considered a well-rounded, skilled football player. However, after his first season with the Patriots, the then-cornerback began to struggle in coverage. He wasn't consistently able to carry out his assignment effectively, often mixing up his footwork to allow receivers to get open downfield.
Eventually, when the Patriots traded for Aqib Talib in 2012, McCourty was moved to safety where he would permanently reside. As the deep safety, McCourty's range and awareness allowed him to excel. His footwork mirroring receivers was no longer an issue because he was rarely dropping down to play man coverage on anyone. Bill Belichick recognized that McCourty's skill set was best suited to playing a different role in his defense. That recognition, something that is too often ignored by more stubborn coaches, is what allowed McCourty to get the most out of his skill set in the NFL.
For McCourty the transition came after he was drafted, but often similar transitions can come when a player is drafted. One candidate this season could be Quinten Rollins.
Rollins is a defensive back prospect from Miami (Ohio). He has already endured an unusual path in his journey to this point as an NFL prospect. As soon as Rollins stepped on campus at Miami he was a starter... on the basketball team. For four years, Rollins played point guard and racked up the second-most steals of any player to attend the college. Before the 2014 season, Collins earned a starting spot on the football team at cornerback. His time away from football obviously had an effect on his comfort on the field, but he quickly became a vital piece of the defense, finishing the year with seven interceptions, while showing off very impressive athleticism.
No matter where Rollins goes in the draft or who drafts him, he is going to need to be developed further in the NFL. By the time he steps on an NFL field, Rollins will be 23 years of age. He will have time to grow on the field before hitting his physical prime, but accelerating that growth will be important. The best way to do that may be to move Rollins away from cornerback and allow him to become a safety. While he played cornerback in college, the traits Rollins showed off suggest he could be one of the better strong safeties in the NFL.
While cornerbacks typically get more attention and are very valuable, it's recently become very difficult to find quality safeties in the NFL. The overall quality of the position has taken a significant dip in recent times. As such, if Rollins proves to be better suited to play that role, positional value wouldn't be a problem.
Safeties need to be versatile and consistent tacklers. They need to make tackles in space against quick receivers coming over the middle of the field as well as be strong run defenders against different blocking schemes/running backs.
Rollins is a very willing and aggressive tackler. He told Dane Brugler of CBS that he played Robber on defense in high school so it's not a surprise that he is comfortable against the run in different ways. His technique could be more consistent, but it's not severely worse than most defensive back prospects. Rollins has shown off his ability to get off blocks in space, make tackles in space, diagnose screens and attack running backs at or behind the line of scrimmage.
The standard bearer for NFL strong safeties right now is Kam Chancellor of the Seattle Seahawks. Chancellor is much bigger than Rollins and a more ferocious tackler who can take on blockers with his sheer size. Chancellor is a safety, but he often fits the role of a linebacker on the field. Rollins is less likely to fill that role because he doesn't offer the same bulk. He can still be a valuable coverage player over the middle of the field though and a good run stopper even though not a great one.
Obviously Rollins is at a point where he can get better in most areas. His most significant concern appears to be his play in man coverage.
Rollins has very quick feet with impressive balance and a good short area burst. He can easily turn with receivers and mirror them through their routes from different spots on the field. However, he lacks an understanding of when to be aggressive in search of the football and where to best position himself in relation to the receiver he is covering. In the above video, Rollins shows of his exceptionally quick feet and ability to turn with the receiver on his in route.
This looks like a really impressive play that results in Rollins breaking up the pass, but it was actually a missed opportunity.
If we freeze the play at the point where the receiver plants his outside foot to push inside, we can see that Rollins is turning with him. His feet are so quick and his body is so fluid that he can immediately be in position to break on the football when the receiver turns infield. Rollins is on the receiver's inside shoulder with his eyes on the quarterback. To this point of the play, his coverage has been perfect.
Instead of driving on the cornerback's inside shoulder, Rollins hesitates and allows the receiver to run past him infield. This puts the receiver in between Rollins and the quarterback and gives the quarterback a window to throw into. The quarterback's pass is too far towards the sideline, so Rollins can disrupt the receiver at the catch point. The receiver wasn't strong at the catch point, and if he had been it's unlikely that Rollins would have been able to prevent the reception.
From a physical point of view, Rollins showed up well on this play. He showed off everything you could ask of a cornerback because he had quick feet and balance that allowed him to be aggressive up the sideline before turning infield. It was the mental side of the game that let him down here. He was too tentative and didn't take advantage of his initially impressive positioning.
From a sheer coverage perspective, Rollins is much more impressive defending linear routes than lateral routes. He uses the sideline relatively well to be an effective boundary man cornerback. However, most effective cornerbacks in the NFL who win that way have a much greater physical presence.
Players such as Antonio Cromartie and Vontae Davis may be limited laterally, but they win against linear routes because they understand how to use the boundary and play very physical coverage. Both Cromartie and Davis appear to be thicker players who can compete better at the catch point than Rollins does at this point. Physicality early in routes is also an issue. When in press coverage, Rollins needs to show off the strength and hand usage to battle bigger, better athletes.
Moving Rollins to safety would allow him to play less man coverage while putting him in situations that will show off his strengths with greater consistency
Rollins' quick feet and balance help him run through breaks with receivers in man coverage, but they also allow him to set and reset with ease in zone coverage. His comfort level and understanding of how plays develop is so much higher when he is asked to keep his eyes on the quarterback from the beginning of the play while feeling the presence of receivers around him. Rollins breaks on the ball very well and shows off natural ball skills, which is unsurprising considering his basketball background.
Despite his limited playing experience, Rollins understands not to be too aggressive in zone coverage. He will effectively split defenders with his positioning so not to overplay either option when his zone becomes crowded. He did appear to have some issues with passing receivers off to teammates at times though.
The combination of ball skills, ability to diagnose plays as they develop and his overall level of speed in zone coverage are what makes Rollins such a promising project as a potential safety rather than cornerback. He could still be a good cornerback in the NFL, he might even end up turning into a type of hybrid who splits his time at safety and slot cornerback, but it seems like the transition to safety would be much easier and much more beneficial for him on the whole.
Coincidentally, Josh Norris gave Rollins to the New England Patriots in his most recent Mock Draft. Josh sees Rollins as a cornerback rather than a safety, but maybe Bill Belichick could re-sign Devin McCourty in free agency and pair him with Rollins over the middle of the field?
Or maybe he follows McCourty's route more closely than anyone could anticipate by playing cornerback before converting to safety later.
This year's draft class appears to be relatively weak when it comes to first round talents. Because of that, a raw prospect such as Rollins who boasts an enticing skill set could easily slip into the first round. There don’t appear to be as many quality defensive back prospects coming out this year as there were last year either, so Rollins might continue to climb as the draft process continues.