Darius Slay grabbed the headlines this offseason and it’s understandable.
The Eagles haven’t had an elite outside cornerback in nearly a decade and the Birds traded for the three-time Pro Bowler in a move that will undoubtedly help their secondary. No question.
But don’t sleep on Nickell Robey-Coleman.
Because the Eagles’ move to sign the veteran nickel corner to a one-year, $1.35 million deal this offseason is the best move that isn’t getting talked about.
The Eagles think they got one of the best nickel corners in the entire league for an absolute bargain.
“He's aggressive, man,” Slay said of Robey-Coleman this week. “He's a good guy that got good ball skills, willing to tackle. Even though he looks small, he’s willing to put his head in there now and go for it. He competes every play.”
Slay also joked that he likes Robey-Coleman because he was a part of his 2013 draft class, which is only partly true. Slay was a 2nd-round pick in 2013. Robey-Coleman was undrafted out of USC.
But in his seven years in the NFL, Robey-Coleman has established himself as one of the best at his position. The 28-year-old is just 5-8, 180, but he’s super sticky in coverage, as we’ve already seen at practice.
Of course, a big reason the move to sign NRC didn’t grab headlines is because the nickel corner position is still overlooked, which is completely ridiculous. While nickels may not technically start games a lot of the time, they play a heckuva lot more than many base linebackers. Just look at the Eagles, for example. Last year, according to Football Outsiders, the Eagles were in nickel or dime for 74% of their defensive snaps. The league has changed, but the way nickel corners are viewed hasn’t changed as quickly.
And some would argue it’s even harder to play cornerback on the inside, where there’s no boundary to help.
So the Eagles signed one of the best players at a position that will be on the field for three quarters of their defensive snaps. And he’s getting paid just over $1 million in 2019.
Robey-Coleman on Monday agreed with the assessment that nickel corners are still undervalued in the NFL.
He wants to be the one to help change that.
“I feel like the nickel position has came along the way,” Robey-Coleman said. “It’s getting a little bit more attention, but not the pub it probably should get. But that's not for me to control. I just take it for what it is and I just look at it like, I want to be the reason why it does get more value. I look at it that way.”
While Robey-Coleman gained notoriety for the controversial pass interference that wasn’t called in the NFC Championship Game against the Saints, he’s quietly gained his reputation — as his Twitter handle puts it — @slotgod23.
After the 2019 regular season, ProFootballFocus ranked NRC as the 19th best overall corner in the league. Here’s what former NFL defensive back and NFL analyst Solomon Wilcots wrote about Robey-Coleman in January:
“Nickell Robey-Coleman continues to solidify himself as one of the league’s best slot cornerbacks. He accelerates with quick closing speed after showing patience in press man-to-man coverage, and he is good enough to stick with receivers at the top of their routes.
“As a seven-year veteran who anchors the middle between fellow corners Jalen Ramsey and Troy Hill, Robey-Coleman allowed just an 80.1 passer rating and 0.63 yards per slot coverage snap through Week 17, ranking 13th and sixth, respectively, among qualifying slot cornerbacks in 2019. The Rams finished with the 10th-best coverage (83.9) in the league this year, and Robey-Coleman will continue to play a significant role in any future success.”
In March, the Rams declined the option on his contract, making Robey-Coleman a free agent. The Eagles, who didn’t initially have plans to sign a nickel corner, signed him in late March for a bargain price they thought was too good to pass up. The Eagles still have Cre’Von LeBlanc, but adding a player like NRC was a no-brainer for the front office.
If you need an example of how important a nickel corner can be to Jim Schwartz’s defense, just look back to 2017, when Patrick Robinson shined on a one-year contract as a veteran free agent signing.
Robey-Coleman has the potential to have that type of season.
“From what I’ve seen, he has a phenomenal IQ,” LeBlanc said. “He’s been doing it for a very long time. He’s very quick laterally and he doesn’t shy away from competition. He’s a Florida guy, just like myself. That was a great addition, great pickup.”
Something tells me we’ll be talking more about it when the season gets going.