By John Harris
August 5, 2014
In the summer of 2007, a few weeks before I started my radio career, I was in a Kinko's -- more than likely making copies because that's what you do at a Kinko's, no? -- getting ready to check out when I saw a man walk into the store who looked familiar. It took me a second to realize that it was 1997 Heisman winner Charles Woodson. I couldn't figure out completely why he was in Houston, but just as I was about to ask him if he wanted to be on my new show, he was out the door.
At the time, I wasn't completely dismayed. His reputation was still a bit sullied by the way things ended in Oakland. He openly admitted, after the fact, that he didn't arrive in Green Bay in the best of moods and was an angry young man. Head coach Mike McCarthy and Woodson finally sat down and discussed Woodson's demeanor and whether the former Wolverine wanted to shape up or ship out. He shaped up.
That's putting it mildly. He had eight interceptions in 2006 in his first year as a Packer, but a few years into his stay in Green Bay, his career got the jolt he was seeking.
The Packers asked Woodson to move inside. To slot corner.
Ask 100 different people and they'll give you 100 different responses. Slot corner. Sub-package corner. Hybrid safety. Third corner. Whatever nomenclature floats your boat, go with it. Under defensive coordinator Dom Capers, the Packers decided to move Woodson inside on nickel and dime sub-packages and play over an offense's slot receiver. He wasn't the first. He won't be the last. He was perhaps the most well known.
Two years after playing on the inside, Woodson was named the 2009 NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
Initially, the move raised a few eyebrows, but in the end, it not only salvaged and cemented Woodson's legacy, it may have changed the way teams conceptualize what a slot corner should be and how that position could truly alter the landscape of a defense.
The rise of specialization took the slot corner position from being a niche position in the early 2000s to game-changing in 2014. A corner is no longer just a corner, and a great one can impact the game on the inside just as one can on the outside. (In his opening press conference as the new Houston Texans head coach, Bill O'Brien mentioned that teams were playing 65-70% nickel and dime to combat what offenses threw at them on a consistent basis.) The evolution of the slot corner continues and where it goes in the future will alter the game as we know it.
The genesis of the slot corner dates back to former Tampa Bay Buccaneers star Ronde Barber. He may not have been truly the first, but he was definitely the first to truly impact the game from that position. The Bucs defense will always be known for introducing the Tampa 2 to the world of football, but one of the least talked about aspects of that defense was Barber's move inside to that slot corner position.
Tony Dungy and defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin noticed that on third down most offenses moved their best receiver into a slot position to avoid the defense's top two corners on the outside. So Dungy and Kiffin moved the former Virginia star inside on third down, and his career took off. Not only did Barber clamp on those pesky inside receivers, he blitzed off the edge and even played the run when necessary. To this day, Barber is the only player to record 40+ interceptions (47) and 20+ sacks (28) in his career. He notched five and a half sacks in 2000, and he was on his way to the Pro Bowl a year later.
Everyone remembers Barber's pick six to shut down Philadelphia in the 2002 NFC Championship game, but earlier in the game, Barber blitzed from his slot corner position, sacked Eagles QB Donovan McNabb and forced a fumble that turned the tide back in Tampa's favor. He spent the rest of his career doing similar things, but he gave the NFL a taste of what could happen with a player of that ilk at that position.
Last October, the undefeated Florida State Seminoles traveled to Clemson, S.C. for a top five matchup that had the nation's attention. At least for an hour or so anyway; the Seminoles made mincemeat of Clemson almost immediately, and it all started because of the impact of slot corner Lamarcus Joyner.
Florida State opened the year with Joyner at perimeter cornerback after the senior spent the past three years at safety. He played well there, but former FSU defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt had an idea, one he wanted to unveil when the time was right.
A Saturday night at Clemson in front of an electric Tiger crowd was the perfect time.
On the first play of the game, Joyner lined up over the slot, dropped into coverage, saw Clemson TE Stanton Seckinger make the catch and then stripped him of the ball. FSU recovered and scored a few plays later.
Later in the quarter, Joyner, now permanently in the slot, blitzed Clemson QB Tajh Boyd, sacked him and knocked the ball loose. DE Mario Edwards picked the ball up on the run and headed for a backbreaking defensive touchdown.
Joyner's work that night was done and so was Clemson. The Seminoles continued to use Joyner in that position, in large part because Joyner impacted nearly every play on the field. The one aspect about playing in the slot is that other than the deep ball, that player is always going to be around the football. Pruitt realized that and knew that Joyner's innate ability to turn a team over or strip a ball carrier was a paramount skill in that spot. As such, Pruitt's ultimate chess piece found his ultimate position.
Some knocked Joyner for being too small, but because the slot position demands such versatility, he fit perfectly. Furthermore, one of the consistent traits for those that play in the slot is football IQ. Barber was a brilliant football player and Joyner has a high football IQ.
Throughout the 2014 NFL Draft season, I never called Lamarcus Joyner a cornerback or a safety or a cornerback/safety hybird. I only labeled him as a slot corner. It's the first time I remembered labeling a player solely with that designation, but the requirements necessary to impact the game from that position fit him perfectly.
As he transitions to the next level, it'll be intriguing to see how St. Louis utilizes him. But, St. Louis should have some idea how valuable that position is having faced Arizona twice last year. The Rams saw Tyrann Mathieu twice last year.
During the summer of his senior season, St. Augustine HS cornerback Tyrann Mathieu was barely a name on the recruiting radar screen, but then he camped at the University of Tennessee and everyone took notice. A few weeks later he dominated the LSU camp and Les Miles handed Mathieu an offer before the New Orleans native headed down I-10 for home. Mathieu accepted on the spot and the legend of the Honey Badger was born.
During his freshman season, Mathieu was everywhere. He covered perimeter receivers. He covered slot receivers. He played as a linebacker. He was all over the place. Each and every week, the 5'9", 180 lb. defensive savant made significant impact plays. The Tiger coaching staff just couldn't keep him off the field, even with future first round CB selections Morris Claiborne and Patrick Peterson on each edge. The Tigers had so many defensive backs worthy of making plays that defensive coordinator John Chavis had to find a way to get as many on the field as possible.
He created the Mustang, a six defensive back alignment, and indirectly created a monster in Mathieu. Chavis moved Mathieu into the slot corner position and his career took off. Mathieu's skills were tailor-made for that spot, and he took to it like a badger to honey. He registered six sacks over two years, forced a handful of fumbles coming off the edge and he blanketed inside receivers when not creating mayhem off the edge.
Although the major questions for Mathieu heading into the 2013 NFL Draft were off-the-field ones, questions existed as to what position he should play. I said safety. Some said corner. We seemingly were both right. He started 11 games at safety, but when the Cardinals played nickel and dime, he often moved down into the box to play that "third corner" or "slot corner" position. The mayhem continued much like it did when he was back at LSU. He registered a sack, a couple of interceptions and forced a fumble on one of the best defensive hustle plays I saw all year in last year's opener against the Rams.
An ACL tear may keep him from seeing the field early in the 2014 season -- and it may take even longer to regenerate his explosiveness -- but, when he does return, he should move right back into that slot corner position.
Will there come a day when the slot corner position is a permanent position for a defense? I've learned to never say no to anything except broccoli and sky diving but more than likely not completely permanent. Then again, look how far slot corners have come in such a short time. The offenses are only going to get more complex and the one thing all these players have in common is that they find a way to impact the game and MUST be on the field.
The evolution of the slot corner isn't complete, but it's constantly in motion. Who will be next? Or better put, what will be next?