by Matt Waldman
In 1998, Peter King penned a feature for Sports Illustrated where he crowned the position of NFL quarterback as “The Toughest Job In Sports”. King delivered a convincing assessment that served as the media’s coronation of the quarterback as sports royalty. Anyone who watched pro football between 1960 and 1999 will have little argument that King was right. But times have changed.
In 1999, the NFL instituted the Tuck Rule after the fateful play involving Tom Brady and Charles Woodson that decided the AFC Championship game. In 2004, the league increased enforcement of the illegal contact rule after Bill Belichick’s strategy to manhandle Colts wide receivers at the line of scrimmage limited Indianapolis’ offense to a lowly 14 points and ruined a greatly anticipated shootout between Brady and Peyton Manning in the 2003 conference championship.
And in 2008, pro football modified its “below the knee” rule after a Week 1 season ending hit on Brady subverted the most exciting offense in football. It has now made the defensive secondary the second-class citizens of NFL positions.
Compared to the quarterbacks King wrote about in 1998 – not to mention the decades of signal callers who undoubtedly inspired King to write about the position – today’s signal callers are A-list sports celebrities with silver spoons in their mouths. They are the precious investments of the NFL’s high-scoring, highly profitable brand that inspires year-round coverage and a thriving fantasy sports industry.
(Just a quick tangent for those who care more about the quality and fairness of the game over its branding: One way to give defenses more equal footing in today’s game would be to alter or repeal the illegal contact rule and enforce pass interference violations with a 15-yard penalty and automatic first down rather than making it a spot foul.)
Despite the NFL creating a class system on the playing field, quarterback remains the most technically complex position to master in sport – especially now that it has to be a PR-savvy role within the organization, adding to its difficulty. However, when confining the difficulty of the position to the field of play, the position of safety now gives quarterback a run for its money.
Safeties have to be as versatile athletes as move tight ends. They have to cover the deep and intermediate zones from sideline to sideline with excellent range.
Whether it’s an undersized, water bug of a slot receiver or a power forward posing as a tight end, the safety has to display the athleticism to handle both. And not only do these defenders still have to play the run like a fourth or fifth linebacker and blitz the quarterback, but they also have to do it all in a league where the rules governing the primary role of their position have been engineered against their productivity and the enforcement process has become arbitrary.
The NFL quarterback is the blue blood of the playing field. He’s a lot like the senator’s son who goes from intern to COO to commissioner of a sports empire. In contrast, the NFL safety is kid from the wrong side of the railroad tracks. On appearances alone, the idea of a 5’8” safety is not only an underdog within the hierarchy of the league, he’s beneath the underdog.
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But there’s some Darwinism at play in the wilds of that 6400-square yards of turf and no matter how much football convention tries to squash individuality, it never succeeds in doing so. If anything, it creates new opportunities for individuality to make a game changing impact. Upon deeper examination, it’s possible that the smaller, quicker, scat-back-sized safety might be the next new answer to counter the dominance of the forward pass.
The past decade of rule changes has given rise to the slot receiver and the move tight end and has forced defenses to become more versatile. The offensive position in terms of physical dimensions, athleticism, and skill requirements that bridges the gap between a slot receiver and a move tight end is the running back – more specifically, a scat back like Jamaal Charles, LeSean McCoy, or Shane Vereen who can work between the tackles but also make big plays in space as a receiver.
These hybrid runners have a height-weight range between 5’8” 190 pounds and 5’11’, 205 pounds. On the opposite side of the line of scrimmage, we’re beginning to see more NFL safeties as scat-back-sized athletes with hybrid skills. There have only been few thus far, but there might be a pattern of evolution at play that may one day force us to say that the smaller defensive back is no longer the underdog, but the prototype.
The 5-foot-8, 206-pound Bob Sanders was an anomaly when he entered the NFL. A second round pick with first round ability, he was a two-time All Pro with the Indianapolis Colts who made the defense a much better unit when he was on the field.
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Unfortunately, he wasn’t healthy enough to often see the field. Whether it was due to his size, or his individual physical makeup, we don’t know. Perhaps in hindsight, Sanders could be classified as the precursor to this potential evolution of the position who was just a few years ahead of his time.
On the heels of Sanders’ career came Jim Leonhard. An undrafted free agent despite a storied college career, Leonhard had the speed, diagnostic skill, and physicality to cover slot receivers and tight ends while foiling plays that the likes of Matt Ryan always made in the passing game. Before Leonhard tore a patellar tendon with the Jets midway through his three-year contract, he was a player on the rise.
The latest safety on this evolutionary track is a member of the species of mustelid also called the Mellivora Capensis. Better known to football fans as the Honey Badger, Tyrann Mathieu is a rugged, 5-foot-8, 186-pound mammal with great instincts and a ferocious skill for defense migrated from Louisiana bayou country to the desert grasses of the southwestern U.S. and is the odds-on favorite as the league’s Defensive Rookie of The Year. Mathieu has the potential to become the new standard-setter for hybrid defenders.
If Mathieu’s play officially announces the arrival of a new breed of safety, Lamarcus Joyner’s use in the NFL may become the next step of confirmation that the game is evolving in this direction. However, Joyner may never make his mark as a new breed of defensive back and still have success in the NFL.
Unlike Mathieu, Joyner isn’t a player without a true position. The Florida State Seminole has the skill sets to have a career similar in scope to the likes of three-time Pro Bowl corner Antoine Winfield.
A five-star recruit and USA Today’s 2009 National Defensive Player of the Year, Joyner has the speed to play cornerback in the NFL. Florida State’s prized recruit was considered a better prospect at the cornerback position than Jets’ 2013 first-round pick Dee Milliner.
Demonstrating some marketing smarts of his personnel brand, Joyner has returned to FSU as a senior to cast himself as a cornerback despite two stints as an All-ACC safety. He knows that at 5-foot-8, 190 pounds, his best shot at an early-round selection comes on the outside rather than the deep middle. His primary role to begin the season was corner while helping at nickel and safety as needed.
If Joyner succeeds at influencing the thinking of NFL scouts, coaches, and general managers that he’s a cornerback, all of this positional evolutionary theory is on hold. However, it’s worth keeping in mind that the recent success of Mathieu in Arizona might get the right team thinking that Joyner could offer game-changing performances similar to the Honey Badger. Whether the team that drafts Joyner is progressive or traditional with its defensive approach, it’s going to acquire a promising football player with sound fundamentals and good athleticism who should contribute immediately.
Joyner is a ball hawk who maximizes opportunities to earn the football. This year’s Clemson game is a great example. On the first play, Joyner makes a tackle in space but he also does a fine job of raking his arm across the ball to strip the receiver.
The replay illustrates good technique to hit with his head up, execute a firm wrap, and then attempt the strip. Watch enough of Joyner’s games and it becomes apparent that he has a good feel for when to hit and wrap, when to go for the kill shot, and how to target the football.
Here’s Joyner generating a strip-sack from a blitz off the edge that results in a Florida State defensive touchdown. The replay reveals excellent timing from Joyner to not only make contact on the ball, but to do so with the full force of his body behind it.
If he misses the ball, he’ll still make a flush hit at Boyd’s waist and slide down the quarterback’s legs to wrap the passer. The Seminoles’ defensive back gave just enough of an extra punch to his wrap on the ball to force it loose that many defenders lack the awareness to do at the college level. This is an NFL-caliber play.
Here’s another sack off the edge where Joyner doesn’t force a fumble, but once again note the location of his hit and how he targets the football.
The replay shows Joyner making the initial contact with his left arm and his chest and then brings his right arm over the shoulder of the quarterback in an attempt to force the ball loose. It also prevents the quarterback from throwing the ball away.
It’s these little things that underscore Joyner’s tackling savvy.
Against Oklahoma, Joyner’s hit of Landry Jones on a nickel blitz forces an interception and it has everything to do with his hand placement.
Joyner knows he has position on the quarterback and maximizes his impact by targeting the throwing arm. The defensive back keeps his head up throughout his attempt and this gives Joyner the opportunity to make last-second adjustments to maximize his efforts.
Joyner’s second sack against Pitt is also a good illustration of his consistent heads-up technique, which allows him to see what he’s hitting and display more control with the trajectory of his hit.
As a smaller player, it’s important that Joyner demonstrate this technique. In addition to the safety factor, a heads-up hitter is less likely to miss his target or have an opponent squirt free at the last moment.
Facing the Quarterback
It’s not just hitting and tackling that earns Joyner turnovers. He displays a good feel for reading the field. This interception in the second quarter ends a promising opportunity for Clemson to get back into the game. It’s a play where Joyner begins at the line of scrimmage in the slot, reads the quarterback, and peels to the deep flat to make the interception.
One of Joyner’s true strengths that could lead an NFL team to consider him a safety is his ability to play with his back to his end zone and read and react to the quarterback. Once he recognizes the play, he leaves the shallow route and jumps the pattern of the deeper receiver, making a nice catch.
Here is a play indicative of Joyner’s skill to read the quarterback, jump the route, and cut off the break from a position above the receiver.
Joyner reads the throw and jumps the route over top to cut off the break, hit the receiver, and jar the ball loose. There’s a consistent level of intensity of his contact with his opponent that is at a minimum tenacious, but often best described as violent.
Joyner has a feel for being at the right place at the right time. He has this feel because he possesses patience to watch the play develop before making any moves, but the hustle to flow to the ball until he hears the whistle. He has the understanding that opportunities may come at the end of a play and the closer he gets to the action, the more likely he can have an impact.
When it comes to covering a lot of space, this interception in the endzone against Notre Dame isn’t a great example, but it does illustrate Joyner playing with his eyes and getting into position where he can make an impact on the play.
The potential downside of this play is that Joyner is so adept at reading a quarterback’s eyes that an elite NFL veteran capable of looking off a safety and using a hard pump fake will test Joyner’s savvy. Because Joyner is an aggressive player with good speed, I expect him to get embarrassed early in his career.
Where Joyner struggles is when he has to multitask between gauging the arrival of the football and chasing a defender. Against larger receivers and tight ends, Joyner will have to display great timing and position to overcome physical mismatches and it’s not something he has mastered at this stage of his development.
Here’s a play against Virginia Tech where Joyner initially has decent position, but he struggles with maintaining position and gauging the arrival of the football.
Joyner has a great angle between the defender and the ball on this corner route, but he lacks good timing on the ball’s arrival. While it’s an excellent catch against what I’d call good coverage, Joyner will have to elevate his ball skills while giving chase to overcome his height deficiency in the NFL.
Here’s another read and reaction while facing the quarterback that foils a pass down the seam against Georgia Tech.
Joyner stays in position to honor the play action fake, but his reaction time and angle to cut off the route and nearly results in an interception.
His play in space is equally strong versus the run. Note the patience Joyner has to maintain his outside gap just long enough to see the runner stay inside.
Joyner keeps his feet and shoulders downhill, gauges the runner, and the sticks his nose into the crease to deliver a strong hit that stops the back’s progress, wrapping the runner for a minimal gain.
This play against Georgia Tech’s option is a good display of gap discipline against a lead blocker.
Joyner is patient enough to gauge the blocker and the ball carrier, make a last-second move to slide outside the block to avoid the player, maintain outside position to force the quarterback inside and still be a part of the tackle.
These are two technically sound plays that are transferable from safety to corner and a reason why I compare Joyner in style to Antoine Winfield, a fine run defender from the corner spot.
Check out his closing speed to the football. It’s a clean angle, but still impressive for the athleticism it takes to cover the ground necessary to reach the running back.
Joyner starts from the opposite hash and ends outside the numbers on the other side of the field. Without his effort, Cierre Wood gains 7-10 yards, easily. Instead, Joyner’s wrap and drag after shooting across the field stops Wood’s momentum and cuts this gain in half.
It’s apparent that Joyner has a strong grip. When he gets his hands on a ball carrier, it’s hard for the opponent to rip loose.
Theo Riddick delivers a good stiff arm on Joyner on this run to the right flat, and Joyner cannot get into the runner’s body. However, Joyner latches onto Riddick’s arm and forces the ball carrier sideways to the boundary.
I also like that Joyner knows when to play the ball rather than the man as a pass defender. Here’s a target to Michael Floyd in 2011 where Joyner understands that the position on the field is a good indicator of the type of play he should make to defend the throw.
Watch the two replays and it’s clear that Joyner aims for the intersection of the arriving ball and the player and it eliminates Floyd’s angle on the pass.
Although the football is phasing out dangerous play, Joyner’s hit on the receiver in this Duke contest is a perfect placement to dislodge the football regardless of the penalty.
Joyner’s shoulder lands in the middle of the receiver’s chest and the helmet never makes contact with the opponent’s helmet or chin. It highlights the quandary football’s officials have with the current rules and the speed and intensity of the game. But until the NFL eliminates the level of arbitrary enforcement of these rules, defenders have to remain aggressive and physical or lose their jobs. Joyner does everything he can here to play safe and still produce.
Joyner also has good hands. He has made catches like a receiver with his back to the quarterback as well as catch rebounds. He even does a good job creating rebound chances.
Joyner tips the rebound to himself and then makes the type of return I’m used to seeing from the likes of Ed Reed throughout his career at Miami and Baltimore. If an NFL team needs a return specialist, Joyner will earn his pay on special teams until he earns a shot in a secondary.
The speed and the ability to vary his pace to avoid angles without dramatic cuts make him a dangerous ball carrier. But when he has to make a hard cut or a stop-start move, he can do it with the best of them.
What is beautiful about this return is the creativity to generate space early in the return and the acceleration to cross the field and beat the defense to the opposite side.
Joyner is the second Florida State player profiled in Futures this season and he’s every bit as exciting to watch as his roommate and former St. Thomas Aquinas High classmate Rashad Greene. The reasons are striking in their similarity: They play fast and physical for their size, they possess a great understanding of angles to play the opponent and the football, and they’re big-play artists.
Neither is a perfect prospect in terms of prototypical size, but I won’t be shocked if they out-perform several players with first-round bodies picked ahead of them in April.
The sticking point for Joyner, even more so than Greene, will be the perception of a size disadvantage. It may influence teams to conclude that Joyner is a corner or a nickel back with limited potential. From what I’ve seen, however, it would be a mistake to discount Joyner. Because he’s a versatile player with smarts and athleticism, he’s worth the risk to try at a variety of positions. It means the best fit will be a team with a philosophy of fitting scheme to its talent.