USA Today NFL writer Doug Farrar joined the First and 10 @ 10 crew today, but more important than what he said was what he had written, which was naming three Broncos in his list of the “top 11 slot defenders” in the NFL - Kareem Jackson at No. 8, Bryce Callahan at No. 3, and of course, Chris Harris Jr. at No. 1 (thank goodness John Elway figured out a way to keep him - at least for another year).
New on @TheNFLWire: Can you take a speed slot receiver up the chute? Defend a two-way go without a boundary? Shut down an option route with impeccable match coverage? Then you might be one of the NFL's 11 best slot defenders. https://t.co/nr5j3R0Ncz— Doug Farrar (@NFL_DougFarrar) June 2, 2019
Here’s a snapshot of his reasoning:
No. 8 - Kareem Jackson
“Jackson has become one of the most versatile defensive backs in the NFL, playing almost equally at slot, outside cornerback, and free safety for the Texans in 2018. ...In 2018, Jackson allowed 26 catches on 40 slot targets for 256 yards, 111 yards after the catch, no touchdowns, one interception, and an opponent passer rating of 72.5.”
No. 3 - Bryce Callahan
“One of the most technically proficient slot guys in the league, Callahan gave Fangio freedom to deploy his outside cornerbacks more aggressively, because the coach knew things were tightened up at all times inside. He was lost late in the season to a broken foot, but should be good to go for 2019.”
No. 1 - Chris Harris Jr.
“Harris is the best slot defender of his era, and given the importance of that position in his era, it’s easily arguable that he’s the best slot defender in NFL history. He’s posted shutout after shutout of his slot targets since he became a full-time starter for the Broncos in 2012, ... but it’s his unrivaled ability to shut down everything in the slot receiver’s palette—option routes, two-way goes, and all manner of route combinations—that allows him to transcend the position.”
Joining Ryan Edwards, Andrew Mason and Steve Atwater, Farrar noted that it’s key to have so many slot defenders who are versatile because in the modern NFL, it is no longer a fact that the slot defender is an average player.
“With three and four receiver sets, it’s mandatory that you have at least one good slot corner,” Farrar said. “You can’t put a championship defense on the field without at least one really high quality slot defender, and now with Kareem Jackson, Bryce Callahan and Chris Harris Jr. the Broncos have three guys they can move around.”
And although there is talk of moving Bryce Callahan to playing outside cornerback, Farrar sees him more as a slot corner but noted he is “one of the more technically proficient cornerbacks” in the league and has the “the flexibility, the hip turn and speed downfield to stay with guys” to play slot.
“When you’re the slot guy, if you’re not used to having defend either side, you can really run into trouble,” Farrar said. “The slot has made some outside guys look silly, and Callahan does have the skillset to [play slot].”
If Farrar were the one placing the defensive backs, he would make Harris Jr. the outside guy, Callahan as the slot guy and Jackson “as the moving chess piece,” but he joked that he has no intention of second-guessing Vic Fangio.
“He knows a little more about defense than I do,” Farrar added.
The crew also talked about versatility along the defensive line, particularly Fangio’s point early on that he basically expects all the guys to play every position along the line.
“In the modern NFL, it’s very rare that you see a static front where everyone lines up at same position,” Farrar agreed, noting that it’s less about the position and more about the gap where a player lines up. “You may be three-tech or nose, one shade or between guard and center or between the tackle and guard. Fangio is right on with that. As far as watching trends and seeing how defensive lines look down to down...that’s a very astute statement by him.”
However Fangio makes the defense work, Farrar is convinced that it will be the defense to get the Broncos back to prominence - especially within the “contentious” AFC West.
“Elway set the tone - ‘I’m going to hire Vic Fangio, one of greatest defensive coordinators of his era, we’re going to bring in these cornerbacks, get Mike Munchak to redefine the offensive line, which is a must, and that brings Phillip Lindsay more into play...’” Farrar said. “The Broncos returning to prominence, I think it has to be on defense, and there are few people better to run that ship than Fangio.”