The NFL has undergone a number of changes in the past 25 years. Foremost among those changes have been the liberalization of rules to strengthen the passing game. Quarterbacks have never been as protected as they are today. Receivers have never had more room to operate — and they’ve never been bigger. In 1996, Keyshawn Johnson and Terrell Owens exploded the concept Sterling Sharpe and Michael Irvin had brought to life in 1985. These big, powerful receivers have become the prototype for a generation. Of course, they are not alone. Receivers like Carolina’s Steve Smith and Pittsburgh’s Hines Ward continue to be effective. So who is covering these guys?
In 2003, the NFL had what I believe to be the best class ever for defensive backs. Six players were taken in the first round. Eight more were drafted in the second round. Eight players were taken in the fourth round. Among those fourth round selections were a handful of the best cover corners in the league: Buffalo’s Terrence McGee (111th overall), Philadelphia’s Asante Samuel (120th overall by New England), and Pittsburgh’s Ike Taylor (125th overall). Samuel (2) and McGee (1) have played in three Pro Bowls. Taylor has yet to make it, but his coverage skills are comparable to anyone in the league.
Asante Samuel has 31 career interceptions. Ike Taylor has just eight. For Samuel, its enough to lead a prestigious class that includes #43 Troy Polamalu (pictured above), Jacksonville Jaguar Rashean Mathis, and Oakland Raider Nnamdi Asomugha. Among those who cover the league, the former Cal Bear Asomugha (#31 overall) is the best cover corner in the league. That’s heady praise for a guy who plays in the same division as Champ Bailey and is a former teammate of Charles Woodson. It may or may not be deserved, but his inclusion in this conversation is duly noted.
Mathis, meanwhile, may be the best corner that no one knows outside of Florida. He does it all and has 28 career interceptions. Mathis has great hands, speed and agility. At 6-1, 200 lbs., this graduate of Bethune-Cookman proved his mettle by earning a first-team All Pro nod in 2006. He had eight interceptions that season. Quarterbacks around the league have learned the lesson. He hasn’t had more than four in a season since then. He plays four games every season vs. Reggie Wayne and Andre Johnson. He’s as good as it gets.
Another superb talent in this draft class is Chicago Bear cornerback Charles Tillman. Like Mathis, Tillman has good size and plays with tremendous speed and leverage. Tillman’s forte is the strip. He has forced 19 fumbles since being the 35th pick of the 2003 draft. He also has 22 career interceptions. He has more than 450 tackles. The only two players drafted in 2003 with more tackles than Tillman are his teammate Lance Briggs and Packer LB Nick Barnett. (NOTE: Tillman and Taylor both went to the University of Louisiana – Lafayette.)
Tillman’s numbers are spectacular. He was the 7th defensive back taken in that draft. Terrence Newman of the Dallas Cowboys was first. Newman has not turned in to the elite corner that was anticipated when he left Kansas State, but he is still starting for the team and he is making plays. He has 21 career interceptions and has played in one Pro Bowl. Newman, arguably, is improving at this stage of his career. He has forced three fumbles this season.
Seattle selected Marcus Trufant with the 11th pick. He was a Pro Bowler in 2007. He has 18 career interceptions and 430+ tackles. Trufant has put in work in the league and is a solid performer — when healthy.
Titans draft pick Andre Woolfolk (Oklahoma, 28th overall) has been out of the league since 2006. He had an undistinguished career with the Titans. He had good size and wheels. He might have excelled in a different system, but a team with players like Adam Jones and Courtland Finnegan has a nose for DB talent.
The other first round pick, Sammy Davis (Texas A&M) by the Chargers didn’t work out either. Davis played with three teams and was last with the Buccaneers in 2007.
So who are some of the other notables in this draft class:
- Eugene Wilson. He played cornerback at Illinois, was converted to safety by the New England Patriots and earned a Super Bowl ring in 2003 and 2004. Wilson started alongside Rodney Harrison on the undefeated 2007 team. He plays for the Houston Texans.
- Ken Hamlin. Drafted by the Seahawks out of Arkansas, Hamlin gained a reputation as a ferocious hitter. He was a solid performer in Seattle (2007 Pro Bowl) and now plays for the Dallas Cowboys.
- Mike Doss. The former Ohio State Buckeye safety was drafted to play in Tony Dungy’s cover-2 scheme. Doss was on the field when the Colts defeated the Bears in the Super Bowl a few years ago. He has been supplanted by the ferocious Bob Sanders in Indy, but he was solid during his tenure in Indy. He cashed in his Super Bowl chips and spent a year with Leslie Frazier in Minnesota, and a year with Marvin Lewis in Cincinnati. Doss is out of the league.
- Ricky Manning, Jr. You remember him! He was the UCLA rookie (3rd round, 82nd overall) who fueled the Carolina Panthers to a road playoff win in Philadelphia back in 2003. The Eagles were set to play in the Super Bowl and face off against either the Colts or Patriots. The Panthers were a bunch of upstarts with two young corners who were going to get run off the field. Instead, the guys who lined up across from Manning never even made it off the line of scrimmage. He delivered a masterful beat down to everyone wearing green that day. Three interceptions later, Manning was a star and the Panthers were headed to the Super Bowl. Ricky Manning, Jr. plays for the Florida Tuskers of the United Football League.
- Yeremiah Bell. Bell is the Dolphins starting strong safety. He was drafted in the 6th round, 213th overall. He’s been a solid performer for the Dolphins.
- Donnie Nickey, Tennessee Titans strong safety (Ohio State, 5th round, 154th overall). Nickey played with Doss in the national championship game and anchored a secondary (along with Chris Gamble) that beat the Miami Hurricanes featuring Kellen Winslow, Jr., Willis McGahee and several other players drafted in the first round. Nickey has played in 96 NFL games.
I won’t use this time and space to talk about Troy Polamalu. It is sufficient to say that his career is on a Hall of Fame trajectory. He is the headliner for his class. What is particularly noteworthy, though, is the level of talent throughout this class. Some of these corners have size. Some still play in the return game. McGee has five kickoff return touchdowns (seven total) in his career. Most excel against elite receivers. Chad Ochocinco hasn’t had a 100-yard game vs. Pittsburgh since Ike Taylor was looking for a prom date. Andre Johnson hasn’t had a 100-yard game vs. Jacksonville since the middle of 2006. They all wreak havoc all over the field. They require teams to game plan for them. Charles Tillman, Ike Taylor, Rashean Mathis, Terrence McGee and Nnamdi Asomugha are as good as it gets in the NFL — and they all came to play at the same time.
2003 was the NFL’s best draft class for defensive backs. It will be interesting to see if they eventually get the full credit they deserve for playing in an area where the decks are stacked against defenders.