This is the first of a series of articles I plan to publish in the leadup to the draft which will provide roundups of positions and player types that don’t necessarily fit traditional definitions of “starters,” but have particular importance to the Commanders’ team-building efforts. With the recent release of Bobby McCain, there is no better place to start than nickelbacks and safeties who can cover the slot.
My recent recap of the Commanders’ cornerbacks’ performance in 2022 identified a few areas for improvement. One of these was slot coverage. Playing as the Commanders’ primary slot corner, Bobby McCain did a good job of preventing receivers from drawing targets, but once the ball was in the air, he was a liability in coverage, allowing a shocking 78.8% completion rate and a 111.9 opposing passer rating. Aside from Rachad Wildgoose, who showed some promise in limited action, the other slot options on the Commanders’ depth chart played well below the level of the starters. The front office seem to have noticed the same thing and released McCain prior to free agency.
How important is the nickelback? Historically, we tend to think of a nickelback as a player who comes on the field in nickel sub-packages to cover the slot receiver. The baggage associated with that terminology has not kept pace with the evolution of NFL defenses. In 2021, NFL teams played five defensive backs on 61.4% of snaps. The nickel package has become the new base defense across most of the league, essentially making the nickelback a starting position on most teams.
The Commanders were no exception. As I showed in the 2022 Snaps and Stats Recap, Bobby McCain played 416 snaps aligned as a slot corner, which made him the third most utilized cornerback on the team, after Kendall Fuller (1,031 snaps) and Benjamin St-Juste (655 snaps).
McCain’s role in the defense was actually much bigger than those numbers imply. When he wasn’t covering the slot, he usually stayed on the field and aligned at free safety (353 snaps) or in the box (195 snaps). His 971 total defensive snaps made him the second-most utilized player on defense after Fuller.
Jack Del Rio’s utilization of McCain across multiple positions was in keeping with the general trend of the Commanders’ backfield. The roles ascribed to the three safeties are really better described as general tendencies than fixed positions. While Kamren Curl was listed on game logs as Strong Safety, he actually played just over half of his snaps aligned in the box (50.6%) and aligned as a deep safety 26.0% of the time, and covered the slot on 15.4% of snaps. Darrick Forrest, on the other hand, aligned most often as a deep free safety (57% of snaps), but also spent substantial time in the box (31.2% of snaps) and occasionally covered the slot (8.8% of snaps).
It is difficult to be absolutely sure whether McCain’s utilization on defense was by design, or whether it was an adjustment to the available personnel. Following McCain’s departure, the role he vacated might be filled by a similar replacement player who splits time between nickelback and free safety. Alternatively, the Commanders could fill the vacancy with a combination of a slot corner and another safety, either by drawing on existing players, free agent acquisitions or through the draft. For that reason, in this roundup I will look at players who played a similar nickel CB/S role in college, as well as CBs who can cover the slot.
2023 Draft Nickelback and CB/S Roundup
This roundup is intended to provide fans with an overview of the players that the Commanders might consider in the 2023 draft. I will never pretend to be an NFL talent evaluator. The player summaries were derived by scouring the internet for player profiles, most notably from websites including NFL.com (Lance Zierlein, Daniel Jeremiah, Bucky Brooks), The Draft Network, Pro Football Network, Pro Football Focus, The Athletic, Hogs Haven player profiles when available, and even WalterFootball on occasion.
Draft order projections for players slated to be selected on Days 1 and 2 were sourced from The Athletic’s 2023 NFL Draft Consensus Big Board, which currently lists the consensus top 100 players. After that, I have ranked players on Day 3 based on my general sense of where they might land, taking guidance where available from the analysts and websites listed above.
Many Hogs Haven readers will have more informed opinions than I do about these players, and there are likely be some I overlooked. I encourage readers to share their player assessments in the comments.
Brian Branch, CB/S, Alabama
6-0, 190 lbs, 4.58 sec 40, RAS 6.10
Consensus Prospect Rank: 17
If the Commanders want to upgrade the nickelback/free safety position to the strongest position in the secondary, Branch is the best bet in the 2023 draft. Branch projects as a plug-and-play starter with the skills to play nickelback and deep safety at a high level early in his career. He is profiled as having high football IQ, speed and fluidity to mirror slot receivers with the range and instincts to play single-high or deep safety. He also attacks blocks aggressively and takes good angles against the run.
Branch’s skillset translated to high level production in his final two years in college. In 2022, he recorded 90 total tackles, 58 solo tackles (4th in the SEC), 14 tackles for loss (2nd in the SEC), 3 sacks, 2 interceptions and 7 passes defended. He also returned 2 punts in 2022 for 65 yards and one touchdown.
The Consensus Big Board ranking aligns almost perfectly with the Commanders’ #16 pick and places Branch right between two of the top outside corners (Christian Gonzalez 16, Cam Smith 18) and ahead of all but two of the offensive tackles (Peter Skoronski 6, Paris Johnson Jr. 12) and one of the top three QBs (Will Levis 19). Would the Commanders actually pick Branch ahead of many of those players? Probably not. But if he becomes available to them after the 16th pick he would be too good value to pass up.
Antonio Johnson, CB/S, Texas A&M
6-2, 198 lbs, 4.52 sec 40, RAS 5.24
Consensus Prospect Rank: 23
Here is another direction the Commanders could go. Johnson is a large, versatile defensive back who has played slot corner, safety and dime linebacker for the Aggies. He has the length to line up against large wide receivers and tight ends, combined with exceptional instincts and tackling to play deep safety. His size and skillset provides a potential solution for McCain’s role as well as providing another option to play the Buffalo Nickel. Johnson is also a force against the run and hits with a pop to jar balls loose. He ranked 8th in the NCAA with three forced fumbles in 2022.
Johnson is unlikely to be the Commanders’ pick at 16 and is equally unlikely to still be available at 47. He is potentially a target if they trade back in the first round for additional picks.
Clark Phillips III, CB, Utah
5-9, 184 lbs, 4.51 sec 40, RAS 5.02
Consensus Prospect Rank: 38
Phillips is a physical corner with the ability to mirror shifty receivers on underneath routes, which would suit a role as a nickel corner. He is described as a student of the game, with a good feel for reading QB’s eyes. He tested poorly at the Combine and measured an inch shorter than his measurements at Utah, which will probably resolve any speculation about playing him outside and possibly drop him lower than the pre-Combine consensus ranking.
Phillips was a 2022 Consensus All-American. He was extremely productive in coverage in 2022, ranking 3rd in the NCAA with 6 interceptions, 4th in the NCAA with 142 interception return yards, and 3rd in the NCAA with 2 pick-sixes. He only had 6 passes defended in 2022, down from 13 in 2021, which ranked 8th in the NCAA. He is not likely to fall to the Commanders at 47, but if he does, they should sprint to the podium.
DJ Turner II, CB, Michigan
5-11, 180 lbs, 4.26 sec 40, RAS 9.12
Consensus Prospect Rank: Unranked
BrisVegas Draft Projection: 2nd round
Turner is a scheme-diverse corner with the ability to line up in the slot or outside. He is an explosive athlete with elite change of direction quickness to stick with slot receivers running underneath routes and elite long speed. He ran the fastest 40 yard dash at the 2023 Combine. He has potential to become an early starter at nickel corner and could eventually develop into a starting outside corner.
In 2022, Turner had 27 solo tackles and 9 assists, 1 interception and 10 passes defended. He hasn’t cracked the top 100 of the Consensus big board yet, but that could change when it is updated after the Combine. When that happens, I’d expect him to rank in the second round.
Christopher Smith II, S/Nickel Hybrid, Georgia
5-11, 192 lbs, 4.62 sec 40, RAS 2.98
Consensus Prospect Rank: 65
Commanders Meeting: Combine
Smith is another swiss-army-knife player who aligned all over Georgia’s defense, including FS, in the box and slot corner. His strengths are elite instincts, leadership, high football IQ and exceptional ball skills. In the run game, he is a hard hitter with the range to cut off running lanes for ball carriers.
Smith was a 2022 Consensus All American. He had 3 interceptions in 2022 and in 2021 with one returned for TD in 2021. In 2022 he had 45 solo tackles and 16 assists, 5 tackles for loss, 1 sack, 5 passes defended and a forced fumble and recovery.
He tested extremely poorly at the Combine, which might drop him into range of the Commanders’ comp pick near the end of the third round.
Ji’Ayir Brown, S, Penn State
5-11, 203 lbs, 4.65 sec 40, RAS 4.59
BrisVegas Projection: 4th round
Brown is a versatile defensive back who can line up in the box, cover the slot or play single-high deep safety.
He has been one of the most productive safeties in college football over the past two seasons, registering 147 tackles, 10 interceptions and 8 passes defended. In 2022 he had 7 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, 4 interceptions returned for 114 yards (10th in the NCAA), 3 passes defended and one fumble recovery for a touchdown.
Brown is not listed on the Consensus Big Board of the top 100 prospects. His poor testing at the Combine might prevent him from moving up from Day 3.
Jammie Robinson, S, Florida State
5-11, 191 lbs, 4.59 sec 40, RAS 4.90
BrisVegas Projection: 4th round
There doesn’t seem to be a consensus on what position Robinson projects to in the NFL. Some analysts see him as a nickelback/safety, while others see his best fit at box safety. That could mean he has the position flex to switch between the two, which fits how Del Rio likes to play his safeties. Robinson is at his best playing downhill against the run or stalking routes as a robber. He had 5 interceptions and defended 8 passes in the last two years.
Robinson doesn’t have elite measurables, but he gets the job done. In 2022 he had 46 solo tackles and 53 assists, 5 tackles for loss, 1 sack 1 interception and 5 passes defended.
Tre’Vius Hodges-Tomlinson, Slot CB, TCU
5-8, 178 lbs, 4.41 sec 40, RAS 7.51
Consensus Prospect Rank: 91
BrisVegas Projection: 4th round
The nephew of LaDanian Tomlinson won the 2022 Jim Thorpe Award as the best DB in college football. He did that by combining elite athleticism and ball skill with unbridled competitive toughness to play bigger than his size. However, at 5’8”, he will be limited to taking over the slot-corner component of McCain’s role in the NFL. If he were 2 inches taller, he would be in the first-round conversation, but he’s not. There is a big question about whether he can play in the NFL at his size. That is why I have dropped him to Day 3 despite his Consensus rank in the top 100.
Tomlinson-Hodges was highly productive over the past 2 years, recording 91 total tackles, 4 tackles for loss, 5 interceptions returned for 49 yards and 1 TD, and 22 passes defended (15 in 2022, 1st in the Big 12). He wasn’t tried as a returner in college, but it’s worth a shot in the NFL.
Jartavius “Quan” Martin, CB/S, Illinois
5-11, 194, 4.46 sec 40, RAS 8.94
BrisVegas Projection: 4th round
Is Illinois quietly becoming the DBU of the Big 10? Martin was part of a loaded backfield in that also featured CB Devin Witherspoon and safety Sydney Brown. Martin was very productive in 2022, defending 11 passes with 3 interceptions and forcing 2 fumbles. In college, he displayed the versatility to cover the slot in man or zone schemes and to play deep safety. He is also a physical run defender. Expect Quan to move up draft boards after a better than expected performance at the Combine.
Kei’Trel Clark, CB, Louisville
5-10, 181 lbs, 4.42 sec 40, RAS 7.16
BrisVegas Projection: 3rd to 5th round
Clark projects as a nickelback for the NFL, but has the versatility to play outside. He had excellent ball production in college due to his excellent instincts in coverage. He is also a good run defender and an effective tackler and blitzer.
In 2022 Clark had 35 solo tackles and 16 assists, 4 tackles for loss, 1 sack, 1 interception returned for a TD, and 5 passes defended (down from 12 in 2021).
Cameron Mitchell, CB/S, Northwestern
5-11, 191 lbs, 4.47 sec 40, RAS 8.23
BrisVegas Projection: 5th to 7th round
Mitchell is a tough, strong CB who is very effective in run support. He tracks the ball well and has burst and speed in coverage, but may lack the fluidity to stick with shiftier slot receivers. He could be worth a flyer in the later rounds and should offer value on special teams if he can’t stick on defense.
Mitchell had 52 total tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, 1 interception for 33 yards, 9 passes defended and 1 forced fumble in 2022.
Christian Braswell, CB, Rutgers
5-10, 178 lbs, 4.45 sec 40
BrisVegas Projection: 7th round or UDFA
Braswell has good anticipation skills and explosive burst, which might make him a fit for the Commanders’ zone-based schemes. However, he is not an aggressive tackler and can be boxed out by physical receivers. He might be worth a shot in the seventh round or as a priority UDFA.
In 2022 he had 36 total tackles, 1 tackle for loss, 3 interceptions with 1 returned for a TD, and 11 passes defended.
Avery Young, S, Rutgers
6-1, 207 lbs, 4.51 sec 40
BrisVegas Projection: 7th round or UDFA
Young has the fluidity and change of direction skills to mirror quicker receivers in man coverage underneath. He is not an explosive player and needs to get better in route recognition. Like his teammate, he might be worth a look near the end of the draft or as a UDFA.
Young had 84 total tackles, 2 tackles for loss, 1 sack, 1 interception, 4 passes defended and 1 forced fumble in 2022.
Acknowledgement: Edited by James Dorsett.
Where should the Commanders find Bobby McCain’s replacement?
Free agency: Cameron Sutton, Jonathan Jones
Draft Round 1
Draft Day 2
Draft Day 3
Their own roster
The Carolina Panthers’ Alumni Association