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John Pagano's Six Keys to Playing Nickel Cornerback in the NFL

Keys to Playing Nickel Cornerback

In our first Understanding An Undervalued Position article, we used former first round pick Kyle Wilson’s experience and the NFL’s evolving personnel tendencies and current contract data to explore the increasing value of nickel cornerbacks in today’s NFL. This article goes deeper; using Coach John Pagano’s keys to playing nickel cornerback: processing, physicality, and coverage, to break down film and discuss the nuances of the position with former NFL coaches and front office managers. 

Processing: Does he have the IQ, mental quickness, and vision needed to play inside? 


Here, Coach Pagano’s first key, processing, is on full display. In response to AJ Brown’s motion to the field, Kenny Moore II travels and the safeties and linebackers swap to keep their run/pass responsibilities the same. Kenny Moore II traveling with Brown typically alerts an offense to man coverage; however, the Colts are in Cover 2.

Moore’s eyes start inside to play the C gap to run; once he reads pass, he disguises his zone coverage with an inside leverage press man look. Once he knows Darius Leonard is in position as the Cover 2 middle dropper to take AJ Brown, Moore’s grasp of route concepts enables him to peel off and be in the perfect position to intercept the dig behind him. The Titans thought it was man coverage the whole time. 

Physicality: Can he play against multiple personnel packages?   


Jalen Ramsey, who spent 46% of his snaps at inside corner, does not travel with this jet motion but bumps it across the defense. In this Cover 8 look, Ramsey is now responsible for the running back. Ramey’s elite athleticism enables him to start outside and jump-cut inside this center to make this strong open-field tackle. 

Coverage: Is he quick and smart enough to cover multiple skill sets?   

In 2021, Tyreek Hill was targeted 81 times for 60 catches, 659 yards, and 6 touchdowns in the slot. Against the Bills in Week 5, Tyreek was targeted 7 times with 3 catches for 33 yards. This lack of production in the slot was largely due to Taron Johnson’s excellent technique in coverage. 

In the Bills cover 1 hole, Johnson aligns in press coverage. To Hill’s inside speed release, Johnson’s lateral quickness keeps him attached to the hip. Down the field, Johnson uses help from the underneath hole and post player to keep outside, underneath leverage on Hill. Mahomes' eyes tell you he wants to go to Hill on this play but concedes a win to Johnson late and throws back to the middle of the field.

How Do Offenses Attack Nickels?

These specific clips were broken down because these are the ways offensives look to attack the nickel: with cross-motions and jet-motions, pulling linemen, speed in the slot, and more. From an offensive perspective, coach Mike Solari said he would identify “which nickel or corner is the lesser of the tacklers and design the formations and runs to the perimeter to that DB who is not as big of a tackler.” 

Coach Dirk Koetter focused on gaining leverage and pre-snap keys. “We were always trying to get our receivers two-way goes. Do we have to put him in motions or stacks or could he simply get a clean release at the line? Also, how well does he disguise? Nickels are tied to safeties with their leverage; does he give away clues pre-snap to what the coverage is?” 

What Goes Into The Evaluation Process?

The conversation then shifted to the evaluation process. When scouting cornerbacks, determining whether he could be used inside and out was essential to Rick Spielman’s scouting. In combination with film and athletic testing, Spielman said, “Because things move a lot faster at nickel than at outside corners, we had many intelligence tests to try and measure processing and mental quickness… If we felt a corner had potential to play nickel, we would add value to that player because nickels are playing more than they ever have”. 

Is Having A Starting Corners That Can Play Inside and Out A Defense’s Best Option? 

Our brainstorm ended with a discussion on how to get your best 11 on the field. Coach Brian Stewart valued the option of being able to “move your starting outside corner to nickel depending on the matchup and your third corner outside where you can keep him out of the fray and protect him against verticals.” 

This type of versatility is rare in the NFL today. Last season only 12 starting outside cornerbacks took over 100 snaps in the slot. According to PFF, Jalen Ramsey, Kendall Fuller, and J.C. Jackson were the highest-graded players in this group. There were only 8 nickel cornerbacks that played more than 100 snaps on the outside. Of this group, Kenny Moore II, L’Jarius Sneed, and Donte Deayon were the highest graded PFF players last season. 

If teams have corners with these vast skill sets, it adds speed and flexibility to the entire defense, enabling teams to play against formations, personnel groupings, and matchups with fluidity from week to week.