A lot of people ask me the question, “why is it so hard for young DBs to make it in the NFL?”
Well, trust me, I was a young DB that didn’t quite make it early in the NFL. In my rookie year, 1997, I only played in one game, and it was against the Arizona Cardinals. Rob Moore embarrassed me so bad, I didn’t dress for another game that season.
Most Challenging Aspects
Of course, I went on and played another 15 years and had a great career. But to me, the biggest difficulty of transitioning from college football to the NFL is because it’s the second most difficult position to play in the NFL.
Quarterback is number one, but defensive back is by far the hardest position to adapt to the NFL. Number one: the best athletes on the team are usually the wide receivers that you have to cover. The guys that you’re trying to defend passes from are usually the highest-paid guys on every football team. So, there is that going against you.
But really, the struggle—and what most young guys struggle with—is adjusting to the speed at which things are coming to you, not the speed of the game.
People like to simplify it and say, “it’s the speed of the game.” The reality of it is: It’s the speed at which receivers are running routes. It’s the speed at which offenses are trying to attack you. A lot of young DBs just don’t understand how offenses are trying to get at them. It takes a while. It takes reps, and it takes a lot of discipline. It takes real effort to perfect your craft.
Whether it’s a technique at the line of scrimmage or it’s a technique in coverage, you have to marry that with the knowledge of the game, understanding that it takes anticipation and preparedness for you to succeed in this league.
My “Ah-ha” Moment
I had an “ah-ha” moment, and it was towards the end of my rookie year. It was in practice just figuring out that I can’t be a better athlete than everybody that I’m trying to cover. In college it was very easy to be the best athlete on the field. You’re usually more athletic than most of the talent you’re playing against. Every now and then, you’ll run up against a really good offensive football team with really good offensive players, but for the majority of it, you are better than most.
It was towards the end of my rookie year that I realized you’re not going to be able to “out-athlete” the guys that you’re covering anymore. It’s going to have to be a technique thing. It can’t just be: lineup, backpedal however you want, react and see if you can make a play.
It became more about perfecting my techniques and then anticipating what was coming to me. I remember in practice; I made an interception. I can’t remember who the quarterback was, but I made an interception, and it was like the accumulation of preparing and then knowing the route and then jumping it.
I was like, “oh, OK, maybe it’s not as hard as I was trying to make it.”
When we’re talking Rams Defense and some of their expectations, this was a defensive team that— the year before they won the Super Bowl—was number one in the league. That team’s defensive coordinator, Brandon Staley, left to become head coach of the Los Angeles Chargers, and the Rams slipped to 17th last year. By the way, Staley’s team was 23rd last season.
The reality is that coming off a Super Bowl can sometimes be the hardest thing to repeat.
Learning From History
I remember in 2003 after I won the Super Bowl with the Bucs, we felt like we were on cloud nine as a defense. Nobody could beat us. If you choose to go look it up, we played the Indianapolis Colts on Monday Night Football, and that’s when we started to show some of our weaknesses. We really weren’t as good as we thought we were.
Was that because of hubris—expecting people to lay down for us?
Who knows what it is?
It’s hard to repeat. It’s hard to do over what you’ve just done.
Previewing the Defense
If you look at this Los Angeles Rams team, it starts up front. They’re very similar to some of the other great defenses in the league right now. They run a hybrid 3-4 defensive system under coordinator Raheem Morris.
It obviously starts up front with Aaron Donald, who is more or less an interior defensive end or three-technique defensive tackle at times. Yes, they lost Von Miller, but they still have Leonard Floyd, who packed in 9.5 sacks last year.
The 9.5 sacks that Von Miller gave, collectively, to two teams are going to be missed. He had two sacks in the Super Bowl.
The Rams have two guys now in Justin Hollins and Terrell Lewis who, in five collective seasons, have a total of 11 sacks.
Now they have some young guys, and that’s going to take some of their draft picks hopefully finding production. This is a team that had 50 sacks last year. That really helped their secondary.
One guy they are going to miss is Darious Williams. He went to Jacksonville, and behind him the Rams don’t have really any experience. It’s young, REAL YOUNG. Rookies and second-year guys! David Long Jr. will probably get to start at outside corner, and they do bring back Troy Hill, who was much better in LA than he was in Cleveland last season. So that will help their secondary.
The biggest addition on defense for me is Bobby Wagner. He’ll get to play alongside Ernest Jones, who I think had a really good rookie year. This defense can evolve because of Bobby Wagner. He is a 140 tackle per year guy, he can play every single down, and that expectation and leadership he brings to the defense can help them bounce back and be a repeat type of team.
We obviously know what the Rams are going to do on offense. If the health of the quarterback is good, if Matthew Stafford’s elbow is good, I don’t see the Rams slowing down on that side of the ball.
But this defense? I think Raheem Morris is going to have to get them to play at a higher level if they are going to repeat. There are a lot of things going against you when you’re a Super Bowl champion. Everybody is gunning for you and you have the toughest schedule.
Defense has to win for them this year.
Editor’s note: As a three-time all-pro defensive back with 47 career interceptions, former Tampa Buccaneers cornerback Ronde Barber knows a thing or two about ballhawking. The 33rd Team asked him which players currently in the NFL are the top ballhawks.
The best ballhawking corner in the league right now is Miami’s Xavien Howard. He’s big, fast and has unbelievable leaping skills. He also has soft hands. When Howard goes up for an interception, it’s not like he’s trying to just defend the football. He’s trying to catch the ball. That’s why he leads the league in interceptions over the last three seasons.
The Chargers’ J.C. Jackson really jumped out at me last year, and I had been sleeping on him when he was in New England. He’s not your prototypical, modern NFL cornerback. He’s not 6-2, he doesn’t have long arms. But he is a ball magnet. A lot of what gets him in front of passes is his knowledge of the game and his anticipation. Some of it is scheme-related. But he still has to catch the ball, and he does that as well as anybody in football right now.
Trevon Diggs of the Dallas Cowboys is phenomenal as a ballhawk. He’s physically gifted and mentally strong. You could make the point that he gives up a ton of yards, and he does — more than anybody in the league last year. But what stands out about him is his ability to go get the ball. He looks like a receiver, and he played receiver at Alabama before transitioning to defense; we all know how good his brother Stefon is at that, too.
What signifies a great corner in this league is the ability to take the ball away. Having good coverage skills and taking one side of the field away means nothing to me if you aren’t taking the ball away. Turnovers dictate outcomes, and Diggs is really good at forcing turnovers. I hate that he gives up a lot of yards. But I love the way he attacks the ball and forces turnovers. That ability he has is unparalleled. His coaches and the fans might get frustrated with him, but he’s just going to be a guy who you take the good with the bad. But the good is really good.
To be a more complete corner and not just a ballhawk, Trevon Diggs has to do the little things. Not every throw his way is an opportunity for an interception. Interceptions have to be timed perfectly, they have to be preparation meeting an opportunity to get the ball. Diggs gives up a lot of big plays because of how aggressive he is in coverage. You do appreciate that he’s always looking for a chance for a takeaway. Not every situation is good for that, though.
Sometimes, you just have to play with caution. And that athleticism he has so much of will make him able — in the right situations — to take the ball away. That’s just about technique and perfecting your craft, and he needs to work on that as his career continues to evolve.