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Thursday, August 9, 2012
Year of the nickelback in NFC South?

By Pat Yasinskas
ESPN.com

All around the NFC South this summer, we’ve been hearing a lot about nickelbacks.

It seems like all four teams are putting more emphasis on a position that has grown in importance as passing around the league has increased in recent years. Relatively speaking, the NFC South didn’t use a lot of nickel packages last season. The Falcons ranked 11th in the league, using an extra defensive back on 55.8 percent of their defensive plays last season. The Saints (50 percent) were No. 18. The Buccaneers were No. 23 at 45.9 percent and the Panthers came in at No. 24 at 45.2 percent.

But I suspect the numbers will jump for all NFC South teams. When the Falcons went out and traded for Asante Samuel, they repeatedly talked about the importance of having three starting-caliber cornerbacks. They have that now with Samuel, Dunta Robinson and Brent Grimes. We still don’t know if Samuel or Robinson will start, but the Falcons have made it pretty clear that, in nickel situations, Robinson will be the guy moving inside and lining up against slot receivers.

The Saints also have worked to beef up their cornerback situation, although it’s been a gradual process over the past couple of years. They still have starter Jabari Greer, but let Tracy Porter leave as a free agent. The Saints were well prepared for that. They used a first-round pick on Patrick Robinson in 2010 and a third-round pick on Johnny Patrick last year. The plan is for Robinson, who often was used as the nickel back last year, to move permanently to the starting lineup with Patrick taking over as the nickel.

The Buccaneers have shuffled their secondary with a strong eye on what they’ll do in nickel situations. They signed cornerback Eric Wright as a free agent and the plan is to start him opposite Aqib Talib. Wright’s arrival allowed the Buccaneers to move veteran cornerback Ronde Barber to free safety, where he’ll line up with rookie strong safety Mark Barron. But it appears as if the Bucs will slide Barber inside against slot receivers in the nickel package and replace him with Ahmad Black, Larry Asante or Cody Grimm. I think you’ll see the Bucs use the nickel package often because they want to take advantage of Barber’s experience.

I think you’ll see Carolina’s use of the nickel move toward 50 percent, or above it. The Panthers quietly have been hoping that a young cornerback will rise up and allow them to move Captain Munnerlyn inside to the nickel spot. Munnerlyn doesn’t have great size, but wouldn’t be at as much of a disadvantage if he’s matched up with slot receivers. Rookie Josh Norman appeared to have a shot to start with a strong showing in the June minicamp. But Norman has been banged up early in camp. The Panthers are hoping second-year pro Brandon Hogan can put a knee injury fully behind him and challenge for a starting spot, but that hasn’t happened yet. With Norman and Hogan missing camp time, Darius Butler has been getting a lot of work and making a good impression. Unless Norman and Hogan can get healthy and show they’re ready to contribute, Butler could end up playing a key role in Carolina’s secondary.