Commentary

Young DBs snap into action

In the draft, WRs were the rage, but it has been the rookie DBs who have thrived

Originally Published: October 3, 2012
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

In April, wide receivers were the rage.

Thirteen receivers were drafted in the first three rounds. Justin Blackmon, Michael Floyd, Kendall Wright and A.J. Jenkins went in the first. To keep up, the Cleveland Browns even used a second-round supplemental pick on Josh Gordon.

As great as the 2012 receiving class might be in terms of potential, the cornerback class has been more productive in the first month of the season. Six cornerbacks drafted in 2012 have taken part in more than 150 plays in the first four weeks. Only three wide receivers -- Blackmon, Wright and Alshon Jeffery -- have a similar amount of playing time in the first month.

Morris Claiborne of the Dallas Cowboys, Stephon Gilmore of Buffalo and Janoris Jenkins of the Rams immediately established themselves as starters. But surprisingly, Josh Norman of the Carolina Panthers became a starter, and the Vikings' Josh Robinson and the Cardinals' Jamell Fleming have played more than 150 snaps.

Several young receivers, meanwhile, are being developed slowly. A.J. Jenkins of the San Francisco 49ers (zero snaps), Ryan Broyles of the Detroit Lions (20 snaps), Brian Quick of the St. Louis Rams (20), DeVier Posey of the Houston Texans (14) and Rueben Randle of the New York Giants (36) haven't played much. Floyd played only 25 snaps in the first two games for the Cardinals but has averaged 33 in the past two. T.J. Graham was basically inactive until the Buffalo Bills lost David Nelson for the season.

Claiborne, Gilmore and Janoris Jenkins also have earned their playing time. Quarterbacks are completing an average of three passes or fewer per game against them. Norman has had 19 passes completed against him, but none for touchdowns.

During my training camp tour, I marveled at the influx of good, young corners who can play man-to-man. In 2012, a defense needs to play man and zone. Offenses are more diverse than ever before.

If you've watched Lions games, you've seen most defenses slip into soft zones because there is no fear of a Lions running attack. That strategy has taken the big plays out of the Lions' offense. But look at the success the Seahawks have had with their man-to-man defense in holding the Cowboys and Green Bay Packers to 19 points in two home games.

Offenses are clearly ahead of defenses, but the influx of good, young corners will challenge top receivers.

From the inbox

Q: I understand the uproar over the call in the Packers-Seahawks Monday night game. But I wonder why nobody has asked why M.D. Jennings was trying to make the interception in the first place. Isn't best practice in those situations to knock the ball down or away, rather than trying to catch it yourself? If Jennings had done this, it takes away any chance the refs make a shaky call.

Matthew in Atlanta

[+] EnlargeM.D. Jennings
AP Photo/Stephen BrashearWhy did M.D. Jennings go for the pick instead of knocking the ball down?

A: It has been mentioned but not much. Understand that Jennings is a young player. It was his only play on the field in that game, so he probably let his instincts get the best of him. All critics of the replacement officials were waiting for a play such as this so that they could call for the replacement experiment to end. The attention was on the mechanics of the replacement officials, not the player. That's why it's easy to see people ignoring the better football play, which would be to bat the ball away. But you are correct.

Q: While watching the NFC East, I can't tell if the defensive lines are really that good or the offensive lines are really that bad. My thought is that the offensive lines are so bad that they make the defensive lines look amazing. Not trying to take anything away from the sack guys, but they aren't going against very tough competition.

Shawn in Arlington, Texas

A: Good observation. Each team in the NFC East has major problems along the offensive line, but that doesn't take anything away from the defensive lines. The Giants and Eagles have some of the best pass-rushers in the game. The Cowboys and Redskins are solid with their three-man lines. Going into the season, the Eagles might have had the best line, but they lost Jason Peters during the offseason and Jason Kelce, their starting center, because of a knee injury in Week 2. The Giants have problems at tackle. The Cowboys are weak in the middle of the line. And the Redskins are thin and have had some injuries. When there are divisional games, the offensive line problems are more exposed.

Q: I saw Percy Harvin and Randall Cobb being used in the backfield getting running plays and, for Cobb, he had a pitch that gained yards. During your training camp tour, did the Bears use Devin Hester in this way? If so, when are we going to see it? And if not, why don't the Bears use Hester in this manner, since he is the most explosive returner in the game?

James in La Crosse, Wis.

A: I didn't see the Bears do that when I visited their camp, but I'm sure it's an option. Harvin and Cobb are naturals for such roles, and Hester would fit in, too. What's interesting is how Hester's playing time has diminished in each of the first four games. He started the season with 32 plays on offense and has watched his playing time drop from 24 to 11 to eight plays in the past three weeks. It might not be a bad idea for offensive coordinator Mike Tice to consider such a package of plays to get more use out of Hester. At least the Bears are solid in the backfield with Matt Forte and Michael Bush.

Q: With the focus on player safety in the NFL, what do think about upping the ante for personal fouls? Since these are bad hits, face masks, horse collars, etc. why not force the offending player to sit out a play? This would make a huge statement to players who make these hits, especially since opposing QBs will probably target their replacement.

Heath in Greenville, S.C.

A: Don't you think the fines are a little excessive now? We're talking $21,000. A rookie making $390,000 a season makes $24,375 a game. It wouldn't be fair for a player to go in debt playing the game. What would be logical is putting a maximum penalty on a rookie and have a tier system of fines. A veteran making $4 million can better afford a big penalty than a poor rookie.

Q: Jeff Fisher entering the Rams' locker room immediately made them a class organization. RG3 is a nice QB with loads of potential, but don't you think the Rams got the better part of this deal in the trade? It's almost in the class of the Herschel Walker to my Vikings for three Cowboys Super Bowls if you ask me.

Stephen in Richfield, Minn.

A: Both teams are winners. RG3 is the quarterback Dan Snyder has been seeking since he purchased the team. The Rams already had a potential elite quarterback with Sam Bradford. You combine Fisher's coaching with those extra draft choices, and you have a class organization that should get better rapidly.

Q: Any chance we see Mike Holmgren becoming head coach of the Browns? It seems as though he could justify the whole rebuilding process and keep the rest of the front office and coaching staff in place. They would have all been proven effective in their current roles and Joe Banner could fill in as president. Just wishful thinking?

Greg in Stow, Ohio

A: Not a bad idea, but Holmgren wouldn't go for it. He's a proud person. If he is removed as president, he would never step back in the same organization and become the coach. First, he respects Pat Shurmur too much. He wouldn't take Shurmur's job. Second, it would be hard for him to walk in the building in which he was president and accept a lower role. For the organization, it could work, but Holmgren wouldn't accept it.

Q: Is there a concern in NFL circles that, for the second straight year, September has been plagued by bad football leaguewide? It seems that the players got what they wanted in the contract, but the product on the field has suffered. Granted, by midseason the games improve, but why waste the first month?

Joseph in Indianapolis

A: Football purists may not like the inconsistent tackling, but you have to recognize that the games have been fun and close. Quarterback play has been excellent, and offense is better than ever. Now that the replacement officials are gone, the games are getting back to normal and not dragging.

Q: How does the league justify fining Kyle Shanahan for "berating officials" more than Ryan Mundy for a vicious (and not penalized) hit that knocked out Darrius Heyward-Bey and stopped the game for 10 minutes? For a league claiming to emphasize player safety, it sure does seem to be sending the wrong message.

Devin in San Diego

A: You're talking two different subjects. Mundy was fined $21,000 for the hit. Because he doesn't have a history of such hits, he was fined the max. Shanahan used foul words when yelling at an official when Roger Goodell warned coaches not to do such a thing. Shanahan was lucky he wasn't suspended. As far as Mundy, I don't think the hit was intentional. But the fine was proper.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer