By “them,” I mean hybrid defenders. And by “hybrid defenders,” I mean the wave of the future.
These guys possess the physicality to meet a running back in the hole, but also the athleticism to pick off an errant ball down the middle of the field. Float like a safety, sting like a ‘backer.
If it sounds too good to be true … well, it’s not. Welcome to the new NFL.
The era of offense, piloted by juggernauts that’d make a Madden fiend blush, slowly is coming to a close. The pendulum’s swinging to the defensive side, unbeknownst to even those involved.
“I’ve heard of something like it, but I’ve never seen a moneybacker,” Deone Bucannon said last October. “Usually it’s a rover or a landshark or something like that.”
Bucannon was the Arizona Cardinals’ first-round draft pick in 2014. He was chosen as a safety, but the team was logjammed on the depth chart, so they deployed the 6-foot-1, 211-pounder as a linebacker in nickel and dime packages.
The transition? A wild success. Some plays he’d line up aside gamechanger Tyrann Mathieu, on others he’d blitz the A-gap and harass the quarterback. You can’t buy or teach that sort of versatility.
Last season, Bucannon was shuffled between the two spots, but continued to hold his own. His coup de grace moment came in December, when he recorded his first career pick-six in a blowout of the Philadelphia Eagles.
Not long after, disaster struck. Mathieu was lost to a freak ACL injury in the same game, and Arizona’s defense subsequently was expected to fall off a cliff. Instead, due in large part to Bucannon, James Bettcher’s unit didn’t experience so much as a hiccup.
The Cardinals managed to finish top-ten across the board — total yards allowed, points, pass defense, run defense — as they fell just shy of a Super Bowl appearance.
Remarkably, Bucannon graded out as Pro Football Focus’ No. 12 overall inside linebacker, receiving strong grades for his pass rush and coverage abilities. He tallied 112 tackles, three sacks, three forced fumbles, three passes defensed, and the interception.
Quick, name another tweener who could make such an immediate yet all-around impact …
Give up? I’ll tell you who: Mark Barron, the similarly-sized (6-foot-2, 213-pound) inspiration behind the selection of Bucannon.
One likely best remembers Barron from his days at Alabama, or perhaps his failed stint with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers rings a bell. In any case, Fisher saw enough in the former seventh overall pick to surrender fourth- and sixth-round draft choices at the 2014 trade deadline.
He’s since received a significant return on his investment.
Pacing the league in “stuffs” last season, Barron notched 116 tackles, a sack, and five passes defensed for the Rams. More importantly, he created a terrific niche for himself as a hybrid defender, helping the coaching staff alleviate the absence of Alec Ogletree, an athletically-superior linebacker.
Life isn’t easy for a defender in the high-flying NFC West, ruled by a pair of perennial contenders and oodles of elite skill players. Heck, life isn’t easy anywhere with uncoverable freaks like Rob Gronkowski running amok.
Which probably explains why Fisher didn’t let his reclamation project anywhere near the open market.
A team-admitted priority this offseason, Barron was re-signed to a five-year, $45 million contract, including $20 million in guarantees. Not too shabby for an ex-castoff.
“(Bucannon) was that type of player coming out, you could tell,” Fisher said in March. “… We’re experiencing the same thing in L.A. right now, having re-signed Mark Barron. Same type of player, same responsibilities behind the line of scrimmage, sideline to sideline, matches tight ends, does the same things.
“It appears with the two of them … there will be more of those hybrid guys that are kind of in between.”
Forty-five million dollars — and just as many reasons to believe the league is heading in a different direction. Square pegs in round holes are all the rage.