IN EARLY AUGUST, Tyrann Mathieu sat at a conference table in the Cardinals' team hotel wearing a gray suit and red tie, signing and initialing his new contract extension. Michael Bidwill, the team's president, sat next to Mathieu, handing him page after page. A few of Mathieu's family members were behind them, watching patiently. After a while Bidwill joked that Mathieu would need to rehab his wrist.
When Mathieu finally finished signing, Bidwill shook his hand, congratulated him and reminded him of their shared goals: more Pro Bowls, multiple Vince Lombardi Trophies, another contract in a few years. The deal signified that Mathieu was one of the faces of the team. Bidwill turned and congratulated Mathieu's parents. "He's earned every bit of it," he told them.
Maybe Bidwill was just being nice. During negotiations, in fact, there had been much debate about Mathieu's exact worth. Not only was he coming off a right-ACL injury (last December, nonetheless), but it also wasn't clear to which position—and therefore which salary bracket—Mathieu belonged. The Cardinals list him as a safety on their roster because that's where he plays in their base 3--4 scheme, and generally safeties earn less than cornerbacks. But during the 2015 season Mathieu spent the majority of his snaps at nickel cornerback (also known as a slot corner), playing inside on nickel packages (with five DBs) and often lined up against the slot receiver. His is a position that the general public still perceives as reserved for a backup.
In negotiations, Mathieu and his agent looked for a player to compare him with, someone whose contract they could use as a benchmark. That proved difficult because of Mathieu's versatility—and because the slot corner is in the process of being redefined.
In today's NFL it is now essentially a starter's position, no different from defensive end or middle linebacker. As offenses increasingly spread out and play more three-receiver sets, defenses have naturally started playing more nickel defense. Last season teams used slot corners on 63% of all snaps, according to Pro Football Focus, and that number is trending upward. Also, as offenses have evolved and started moving their top receivers and athletic tight ends into the slot (the patch of grass between the last guy on the line and the outside receiver) to create mismatches, defenses have responded by turning the slot corner into a roving weapon, moving him around the field like a queen on a chessboard. The slot corner may be asked to guard a shifty Julian Edelman or a monstrous Rob Gronkowski. He may be sent on a blitz or asked to plug holes in the run game. On any given play he may act as a pass rusher, a linebacker or a shutdown corner.
The Cardinals deem slot corner so important that they often assign that job to Mathieu, 24, their most dynamic defender. (Though he has played there less often in the early part of 2016, it's still a crucial element of his repertoire.) Mathieu excels in every phase of the position, but he's at his best as a blitzer. At 5'9" and 186 pounds, he may not appear built for the job, but his speed and power, packed into that small frame with a low center of gravity, create a lot of force. As Mathieu shoots off the edge, he aims for the mesh point, where the quarterback will be handing the ball to the running back—and where he can cause the most disruption. The goal: Move so fast off the line that a kicking tackle or a pulling guard will have trouble catching him.
"The way he can move and control his body to get around the blocker, I haven't seen nothing like it," says cornerback Patrick Peterson, Mathieu's teammate at LSU and in Arizona. "He can beat a guy with speed, power.... He has that Von Miller presence, but as a nickelback, blitzing."
At the negotiating table Mathieu understood he wouldn't make Miller or J.J. Watt money, the kind of cap-consuming dollars that teams pay elite pass rushers. Instead, he compared himself with All-Pro middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, a smart, instinctual player and the heart of the Panthers' defense. "I saw his deal and I was like, That's the money I want," Mathieu says. "Playmaker money."
The contract Mathieu signed in August was a five-year, $62.5 million extension (with $40 million guaranteed), on par with the five-year, $62 million extension ($34 million guaranteed) Kuechly received a year earlier. It made Mathieu the top-paid "safety" in the league and put him within shouting distance of the highest-paid corners, shutdown men like Josh Norman, Darrelle Revis and Peterson.
Not bad for a slot guy.
THE ORIGIN of the modern slot corner can be traced back to a meeting, around 1999, between Lovie Smith and Ronde Barber at the Buccaneers' training facility. Tampa Bay's coaches had been trying Barber, the team's third-round pick in '97, in a new role, starting him outside at corner in their base defense and then sliding him inside in the nickel package. They found, though, that offenses were able to run effectively when Tampa had three corners on the field, with one fewer man in the box.
The fix? The Bucs' coaches, led by visionary coordinator Monte Kiffin, decided to teach the 5'10", 184-pound Barber to play the slot corner like a linebacker. Smith, the linebackers coach, schooled Barber on the terminology his guys used, the visual keys they looked for, how to read a developing run play. Barber might have to communicate quickly with someone at every level of the defense—linebacker Derrick Brooks, safety John Lynch, tackle Warren Sapp—letting them know what he would do on that particular play. It was all very similar to how the Cardinals would teach Mathieu the slot position 15 years later.
Tampa might not have been so innovative had Barber not been so cerebral. "You can ask a nickelback to tell you about an offense, and I guarantee [what he says] will be a thousand times more [detailed] than a guy who just plays outside corner," Barber says. "It has to be; the nickelback is getting so much more information."
It took Barber a year or two before he felt comfortable marshaling all that data. Kiffin ran him through blitz drills and run-read drills. Barber watched film after practice and after games, for hours on end. He looked for tendencies in his opponents, those keys he needed to home in on: the presnap formation, the quarterback's eyes, the play unfolding. He watched film of the Bucs' own practices too, and then compared his work against the scout team with his opponents' film. Were his eyes in the right place? Did he read the play correctly? Did he react the right way?
"My mentality was, I'm a smaller version of Derrick Brooks," Barber says. "[Playing nickel is] all about your keys. Follow your keys; they'll take you to the play. Don't try to see everything; just try to see aspects of [the play]. The good ones do it well. The bad ones end up all over the place."
Back then, when offenses trotted out a third receiver, most defenses simply inserted their third-best corner at nickel and prayed. Convention said that most top receivers of that era—Terrell Owens, Randy Moss, Torry Holt—played outside and stayed outside. The best corners played on the outside too.
Then Barber started wreaking havoc from the slot, blind-siding QBs and smothering running backs in the backfield. Suddenly, other elite corners were moving inside too: Samari Rolle, Antoine Winfield, Charles Woodson.... The best of them mastered the position so well that they could disguise their plan, pop around the field and toy with their opponents. To wit: the NFC championship game of 2003, when Barber faked a blitz, picked off a Donovan McNabb pass five yards downfield and returned it 92 yards for the game-sealing touchdown. Tampa won Super Bowl XXXVII that year.
However, that's not the interception Barber is most proud of. That came in October 2003, on a Monday night, when Colts coach Tony Dungy made his first visit back to the Bay. Indianapolis trailed by 14 in the fourth quarter, and as Peyton Manning led a hurry-up charge, Barber and Brooks found themselves lined up on the wrong sides of the defense with no time to switch. Brooks had to play the role of Barber, and Barber that of Brooks. The result: a 29-yard Barber pick-six. All that studying had paid off.
CHRIS HARRIS JR., whom many consider the best slot corner today, wasn't invited to the combine coming out of Kansas and he went undrafted in 2011. Then the Broncos invited him to training camp, and five-time All-Pro cornerback Champ Bailey became his mentor. The two watched film together. They ate steaks at Del Frisco's. They hung out at Bailey's house, watching more football, with Harris soaking up as much info as he could.
Denver had asked Harris to learn both the outside and slot corner positions so he could move back and forth freely. With the help of Bailey, arguably the best cover corner of his generation, Harris made an immediate impact in the slot and then became a full-time starter in his second season. A year later the Broncos approached Bailey about playing a bit in the slot himself. "He actually came to me for advice," Harris recalls, smiling wide. "That was kind of crazy."
In his 14 previous years of experience, Bailey had not played much slot at all. Not every outside corner is comfortable there. Most are tall and rangy because they need to cover outside receivers who are built similarly. Slot corners are typically smaller and more agile because they need to cover the shiftier receivers who line up inside. Very few corners possess all of those traits.
"You can be a shutdown corner outside," says the 76-year-old Kiffin, now a defensive consultant for the Jaguars. "Not taking anything away from you, but to go inside and play nickel you need to be special."
Unlike an outside corner, the slot doesn't have the luxury of using the sideline as a boundary. A receiver who's lined up inside, meanwhile, can use the entire field to run almost anything in the route tree. Offenses take advantage with "option" routes that allow him to go multiple ways depending on the coverage. The slot guy is also the receiver closest to the quarterback; he's often a hot target for a quick throw when the pressure is on. Because of that positioning, too, the slot receiver and his corner are usually jostling in the back judge's line of sight, so the slot corner can't be overly physical.
So, Bailey wanted to know, how does Harris survive under these circumstances? Harris explains that he gets physical as the receiver comes off the line, disrupting the route within five yards of the line of scrimmage, where contact is still legal. "Everything is about timing," he says. "If I can put my hands on the receiver fast, that messes up everything for [the quarterback]. If I don't, he's probably going to beat me."
Harris remains hyperconscious of his footwork, keeping his shoulders square and the receiver in front of him. If he turns his hips and "opens the gate," letting the receiver run free, he'll get beat that way too. As the receiver heads upfield, Harris tries to stay close enough that he can sense, to a degree, where the route may be heading.
Here he has a decision to make. With all that field to work with, the receiver can go inside or out; so which side is Harris going to take away with his leverage? Ultimately, he walls the receiver from going one way and prepares himself to jump the other while staying in stride. "I try to make it the hardest throw for [the quarterback]," Harris says. "You have to take something away. You can't cover all the routes from the slot." This is the way Barber played, and it has become a fundamental tenet of the position.
Yet smart offenses have evolved too; they often move their top receivers into the slot in order to exploit matchups. After a 29--17 win over the Bengals in Week 3, when Denver held All-Pro wideout A.J. Green without a touchdown, the Broncos' defensive backs were carrying on in the corner of the visitors' locker room, hooting and hollering, when someone brought up Redskins cornerback Josh Norman and his matchup that afternoon with Giants receiver Odell Beckham Jr. Washington had asked Norman to shadow Beckham all over the field—except in the slot. And pundits had skewered Norman for it. He had a five-year, $75 million contract; as the highest paid corner in the league, it was said in football circles, he should cover Beckham everywhere.
"What were Odell's numbers?" Harris shouted. Beckham had caught seven passes for 121 yards but scored zero touchdowns in a 29--27 New York loss. "I mean, I guarded [Steelers All-Pro receiver Antonio Brown], and I had to cover him everywhere," Harris said. "Left, right, slot—it doesn't matter. Wherever he goes. If I have to cover T.Y. Hilton, like I did last week, I cover him outside and in the slot.
"The best corners can play everywhere."
Without the sideline to rein in receivers, slot corners such as Harris have to cover a wider array of routes (left) while occasionally providing run support (below) and chasing QBs like Cam Newton.