As we enter the off-season, one of the big questions that loom large over the team is what to do about the nickelback position. Last season, this was mainly the role of the man most of the fanbase loves to hate in Will Harris, one of the last stalwarts of the old regime on defence. However, he is an unrestricted free agent and almost all of us can agree that the secondary needs upgrading for the team to take the next step on defence.
So how do we solve the pickle at nickel? Let me lay out the four options I envisage on Holmes' desk right now and state which I would choose before I open the floor to you to decide what you would do if you were in Holmes' shoes.
Option 1: Re-sign Will Harris
This is perhaps the most straightforward option available to the team. While the bar is admittedly low (64th out of 118 qualifying players low), Harris was our highest-graded cornerback per PFF with a 63.7 grade (ranking 11th on defence on the team), as well as leading the room and coming sixth overall on the team in coverage grade (66.9, 46th out of 120). His 76.4 tackling grade also ranked 8th on the team and 34th out of 128 qualifying corners in the league.
Harris played a total of 546 snaps lined up on the DL, in the box or at nickel, accounting for roughly 83% of his usage last season, with snaps in this role increasing in Week 9 against the Packers onwards after spending most of his time at outside corner and on special teams. Given his familiarity with the role, the improvement of the defence after he was put into the role, and the potentially small contract he could demand (made even smaller by the fact he qualifies for the "hometown discount" clause in the CBA that'll give him more money that won't be charged against the cap), re-signing Harris to a short-term deal to provide stability could be the best move available to Holmes.
Option 2: Move Okudah or Jerry into the slot
In theory, this sounds like a good idea. Reports in the past off-season indicated that Jacobs was being trained to man the slot position (just as Harris opened camp at outside corner). Okudah had his best game last season manning a pseudo-overhang role where he played 18 snaps in the box and earnt himself an 86.1 PFF grade. So why not move one of them inside so our three best corners (Jefe, Jerry and [insert draftee here]) are on the field at the same time?
However, Okudah only played just under 18% (142/789) of his snaps in positions that he would be required to be in in the slot safety hybrid role. Even worse, Jerry only played 6% of his snaps this past year in these positions (37/542). A lack of experience in the role might lead to growing pains, something that could not be helpful to a defence that is not only looking to build on the latter half of last year but is also being expected to improve into adequacy at least.
Given the increased importance of tackling and run defence for the hybrid role, it is also vital to look at their grades in these areas. Okudah ranked 23rd for CBs who played more than 20% of snaps with a 74.0 PFF grade in run defence and 15th in tackling with a 75.6 grade. Jacobs' 54.8 run defence grade ranked 89th and his 57.0 tackling grade ranked 70th. Again, indications are that Okudah could work in this role, but it potentially isn't in Jerry's wheelhouse right now.
Therefore, the team could choose to move Okudah inside, keep Jacobs outside and then have a rookie or FA come in and man the other outside corner spot. This could work in Okudah's favour, especially if the team does not pick up his fifth-year option, he balls out and earns himself a big contract elsewhere as the next C.J. Gardner-Johnson (more on him in a second). However, it is also a major risk for a player who has had injury problems in his time in the league and could be in the final year of his contract. It would also be a risk for a team that will be pushing for the playoffs at the very least next season and so probably cannot afford a slow start on defence.
Option 3: Sign an FA
This is probably the most expensive option available to the team, but also the one that is most likely to provide an instant upgrade to the position. In the past two off-seasons, Holmes has largely handed out small short-term prove-it deals to players but has also made one large re-signing (Okwara and Walker). Perhaps this year, this large signing can be of an external free agent to improve the secondary and provide a veteran leader.
The most obvious candidate for the team to bring in is C. J. Gardner-Johnson, who used to play under Glenn in New Orleans in this exact role. In the past three years, he has posted PFF grades over 60, but not over 66.3 so far. These grades have increased year after year though. Given he has a prior history in both the position and with a coach, this suggests he should be able to hit the ground running when it comes to playing. However, he will command a large contract, with PFF projecting a three-year deal with $11.5 million AAV and $23 million guaranteed. Spotrac projects an even larger five-year contract with $13.3 AAV.
A cheaper but older option is Jimmie Ward from San Francisco. While he has played the majority of his career at free safety, he made the move to slot corner this past season and played well, posting a top-10 slot coverage grade from Week 8 onwards. He also posted a second-straight season with a 90.0+ run defence grade. He will also be cheaper than CGJ, with a PFF projection of 2 years, $6.75 million AAV and $8 million guaranteed, and Spotrac suggesting a two-year contract with an AAV of $7.6 million. However, he is 31 so could be looking for more money as he nears the end of his career, and he allegedly did express disapproval of the move to slot corner to HC Kyle Shanahan, so perhaps he is not the safest bet.
Another option is New England's Jonathan Jones. He moved from the slot to the outside this past season, and while X-style receivers could take advantage of his frame (he is 5'10", 190 lbs), he posted an 82.1 coverage grade through the first 10 weeks of the season. This gives him inside-outside versatility like Mike Hughes, but he also brings a veteran presence with his seven years in the league since being a UDFA in 2016. He would also be a cheap signing, with PFF saying he'll command a 2-year, $5.5 million AAV contract with $7 million guaranteed. Spotrac projects him with a 2-year, $12.4 million AAV contract though, which is pricey. Furthermore, down the stretch, when teams worked out how to match up against him, his coverage grade dropped to 53.9, which suggests that keeping him on the outside might not be the best use of his talents, so putting him at the nickel spot is the best thing for him and for us.
Option 4: Draft a Guy
This is definitely an attractive option for the team, as it allows for the potential of a good starter playing on a cheap contract for at least four years and allows FA money to be put elsewhere. It is also attractive as the draft has players who can play this role, the most well-known of these being Alabama's Brian Branch (PFF's S1 and 10th overall prospect on their draft board) who could be in play with the 18th overall pick. However, further down the board are Georgia's Chris Smith III (currently not in PFF's draft guide) and Florida State's Jammie Robinson (S3 and 39th overall per PFF), both of whom showed out at the Senior Bowl in this position.
However, there is the obvious risk that the rookie could have growing pains just as Kerby Joseph did this past season, or that the board does not fall our way and we do not get the chance to take any of these players at places of value (since over-drafting any of these players is a bad idea). This conundrum is why I think the following course of action is the best one for the team going forward:
We draft a rookie to be the long-term starter, with the order of preference being the order in which I listed them... and we also re-sign Will Harris to a cheap two-year contract.
I know, I know, we all hate him. But he was our best corner last year, the defence did improve when he was moved into the role, and the team has set out its stall to be the team that rewards hard work and good play with contracts. It happened with Romeo Okwara when the regime first began, it happened with Kalif Raymond, Charles Harris and Evan Brown last off-season, and I think it should happen this year with Will Harris.
Which do you think is the best option for the team moving forward? Which option do you think Brad and Dan will choose, or should they choose more than one?
Podcast Links: linktr.ee/roarofthelionsuk