Season in Review: Cornerbacks

Cornerback was an interesting position the past year. While it didn't look like it going into the season, it was probably the strongest position on the team, despite heavily featuring a second-year 7th round pick who hadn't got on the field before and a very raw rookie. Worse yet, the Bucs struggled to pressure the passer, and a lack of touching quarterbacks will make it a lot harder for a secondary to hold up in coverage. Yet the Bucs corners held up well, and this is a good sign going into the future. 

When we talk about Tampa Bay cornerbacks, the first man to spring to mind is always Ronde Barber. The old man of the team had a strong 2010 season, and recently signed on for one more year as a Buccaneer. Despite Ronde's age, he's still a good zone corner: he can read quarterbacks and jump routes, and has tremendous instincts for the game. His biggest impact may come in the run game, though, where his experience allows him to get to the play quickly. For similar reasons he's also very strong on quick passes like screens and hitches, sniffing out these plays very quickly. Unfortunately, though, his age has sapped some of his effectiveness: he lost some speed and can't recover when he's beat, which happens when he gambles on a read. More importantly, he has a tendency to overrun tackles, which is a problem. But despite those declines, Ronde is still a very good zone corner who is at his best in the slot. When the Bucs move to 3-cornerback personnel, you'll see Ronde inside as a slot corner and that may be where he'll move permanently for the Bucs if E.J. Biggers or Myron Lewis improve strongly. Then again, it's tough to get him off the field on first and second down with how strong he is in the run game. 

But despite Ronde's seniority, Aqib Talib is the star of the cornerback unit. After missing the first game due to a suspension Talib had a career season, until he missed the final 4 games with a hip injury. The 3rd year cornerback was playing at a very high level, and he routinely shut down opposing wide receivers. Despite giving up a few long touchdowns early in the season, he was playing at a Pro Bowl level, grabbing 6 interceptions in 11 games - and dropping a few more. Talib can excel both in man coverage, where he can stick to a receiver, and zone where his great physical ability allows him to jump routes like no one else can. But what impressed me most about Talib the past season was the way he attacked ball carriers: he was a physical, fast and nasty tackler. While I'm not a fan of the "saw somebody's legs out with your body" tackle, Aqib Talib seems to have turned this into an artform. Since he's added that physical aspect to his game, Talib has really become a complete cornerback. 

The surprise cornerback the past year was E.J.Biggers. The second-year 7th-round pick had missed his rookie year with a shoulder injury, and was asked to come in and start in place of the suspended Aqib Talib in his first game in 2010. While this seemed like a disastrous idea at the time, it turned out that Biggers had worked very hard on his game and had become a good cornerback. While he doesn't have great ball skills (1 interception vs 11 passes defensed) and isn't an elite athlete like Talib, he's a solid cornerback that would look good playing for a lot of teams. The only downside is that he isn't a very good tackler. He certainly is willing to tackle, but he just isn't very good at it - although he did improve as the year went on. 

The last two cornerbacks only appeared in games because of injury and in rare situations demanding 4 cornerbacks: Elbert Mack and Myron Lewis. Elbert Mack is small, undrafted and a scrappy player. He was the nickel corner in 2009 and didn't do very well. He was demoted to dime corner this year, and then last out on that job to Myron Lewis partway through the season. Unfortunately, Elbert Mack really isn't a good cornerback, and whenever he is on the field he is a liability. The same is true for Myron Lewis to an extent, but that's not because of a lack of talent: that's because his technique is underdeveloped. The 2010 third-round pick was at times spectacularly good, and at other times spectacularly bad. He's very physical and a good, willing tackler who also has the ability to stick to a receiver's hip down the field. Unfortunately, he's so inexperienced and his technique is so raw that experienced receivers can lose him fairly easily, and quarterbacks can still complete passes on him even when he's tracking receivers perfectly. Myron Lewis needs to work hard on his technique this offseason, but if he does he could turn into a very good player. 

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