New Roles: NFC

Whether it follows a change in scheme or just a change of mind from the coaches, a new role can make or break a player. Here's how six players from ...

| 5 years ago

New Roles: NFC

After last week’s look at AFC players taking on new roles, it’s time to move on to the NFC. There are not a lot of position changes, but the conference features a pair of flipped offensive tackles, a scheme change for pass rushers, and two aging cornerbacks who have taken their talents to safety. For some, the new roles have been put in place to extend already successful careers, while other players have found the new responsibilities to still be in ‘work-in-progress’ status here at the midpoint of the season.
Let’s take a look this year’s NFC player transitions.

Tyron Smith and Doug Free, Dallas Cowboys

Old Position: Smith at right tackle, Free at left tackle

New Position: Smith at left tackle, Free at right Tackle

Notes: It’s always a scary proposition to take offensive linemen out of their comfort zone, but the Dallas Cowboys deemed it necessary to put second-year offensive tackle Tyron Smith on the left in order to protect quarterback Tony Romo’s blindside. Smith was drafted 10th overall in the 2011 draft and he had a strong rookie season, grading at +24.0 overall and coming in third in the 2011 PFF Race for Rookie of the Year. It’s an even more interesting move for Smith as he also played right tackle in college at USC, because one of this year’s Rookie of the Year candidates, Matt Kalil, was entrenched on the left side.

The transition did not go smoothly for Smith as he graded at -8.3 in his first two games at his new position, though he’s done some damage control in recent weeks grading at +7.3 since then. For the season, Smith is grading at -1.0 and he’s ranked 36th out of 59 qualifiers in Pass Blocking Efficiency (PBE) at 94.3. So while progress has been made, there is still some work to be done to get back to last year’s top-notch grade and PRP of 96.0.

On the other side, Doug Free has continued his up-and-down career. He came out of nowhere late in 2009 to play some really good football, primarily on the right side, grading at +10.9 over the course of eight starts. He carried the momentum into 2010 as he moved to left tackle and ranked fourth among tackles at +27.7 including a league leading +21.0 run blocking grade. Despite Free’s immediate success, it was last year’s sub-par play that facilitated the move back to the right side. His season grade fell to -2.0 and he ranked 39th out of 58 qualifiers with a PBE of 93.7. He’s yet to recover this season, as he ranks as the 62nd tackle in the league at -10.5, including a league-worst 10 penalties and eerily similar PBE of 93.6.

Whether Smith and Free are just experiencing a natural regression to the norm or the transition to new positions is simply overwhelming, the Cowboys must be wondering if flipping their offensive tackles was a smart move to this point.

Kroy Biermann and John Abraham, Atlanta Falcons

Old Positions: 4-3 defensive end

New Positions: 3-4 outside linebacker

Notes: Much like the Colts’ transition in the AFC, the Atlanta Falcons have experimented with more 3-4 looks this season. Defensive ends John Abraham and Kroy Biermann have been used as outside linebackers in the new schemes. Both Abraham and Biermann are still primarily responsible for rushing the passer, just as they were in the 4-3, but they’ve had to adjust to playing on their feet in a two-point stance. It’s foreign territory for both players, as Abraham has played in a linebacker role on 53% of his snaps this year, while Biermann is at 46%. That’s a far cry from last year’s numbers where Abraham did so on only 17% of his snaps as the Falcons started to experiment with the new looks from Week 9 last season, while Biermann played linebacker on a mere 5% of his snaps.

As far as production goes, not much has changed for either player and despite the new defensive wrinkles, both players still qualify as 4-3 defensive ends in our system. Abraham finished fourth among at the position in Pass Rush Productivity (PRP) last season at 12.3, and he’s taken a slight hit down to 11.7, good for third so far this year. Biermann’s 6.8 PRP ranks 28th among 4-3 defensive ends, almost identical to his 6.6 mark that ranked 31st last season. The one difference to this point has been Abraham’s decline in play against the run (+4.5 in 2011, -1.9 in 2012), while Biermann has shown improvement (+1.0 in 2011, +4.4 in 2012).

Charles Woodson, Green Bay Packers

Old Position: Slot cornerback

New Position: Safety

Notes: This position change is not a surprising one and, as mentioned, it’s a common one for aging cornerbacks, particularly those that possess Charles Woodson’s unique skill set. In recent years, he’s played primarily over the slot for the Green Bay Packers, though he took on greater responsibilities that developed into his own brand of versatility among the league’s slot cornerbacks. It was Woodson’s ability to cover, blitz, and stop the run that allowed the Packers to move to an unconventional 2-4-5 base defense, as he was able to supply the run support of a linebacker and coverage ability of a defensive back to make the scheme successful.

This season, it’s not as if Woodson has completely surrendered his duties covering the slot, as he still does so in certain sub package situations, but he’s spent 63% of his snaps at safety. He hasn’t embarrassed himself at the new position as his overall grade of +0.1 is around league average, but his numbers have been dragged down by his four penalties (-3.1 penalty grade), all of which occurred while Woodson was lined up over the slot or a tight end in man coverage. Perhaps the biggest benefit to Woodson’s move was his filling a position of need for the Packers, and taking advantage of his versatility that has allowed rookie defensive backs Casey Hayward and Jerron McMillan to excel around him.

Ronde Barber, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Old Position: Cornerback

New Position: Free safety

Notes: Another cornerback-to-safety move, Ronde Barber’s transition is similar to Woodson’s as he moves from primary slot cornerback to the back end of the defense. Unlike Woodson, who still finds himself over the slot fairly often, Barber’s move has been more permanent as he’s played 89% of his snaps at the new position. Though he has a reputation around the league as a fierce tackler and solid run stopper, he’s finished in the Top 6 in missed tackles among cornerbacks ever since we’ve started tracking, including the dubious distinction of leading the league in both 2008 and 2011. That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement for a player who is ready to make a home at safety for the twilight of his career.

While the tackling remains a concern (eight missed tackles this season), he’s proved his worth in coverage with a +5.5 grade. The move to safety may have been a career-saver for Barber who’s currently ranked 12th at the position after coming in at 108th out of 109 cornerbacks last season.


Follow Steve on Twitter: @PFF_Steve

| Senior Analyst

Steve is a senior analyst at Pro Football Focus. His work has been featured on ESPN Insider, NBC Sports, and 120 Sports.

  • izach

    one question i had about tackling was does it matter how big the player is, i know ronde isnt the best tackler, i remember a panthers game were there RBs took advantage of him often, but he is a small guy. if say a CB like ike taylor or patrick peterson are missing those same tacklers does that matter? they are several inches taller and at least 20 pounds heavier. plus one thing i have noticed is while ronde may miss alot of tackles, he also makes alot more than most CBs with his size. look at the steelers old CB deshea townsend, similar type of CB, but never had more than 56 tackles a year when he started from 04-07, but look at ronde while he may have missed more tackle those seasons (idk if he did) he had 98, 99, 98 and 58 tackles in the same time period. to me a small DB who can get 70+ tackles a year is a good tackler, he would have to be no way he gets that many if he isnt IMO.

    • [email protected]

      making conclusions based on tackle numbers is exactly the kind of biased and untrustworthy conclusions PFF hopes to get rid of…

      • izach

        yet making conclusions on missed tackle numbers is also biased and untrustworthy to the same degree. doesnt make sense to say dont trust stats because they are untrustworthy yet say your new stats are trustworthy. PFF even says their stats are only half the story, saying ronde has missed the most tackles can be just mis-leading as saying player “A” made the most tackles.

    • Nick D’Agostino

      I see what you’re saying but thats just a point of discussion like is Steve Smith the best pound for pound receiver in the game or is A.I. the same in basketball. PFF takes the stats and crunches the numbers strictly, you can’t “curve” the stats based on the persons size or any external factors like that. I do agree with you though that Ronde plays bigger than he is, but if the results on the field are the same as a guy 3 inches taller and 20 pounds heavier, they are still doing the same thing as far as stats are concerned.

      • izach

        thats my point tho, barber attempts the tackle and his is broken but he slows the RB down enough that his teammates get there in time to make the tackle a few yards after. where as “better” tackling CBs dont attempt tackles untill the RB has ran past them for major yardage that way they can tackle the runners legs from behind or the side not head up. on the stats barber has missed the tackle but the other CB has made the tackle? you see my point? id take ronde and his toughness over a guy like Antonio cromartie who does make the tackle down field.

  • lightsout85

    How has Abraham played 53% of his snaps at LB but every game has been marked as a 4-3 DE (on his PFF player page). Given you mark them based on what they played for the majority of the game, I don’t think it’s possible to have played majority DE every game but also played 53% at LB. Were you just counting him as a stand-up DE? (on the line, while the other normal LBs were in their traditional 4-3 spots?).

    • Scott Carasik

      As a Falcons fan and writer, he plays on the line at least 75% of the time as a DE spot, he’s just in a two point. It’s the same way they have Terrell Suggs as a 4-3 DE too.

      • Steve Palazzolo

        Right. And we classify our postitions based on where a player lines up in base, and 4-3 DE is Abraham’s base position.

        As Scott noted, Abraham is still essentially playing DE in the scheme and as I noted above, his adjustment has simply been rushing from the two-point, not necessarily taking on new assignments of a traditional 3-4 OLB. The Falcons version of the “3-4″ look is simply a 4-3 “Under” set, where Abraham is on one side and Nicholas is the other OLB. Abraham is still a “DE” in that set and Nicholas is the SAM linebacker.

        • lightsout85

          Ah, okay. I would just say IMO it’s not 100% clear that this is the case when you say “in a linebacker role” (rather than simply “rushing from a 2-point stance”), if only because it’s less a LB-role and more a LB stance (as I would role would imply (IMO) both position & responsibilities).

        • Scott Carasik

          Not 100% true all the time Steve, but I’d agree with that for the most part. when the Falcons run true 3-4 sets, Weatherspoon and Abraham are the OLB’s and Biermann and Nicholas the ILB’s,

  • J.T.Young B.A., M.S.

    is there anywhere in the premium section where we can ACTUALLY SEE where John Abraham has lined up from a two-point stance compared to a three-point stance