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.
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