FanPost

The "Big Nickel" Defense and the 2018 NFL Draft

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As of right now, the Chicago Bears have the #8 pick in the upcoming 2018 NFL Draft. I'm going to take a look, across a couple Fan Posts, at what some of the options are for the Bears when they are on the clock. This article will deal with how the "Big Nickel" defense may play into the Bears draft plans at #8, especially considering the Bears were able to retain Vic Fangio as their Defensive Coordinator for the next three seasons.

For starters, what is the "Big Nickel" defense? It's not a new concept. It has been around for several seasons now, and Vic Fangio was one of the first Defensive Coordinators to start using it in San Francisco, but he wasn't the only one using it. The NFL has become more of a "passing league" over the last decade and as a result, teams are in their "base" defenses for less and less during a game. A "base" defense usually consists of a "front-seven" group of players [either 3 Defensive Linemen (DL) and 4 Linebackers (LB) for a 3-4, or 4 DL and 3 LB for a 4-3] and four defensive backs, typically 2 Cornerbacks (CB) and 2 Safeties (S). It has gotten to a point where defenses are in sub-packages - outside of their base defenses - for more than 50% of their snaps in a game. A common sub-package to combat more pass-heavy formations by an offense is a "Nickel" defense. A "Nickel" defense means that a defense takes one player out of their "front-seven" (either a DL or an LB) and substitutes in a defensive back, often a smaller and quicker "Nickel" CB who is charged with covering the extra wide receiver, often in the Slot.

The Nickel defense is better suited to handle the pass when teams show pass-heavy formations, but it does have one drawback: It can be vulnerable to runs from teams who are adept at running out of those passing formations and from teams who have good run blocking wide receivers and a powerful, quick running back. It tends to be more vulnerable because Nickel defensive backs are usually smaller, and can be taken out of a run play by the offense easier than the LB or DL that left the field. This is where the "Big Nickel" defense comes in. In this type of defense, instead of a "Slot CB" or "Nickel CB" coming in, defenses add a third Safety, who is typically a larger player than a slot corner and can play the run better, or a Safety/Linebacker Hybrid. This gives a defense a player who still has good coverage ability to combat the extra WR in a passing formation, but who is better in run support as well.

Here are some examples of teams running a "Big Nickel" defense.

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In the above picture, the Giants are in a 4-2-5 Big Nickel package to counter the Eagles 2-TE set. Two of the Giants Safeties are highlighted in Red, with the third being off-screen to the right (you can see his shadow).

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In this above picture, the Saints are also in a 4-2-5 Big Nickel defense, with Kenny Vaccaro playing up in the slot, and their other two Safeties are off-screen to the right.

So, what does all this have to do with the Chicago Bears? Potentially a lot if you consider that Vic Fangio used three Safeties a decent amount during his last couple seasons in San Francisco. While he was there they drafted Eric Reid and Jimmy Ward while having a veteran Safety or two in place. When Vic ran the Big Nickel in San Francisco, he would bring in Jimmy Ward, a Safety, as his Nickel DB. I think we all realize than when Vic got to Chicago, we struggled to find two quality starting Safeties, let alone have a dependable third one coming off the bench. However, for my money three years in, we can finally say that we have a "solid" starting Safety tandem after taking Eddie Jackson last year and paring him with Adrian Amos. Given that the Bears now have two starting Safeties that they like, who are still young and improving, would it be crazy to take another Safety with #8 overall? I don't think so, and for a couple of reasons.

First, there's always the chance that the Bears let Amos walk next season. He will be coming off his rookie contract, and while he likely won't command a huge payday - unless he has a big 2018 season - they may want to spend their cap space on extensions for other players, after spending big on offense this season. Eddie Goldman, Cameron Meredith come to mind as a couple possibilities there. They could let Amos walk and he would factor into the 2020 Draft Compensatory Pick formula, and the Bears would use that Safety drafted at #8 going forward.

However, I think another possibility is that they keep both Jackson and Amos longer term, and finally implement Fangio's Big Nickel defense here in Chicago starting this season. For the purposes of this article, we will focus on this possibility.

All this being established, now let's look at the two Safety prospects that would be in play at #8, and how they could fit into the Bears plans for 2018 and beyond.

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Safety, Alabama

For some background on Minkah, here is some good information. First, here are his combine and pro day numbers:

Height

Weight

Arm

Hand

40 Yard

Bench

Vertical

Broad

3-Cone

S. Shuttle

6'0 1/8"

204

31 1/4"

9 3/8"

4.46

14

33"

10'1"

n/a

n/a

Second, Brett Kollmann has done a great video review of Minkah and this is worth a watch as well.

After reviewing this, the question becomes, what type of prospect is Minkah and how would he fit on the Chicago Bears? I see two possibilities:

Nickel S CB / Safety near the Line of Scrimmage

One possibility is that Jackson and Amos remain the starting Safeties for 2018, and Minkah is put on the field in all Nickel+ packages as the "Slot Corner / Safety". It would be a good fit for 2018, and then the Bears can make a decision on Amos after the season. With Minkah coming on the field as an additional DB in Nickel, perhaps, it's just a matter of splitting hairs at that point as to if you want to call it "Big Nickel" or not. If he goes into the game as a Nickel CB, measurables wise, he's bigger than most Nickel CBs so perhaps that would accomplish the third Safety aspect of the defense Minkah's coverage is excellent, and he's still large enough to help if teams try to run out of their passing formations.

Free Safety / Center Fielder

While Minkah is believed by some experts to be a great Slot Corner option, other draft experts believe that Minkah's ideal fit in any defense is the prototypical "Center Fielder" Free Safety. A player who has enough instincts and quickness to play, and flourish in, a "Single High" Safety role. This would be a huge advantage to a team who drafts him as it would allow defenses to play "Single High" Safety, and in Nickel situations, they could roll their other two Safeties in the slot, closer to the Line of Scrimmage, and better defend against the run as well.

If that's the role he flashes in Training Camp, then here is how the Bears could make that work. He's likely already a better Free Safety than Amos, but Eddie Jackson had a promising rookie year in that Free Safety tole. Perhaps Minkah wins one of the starting Safety positions, and Eddie Jackson is the other. The option then would be to use Amos in a Hybrid ILB/S role in a Big Nickel package. Amos is already very good against the run. Amos is dependable, if not spectacular, in coverage - certainly not a play-maker who gets his hands on the ball much. However, that would likely be more than enough to play that third Safety role in a Big Nickel defense.

Personally, if Minkah is the pick, then I'd prefer that he play "Center Field" as one of our Free Safeties, paired with Eddie Jackson. This leaves us in an awkward situation with Amos, so it's less ideal, but bottom line, you need to get the best playmakers on the field and with Minkah on the roster, I think this is how you do it. However, when I think of taking a Safety, as good as Minkah is, I think another prospect is a better fit for us.

Derwin James, Safety, Florida State

I was hearing the Derwin James hype last off-season. When many, myself included, were singing the praises of Jamal Adams, some experts were saying "You think Adams is good? Wait till next year. Derwin James will blow him away". James has drawn comparisons to Eric Berry among others, and while he has been a bit less consistent than Jamal Adams, his ceiling is through the roof. Not yet convinced? Check out some of this content:

Here are Derwin's combine and pro day numbers:

Height

Weight

Arm

Hand

40 Yard (Official)

Bench

Vertical

Broad

3-Cone

S. Shuttle

6' 1 3/4"

215

33"

9 1/2"

4.47

21

40"

11'0"

6.98

4.34

While Brett Kollmann hasn't done a video edit on him yet, "Field Gulls", who is the SN Nation site covering the Seattle Seahawks, did a video of Derwin James, and his fit as the "Ultimate Hybrid Defender"

If the Bears take Derwin James at #8, what would his fit be in this defense? Of the two Minkah is the much better "Center Fielder" Safety prospect. Not being able to excel as a deep Safety is perhaps the only area that James has a weakness. That said, I believe he affords us even more options than Minkah does.

Nickel S CB / Safety near the Line of Scrimmage

Derwin James's strength is his play around the line of scrimmage. He can really do it all. He has very good zone awareness and coverage skills, but the size and athleticism to play close to the LOS and help vs the run. He's also an excellent blitzer when it comes to getting after the Quarterback on designed or read blitzes. If played here, our Safety tandem of Jackson and Amos would remain as-is, and James would come in during Nickel+ sub packages to start his NFL career and be a larger body in Nickel defenses for an immediate impact. Still, for a player of his ceiling and talents, some may not like the idea of only putting a player like this on the field during Nickel+ packages, which is why I think the next option may be his best fit.

Hybrid ILB/Safety

I think there's an excellent chance Derwin James would allow us to play even our base defense differently. Or, put another way, change the Chicago Bears base defense from a 3-4-4 to 3-3-5 with James in an ILB/Safety hybrid role.

Derwin James could simply line up for the Bears right next to Danny Trevathan as part of the standard defense and play the ILB role. He has the size, instincts, blitzing ability and athleticism to pull this off in my opinion. What this would end up doing is kicking Nick Kwiatkoski to a reserve ILB role and have him take the field in more certain running / short-yardage situations. Using Derwin James in this manner, our "Base" defense would look like this:

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This would give Vic Fangio a number of options and also completely remove the requirement to make substitutions, except to give players on the D-Line a breather. Our "Base" defense would include, in some alignments, 5 DBs, with Derwin James being a S/LB hybrid. We could keep all our Defensive Linemen on the field in an optimal alignment to stop the run, or rush the passer, yet still have enough coverage and zone capability to keep up with teams that roll out three WRs as a common formation, such as the Packers and the Lions.

Like all prospects, Derwin James isn't a perfect one. There has been some information that has come out about him not playing 100% on all plays, and perhaps being a bit of a "diva" last season. But given the timing of some of these stories, and the time of year it is, you can't also help but wonder if this sort of thing isn't being tossed out there in hopes of having him fall to a team drafting in the teens, you just never know. I think the bottom line on James as a prospect is that we have the coaching staff to get the most out of him. Ed Donatell is one of the best DB coaches in the business, and Vic Fangio is hugely respected and doesn't put up with anything from his players. We also have enough leaders on defense that if there were any effort issues with James, we have multiple means of ensuring it doesn't become an issue here. There are some risks with James, but the upside is enormous, and the risks are small enough I think he's absolutely worthy of the #8 pick.

Closing thoughts

It may have become apparent as you read this article, but in my opinion, of these two prospects my ideal choice is Derwin James. I believe that he affords our defense the most options and allows us to be the most creative with our "base" defense, keeping Offenses and Quarterbacks guessing as to what we would do play to play. With NFL offenses getting more creative, NFL defenses need to do the same, and James gives us flexibility we haven't had before. With the Bears finally getting two starting Safeties that they believe they can count on in Eddie Jackson and Adrian Amos, adding Derwin James as a hybrid ILB/Safety would be a significant addition, and allow the Bears to look for EDGE help in Round 2. Of course, if Minkah is the pick, you could likely consider Amos in that Hybrid ILB/S position too, but I do think James would be superior in that role, which is why I like his fit with the Bears a bit better.

This all said, we may not even get the chance to draft Derwin James. I believe that James is likely higher on some team's draft boards than the media has caught up with. I could easily see him going to the Tampa Bay Bucs at #7, who need help in their secondary as well. However, if he's there, for those wondering if Safety would be a "luxury pick" for the Bears, I'd argue that it wouldn't be a luxury at all, rather it would enable our defense to evolve even further to keep up with the NFL's newer offenses, and change how we run our Base Defense.

This Fanpost was written by a Windy City Gridiron member, and does not necessarily reflect the ideas or opinions of its staff or community.