By Robert Zeglinski
A nickel cornerback is not like his other defensive teammates. Where a boundary cornerback – of any length or size – can routinely be isolated with a receiver on an island, a nickel cornerback floats in the middle of the field, sometimes as he pleases but mostly as he needs. Where a linebacker operates largely on a see ball, get ball basis, a nickel cornerback has to be far more aware of his surroundings and can’t be caught looking in the backfield. Where most any defensive linemen is responsible for a one-note gap, and is largely facing the same competition up front every game, a nickel corner’s assignment often varies from series to series, play to play, and moment to moment.
In a modern NFL where cornerback play is at a premium, and on a Bears team built on its defensive play, the nickel cornerback isn’t the most important cog in the machine. But it must routinely be the most pliable for risk of letting the entire engine it drives stall.
Most good NFL defenses in 2019 have a competent nickel. The Bears, as they begin life without three-year starter Bryce Callahan, are no exception.
A good nickel in pro football is worth a dime, and there are no dimes a dozen here.
The current heir apparent to the Bears’ nickel throne the departed Callahan left behind is veteran Buster Skrine, who is on his third team in his ninth professional season. Skrine is capable, and is no stranger to an expanded role on any defense, but that’s more likely in a limited role. Skrine has lead the defense he’s featured on in penalties for each of the last three years. The Bears can get by with his experience and for a time probably will have to, but it won’t be ideal.
The person whose growth must be considered for the long-term is rookie sixth-rounder Duke Shelley: the prototypical grinder and tough guy at nickel that Ryan Pace’s Bears have always deeply coveted, whether they’ve openly admitted to it or not.
A four-year contributor at Kansas State, Shelley is listed at a generous 5-foot-9, 181 pounds. It’s often said that skinny athletes weigh what they weigh when they’re drenched in water, as to add more detail to their smaller frames. Hence the phrase “soaking wet.” For Shelley, classifying him in said fashion doesn’t do much of any favors to his more miniature stature. He’s rail-thin, even for a nickel cornerback, and there’s no need to gloss up the reality anymore. The key distinction for Shelley and why the Bears ultimately invested in his potential, is that in either party’s eyes, it doesn’t matter. When you produce 165 tackles, 31 passes defended, eight interceptions, and seven tackles-for-loss in a pass happy Big 12, size never matters. It’s how you lit up the box score and found a way to thrive despite your limitations.
Size at cornerback, while certainly desirable in most cases, isn’t the end-all be-all in terms of success. What does determine whether a nickel corner sinks or swims is instinct, speed, spatial awareness, and every cliche of grit you can dare to uncover. In comparison to most other traits, the importance of size is thoroughly overblown at every level and should be. If you had a nickel for every time a talented player was overlooked due to their size you’d have, well, a few dollars. In this case, the Bears just have one nickel, Shelley.
Fortunately for Shelley, he’s got plenty of the latter descriptors as much as his frame may betray a worthy advertisement of what he brings to the table. He’s every bit the nickel cornerback the Bears have sought after – both Callahan and former Bear Cre’Von LeBlanc were also on the smaller side, though never particularly lacked in other needed skills – for most of the past half-decade. It’s a scouting modus operandi not likened to change anytime soon, and it’s served them well.
What may preclude Shelley from shining early on in the NFL after being relatively snubbed in the 2019 NFL Draft is a transition to a position he’s never played before. In 2018, Shelley played just 10 snaps defending the slot, according to Pro Football Focus. Over 83 percent of his playing time was spent on the outside boundary, a figure that most aptly describes the rest of his collegiate career. The Bears have already begun their plans to rightfully shift Shelley inside in mini-camp and get him acclimated.
Though it’s early, it doesn’t sound like the self-assured rookie is concerned about his entirely new venture in an unfamiliar place. After all, if he could shine at a position his body wasn’t designed for in college, what will happen when he’s playing on the league’s premier active defense in a role tailor-made for his abilities?
“Nickel’s a hard position to play, just because of where you’re at on the field,” Shelley told a gathered media contingent earlier this month. “There’s more grass, more field to cover. Guys have opportunities to go two-way go’s on you and things like that.”
“But for me personally, my skill set fits it, being my size and how quick I am and the feet I have,” Shelley continued. “Transition, I don’t feel like will be hard for me.”
For Shelley’s and the Bears’ sake, to avoid any unnecessary stunting growing pains, it would be most beneficial if a veteran such as Skrine could hold onto his role to start the 2019 season. Barring a meteoric rise, there’s no need to force the issue on a player already being viewed as the near future of his position in Chicago. The time for Shelley to adapt and learn is now, when he’s most free to make mistakes, instead of being thrown into an offensive fire and being expected to climb out unscathed.
Last season, NFL teams used 11 personnel – where there are three receivers, one tight end, and one running back on the field – 64 percent of the time. Some of football’s very best game-breakers like the Vikings’ Adam Thielen, Chargers’ Keenan Allen, and Cardinals’ Larry Fitzgerald, all ran at least half of their routes from the slot. Offenses have figured out they can exploit matchups from the middle of the field and attain as much flexibility inside than they ever could’ve previously imagined. It’s a spiritual awakening that Paul Brown, Don Coryell, and Bill Walsh only could’ve dreamed of. It’s a reality the game’s greatest defensive minds like Bill Belichick, Vic Fangio, Mike Zimmer, and Bears defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano can only frown upon.
The collective base offense of the league, and proliferation of superstars attacking the slot, means a nickel such as Shelley better be as prepared as possible when his moment comes or risk being embarrassed.
If a Kansas State career marked by playmaking, unhinged adversity, and a perennial chip on his shoulder have anything to say about it, Shelley won’t be any worse for the wear when that moment arrives. He’ll be part of the face of a defensive movement and worth every nickel.
“I got hurt,” Shelley tweeted recently. “Missed the last five games of my senior year. No bowl game, no senior bowl game, no combine invite. Which led me to be playing for the best defense and team in the NFL. None of that would have been possible if I would have finished my senior year.”
“God works in mysterious ways.”
Robert is a writer and editor. Follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.