The Nickel position has become one of the most important in football. When you see the Jets move Darrelle Revis to the slot against the Patriots you are seeing confirmation of a definite shift in defensive strategy (started by Belichik) as teams feel the pressing need to deny these little slot receivers from wreaking havoc in the open field. That guy who used to be your 12-15th best defender is now one of your best.
On the occasions in which LSU is facing spread formations this season they are moving Tyrann "the Tyrannosaurus" Mathieu into the slot and closer to the line of scrimmage where his Velociraptor instincts are best served.
Although this spoils some of my All-Big 12 picks I'm about to reveal, I think Mathieu should be considered for the Heisman trophy behind RGIII. Check out his stat line from the season:
70 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, 2 INT, 7 PBU, 3 QB Hits, 5 fumble recoveries, and 6 forced fumbles. That last stat is pretty astounding. He's tearing balls loose like a miniaturized Derrick Johnson and he's doing it at 175 pounds. Then you have his 420 punt return yards and 4 overall scores.
He's the best player on the best team, an NFL Pro-Bowler waiting to happen, and my Nickel Rover of the Year.
All-Big 12 Teams
These are going to be groups that you could actually put on the field in a coherent formations and schemes. Specifically, we're going to use formations and positions that are actually used commonly in the Big 12. There are several corners this year who might classify amongst the 11 best defenders in the conference but they're just going to have to endure the ignominy of being left off my list in favor of inferior players who play defensive tackle or safety (pretty weak this year).
On offense we are using 11/20 personnel. A quarterback, running back, LT, LG, C, RG, RT, X receiver, Z receiver, slot receiver, and the TE/HB/FB utility guy that I thought was most deserving of recognition.
QB: Robert Griffin III
I was considering Landry Jones until Broyles injury brought out all his worst traits (locking on to receivers, forcing the ball downfield, not reading the field) and I watched more of RGIII. Weeden is probably a close 2nd to Landry in accuracy and arm-strength with perhaps a better read of coverages. Klein played like a Viking berserker and James Franklin was really good as well. Even Tannehill had some impressive moments and has a first-day arm. But a QB who makes your downfield passing game, running game, and quick game all deadly while throwing only 6 interceptions should be a Heisman lock every year.
RB: Cyrus Gray
Kind of a down year here. With so many QB's graduating or departing next year I bet we see more of a focus on running games next year. I'm picking Cyrus because he's consistent, an excellent zone-runner, and a good receiver/blocker to boot. Michael and Josey couldn't stay as healthy and I'm not a believer in Ganaway playing in a scheme that doesn't allow him to run through arm tackles.
TE/HB/FB: Trey Millard
He doesn't have real sexy numbers but he's a primary reason for all of OU's big runs and Belldozer success this season. He can line up all over the place, is a solid runner and receiver, and a devastating lead-blocker. I think he's partially responsible for OU's absurdly low number of sacks allowed, as well. Without him, there is zero power in OU's running game.
X receiver: Justin Blackmon
Duh. He can run any route and has the scalps of several future NFL corners on his war belt. It sould have been nice to see him against a large corner in LSU's Claiborne but oh well, the BCS doesn't exist to make fans happy.
Z receiver: Kenny Stills/Ryan Broyles
Fuller's disappearance this season is in my Top 5 reasons A&M underperformed this year. He could have been a game changer and instead he was an option. Stills is extremely dangerous downfield, fearless in his route running, a contortionist in the air, and explosive after the catch.
Slot Receiver: Kendall Wright/Ryan Broyles
I'm mentioning Broyles as a substitute in these categories because he was having a dominant season before blowing out his knee. Wright is possibly better and had a 1572 yard year. I'm not sure which one I would prefer to see catch the ball on the run against my teams' secondary, either are horrifying.
Left Tackle: Luke Joeckel
He kept Tannehill's shirt pretty clean this year and was highly effective on the outside zone runs that sprung Gray for 1k yards this year. I didn't put a ton of thought or focus on watching OL play this year so I'm willing to concede half of these to someone who thinks they know better.
Left Guard: David Snow
Because we were pummeling people when healthy and Snow was our best and most consistent lineman.
Center: Ben Habern
He doesn't get a ton of push and OU did fine without him against our front but I hated how OU avoided sacks and negative plays this year and I believe he's the one making the calls and combo-blocks that enabled that crime.
Right Guard: Lane Taylor
I'm keeping the OSU right side together. There are likely better players here but I like what little I noticed from him.
Right Tackle: Levy Adcock
Big, powerful, and very competent in pass-protection. I've left off Usemelecheheh from Iowa St. but I like Joeckel and it's hard to beat a Wickline-taught 320 pound tackle.
I have 2 defenses here. One is the one I would assemble if I needed to put together a rockstar squad to win the Big 12 this year and win the championship bowl game, the other is based on the performance of the players over the actual season.
The latter is a 4-2-5, which is what almost everyone is basically running now. The former is a 3-3-5/2-4-5 hybrid that I would unleash with a fury on all who opposed me.
Power end: Frank Alexander
This is your defensive end that could play a 9, 7, or 5 tech (depending on the front) and provide run defense and pass rush doing any of them. Alex Okafor is a very close 2nd but Alexander was slightly more productive this year.
Buck End: Alex Okafor/Corey Nelson
For my All Big 12 defense based on year's performance, I'm going with Okafor. Combining him with Alexander gives you a pretty nasty pass-rush and makes your run defense really stout on the perimeter. Ten more pounds and another pass-rush move and Okafor is playing for a first round pick next year.
I didn't take much stock of Stoops' claim that Nelson was their best defensive player in the spring game and noted with humor that he was listed behind Travis Lewis on the depth chart, where his supposed talent would be wasted anyways. Then I watched a bunch of Oklahoma games.
Nelson isn't at all like Lewis or really anyone else we've seen in the Big 12. He's kinda like a mini-Von Miller or Clay Matthews. OU played him some as an outside linebacker in their 3-4 fronts and he was devastating with 8 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks. In a play against OSU I saw him line up as a 9-tech OLB, come upfield, diagnose an inside zone, and make it all the way back to the B-gap where he just missed a tackle on Joseph Randle that would have been a 3 yard gain. He didn't make the play, but the athleticism and aggressiveness was amazing.
On another play, he faked the outside pass rush and then darted out to jam an inside receiver and play underneath zone coverage (he had 4 PBUs on the year). The versatility he provides a defense is spectacular and I'm really curious to see if they plug him in where Lewis was last year or if they continue to move him around. His performance on the year doesn't match Okafor's, but he's an intriguing and horrifying weapon in this league.
Nose-tackle: Dominique Howard
Nose-tackle play was solid in the league this year. Randall played well, Howard played better, and many teams fielded competent-to-good players here (Baptiste, Ruempolhamer, Casey Walker, Kibble to name a few). I like Howard because of his ability to penetrate into the backfield.
Defensive tackle: Kheeston Randall
I'm picking Randall for both teams because the 3-techs in the league this year were nearly useless. He's not much of a penetrator but either team would be fine with the ends and linebackers on the squad and my 3-4/2-4 team would really benefit from having 2 stout guys on the inside to protect Nelson and my nickel.
Randall cost himself a first round grade by not improving his pass rush beyond a bull rush that varies in effectiveness based on his initial jump. The switch from Muschamp's gap control, read and react fronts to Diaz's slanting and stunting probably hindered the pace of his development but Randall's play improved over the course of the year as he caught on.
Sheldon Richardson and Nigel Nicholas were considered here. Given their decent play, and the quality of young DL OU and UT are bringing up I expect this position to be much better across the league next year.
Inside linebacker (Mike): AJ Klein
Teams designate their linebackers differently based on their role in coverage or in the front. If your Sam linebacker is the guy who drifts out to the Slot receiver then if the next guy over is the mike you may be asking your Will linebacker to take on lead blocks on the strong side to free up your Mike, when normally it's the opposite. Teams that that place their Mike on the strongside of the formation to free up the Will may then be having him cover curls/flats in coverage, instead of the middle.
Mine is lining up according to the running strength of the OL and I chose Klein narrowly over Keenan Robinson and Arthur Brown, mostly for his prolific tackling success. He's quite capable in underneath-zone coverage, has the mentality to play inside and take on guards, and excels in wrapping guys up. He doesn't have the blitzing acumen you might like but he's the best all-around Mike in the league, imo.
Inside linebacker (Will): Emmanuel Acho
Acho should be an All-American and he had a brilliant season. His underneath coverage is very good, he's an exceptional blitzer, his tackling is reliable (120 on the year), he's the complete package. Even if Travis Lewis had been healthy this year I don't think he would have matched Acho's all-around production.
Nickel/Sam: Kenny Vaccaro
Lots of good players here. Many teams (OU, Texas, Baylor) used their best safety in this role and were thus unable to field difference makers on the back-end. OSU and KSU played faster linebackers in this position who could hold up in underneath coverage and they also had some success. Defensive coordinators have decided that this is where they are deploying their best athletes.
Vaccaro stands out because of his performance in manning up on Broyles, Swope, and other slot receivers while also being a demon in the run game and a solid blitzer. Tony Jefferson is a stud but I don't know if he could have played man coverage on those guys while I know that Vaccaro can handle the zone assignments where Jefferson excelled. Also, I would be more afraid to play against Vaccaro. The Machete delivered this year and we'd be lucky to have him back for another.
Strong Safety: Markelle Martin
My strong safety lines up to field-side. Martin was a jewel in a pile of crap that was safety play in the Big 12 this season. Most Big 12 teams are just playing tons of nickel and dime and keeping their safeties back where they can't be isolated and embarrassed. Sometimes they still are, there just aren't enough good athletes to field difference makers on your offense and then have enough to play all 5 defensive back positions.
OSU perhaps came the closest and Martin is one of the few safeties in the league with the range to be more than just a last line of defense. Additionally, he was an excellent last line of defense and part of the reason OSU was so good in preventing explosive plays this year.
Free Safety: Trent Hunter/Adrian Phillips
Hunter had a good season while the rest of the Aggy secondary crumbled around him. Frederick and Judie were good corners but when Judie went down I think A&M's Cover-1/3 schemes were seriously jeopardized and they had tons of guys out there who couldn't cover the expanse of field that Deyruter's blitzes demanded of them.
I think Phillips is one of the most talented defensive backs in the league and I want him for my own team. Like Martin, he can break on the ball and has great deep range and he also arrives pretty fast in support from a deep alignment. He forced 4 turnovers this year as a back-up corner and part-time safety and will probably be the Longhorn who plays the demanding nickel position next season depending on what Cobb offers us and our coverage philosophies (Zone or Man?).
Corners: Brodrick Brown, Carrington Byndom
Nigel Malone had 7 interceptions this year and really picked on QB's who tried to throw comeback routes without enough zip. I really liked what sophompre EJ Gaines did for Missouri, the ISU corners were both quality, and Fleming of OU may be the worst omission because he was a complete player who was excellent when healthy.
I'm picking Brown because he was healthy all year and he's lightning quick in underneath coverage (5 INT, 15 PBU). Carrington Byndom gets the nod to cover the other team's best because he faced Stills, Blackmon, Fuller, and others this year in man coverage and acquitted himself with 2 interceptions and 15 PBU. I'm not sure if there is a more complete corner in the league than Byndom who was also physical and effective in run defense.
I can play a lot of different coverages with my personal group, bring a lot of different blitzes and be pretty solid up the middle with Hamilton and Randall clogging things up.
Offensive Player of the Year: RGIII.
Defensive Player of the Year: Kenny Vaccaro.
Best player on the best defense. I'm not sure anyone else in the league had as much of an impact as Kenny V on schematic possibilities, gameplanning, and the psyche of offensive players.
OC of the Year: Dana Dimel
The KSU guy. Briles designed a great offense but, it's pretty easy with RGIII running the system. I really hate what Heupel has done at OU but they struggled to build a running game and survive the loss of Broyles. What's most impressive to me is how KSU scored 35 points per game through schematics and sheer force of will. The QB Power run is taking over football and KSU expanded it into an entire offense that attacked the whole field.
On another note, I'm real curious to see Briles vs. Patterson again.
DC of the Year: Bill Young
OSU led the league in turnovers and had the perfect plan to complement that offense. They denied big plays in the run or pass game (which would have been so tempting in trying to catch up to Weeden & Co) and led the nation in turnovers. You have to wonder if he was a bigger part of the reason for Mangino's Kansas success than has been guessed.
HC of the Year: Bill Snyder
Statistically, KSU was not nearly as strong as their record would suggest but they got there through turnovers and efficiency in the Red Zone. Talent-wise, this isn't one of the league's best teams and wasn't projected to finish this well. But that's what Dark Wizards do...