We’ve spent a lot of time discussing how the Seahawks could use a prospect like Obi Melifonwu. One of the suggestions is he could be used as a ‘big nickel’ working against larger receivers and tight ends.
The Panthers drafted Shaq Thompson at #25 in 2015 and have used him as a SAM linebacker and ‘Buffalo’ nickel. So what is a Buffalo?
Essentially it’s a hybrid linebacker/safety, used instead of a traditional DB to counteract big targets and help vs the run.
Bucky Brooks noted two and a half years ago that the ‘big nickel’ look was the hottest trend in the NFL:
“The defensive coordinator will instead bring on an extra safety who acts as a hybrid linebacker/cornerback. While the nickel safety is also assigned to cover tight ends and receivers in the slot, he is a more effective run defender and possesses the size, strength and length to match up with the league’s increasing number of big-bodied, pass-catching tight ends. Thus, the coordinator has a better option for defending opponents who prefer to play “12” personnel (one running back, two tight ends and two wide receivers) as their primary offense.
“With three safeties on the field, it becomes tougher for the quarterback to identify potential rushers from the second level. The constant movement and deking creates confusion at the line of scrimmage, leading to blown protection calls and misreads in the passing game. The big nickel package is also effective against the run, due to the presence of better athletes near the line of scrimmage. The overall speed and quickness of the defense improves with more defensive backs on the field, and safeties — more so than most cornerbacks — are comfortable playing in the box and taking on blockers due to their role in eight-man fronts on early (running) downs.”
There’s a defensive scheme based around the concept, as explained by John Turney:
“Buffalo was a 4-2-5 defense that showed a Cover-3 look with a post safety (or middle-of-the-field safety).”
“Nickel defense was the same personnel, but it was a 4-2-5 defense that showed a Cover-2 look, with the safeties near the hashes.”
It’s unclear how prepared the Seahawks are to adopt this type of formation. By now we know what they are — a 4-3 under defense focussing on execution.
That said, the Buffalo defense isn’t straying too much from Seattle’s current scheme. As Thurney notes, it’s a single-high safety cover-3 concept. The only difference is instead of a SAM you’re fielding a nickel. This DB still has some of the responsibilities of the SAM (defend the run, cover the TE) but you’re giving up some size to have a better athlete on the field.
This wouldn’t be a great departure for the Seahawks considering how often they fielded two linebackers and a nickel corner (Jeremy Lane) in 2016.
And while they might prefer to simply acquire a really good SAM (eg Haason Reddick) — if that player isn’t available, this seems like an alternative.
They’ve at least flirted with the possibility of using a ‘Buffalo’ type of player in the past. The Eric Pinkins project (moving him from safety to linebacker) and Brandon Browner’s return hints that they’ve considered having this type of weapon on defense. Neither was able to nail down a role on the roster.
It’s also interesting that Brooks in his piece talked about ‘big nickels’ and listed the following examples:
Aaron Williams — 6-0, 199lbs
Tyrann Mathieu — 5-8, 186lbs
Kenny Vaccaro — 6-0, 214lbs
Antrel Rolle — 6-0, 206lbs
Eric Berry — 6-0, 212lbs
None of these are players are 6-4, 219lbs like Melifonwu.
Two thoughts come to mind here:
1.) Melifonwu’s excellent size and length could make him an especially effective ‘Buffalo’. Physically he’s a closer match to the big WR/TE he’ll be competing with.
2.) The concept allows us to contemplate other players. Budda Baker (5-10, 180lbs), Justin Evans (6-0, 193lbs) and Shalom Luani (6-0, 201lbs) are physically similar to the players listed above.
All three play with a rabid intensity that fits Seattle’s defense. It might be difficult to project Baker defending big WR’s and TE’s at the next level at his size — but he’s a competitor and Tyrann Mathieu manages it. He’s also really good at making plays in the backfield and vs the run (10 TFL’s in 2016, three sacks). Evans will be one of the stars of the combine and has a reputation for jarring, punishing hits. Luani might an option beyond the first round.
You can easily imagine the Seahawks liking all three.
This does, however, detract from what Pete Carroll stated in his end of season press conference about team needs. He was quite specific about tapping into the cornerback class, adding linebackers similar to Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright in the draft and looking at offensive linemen. Unless you’re willing to call this suggestion a nickel corner, it doesn’t chime with the specified target needs.
Indeed they might be more inclined to draft one of the orthodox linebackers (Haason Reddick, Jarrad Davis, Zach Cunningham) early and work them into the line-up with Wagner and Wright. We know they are comfortable with Wright playing the SAM — it’s not a ridiculous thought to imagine Jarrad Davis and Wright rotating positions or a nice overall rotation coming into play, with the Seahawks simply continuing to use their nickel formations whenever they choose.
They could also just draft a pure nickel or outside corner at #26.
But the Buffalo concept is intriguing to the extent that it opens up the discussion on Melifonwu, Baker, Evans or Luani and how they might fit in Seattle if selected.