Whenever a cornerback is labeled "nickel" corner in the scouting process, some observers view it as a slight to a prospect's game. However, defensive coaches consider it the most difficult position to fill, based on the tremendous challenges associated with playing in the slot.
Nickel corners must possess the athleticism and quickness to handle shifty receivers in a tight area, while also exhibiting the awareness to deal with the motions, shifts and stacked formations used by clever offensive coordinators to create free access for receivers at the line of scrimmage. In addition, slot corners must display the tenacity and toughness to be factors as run defenders in the box.
Given the combination of athleticism, skill and intelligence required to play the position, defensive coaches typically put their most instinctive and versatile corner in the slot when using sub-packages. With that in mind, I believe Florida State's Lamarcus Joyner will be a difference-maker as a nickel corner in the NFL. Here's why:
Joyner is an explosive athlete with terrific short area quickness and burst. He flashes outstanding balance, body control and agility making turns and transitions in space. Although Joyner doesn't strike me as a straight-line speedster, his combination of quickness and burst allows him to shadow elite slot receivers between the hashes. Most important, Joyner's athleticism shows up in his ability to effectively play in man and zone in space. Some evaluators and teams will have issues with his physical dimensions -- Joyner is listed at 5-8, 190 pounds -- because of the presence of so many big-bodied receivers dominating the NFL. But there is always a need for explosive athletes between the hashes, especially when diminutive receivers such as Wes Welker and Danny Amendola own the middle of the field. Joyner has played every position in the defensive backfield after spending two seasons as a safety for the Seminoles before returning to cornerback this year. He will receive high marks for his athleticism and versatility.
Defensive coaches covet defensive backs with the athleticism, footwork and instincts to cover in isolated matchups. While most view those skills as essential traits for man-to-man coverage, nickel corners need to exhibit those skills in zone coverage based on the combination concepts defensive coordinators prefer in sub-defenses. On the perimeter, Joyner excels covering receivers on the perimeter in press-man but is equally effective playing off at seven yards and utilizing a shadow technique. He maintains proper leverage throughout the down, while also forcing receivers toward his help defenders (free safety or linebacker). By demonstrating a mastery of this technique as a collegian, Joyner should be able to play immediately in the slot, where defensive backs routinely work with linebackers and safeties on brackets and various "cut" coverage. Additionally, he shouldn't have any problems passing off receivers on crossing routes when assigned to play as a hook or curl/flat defender in zone or zone-blitz coverage. Given the complex nature of most NFL defensive concepts and coverage, Joyner's cover skills and awareness should serve him well as a nickel corner.
The top defenses in the NFL live and die with turnovers. Winning the turnover battle is the biggest deciding factor in games, which is why defensive coordinators covet defenders with a knack for stealing the ball. Joyner is a natural ball hawk with superb instincts and awareness. He anticipates throws in his area and is fearless attacking the ball in the back end. As a result, Joyner has snatched seven interceptions in his career, while also recording 15 break ups. Those numbers represent solid production for a cornerback assigned to play primarily in man coverage, where defenders routinely play with their backs to the ball. As a zone defender, Joyner exhibits outstanding awareness by making aggressive breaks on throws. He transitions quickly from his backpedal to come downhill on routes in his area, while also taking accurate angles to the break point. Consequently, Joyner get his hands on a ton of balls, which eventually leads to interceptions for him or his teammates.
Tackling is rarely discussed in cornerback evaluations, but the transformation of the NFL into a passing league makes it mandatory for defenders to be solid tackers in space. Joyner is a solid tackler on the perimeter. He has the quickness and agility to wrap elusive receivers in space, while also showing the physicality and toughness to nail running backs in the hole. Joyner's superb tackling prowess led to his position change early in his career at Florida State -- Joyner started 27 games at safety from 2011-12 -- and makes him an intriguing option as a nickel corner as a pro.
Joyner entered Florida State as one of the most decorated high school defenders in the country; he was the 2009 USA Today National Defensive Player of the Year. He certainly hasn't disappointed as an impact playmaker for the Seminoles. He has thrived as a versatile playmaker in the secondary, with the kind of skills defensive coaches covet in elite cornerbacks. While his size will lead some teams to shy away from adding Joyner to the lineup, his productivity and versatility as a defender will lead a savvy coordinator to tap into his skills as a potential defensive specialist in the mold of Tyrann Mathieu, Antoine Winfield or Troy Polamalu. If I had to put a grade on Joyner, I would rank him as a Day 2 selection likely to come off the board as a borderline second- or third-round pick.