There's a belief in the NFL that perimeter cornerbacks are more important than slot cornerbacks. The league has been drafting one over the other for many years now because most offenses are designed in a way that enables the majority of slot receivers to succeed because of the threat of the outside receiver. Defenses have the same thinking on their side of the ball, with the thought that if the perimeter cornerbacks are very good outside, the slot corner will benefit inside.
It doesn't quite work that way, though. Defenses have to change their lack of quality at the slot cornerback position or they will struggle immensely with the new wave of slot receivers serving as starters in teams' base 11 (three receivers) personnel. That's where San Diego State's Leon McFadden comes into play.
McFadden has been a perimeter corner in college throughout his four years but could make the transition to the slot in the pros.
He has exceptionally quick feet and is physical. He's also better suited for the inside because he doesn't have great size or speed in what has increasingly become a faster and bigger league. Teams are searching for tall and lanky press-man cornerbacks, which he isn't entirely.
But he still has a place in the slot, a position that not every defensive back can play. He has shown in multiple games that I've watched that he has the talent to play the position much like Casey Hayward did a season ago for the Green Bay Packers as a late second-round selection in the 2012 draft. Hayward did an admirable job shutting down receivers, such as the New York Giants' Victor Cruz, and will likely continue to do that as he gets an expanded role in Dom Capers' multiple defense.
Like Hayward, McFadden is quick-footed, has good flexibility and awareness. He's also quite instinctive, which is most certainly helpful when it comes to making plays, and willing to tackle. Here's an example against Brigham Young University this past season.
McFadden was lined up outside a BYU receiver on the perimeter. He gave a five-yard cushion and was patient as the play unfolded. The Cougars were ready to throw a screen pass in McFadden's direction. When the receiver stepped back to open up to the quarterback, McFadden bent his knees and stuck his foot into the ground, breaking downhill on the throw.
He quickly made up the ground between himself and the receiver and tackled him to force an incomplete pass.
This is what NFL teams will be looking at when they consider McFadden for the slot cornerback position. In the first image, the knee bend is crucial to his success if he plays the position because he has to be agile and flexible enough to mirror pivot routes and stay balanced in the process.
Teams have taken notice of the above and have asked him if he could make the transition inside at the next level.
"That's something I wouldn't mind playing and something I will have to learn obviously because I didn't play it in college," he said. "I'm willing to take that task on."
As mentioned earlier, another key trait that goes into identifying an ideal nickel cornerback is quick feet. McFadden has the short area quickness to matchup with slot receivers because he can break down in space with fluidity and be physical with them at the same time.
In the same game against BYU, he showed that. Initially lined up directly across from a receiver in the boundary (short side of the field), he backpedaled briefly and then opened his hips up to the sideline. The receiver ran a vertical stem of roughly five yards before he planted his inside foot in the ground and made a cut to the inside. McFadden lowered his hips, bent his knees and changed directions.
Once he opened his hips up to the inside, he put his inside hand on the receiver's chest to ensure that he's not catching an easy pass. McFadden lost his footing here but was quick to recover and mirror the receiver.
McFadden's skill set is a fit for the position that defenses have sometimes been reluctant to invest more in because they feel like they can find them cheaply. In some ways, this is true, as the value of the slot cornerback position in the draft is not high.
Casey Hayward, who was used as an example earlier, was selected at the end of the second-round. McFadden is being projected as a third rounder. Interestingly enough, the draft's top slot receiver, West Virginia's Tavon Austin, is projected to go in the Top 15. What does that say about the priorities of general managers?
If a team believes that McFadden can slot inside and cover the Tavon Austin's of the world and then slide outside and play as a squat (e.g. Cover 2) or man-under defender, then why not take him higher than the third-round despite his lack of long speed and great size?
If he falls, he could be a steal for one team looking to keep up with the NFL's move to a base 11 personnel.