5 most improved defensive backs in the NFL

Oct 1, 2017; London, Middlesex, ENG; New Orleans Saints cornerback Ken Crawley (20) catches an interception pass intended for Miami Dolphins tight end Julius Thomas (89) at Wembley Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Steve Flynn-USA TODAY Sports
Steve Flynn-USA TODAY Sports

Analyzing defensive backs can be tough. When you watch on TV, without a replay, there can be a lot of guessing. Even when you get an angle that shows everyone, there is still some second guessing because we don’t know the coverages. After watching the position for a few years, one thing I noticed the most is that no other position is this fickle from year to year, outside of maybe 10 guys who are always at the top. From a charting standpoint from year to year, the numbers are always very different. Today we’re going to go over the most improved defensive backs in this NFL season.

5. Tashaun Gipson, safety, Jaguars

Last year under Gus Bradley the Jaguars asked Tashaun Gipson to play free safety. That’s the “Earl Thomas” role. The deep middle safety has to take away all passes over 20 yards. That limited Gipson. He had trouble as a single-high safety with teams attacking him.

This year with the addition of Barry Church his role has changed. Gipson is asked to come down and cover guys in the slot. Take away intermediate routes. Just be more versatile. He’s thrived in this role. Gipson has three more interceptions, five more passes defensed, and six more tackles in four fewer games.

Last week against the Colts we saw Gipson’s versatility. He was involved in the slot in man coverage. He played the “robber” role. He also played the deep safety role. Check out these two plays that highlight Gipson’s usage.

On the first play, Gipson is “lurking” from a strong safety position. He reads run and flies up to make the tackle for a gain of one. A year ago he never would have been in position to make that play. He’s missed four tackles this year, so about 10.5 percent of the time when he has a chance, he misses. That’s down two percent from a year ago. Gipson is much improved in his new role.

4. Lamarcus Joyner, safety, Rams

One of the most underrated moves this year has been Wade Phillips moving Lamarcus Joyner to safety. Last year he was primarily a slot corner. This year he’s still playing in the slot every now and then. More than ever, though, he’s dropping deep to take away throws. Boy is he making plays.

Prior to this year he never had an interception. This year he has three, along with nine passes defensed, another career high. Joyner has tremendous range that allows him to get sideline to sideline. We saw him get an interception last week. We also saw him break up a pass on a big hit against Arizona.

This is what he brings. He has been a sure tackler this year, missing only three tackles on the season. Joyner wasn’t bad by any means last year, but he wasn’t playing at the level he is this year. The move to safety, as in Gipson’s case, didn’t limit his skills.

3. Jordan Poyer, safety, Bills

Poyer was bad the last two years he was with the Browns. Changes of scenery and assignment have done wonders for him. This year he has a career high in interceptions. He also has more passes broken up, nine, than in his pre-2017 career, seven. He might end up with more tackles this year than he had before 2017 as well.

What’s been most impressive with Poyer this year is his ability to not be outmatched by bigger tight ends. The Chargers game is a good example — he broke up passes against both Antonio Gates and Hunter Henry, who probably have about five inches on him.

As you can see from the video, he’s not afraid to come down and mix it up against the run, either. Poyer is much improved this year. He looks like a true “football player” the Bills can rely on.

2. Trevor Williams, corner, Chargers

Last year Trevor Williams was a nightmare. He was benched multiple times for other undrafted free-agent rookies. There were no real signs he would play a lot of snaps, let alone make a roster. Fast forward a year and Williams is one of the 15 best corners in the league. A couple months ago I wrote about him being the unsung hero of the Chargers. The team hasn’t missed a beat with the Jason Verrett injury. With Williams, it’s all confidence. He was able to make a couple plays early in the season and kept it rolling from there. He has the sixth-most passes broken up this year. What really stands out is his athleticism. He can turn and run with anybody he has faced, but he can also stick with good route runners.

That’s three routes against Michael Crabtree — Williams is in his hip pocket for each route. Almost as important, Williams loves to stick his nose in there as a run defender.

He has saved some big runs this year just by being able to tackle in the open field. If he keeps developing, he will be tough to keep off the field, whether Verrett is healthy or not.

1. Ken Crawley, corner, Saints

Crawley was an easy target last year. He was targeted 52 times with a success rate of 44 percent. That was good for 149th in the league. He was 143rd in yards per pass, and 112th in yards after catch. He was barely passable as someone you’d want on the field. The Saints were so injured at the position they didn’t have any other choice.

This year? We’ve seen an entirely different player.

His success rate is up 22 percent to 66 percent. He’s allowing only 5.1 yards per pass. Both marks are fourth-highest in the league. His yards after catch are down to 39th in the league. Crawley is simply in position to make plays this year. He looks so much more comfortable in coverage. Crawley has more pass breakups in fewer targets. Last Sunday he broke up a couple passes as well.

This year has been a revelation for Crawley. He’s going to get tested considering the guy on the opposite side of him. So far, Crawley has lived up to the task. He’s been the most improved defensive back and I’m not sure it’s close.

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