TAMPA, Fla. — For the third year in a row, former Tampa Bay Buccaneers cornerback Ronde Barber did not advance beyond the semifinalist round of the Pro Football Hall of Fame voting. Maybe the Bucs’ lack of national relevance over the past decade plays a role. Maybe it’s because only 13 of the 326 Hall of Famers spent all or the majority of their careers at cornerback (16 players are listed as having played both cornerback and safety).
But Barber won’t get Hall of Fame recognition until football purists and decision-makers understand not only his unique role in the Tampa 2 defense but the value he brought to the nickelback position.
“He’s probably one of the best nickelbacks to play the game,” former Bucs position coach Herm Edwards said. “And he was a starting corner. A lot of people don’t realize that because we’d move him inside with three wide [receivers].”
Brother Tiki Barber, who played 10 years in the NFL, took it one step further.
“He revolutionized the position,” Tiki Barber said. “People don’t give him credit for it. He was 10 years ahead of his time. The nickel corner is the most important position on the football field these days. You’ve gotta be part linebacker, part cornerback, part rush player, and he did it with excellence.”
What is a nickelback?
Traditionally, the nickelback was the third and weakest cornerback on the team.
“We did it completely opposite,” said Ronde Barber, who was often used to blitz in defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin’s zone pressures. “You needed kind of a cerebral, short-space, quick, tough guy to do it. That was me.”
The nickelback serves as a fifth defensive back — hence the word “nickel.” He’s responsible for covering wide receivers, running backs and tight ends. At times, he’ll be asked to rush the quarterback.
“That guy has to be versatile. He has to be able to blitz, he has to be able to tackle, he has to be able to cover — short and deep,” said Bucs cornerbacks coach Kevin Ross, who played in the NFL for 10 seasons and is in the Kansas City Chiefs’ Hall of Fame.
“I give Monte Kiffin a lot of credit here because he allowed me a chance to pioneer a position,” Ronde Barber said. “People took the nickel for granted for a lot of years prior. But he treated it like I was Derrick Brooks. I went to linebacker meetings. When they ran the ball, they expected me to make tackles. And it really came to define what Tampa 2 was. You didn’t have to put your weakest corner in there. You put your best corner in there and let him go make plays. I made a ton of plays.”
While the two outside corners can use the boundary to their advantage, the nickelback has more area to cover and has to play both inside and outside release, meaning he must not only be quick but mentally sharp, especially against slants, digs and post routes, where receivers are breaking in the middle of the field. Guess wrong and you give up a big play.
When you look at the recent cornerbacks being voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, 50 interceptions is the sweet spot.
“I’ve always said this — if you get 50 interceptions, you’ve got a really good chance getting in,” Edwards said.
“I think he should go,” former Bucs safety and Super Bowl MVP Dexter Jackson said. “When you look at the defense and the position he played and the way that he played it, he was the best. And that’s what it’s about. Who was the best at that time? And for the 15-, 16-year period, Ronde was the best at playing nickel corner. Yes, he played outside and made plays. Yes, he was outside covering the best receiver. Ronde was able to do all those things and still be successful.
Ty Law, who was inducted in 2019, had 53 interceptions. Champ Bailey, who was inducted in 2019, had 52. Ronde Barber came close with 47, but that’s right there with a pair of Hall of Famers — Jimmy Johnson, who had 47 with the San Francisco 49ers, and Mike Haynes, who had 46 with the New England Patriots and Oakland Raiders.
But Ronde Barber did so much more than his peers at the position. He was the first and only NFL player to record at least 45 interceptions and 25 sacks (28 career sacks). His 197 career passes defensed are second most in NFL history behind only Bailey (203). Barber also registered 1,231 combined tackles (1,028 solo), 88 tackles for loss, 12 forced fumbles and 12 fumble recoveries.
By comparison, in 15 seasons, Law had 839 combined tackles (703 solo), 5.0 sacks, 169 passes defensed, 53 interceptions, seven touchdowns, seven forced fumbles and four fumble recoveries. In 15 seasons, Bailey had 908 combined tackles (812 solo), 3.0 sacks, seven forced fumbles and six fumble recoveries.
While Ronde Barber doesn’t have the 12 Pro Bowl selections of Bailey or the three Super Bowl rings of Law (Barber was a five-time Pro Bowler and won a Super Bowl with the Bucs in 2002), his longevity and toughness in the sport — not just how long he played but the fact that he rarely missed games — can’t be overlooked.
In 2002, he recorded an interception against Brett Favre with one hand the same week he had surgery on a broken thumb.
Ronde Barber told the doctor, “’You’ve got two days. I’m gonna practice on Wednesday,’” he said. “The hard part was that it was my left thumb and I was on the right side of the defense, so he was throwing into this hand, so I had to use my body and right hand [to make a one-handed interception]. But I found a way.”
He holds the record for most consecutive starts by a cornerback (209) and most consecutive starts by a defensive back with 215 (Ronde Barber switched to safety in 2012).
“When he got to 14 years, I’m like, ‘How the hell are you doing this?'” Tiki Barber said. “‘You’re 36 years old right now. How are you still playing?'”
Ronde Barber said, “I never wanted to see anyone else do my job.”
Tiki Barber believes a lack of understanding about his brother’s position has made it more challenging for him to garner respect.
“It’s a shame because people who don’t know football well enough are judging football,” Tiki Barber said.
“A lot of the people who try to [discredit] nickel corners are people who have never played the game,” Jackson said.
Ross sees value in what Ronde Barber did.
“The nickel is now a starting cornerback in the NFL. There are always three wide receivers out on the field. That guy, he’s no longer what you call your ‘third corner.’ He’s a starting corner in the NFL right now,” Ross said.
Many teams now list their starting defense with three cornerbacks instead of two, so the position is slowly generating more respect, which you can see with players like Chris Harris being voted to the Pro Bowl.
“They will,” Ronde Barber said. “They will eventually. They have to.”
Packers’ Aaron Jones still plans to do Lambeau Leap without fans in stands
GREEN BAY, Wis. — Aaron Jones isn’t going to stop Lambeau Leaping just because the Green Bay Packers won’t have any fans in the stands, and he won’t stop listening to contract offers even though he didn’t get a deal done on the eve of the season, like fellow 2017 draft class running backs Dalvin Cook and Alvin Kamara did.
Jones and the Packers got their first look Friday at how Lambeau Field will be configured for Sunday’s home opener against the Detroit Lions. The team practiced in the stadium, which has the first eight rows of bleachers covered with signage and advertisements during the coronavirus pandemic.
“You’ll definitely still see a Lambeau Leap from me, probably right on one of those tarps,” Jones said after practice on Friday. “Just gotta pick which one, or wherever I score at or the location I’m at it’s gonna be that one. Definitely different seeing it, though, replacing the fans and just the tarp. Definitely not the Lambeau we’re used to.”
Jones is one of the most likely Packers to get the chance for a Lambeau Leap, considering he tied for the NFL lead with 19 touchdowns last season. He scored once last week at Minnesota in the Packers’ Week 1 win, when he rushed for 66 yards on 16 carries.
But is he one of the most likely Packers to get a contract extension?
They signed nose tackle Kenny Clark to a four-year, $70 extension in August. Clark, who suffered a groin injury against the Vikings, has been ruled out against the Lions. Jones is one of four other starters with expiring contracts, including All-Pro left tackle David Bakhtiari, center Corey Linsley and cornerback Kevin King.
The Packers and Bakhtiari were about $4 million per year apart on a deal before the season, according to a source familiar the negotiations. Bakhtiari is seeking to match or exceed the $22 million per year that Houston’s Laremy Tunsil makes as the NFL’s highest-paid tackle.
The Packers also have been talking to Jones about a contract extension since last spring but have not been able to get a deal done. Jones is making $2.133 million in the final year of his rookie deal. Last weekend, both Cook and Kamara signed extensions. The Vikings gave Cook a five-year, $63 million extension, while the Saints extended Kamara for five years and $75 million.
When asked what he thought about those deals, Jones said: “Just congratulations to those guys. They’re just helping out all the running backs on the market. So big kudos and congrats to those guys. It’s very well deserved to them.”
Jones, a fifth-round pick, had a breakout season last year with 1,558 total yards from scrimmage. He tied Carolina’s Christian McCaffrey for the NFL touchdown lead.
Jones said he’s not closing the door on the possibility of still getting a deal done during the season.
“I’m definitely open to getting something done whenever,” he said. “But like I said, that’s not my main focus. Just gonna continue to focus on football and helping this team bring in the wins, as many as possible.”
Rams’ Robert Woods gets 4-year, $65 million contract extension
The Los Angeles Rams and receiver Robert Woods have agreed to terms on a four-year, $65 million extension, including $32 million guaranteed, a source told ESPN. The contract has a $68 million maximum value.
On Thursday, a day before Woods and the Rams agreed to terms, Rams coach Sean McVay said an extension would be done “very shortly,” while Woods expressed hope that it would be completed before a Week 2 matchup against the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field on Sunday.
“Just praying that it gets done on time and really just trying to go out there and execute what I do on the field and let my play do the talking for me,” Woods said. “Which it has.”
Woods outplayed the five-year, $34 million deal that he originally signed with the Rams in 2017, and the deal was expanded to $39 million through performance and a conversion of his base salary.
Over the past three seasons, Woods ranks among the top 11 NFL receivers in receptions, receiving yards and yards after catch. He produced consecutive 1,000-yard receiving seasons in 2018 and 2019 and last season led all NFL receivers with 577 yards after the catch. Last Sunday, in a Week 1 20-17 victory over the Dallas Cowboys, Woods had six receptions for 105 yards.
His deal is the latest in a flurry of extensions the Rams have completed over the past two weeks. Two days before the season opener, cornerback Jalen Ramsey signed a record-setting five-year, $105 million extension that included $71.2 million guaranteed at signing, the most lucrative contract for a defensive back in NFL history. A day later, wide receiver Cooper Kupp signed a three-year, $48 million extension.
When asked if he grew concerned that the Rams might not have the resources to extend him following Ramsey and Kupp’s deals, Woods smiled. “This is a billion dollar industry. I feel like there’s always money,” he said, before joking, “especially with Denver doing well — the Nuggets. There’s a little bit of money somewhere.”
Rams owner Stan Kroenke also owns the Nuggets, who are appearing in the Western Conference Finals of the NBA playoffs.
McVay said he spoke with Woods following Kupp’s extension, reiterating his desire to keep Woods — whom he called a pillar of the offense — long term.
“[McVay] just kind of put his arm around me and said, he’s happy to have me here, been a true competitor since I stepped on his team,” said Woods, who turned 28 in April. “He kind of just reassured me that this deal would be taken care of this week, and really have no other concerns. We take each other’s word, we believe in it, we go forward and we’re locked on to get this thing done and look forward to Philadelphia.”
Woods previously was scheduled to earn $5 million this season and his contract was set to expire at the end of the 2021 season.
A second-round pick in 2013 by Bills, Woods played four seasons in Buffalo where he had 2,451 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns. Since joining the Rams, Woods has caught 238 passes for 3,239 yards and 13 touchdowns. He has also rushed for 298 yards and two scores.
49ers TE George Kittle ruled out vs. Jets with sprained knee
Earlier in the week, Shanahan indicated a decision could be made closer to game time because of Kittle’s propensity for playing through injury. But, after Kittle sat out practice all week and a cross-country flight set for Friday, the 49ers decided not to risk it and declared Kittle out on Friday’s injury report with a sprained left knee.
Kittle will stay in the Bay Area this weekend to rehab and is will re-join the team at The Greenbrier Resort in Sulphur Springs, West Virginia next week as it prepares for the Week 3 meeting against the New York Giants.
“I think if it was just the normal person, we would have ruled him out earlier in the week, but we never do that with George because of what he’s shown us here over these three years with him,” Shanahan said. “We would have held out two more days to wait and see if it was a home game, but with us having to travel today we had to decide whether it was worth it to bring him.
“If he’s not going to play, it’s much better to leave him here for a couple days and let him get his rehab and everything. So, we had to make that decision a little bit earlier today. That will help him and he’ll meet us in West Virginia and hopefully these two days staying here will help him and hopefully he’ll be ready to go next week.”
Kittle suffered the injury in last week’s loss to the Arizona Cardinals. Just before halftime, Kittle jumped for a high pass from quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and Cardinals safety Budda Baker hit him simultaneously. Kittle hobbled off the field and to the locker room but returned and played the entire second half, although Garoppolo did not target him again.
Meanwhile, the 49ers are hopeful that defensive end Dee Ford will be able to play Sunday despite a neck injury. Ford, who is listed as questionable on the injury report, was a surprise addition to the participation report on Thursday and was again absent on Friday with what Shanahan referred to as neck spasms.
“It’s Friday, so we’re just trying to play it slow here and see how it goes for the next two days,” Shanahan said.
Without Kittle, the Niners could also ask more of their receivers this week as rookie Brandon Aiyuk is expected to debut after missing last week because of a hamstring injury. Veteran wideout Mohamed Sanu could also be an option after officially signing with the team and going through Friday’s practice.
“He’s been in the Zoom meetings watching all of the installs and stuff and we threw him out there today, and he didn’t make any mistakes and was able to line up with confidence,” Shanahan said. “Mo is a pro. Mo works at it. It was good to see him today, I hadn’t seen him for a while, and I’m glad to have him here. I know if we go with five [active receivers], we won’t hesitate to have him out there and I know he’ll be ready.”
To make room for Sanu on the roster, San Francisco placed receiver Richie James Jr. on injured reserve with a hamstring strain. James joins cornerback Richard Sherman (calf) and wideout Deebo Samuel (foot) on that list.
Like Sherman, James is eligible to return for the Oct. 11 game against the Miami Dolphins. Samuel went on injured reserve a week earlier and is able to return for the Oct. 4 game against the Philadelphia Eagles.
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