As Bleacher Report’s NFL1000 Scouts make clearin their roundup of the best slot cornerbacks and defenders of the 2017 season, the slot position takes a lot of skill.
What maybe 10 years ago used to be a position for smaller and quicker corners that couldn't matchup with the more imposing outside wide receivers has become a multi-faceted, highly challenging area of the field to play and master.
"The modern slot defender must be able to play off coverage very well," the team of scouts write. "He must adjust and align immediately to option routes, when receivers change their patterns based on the defender's position. He must be strong and aggressive enough to hold up against the run and blitz successfully, but quick enough to follow a speed receiver 40 yards up the seam, or convert his coverage when a running back rolls out of the backfield and into the formation."
Best epitomizing all of these characteristics out of an eligible 35 candidates was Kendall Fuller, who the scouts deemed was the best slot defender of the year.
Ranking players based on a variety of factors and point systems, including coverage, reaction, recovery, talking and position value, the scout team graded Fuller higher than any of his peers with 81 out of 100 total points.
Indeed, Fuller made quite the jump from his rookie season, in which he had to play catch-up after missing most of the offseason recovering from an injury at Virginia Tech. In 2017, Fuller co-led the team with four interceptions (he had none in his rookie season) and eclipsed his tackle total from last year with 55, playing in all 16 games. Last year's third-round pick also collected 10 passes defensed and a forced fumble, becoming a nuisance for quarterbacks and receivers over the middle of the field.
According to defensive backs scout Ian Wharton, Fuller's "much-improved balance and reaction time is a direct result of cleaner footwork in his backpedal off the line, and it helped him snag four interceptions and break up 10 passes. His run defense could stand to improve, especially since he has more length than most players at his position. The 22-year-old looks like the future face of the position after such a tremendous campaign."
Lead scout Doug Farrar had similar praise.
"Perhaps the most impressive thing about Fuller's game in his second season is how many techniques he's mastered," Farrar writes. "When asked to play more aggressively, he gets his hand on the receiver to use him as a landmark and smoothly follows the receiver through the route. In zone coverage, he has the smooth backpedal and quick hip turn to stick and stay with receivers, as well as the recovery speed to race in and grab the football. He has the potential to be the best slot cornerback in the NFL, and one could argue that he was just that in 2017."
If the team's other third round pick from last year, cornerback Fabian Moreau, can make the same kinds of strides in his second season, the team's secondary will be in strong hands…and footwork and positioning and coverage and, well, you get the idea.