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How the Best Defensive Backs are Wired for Their Positions

Updated: Apr 19, 2023

by Brandon Ally, S2 Cognition

Defensive backs are one of the most important positions in football. They are super athletic, fast, and need to be able to process information very quickly and make freestyle adjustments on the fly. It doesn’t matter how smart they are in the film room — they need to have the cognitive abilities to make rapid split-second decisions. In S2’s analysis of thousands of professional football players, defensive backs have the highest overall S2 Scores (cognition) on the field alongside Quarterbacks. In fact, starting defensive backs score better than 86% of all NFL draft-eligible players at the Combine every year.

At the college level, coaching staffs are frequently moving players between the safety and cornerback positions, trying to identify where they will have the most success. While there are certainly physical characteristics that separate corners and safeties, there are also significant cognitive separators. Without directly evaluating these cognitive traits, there can be a lot of guesswork determining whether an athlete has better cognitive skills for one DB position over the other.

We’ve now collected data on nearly 1,000 college and pro defensive backs, leading to great insight into what makes up the best in the game. Let’s dive in a little to understand the differences in cognitive demands and skills between the two main defensive back positions.

Cognitive Differences Between Safeties and Cornerbacks

Safeties, along with middle linebackers, are generally positioned toward the center of the field and widely regarded as the quarterbacks or centerfielders of the defense. Thus, it is not surprising that three of the most important cognitive skills among starting NFL safeties align with these demands…

First, playing center of the field requires the ability to broaden visual attention to see the whole field. The best safeties in the league score very high on The S2 Eval's measure of Tracking Capacity. Tracking Capacity allows the player to broaden his attention to track and anticipate the speed and movements of multiple players on the field. A safety must not only track receivers, especially in zone coverage, but also the quarterback’s movements in and out of the pocket and running backs coming out of the backfield. A player’s ability to track also allows him to anticipate when a ball may meet a receiver or when to close on a receiver to defend the pass.

Second, playing centerfield requires safeties to quickly read the evolving play and react accordingly. Safeties in the NFL are among the highest scorers on S2’s Decision Complexity measure. High scorers can filter through complex “if-then” situational rules with exceptional speed and accuracy. Thus, the best safeties are the fastest at executing read-react decisions. For example, if the tight end breaks to the outside and the slot comes across the middle, then my assignment is to come up and cover the slot. However, if the slot and tight end break to the outside, then my assignment is to cover the gap in case the back comes through for a check down. Filtering through these if-then statements to react to play must be done in a split-second and with precision; even though a player may know the rules, executing them in the moment is what separates the best.

The third critical cognitive skill that separates NFL safeties is the ability to notice subtle tendencies and patterns during performance, which is captured by S2’s Instinctive Learning measure. As the quarterback of the defense, the best safeties serve as on-field coaches and help to adjust play as the game goes on. High Instinctive Learning allows a player to quickly pick up on subtle tendencies and cues of his opponent. These are the players who are constantly stitching together cause and effect patterns throughout the game and adapting their play strategy on-the-fly. For example, every time it’s third and long and they bring the slot in motion to the left with a single back, a receiver runs a certain route. The best safeties in the game learn to anticipate these subtle tendencies early in the game and exploit their opponent.

Photo by Ryan Gibson

In contrast to safeties, cornerbacks generally play toward the edges of the field and are frequently engaged in isolated coverage focused on a specific receiver, which is why phrases like “lock-down” and “cover corner” are often used to describe the best at the position. Obviously, cornerbacks utilize some of the same cognitive skills as safeties at times, especially when they drop back into zone coverage or when they may need to cover the edge on a run play despite having a man assignment. However, the best cover corners in the league score very high on four specific S2 Eval measures that capture the cognitive demands required to shadow a receiver and make impromptu plays on the ball despite often having your back to the ball.

First, NFL cornerbacks score high on S2’s Distraction Control measure, which assesses a player’s ability to focus and shield attention from distractions. This allows the player to stay locked in on his assignment and avoid momentary lapses or drifts of attention to other parts of the field that can allow a receiver to get quick separation or blow by the corner to open up the deep ball. This skill at regulating and maintaining focus on the receiver also sets the stage for noticing the receiver’s visual cues that indicate the ball is in the air or the receiver is about to attempt the catch.

Second, NFL corners also possess elite-level Impulse Control, which is the brain system that helps a player avoid reacting too soon, such as falling prey to double moves, fakes, and jukes. Every corner knows that even the slightest bite on a misdirection movement can give the advantage to the receiver. And low Impulse Control can have a stacking effect, so the corner who struggles with biting on double moves and quick fakes and finds himself routinely out of position may then act on the urge to grab a jersey to avoid getting beat. The best corners play fast but under control, and the ability to keep reactive impulses in check plays a key part in that control.

Third, unlike receivers who know what route they will run, cornerbacks are always at a slight disadvantage because they must react and adjust to the receiver’s actions. This requires an exceptional level of flexibility and improvisation by corners, and not surprising, NFL corners are among the highest scores on S2’s Improvisation measure. This measure captures a player’s ability to make in-the-moment, impromptu counter-reactions. This ability to improvise reactions is what leads to some of the incredible adjustments corners make to bat a ball away at the last moment, knock a ball loose as the catch is being made, execute an acrobatic interception, or save a play by improvising to make the tackle.

Finally, the fourth elite cognitive skill measured in NFL cornerbacks reflects their ability to quickly turn and locate visual targets, or what we call Search Efficiency. This skill allows the cornerback, whose back may be to the play, to turn and rapidly find the ball or ball carrier. Corners who can scan the field or sky and lock onto targets with exceptional speed have a big advantage in coverage and when they get turned around in space.

In sum, the defensive back position is one of the most challenging in football from a cognitive standpoint. And as we’ve seen throughout the years, elite DBs are worth their weight in gold. Physical gifts like size and speed are critical to their success, but as we are seeing with years of data, so are cognitive skills. Fast, athletic safeties need to be able to quickly diagnose, see the bigger picture, and react without hesitation. Big, physical corners need steely focus, great impulse control, and adjust flexibly on the fly. Which NFL DBs bring elite-level cognition to their games? Jalen Ramsey, Tre’Davious White, AJ Terrell, Marshon Lattimore, Amani Hooker, and Marcus Williams.

About Brandon Ally

Brandon has a PhD in neuropsychology and cognitive neuroscience and has published more than 50 peer-reviewed articles and book chapters on brain mechanisms underlying visual attention, perception, and memory. He is the co-founder and Vice President of S2 Cognition, a sports-science company that delivers a leading cognitive evaluation and technology platform to teams and athletes across all major sports at every level of play.

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