Every week that Darrelle Revis gets beat makes the whispers grow a little louder.
Is he finished as a cornerback? Is it time?
Revis caused a stir this offseason by openly discussing a potential move from cornerback to safety, which several players have done to extend their careers.
Revis stopped short of putting a timetable on the transition, and no one seemed to tell Jets coach Todd Bowles, who said, “That has never crossed my mind. He's playing corner.”
But Revis, who was generally regarded as the NFL’s best corner over the last decade, has routinely struggled in coverage this season. A.J. Green had a field day against him in the season opener. In Week Two, Marquise Goodwin beat Revis for an 84-yard touchdown. Terrelle Pyror worked him over a few weeks later. Sunday, it was Kenny Britt who got the best of him.
Revis has had some good games this year, too, but he’s just not … Darrelle Revis.
“If he’s slipped at all as a player,” Bills coach Rex Ryan said earlier this season, “he’s coming down from the very tip of Everest. That’s where he’d be coming down from. How far down? I’m not sure. But I know one thing, I know the kind of player he is.”
Ryan, of course, got to see that firsthand, coaching the Jets from 2009 (Revis’ most dominant season, in which quarterbacks targeting him had a passer rating of just 29.1, according to Pro Football Focus) to 2014.
“Best player in the league not named Brady,” Ryan was quoted as saying of Revis in the book “Collision Low Crossers,” which chronicled the Jets’ 2011 season.
So it makes for an interesting question: Could Ryan be the coach to turn Revis into a safety?
The Bills have a need at the position, with Aaron Williams suffering his second severe neck injury in as many seasons earlier this year. Even if Williams doesn’t decide to end his career on his terms this offseason, he could be one hit away from having that decided for him next year. Corey Graham, who also made the conversion from corner to safety, has done well for the Bills and has one year left on his contract, but the Bills’ backups have struggled to replace Williams.
Could Revis be the answer? Could he be an NFL-caliber safety, and could the Bills afford him?
Hall of Famers Ronnie Lott and Rod Woodson are two of the most famous examples of players who made the move from corner to safety. Aeneas Williams did it at the end of his career, and so did Charles Woodson. Antrel Rolle and DeAngelo Hall made the switch, too.
Yet, it would be an oversimplification to say that Revis could be a good safety just because he was previously a great corner.
“When I first got back there, I was like, ‘Damn, I thought it was going to be a little bit easier than this,’” Hall told the Washington Post in 2015.
The biggest difficultly for a corner switching to safety is that the reads are completely different, said Greg Gabriel, a Buffalo native and longtime NFL scout who was most recently the Bears’ director of college scouting. Safeties have to be very instinctive and need to be more physical than corners.
“On the outside looking in, it’s easy to move a guy from corner to safety. It’s not,” Gabriel said. “If you talk to a lot of coaches in the league, it’s really a very difficult transition. Part of it has to do with instincts; part of it has to do with how they play the game. When you’re playing corner, you’re playing a quarter to a third of the field, and just on that one side of the field. When you’re playing safety, you got the whole field. And so what the player’s being asked to do is two entirely different things.
“It’s really knowing how to play the game, knowing how to play fast, good positioning,” he added. “The safety position, it’s all about instincts and you got to be physical. You’re involved so much more in the run game at the safety position than you are at the corner position. You have to be a good tackler and you have to have top instincts to react quickly. Because you’re seeing the whole field, not just a portion of the field.”
Instincts have always been thought of as one of Revis’ biggest strengths. He’d need different instincts at a different position, but the way his mind processes the game would be likely to translate with enough studying.
Defending the run would be an area Revis would have to show he could handle. He doesn’t have great size and has never been among the leaders in tackles made by cornerbacks (though that’s likely affected by teams being hesitant to throw at him). As a counterpoint, anyone who made it out of Aliquippa, Pa. – a poor steel town outside of Pittsburgh that’s known mostly for producing violence and football players – likely isn’t lacking on toughness.
One factor Gabriel mentioned that works in favor of players like Revis is how the NFL is trending as a pass-happy league.
“Part of the reason – and this is why some people say corners can easily make the transition – is that the NFL is going to a lot of spread-type offenses like the college has, and those safeties got to be able to cover,” he said. “Back in the day you had a lot of safeties playing zone coverage, they had to have range, had to be able to read the play, come off the hash, take good angles to the sideline, et cetera. But now when you get locked up in these four wide receiver formations and maybe a tight end in there too and an empty backfield, that safety is locked up in coverage and he’s got to have some man-to-man cover skills.”
Gabriel said the common thread he sees between players who made transition successfully are “instincts and intelligence.”
“They’re smart football players,” he said. “… It’s those reads, being able to adjust to those reads, being able to make the right read and the right reaction. That’s where the instincts come into play.”
Getting to the Bills
The biggest impediment to having Revis play safety for the Bills is that he currently plays for someone else. But getting him to Buffalo might not be as difficult as it seems.
Revis, who is famous for renegotiating his deals to maximize his earnings and remain one of the top-paid defenders in the league, is under contract with the Jets until 2020 after signing a five-year, $70 million deal in 2015. However, 2017 is the only remaining season on the deal that includes guaranteed money.
If the Jets were to cut Revis, which is a definite possibility given how poorly he’s played this year, they’d only be on the hook for $6 million in dead cap space next year. Plus, any money he earns from another team would offset that amount, said Jason Fitzgerald, a New Jersey-based salary cap and contract expert who founded the website Over The Cap. That means anything a team pays Revis up to $6 million actually goes back to the Jets, who still give Revis his money no matter what.
That leaves two possibilities.
“The way I look at it is he’s either going to play for $1 million or he’s going to look to be paid $10 million,” Fitzgerald said.
“In general, his thought process, the goal has always been to be the highest-paid player – originally it was on defense in the league, then that moved in the last go-around and it’s just to be the highest paid cornerback in the NFL, which he got by a couple of dollars,” Fitzgerald said.
“In theory, if he was to going to move to safety, he would probably want – in some way, shape or form – to make a contract that would make him look like the top-paid safety in the NFL. That’s been the way that it’s worked, but he’s had a pretty bad year.”
Revis, though, did recently fire agents Neil Schwartz and Jonathan Feinsod (who had negotiated over $100 million on his behalf), so his thinking could be different next time around – especially if he’s looking for a position change.
“If he doesn’t get a deal worth more than $6 million,” Fitzgerald said, “anything he gets paid would simply go back to the Jets. So if he really doesn’t have any issues about being the highest paid or anything like that and he just wants to get on the field and play, try a different position and prove he can play football again, reality is he would probably sign a contract for the minimum,” which will only be $1 million next season.
The Jets could also trade Revis, though they’d likely have a hard time finding a team willing to take him at his current cap hit (about $15 million next year and $11 million the final two years), and they are highly unlikely to send him to a division opponent.
If Revis did command $10 million on the open market, Fitzgerald said he still thought the Bills could fit him in if they wanted, especially if they restructure some contracts, which general manager Doug Whaley has done with players like Eric Wood.
But, Fitzgerald added, “The way he’s played this year, I have a very difficult time believing a team’s going to pay him more than $6 million. I could see him landing there, but I don’t think it’s going to be very expensive if he lands in Buffalo, let’s put it that way. In reality, it doesn’t make sense for Revis, either – if you’re upset with a team for cutting you, you want to stick it to them as much as you can financially.”
Making it happen
There are plenty of hypotheticals in this thought experiment, which, so far has been assuming the Jets don’t make Revis a safety first while he’s still under contract, even though he would be expensive.
If they do cut him – a decision would likely come in March before his $2 million roster bonus is due – it’s not hard to see why the Bills would want him. Bills coaches, many of whom came over with Ryan from the Jets, have an extremely high view of Revis. An anything-goes coach like Ryan would seem not only open to this but excited about trying.
Remember that Rex Ryan was reportedly shown on “Hard Knocks” traveling to Revis’ New York-area house on a rumor that Revis was there during a contract holdout, only to find no one home. He later flew to Florida with Jets owner Woody Johnson to meet with Revis. Ryan later said that after that meeting, he threw a “tantrum” at Jets HQ when it looked like the sides weren’t going to reach an agreement.
"It was like a boyfriend and girlfriend, but the parents won't let you get together," Ryan told NJ.com. "That was kind of how I felt. He wanted to play, I wanted him to play, but for some reason it wasn't happening."
Defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman once got so upset with an ESPN talking head who claimed free agent Nnamdi Asomugha was more aggressive than Revis that he began drafting a long email to ESPN, only to be talked off the ledge, according to “Collision Low Crossers.”
“Awful!” Thurman reportedly yelled at the television. “This guy’s just wrong. Nobody’s ever played like Revis.”
The bigger question, then, is whether Revis would want Buffalo. He seemed to enjoy playing for Ryan, telling the book’s author, Nicholas Dawidoff, that he was a nice change from former coach Eric Mangini, a Bill Belichick disciple of whom Revis said, “he made me hate football, how he used to put people down.”
In Buffalo, Revis could learn safety from assistant defensive backs coach Ed Reed, one of best to ever play the position, as well as Thurman, who got a shout-out in Ronnie Lott’s Hall of Fame induction speech.
Revis bringing up a move to safety on his own this offseason would seem to indicate that he’s already begun thinking about the transition. The necessity is there in Buffalo, as is the familiarity with coaches. The contract situation should be manageable. If Revis is open to the move, the Bills could be the perfect fit.