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Position-Less Players Becoming Commonplace In NFL

Versatility growing in importance on both sides of the ball

Cardinals WR Pharoh Cooper, shown here running the Wildcat against the 49ers, was used multiple ways in 2019.
Cardinals WR Pharoh Cooper, shown here running the Wildcat against the 49ers, was used multiple ways in 2019.

The Cardinals bucked traditional defensive norms by taking Deone Bucannon in the first round of the 2014 draft.

Despite being a star safety at Washington State, the Cardinals didn't play him there, turning Bucannon into a hybrid linebacker to get more speed near the line of scrimmage.

In the ensuing half-decade, the push for versatility over traditional traits has only grown throughout the NFL.

"I would just call it the position-less player," said new Panthers coach Matt Rhule, who was hired from the college ranks this offseason. "The days of saying, 'Hey, we need a Mike linebacker, or we need this' (are gone). There's certain traits you're looking for, but you're looking for position-less players. The offenses in the league are changing, so the defenses have to be able to do a lot of things."

The draft could be a good case study on the position-less influence. In the past, an inside linebacker like Isaiah Simmons wouldn't have held as much positional value as a cornerback or edge-rusher, but the team that takes him will undoubtedly believe in his ability to guard slot receivers and rush the quarterback.

Not only do those abilities increase Simmons' value, but his flexibility is a return schematic volley against innovative offensive minds.

"If you don't have to rotate a guy off the field, you can change your defensive philosophy and (your) look almost instantaneously," Washington coach Ron Rivera said. "You start rotating guys in, you tip your hand a little bit that, hey, you're going into your nickel package."

The positional designations are being blurred on both sides of the ball. San Francisco receiver Deebo Samuel was used myriad ways as a rookie by coach Kyle Shanahan, catching 57 passes for 802 yards and three touchdowns while adding 14 carries for 159 yards and three scores.

Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury put wide receivers Christian Kirk and Pharoh Cooper in various spots throughout 2019, and figures to cater to the strengths of any dynamic skill athlete on his roster.

Several wide receivers who attended the NFL Scouting combine said they hope to be used in that way.

"I don't want to be in one spot," Colorado wide receiver Laviska Shenault said. "Then, I wouldn't get that many balls or attempts. I want to be able to move everywhere. I want to be able to create mismatches everywhere on the field."

Said Arizona State wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk: "Not everybody can do that, but I fee like if you're in the right system and they use you correctly, it's a huge help."

There is less predictability on offense in the present-day NFL, as a trick play is just as plausible as a halfback dive on first down. Teams must find defensive players that are prepared for any option, which is why Simmons and Alabama safety Xavier McKinney are intriguing prospects as the draft approaches.

Just two years ago, Swiss Army knife Derwin James fell to the Chargers at No. 17 overall, and quickly proved his draft drop was a mistake. James made the All-Pro team as a rookie, finishing with 105 tackles, three interceptions and three-and-a-half sacks.

No team wants to pass on a player like that again.

"More and more defenses around the league are saying, who are the guys you don't necessarily have to put a label on, that are dynamic football players?" Raiders general manager Mike Mayock said. "Isaiah Simmons has played on the back end. He's played at linebacker. He's come off the edge. And really, I think the only limitations on him are the ones a defensive coordinator puts on him."