NFL careers tend to resemble a bell curve. Most players start slowly enough, develop into their prime, peak, and then decline before eventually leaving the league, calling it a career or having the league do it for them.
There are exceptions to this. Some players start fast out of the gate, dominating from the outset. Some players walk away at the top, still in their prime. But most players, no matter how good, will see the final years of their career marked by a decline in play. How sharp that decline is and how good they were to begin with determines how long they have left before it’s time to move on.
Anybody that deals with personnel in the NFL is facing a constant juggling act of anticipating this decline and structuring contracts accordingly. When you sign a player that is approaching the usual years of decline, you must be acutely aware that he may at some point fail to live up to the contract he is signing.
That brings us to Darrelle Revis – the best paid corner in the game. I don’t just mean that in reference to the latest deal he signed with the Jets, but Revis has been a master at maximizing his dollar value throughout his career, and so returns to New York for a second stint under some pretty gaudy looking contract numbers.
Even if we ignore the headline figures – the contract is ostensibly a five-year $70 million deal – on the basis that the final two years are almost certainly entirely fictional, designed to make people look good and to play with the salary cap, Revis is going to be paid huge money for the next two to three seasons.
The question is will he justify that money, or are the Jets catching him at the beginning of his decline?
I’ve dug myself a hole before by predicting declines, but there are signs already that Revis isn’t what he once was.
I’ll say up front that there are a bunch of mitigating circumstances to that. He has worked his way through multiple stops, schemes and coaches in rapid succession, is still not that far removed from major knee surgery, and even within the Patriots' defense this season saw his role change and evolve as the year went on.
Also, it’s worth pointing out that Revis still played very well this year.
He finished the season as the fourth-ranked corner in both overall PFF and coverage grades. He notched 11 pass breakups and allowed just 51.9% of the passes sent his way to be caught while ranking at the sharp end of all of the advanced coverage metrics we track.
Only two corners went more coverage snaps per reception allowed than the 14.8 Revis managed. Only Richard Sherman was targeted less frequently and Revis' 0.92 yards per coverage snap was good enough to rank eighth in the league.
So what’s the problem?
Well, despite all those numbers there was a lot of bad in his tape that you typically don’t find in a Revis season. Plays where he just got flat out beat.
Every cornerback gives up catches. They all give up a touchdown eventually. The 2009 performance from Revis was the best coverage display from a cornerback we have seen in a decade, and he still allowed 41 receptions, was beaten for two scores and 425 yards on the season. The difference between Revis this season and Revis in 2009 is that this season he gave up plays where he was nowhere. In 2009 when he got beat he was still all over the guy, in close coverage and making the receiver work for the play.
That all sounds a little vague and easy to dismiss, but if we go hunting in the tape for examples to back it up we don’t need to go very far into the season to get a great one. Revis looked terrified of Mike Wallace in the opening game of the season against Miami. He gave up monster cushions for most of the game and put himself in a position of needing to bite hard on the first move Wallace showed him, because he was so far off in coverage. That almost cost him big when Wallace gave him a double move in the second quarter. Take a look:
Revis bit hard on the first move and was torched by the second. Look at the route – it’s not devastating move from Wallace, Revis just took himself out of the play and was in absolutely no position to play the ball when it arrived, acting merely as spectator as Tannehill and Wallace failed to complete the deal between them.
We can all agree that’s a horrible play, but as I said earlier, everyone gets beat occasionally. Maybe It’s just one bad play in a fine season from Revis, after all I’ve already pointed out how good his grade and numbers were overall. I didn’t have any problem finding that bad a play in his tape. I quickly pulled out a list of a dozen ugly plays from his regular season in coverage from the PFF database.
Working through that cut up tape showed up a variety of different receivers giving Revis problems. Eric Decker beat him a couple of times, Emmanuel Sanders, Sammy Watkins, and in the playoffs there was Steve Smith beating him badly for a score.
He was beaten in a variety of different routes and coverages, but one word kept coming to mind watching him on these plays: slow.
What’s particularly interesting is that he looked slow in both ways – deep speed and quickness off the line. On a few routes players beat him immediately at the jam; Sanders, in particular, racking up a 17-yard gain by taking Revis out in the first step of his release. Revis has always been at his best when he can jam a receiver at the line, but he always had the speed and quickness to mirror him even when he couldn’t jam – say if they were off the line of scrimmage. That now seems less than a given.
Several times Revis struggled to match the release of his man when the receiver was off the line of scrimmage, giving them a free release into their route and putting him on the back foot, scrambling to make up position on the pattern and occasionally getting flagged for being too eager to do so.
Lastly, and perhaps most interestingly – I think Revis knows exactly where he is in terms of his speed and quickness. On a few of these plays you can see Revis trying to protect himself against the release, cheating in his technique to avoid having to try and stay with a receiver at the line.
This tape reel was a cut up of his worst play in coverage of 2014, so obviously it’s going to look bad, but the question is whether it’s showing the beginnings of something we should be concerned by for Revis. And I think it is.
His overall play was still excellent, and I would expect that to be true for 2015, but his aura of invincibility is dissolving. Players no longer fear getting stranded on Revis Island, because the tape shows you can now escape and make big plays.
Revis will be a fine corner again in 2015, but he’ll also be earning $16m, so you would certainly hope so. In 2016, he’ll be earning $17m, and the year after $15.3m. Somewhere along that timeline I think the decline in his physical skills is going to mean he no longer justifies that money. If it’s 2017 the Jets timed the contract perfectly, because just $6m of that year is guaranteed. If it’s before that, then the Jets miscalculated and could have a costly mistake on their hands.
Follow Sam on Twitter: @PFF_Sam