When the Oakland Raiders kept cornerback Stanford Routt(notes) off the open market in March 2010 with the highest possible restricted free agent tender – one that would require another team to give up first- and third-round picks for the right to have him on its roster – eyebrows arched all over the NFL. When Routt eventually signed that contract, he had seen limited starting duty and was viewed by many as yet another player Al Davis overvalued because of his speed.
The Raiders selected Routt out of Houston in the second round of the 2005 NFL draft after he posted a reported 4.27 40-yard dash at the NFL scouting combine, the quickest time for any defensive back in the last decade. But early in his career, Routt lost out in competition with DeAngelo Hall(notes) and Chris Johnson for the spot alongside four-time all-Pro Nnamdi Asomugha(notes). Asomugha has been so good in coverage for so long that he frequently paces the league in lowest pass targets, leaving a big bull's-eye on his bookend.
Surprisingly, Routt went out and made that one-year contract for a reported $3.268 million look like a stroke of genius. Targeted 99 times in the 2010 season according to STATS, Inc., Routt allowed the second-lowest completion percentage among cornerbacks with 50 or more targets (39 catches in those 99 targets for 635 yards, five touchdowns and a 39.4 percent rate); only Darrelle Revis(notes) of the New York Jets was better. After that great season, and with Asomugha possibly out the door as a quirk in his contract made him a free agent, Routt received a three-year, $31.5 million contract extension that put him among the NFL's elite cornerbacks in earning potential.
Of course, the question when such drastic career turnarounds occur (Routt's completion rate was 65.9 in 2009) is whether a contract year is the source of that excellence or if the light finally goes on for some other reason. Asked recently about his own upswing in effectiveness, Routt said that more than anything else, it was just a matter of getting more reps and confidence.
"The biggest change – what happened in 2010 – was that I was playing more," Routt said. "A lot of people look at me as going into my seventh year and just finishing my sixth, but I'm actually kind of entering my third year in the league in some ways. I really only started in two seasons – 2007 and 2010 – and I really felt that when I went into that 2008 season with that one year of starting under my belt, I would be able to improve and take the next step. But we signed DeAngelo [Hall], and that put me back to being the third corner."
The Hall experiment was disastrous – he lasted just half a season before the Raiders got rid of him – but it still took Routt a while to find his footing in a figurative and literal sense. One of the knocks on Routt coming out of college was that he was so fast, he would occasionally outpace the routes his receivers were running and wind up in places he shouldn't be. It took a while for Routt to understand the definition of the "functional football speed" cliché, and its actual importance.
The first thing Routt put together in this concept (with assistance from Asomugha, who he praises as a mentor) was that nobody, no matter how fast they are, is going to make a short or intermediate cut or route combination at full speed. Generally speaking, Routt discovered that the only time he needed to go full bore against even the quickest guys in the NFL was past the 20-yard mark of the route – there was simply no point in doing so before. Inside those distances, it became more about quickness than speed. Routt learned, and then he started schooling the same receivers who had burned him before.
"When you get to the NFL – and this is what I mean when I say, 'Learn to use the speed you have' – if I opened up on the field, there's no way I'd be able to start and stop and cut. Sink my hips and get in and out of breaks and things like that. That's what I learned by the second or third year; that if I was going full speed all the time, I couldn't plant and cut, and I'd probably wind up tearing something, because you gain so much momentum. When my receiver takes off, I'm hardly ever running full speed with him, because I'm already anticipating where he's going to break his route off. Most of the time, the receiver's not running a 9-route [a deep go route]."
Getting that speed under control was just the first step in a merciless coverage scheme that is almost unique to the Raiders. Oakland rarely plays zone, though the Raiders have embraced the recent NFL trend that has defenses playing more nickel and dime coverage against multi-receiver spread sets. Most of the time, it's man-on-man, side-on-side. In Routt's mind, there's still nobody who does it better than Asomugha. Routt found the lessons easy to retain, and possible to master over time.
"In the scheme we play, it really is more mental than anything. When you go out there on Sundays … I remember one of my college coaches telling me, 'Get to your technique quicker than your opponent.' That's where Nnamdi's success comes from; he's always the most prepared man on the field. He didn't teach me how to run a 40 [laughs], but that's about the only thing he didn't teach me. The main thing I learned from him is that when you step out on that field, everybody has their own ways of doing things, but you have to have confidence. If you don't believe that you can go out there and get it done, you've already lost before you even start."
Routt says that he'll only believe Asomugha's gone when he hears the news; he's hoping that he and his old friend can form the best cornerback duo in the NFL.
For the first time in his career, Routt can bring his half of that wish to the table.
Nine other non-2010 rookies coming off of breakout seasons who could take bigger steps in 2011:
Josh Freeman(notes), QB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Freeman, surrounded by a host of young targets, helped the Bucs' offense drastically improve in his second season. Selected in the same 2009 draft as Matthew Stafford(notes) and Mark Sanchez(notes), Freeman has a legitimate shot at being the best quarterback of that class.
Arian Foster(notes), RB, Houston Texans
The former undrafted free agent shocked the NFL by leading the league in rushing behind a very effective zone-blocking scheme. He also cured the Texans of their longtime red zone issues with 16 rushing touchdowns. Defenses can't commit to Foster entirely because of the Texans' passing attack.
Jamaal Charles, RB, Kansas City Chiefs
Charles ranked first in Football Outsiders' cumulative and per-play efficiency metrics for running backs, but he still couldn't get as many carries as stablemate Thomas Jones(notes). Kansas City's coaching staff finally acknowledged the need to make Charles a feature back in 2011, and that's his challenge – to go from change-of-pace to main man and maintain that effectiveness.
Mike Wallace(notes), WR, Pittsburgh Steelers
As the Steelers' offensive philosophy moved from smashmouth to pseudo-spread over the last half-decade, the need for speed receivers became more pressing. Emmanuel Sanders(notes) impressed in 2010, but it's been Wallace who's taken the top target designation away from Hines Ward(notes) (98 throws in his direction to Ward's 95).
Brandon Lloyd(notes), WR, Denver Broncos
After seven disappointing seasons with four teams, Lloyd finally became the great deep receiver he was always expected to be, putting up a league-best 16.47 air yards (yards between the throw and catch without post-reception yards) per catch. He'll be challenged to follow that up in a more conservative offense now that John Fox has replaced Josh McDaniels as Denver's head coach.
Matt Shaughnessy(notes), DE, Raiders
Oakland's defense wasn't just a pleasant surprise because of Asomugha's and Routt's efforts – Shaughnessy helped by coming out of nowhere to post seven sacks, 15 quarterback hurries, and several key stops in crucial third-down and red-zone situations. Oakland's defense must continue to grow, but with fellow youngsters Lamarr Houston(notes) and Rolando McClain(notes) on board, the front seven should continue to be solid even if there is one major personnel loss in the secondary.
Charles Johnson(notes), DE, Carolina Panthers
Johnson replaced Julius Peppers(notes) with an on-field fury and shocking statistical value – he actually outpaced Peppers, now with the Chicago Bears, in sacks (11½ to 8), had just two fewer quarterback hits (13 to 15), and tied in quarterback hurries (30.5). Johnson will likely be a free agent depending on how the new CBA shakes out, which means that his challenge will be to keep the pressure on even after the big payday.
Brent Grimes(notes), CB, Atlanta Falcons
The last memory most people have of Atlanta's secondary is how Aaron Rodgers(notes) shredded it in the playoffs, but that was as much or more about the roll Rodgers was on at that point in time. Grimes, otherwise, had a fine 2010 campaign – he finished in the top 10 of the same aforementioned "burn rate" list, with some of his numbers being even more impressive than Routt's. On an amazing 124 targets, Grimes allowed just 59 catches and only three touchdowns. Add in his 23 passes defensed, and it's clear that Grimes is one of the more underrated defenders in the NFL. If he can turn some of those deflections into picks, he'll get more recognition – interceptions aren't always the best standard for cornerback excellence, but it's the first stat that catches the eye.
Tramon Williams(notes), CB, Green Bay Packers
Williams was yet another name on that top 10 list, allowing just 40 catches and three touchdowns on 92 targets. The former Houston Texans castoff (boy, and how they could have used Williams with their horrid pass defense) will next be challenged by the changing of the guard in leadership from Charles Woodson(notes) – eventually, Green Bay's great secondary will be Williams' to run, and that time is coming soon.