Michael Nania reviews the elite 2020 season of impending free agent cornerback Brian Poole. Is he worth big money?
Career recap: Coming out Bradenton, Florida, Brian Poole played four seasons at the University of Florida from 2012-15, and entered the 2016 NFL Draft following his senior season.
Poole went undrafted in 2016, with teams having concerns about his size (5-foot-9) and athleticism. He signed with the Atlanta Falcons, who were coached by his former defensive coordinator at Florida, Dan Quinn.
Already turning 24 years old during his rookie season, Poole had somewhat of a leg up on other young players in terms of experience. Using that edge, Poole won Atlanta’s slot cornerback job going into Week 1. He would hang on to the role throughout all three seasons he spent with the team.
Poole played in all 16 regular-season games and all three playoff games for the Falcons during their 2016 NFC Championship campaign. In the regular season, Poole ranked fourth out of 36 qualified cornerbacks with only 0.80 yards allowed per snap in slot coverage. Teams targeted him once every 8.5 snaps he spent in slot coverage, third-best. He did a great job limiting downfield production, yielding a measly 3.7 air yards per reception out of the slot, sixth-best among qualifiers.
Adding to his sticky coverage, Poole also shined as a blitzer and run defender in his rookie season. Throughout all 19 games, Poole created 11 pressures, tops among cornerbacks. He did it on just 25 pass-rush snaps, giving him an incredible pressure rate of 44% that ranked second-best among the 18 cornerbacks with at least 10 pass-rush snaps. In the regular season, Poole earned the sixth-best Pro Football Focus run-defense grade (80.7) among cornerbacks.
In his second and third seasons with the Falcons, Poole could not quite live up to the lofty standards he set for himself as a rookie. He remained durable, playing in 33 of 34 possible regular season and playoff games from 2017-18, but his performance level was not up to par.
Poole allowed 569 yards out of the slot in the 2017 regular season, second-most in the league. His average of 1.47 yards allowed per slot cover snap ranked fifth-worst out of 35 qualifiers. His run defense grade dipped to 70.0, 46th-best out of 86 qualifiers.
Twenty-eighteen marked more of the same. Poole again allowed the second-most yards out of the slot, yielding 552. He ranked 28th out of 37 qualifiers with 1.27 yards allowed per slot cover snap and declined once more in run defense as he ranked 60th out of 78 qualifiers with a 63.7 grade. Tackling also became an issue as he ranked 67th out of 78 qualifiers with a miss rate of 19.4%.
2019 expectations: The Jets wisely let their incumbent slot corner, Buster Skrine, walk in free agency. Skrine somehow received a three-year, $16.5 million deal from the Chicago Bears after allowing the most touchdowns (five) and fourth-highest passer rating (128.2) out of the slot in 2018. Over his four years with the Jets, Skrine allowed a 17-to-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio while being called for 33 penalties.
A replacement on the inside was needed, and Mike Maccagnan turned to Poole. The Jets got him on a bargain, inking him to a one-year, $3 million deal. While Poole was coming off of two disappointing seasons, he still offered upside (just three seasons in the league), durability (one game missed in career), and a history of elite production. It was surprising to see Poole earn such a measly deal.
The hope was for Poole to provide at least somewhat of an upgrade over Skrine. If Poole could perform at a level that fell somewhere between his sublime rookie season and the two shaky seasons that followed, that would make him an excellent value on a cheap one-year pact.
Positives: Poole blew any and all expectations out of the water. He not only returned to his 2016 heights, but soared even higher.
Nobody defended the slot better than Poole in 2019. Over 417 snaps in slot coverage, he allowed only 237 yards, a minuscule 16.9 per game. He topped all cornerbacks with just 0.57 yards allowed per slot cover snap. That stands as the third-best single-season mark PFF has ever tracked for a cornerback that logged at least 300 snaps covering the slot (since their tracking began in 2006).
Even when you throw outside corners into the mix, Poole was among the elites. His overall average of 0.53 yards allowed per cover snap (regardless of position) trailed only Richard Sherman among active cornerbacks. Poole’s coverage grade of 80.0 ranked eighth-best out of 93 qualifiers.
Let’s get into the film behind Poole’s statistically spectacular 2019 season.
Recognition was a big part of Poole’s dominance. He rarely blew an assignment, and on the plus side, he disrupted plenty of plays by making lightning-quick reads. Here, Poole recognizes that his man is attempting a rub. Poole avoids it and breaks on Jarvis Landry to record a crucial breakup near the goal line.