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Brad Biggs: Which is more important to building an NFL defense — an elite pass rusher or an elite cornerback? The answer might not be as clear-cut as you think.
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Brad Biggs: Which is more important to building an NFL defense — an elite pass rusher or an elite cornerback? The answer might not be as clear-cut as you think.

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Defense: LB Khalil Mack

Chicago Bears outside linebacker Khalil Mack rushes against the Detroit Lions during the first half of an NFL football game in Chicago, Sunday, Nov. 10, 2019. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Finding a way to stop NFL rushing leader Dalvin Cook looms as the key for the Chicago Bears on Monday night at Soldier Field, something they've done well in previous matchups against the Minnesota Vikings.

The Bears have done a terrific job of bottling up Cook in three meetings, limiting him to 86 yards on 34 attempts for a meager 2.5 yards per carry, winning all three games handily.

On the flip side, you have weakness versus weakness — the Bears passing game has been in a bad spot that keeps getting worse and the Vikings defense has been beset by injuries while trying to reshape the cornerback position. The Vikings have looked better in victories the last two weeks against the Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions, but they were carved up during their 1-5 start.

The Vikings have had five starters at cornerback — eight if you include the nickel cornerback. Rookies Jeff Gladney, a first-round pick, ) and Cameron Dantzler, a third-rounder, have logged the most playing time, which has created a host of challenges for coach Mike Zimmer, who historically has leaned on veterans at the position. Consequently the Vikings have gone from playing a lot of Cover-4, which basically turns into man coverage on the outside, to Cover-2 in an effort to protect inexperienced players.

The Vikings released Xavier Rhodes after last season, and Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander signed with the Cincinnati Bengals in free agency. The Vikings knew they had some heavy lifting to do and used three picks on cornerbacks, also selecting Harrison Hand in the fifth round, but couldn't have predicted the turnover they've had, including losing three cornerbacks two weeks ago in an upset win against the Packers at Lambeau Field. They have been claiming cornerbacks off waivers, signing them off practice squads of other teams and searching high and low for Band-Aids.

The NFL has been a copycat league for years, and most teams go with the flow. But early in the season a veteran defensive coach suggested something different: Pay cover men before you pay pass rushers. He wasn't saying to ignore pass rushers but in ranking how to allocate resources, go with cornerbacks above all else on defense while knowing it's going to be difficult, if not impossible, to be elite unless you have it all.

The Bears and the Vikings have invested heavily in cornerbacks and pass rushers. The Bears drafted Kyle Fuller in the first round in 2014 and then matched a four-year, $56 million offer sheet he signed with the Green Bay Packers. They drafted Jaylon Johnson in Round 2 this year.

The Vikings drafted Rhodes and Waynes in Round 1 and Alexander in Round 2, and they still have Mike Hughes, a first-round pick in 2018, although he's on injured reserve. That's a load of draft capital in one position.

The coach's point was that teams should pay elite cornerbacks before pass rushers because corners can shut down top wide receivers. In general, offensive coordinators don't want to run the ball because many aspire to become head coaches, and these days no team wants to hire someone operating a ground-led attack. Young quarterbacks are flourishing across the league at a greater rate than maybe ever, and in part it's because of the incorporation of college concepts. Run-pass options are on the rise and play designers are scheming easy reads and completions. It's difficult for the pass rush to be involved when the ball is coming out so quickly with bubble screens, pick routes, flat concepts — you name it.

"Let's say there are 30 throws in a game and it's RPO, quick game, boots and sprint-outs on 18 of those passes," the coach said. "Now you're telling that pass rusher, the guy you've poured a ton of money into, here are 12 plays — go get the quarterback. It's hard enough to rush the quarterback as it is. Add on top of it they're not calling holding on offensive linemen this season. Now you might only have a dozen chances a game to truly get after him. Good luck."

Perhaps no franchise has operated with this in mind more than the New England Patriots. Bill Belichick doesn't sink huge money in pass rushers. The Patriots let Trey Flowers exit for the riches of free agency two years ago. In 2016, Belichick traded Chandler Jones to the Arizona Cardinals as he entered the final year of his contract. Jones is out for the season, but it was a great move for the Cardinals — Jones has 61 sacks in 69 games for them. The Patriots won two Super Bowls after trading Jones, who helped the franchise win one. Entering 2009, the Patriots traded Richard Seymour to the Raiders. Conversely, Belichick has bucked up for cornerbacks such as Stephon Gilmore, whom the Bears tried to lure in 2017.

But the Patriots always have focused on versatile players in their front seven and coveted guys who can handle an array of roles. They just didn't want to pay a pass rusher, figuring they could find a player with traits to handle the role, scheme it up or both.

All things equal — cost, health, character, all of the above and more — which would be the priority when considering allocation of resources: the elite pass rusher or the elite cover man?

"You can always create pass rush with pressuring," another coach said. "But it's hard to create pass coverage — the ability to cover one-on-one. If you've got a guy you know can wipe out one side of the field, that's pretty damn valuable. I'd like 'em, both but if I've got to pick one, I'm taking a cornerback."

If nothing else, it's thought-provoking in an era when most believe pass rushers are the most valuable chess pieces for a defense. Great pass rushers are going to make average cornerbacks better. It doesn't work the other way around. Even when an elite pass rusher isn't getting home, he probably is influencing the offense and forcing the ball to come out quickly.

Teams covet pass rushers over corners in the draft and have been for a long time. The Lions selected Jeff Okudah third this year, making him the first cornerback to go that high since the Seattle Seahawks selected Shawn Springs at No. 3 in 1997. Ten edge rushers earn an average annual salary of $17 million or more. Only three cornerbacks are over that threshold and all three — Jalen Ramsey (Rams), Marlon Humphrey (Ravens) and Tre'Davious White (Bills) — were paid in the last few months.

Belichick is pretty smart and didn't dominate the last two decades only because he had Tom Brady. It's an interesting approach to analyze. Fortunately the Bears made a shrewd move in adding Johnson this year. He leads the NFL with 12 pass breakups, in part because opponents have been eager to test him and because he has proved ready for the challenge.

Bears general manager Ryan Pace could need to pay Fuller in the offseason. Fuller is under contract for one more year, and the Bears reworked his contract the day before the end of the 2019 season, a move that created $6 million in cap savings for this season.

As a result, Fuller has a cap hit of $20 million for 2021. Extending him could lower that number, but that can't be done on the cheap. Fuller, 28, is in the prime of his career and likely is going to want to be squarely in that echelon just below Ramsey, the league's highest-paid cornerback at $20 million per season.

Paying cornerbacks makes good sense — and to some it's more important than paying pass rushers.

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