The NFL has a new obsession—tall cornerbacks. Ever since the Seattle Seahawks battled conventional wisdom and built their defense from the outside in with Richard Sherman (6’3”) and Brandon Browner (6’4”), the rest of the league has been trying to play catch-up.
The sudden shift to taller, more aggressive corners among NFL teams appears to be a knee-jerk reaction. Just because the Seahawks had success in recent years doesn’t mean shorter (under 6’0”) cornerback prospects suddenly lost their value.
Vertically challenged cornerbacks will always have value just as vertically challenged wide receivers will. Yet that doesn’t mean short cornerbacks won’t see their defensive roles change. From a schematic standpoint, the game of football is evolving. This has ultimately shaped the perception of short cornerbacks.
Here’s what Ethan Hammerman, a respected draft analyst for Draft Mecca, told me about short cornerback prospects and their current worth:
Smaller corners still have value because nickel is basically a base set now, so there needs to be someone covering the shifter slot guys in the middle of the field. Backs like Kyle Arrington have made their careers based on slot ability. It will be interesting to see if that changes with joker tight ends getting more prevalent, facilitating, perhaps, more three safety sets rather than three CBs, but for now, smaller cornerbacks still definitely have a home in the middle of the field.
Let’s not forget, wideouts are bigger, faster and stronger than they ever have been. Even with perfect coverage, it’s hard to expect short corners to match up well against the likes of Josh Gordon, Alshon Jeffery, Calvin Johnson and Brandon Marshall.
Players of their stature have such a distinct height advantage. That means they can easily win one-on-one matchups down the field.
The good news is short corners can neutralize taller receivers by playing press-man coverage at the line of scrimmage.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with press-man coverage, it has nothing to do with a player’s size. But it has everything to do with hand placement and striking the wide receiver in the chest plate.
By correctly striking the receiver in the chest plate, the corner should effectively throw the pass-catcher off his route. Some of the best short corners who have excelled in press-man coverage over the last couple years are Darrelle Revis, Joe Haden, Vontae Davis, Tramaine Brock and Alfonzo Dennard.
In 291 career games, those five players have amassed 58 interceptions, 260 passes defended, six Pro Bowl appearances and four All-Pro selections. Without a doubt, their numbers prove that supremely talented players make up for their size deficiency in other ways.
In addition to winning with their hands at the line of scrimmage, shorter press-man corners stand out because of their attentiveness, intellect and overall physical nature.
As good as certain undersized press-man corners are, it’s not the end-all, be-all to the position. There is a handful of short cornerbacks who thrive in myriad schemes. Just look at Alterraun Verner of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Prior to his four-year, $25.75 million deal, Verner was undoubtedly the No. 1 cornerback on the open market. As you can already guess, he wasn’t one of the league’s hottest commodities for his size. He was sought after thanks in large part to his ability to play zone and off-man coverage.
Verner, 25, also made a name for himself on the strength of his great ball skills and the ability to recognize plays and force turnovers at an alarming rate. Since the beginning of the 2010 season, the fourth-round pick out of UCLA has intercepted 11 passes, forced two fumbles and recovered five fumbles.
Cian Fahey of Bleacher Report praised Verner’s zone coverage skills after he examined the Tennessee Titans' Week 9 contest against the St. Louis Rams:
Verner is an excellent zone cornerback. His physical quickness has been displayed, but his mental quickness and awareness of how plays are developing is outstanding. The Titans asked him to cover a variety of different zones from a variety of different alignments.
At times he even dropped into a free safety position with other teammates playing man coverage underneath. The Titans suffered many breakdowns in zone coverage throughout the season, but they mostly appeared to be a result of poor safety play.
Brent Grimes of the Miami Dolphins was another short cornerback who locked receivers down in zone and off-man coverage. According to the analysts at Pro Football Focus (subscription required), the eighth-year veteran finished the 2013 season with a plus-12 coverage grade. That was the third-best coverage grade at his position.
It’s clear that great corners make plays no matter what size they are. It’s also clear that tall, aggressive cornerbacks aren’t good because they are big. Fahey agrees:
For example, if Sherman was three inches smaller he could still be the best cornerback in the NFL. He's that good because he's exceptionally intelligent, aware and has a great combination of fluidity with physicality.
The same goes for this year’s draft. Of the 10 best cornerbacks on Matt Miller’s post-combine big board, six of them are under 6’0”. The shortest corner in the top 10 is Jason Verrett of TCU. He measured in at 5’9 1/2” and is regarded as the second-best cornerback behind Oklahoma State’s Justin Gilbert.
The two tallest corners are Stanley Jean-Baptiste (6’2 5/8”) of Nebraska and Keith McGill (6’3 3/8”) of Utah. They are respectively ranked seventh and 12th on Miller’s big board. This, in turn, means five corners under 6’0” are ranked ahead of Jean-Baptiste, while seven are ranked ahead of McGill.
NFL teams may be looking to replicate the Seahawks’ success at the cornerback position, but doing so won't be easy. Lanky, big-bodied corners are an anomaly, which means there are fewer tall cornerbacks in comparison to short cornerbacks.
Furthermore, being short doesn’t matter for top cornerback prospects. For them, it’s all about speed, instincts, technique, agility, tackling and knowing coverages. With the proper technique, a shorter cornerback can outshine his taller counterpart in press-man, off-man or zone coverage.
When scouting cornerback prospects, don’t be fooled by a particular player's height or level of competition. Stay true to what matters most: production, physical abilities and coachability.