Ever since the Seattle Seahawks went against the grain in 2011 by signing Brandon Browner (6’4”) and drafting Richard Sherman (6’3”), the NFL has been enamored by their success.
For years, personnel people around the NFL thought oversized cornerbacks were dead. Draft analysts agreed. They said they were too stilted and stiff in the hips. But Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll never agreed with that sentiment, according to Greg Bishop of The New York Times.
After Carroll spent time watching Oakland Raiders cornerbacks Michael Haynes and Lester Hayes in the 1980s, the energetic head coach made it a point to build his defense from the outside in.
Per Bishop, Carroll showed the Seahawks' oversized corners clips of those old Raiders. He also told them that’s what he wanted them to become. At that very moment, the movement took the NFL by storm, but teams have slowly caught on over time.
The Atlanta Falcons are one of the teams that caught on over time. Here’s what Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff had to say about the recent evolution of the cornerback position, via Dan Pompei of the National Football Post:
There are a lot of defensive coordinators and head coaches and general managers who are tired of seeing their corners out jumped and outmuscled for balls by big receivers. So there has been a wave of consideration for approaching it like Seattle does with bigger, athletic corners who can get up and jam and run and do the jump ball thing.
Defensive coordinators, head coaches and general managers may be tired of seeing their corners out-jumped and outmuscled, but in true NFL fashion, offensive coordinators have adapted to the current defensive trend.
Mike Krupka, a respected draft analyst at Dawgs By Nature, told me the key to beating oversized corners is to have speedy wide receivers who run good routes and possess good technique versus press-man coverage:
“Having wide receivers who can create separation early in routes and use their speed/route running ability to extend that cushion before the top of their [route] tree is key. Winning early in routes with hands and technique can cause taller defensive backs issues in flipping their hips to catch up and recover to the route. You have to minimize their size and having them behind you always helps do this.”
Ryan Lownes, a featured columnist who covers the draft at Bleacher Report, agrees: “Combating long, physical corners starts with having big, fast receivers that can release quickly and cleanly from the line of scrimmage. You'll remember Julio Jones giving Richard Sherman fits in the 2012-13 NFL Playoffs. Jones' combination of strength and speed, along with his variety of release techniques, makes him difficult to jam or reroute.”
Based on the answers Krupka and Lownes gave, it’s safe to say teams are looking for wide receivers who can match up and win against bigger corners. This would explain the recent infatuation with guys like Mike Evans, Davante Adams and Allen Robinson.
All three prospects can beat the jam by winning at the line of scrimmage. That aspect of their game may be trivial to some, but to NFL teams, especially those in the NFC West, it’s huge.
Sherman, Browner, Kam Chancellor and other big-bodied defensive backs set the tone for their respective teams on a weekly basis. So, one shouldn’t be surprised that Matt Miller of Bleacher Report has Evans, Adams and Robinson in his top 60 on his big board.
However, as Krupka told me firsthand, receivers aren’t the only ones who shred oversized cornerbacks: “The other way teams can minimize the impact of taller defensive backs is to dominate the seams with their tight ends, forcing coverage/personnel to adjust and then having a quarterback who can pick and execute the right moment to strike outside or deep.”
Krupka’s right: A perfect example of this is the way head coach Sean Payton and the New Orleans Saints use All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham.
New Orleans loves to stretch the field vertically with Graham. Whether he’s on the line of scrimmage or in the slot, the 265-pound athletic freak abuses opposing defenses with go routes up the seam.
In fact, the analytics website Pro Football Focus tweeted that Graham garnered the fifth-most yards (408) on go routes in the NFL last season. In addition to garnering 408 yards on go routes, PFF said he finished with more yards on go routes than Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Vincent Jackson and Chicago Bears wide receiver Brandon Marshall.
No matter which way you slice it, that’s an impressive feat. Very few pass-catching tight ends can exploit big-bodied defensive backs the way Graham does. So, it shouldn’t shock anyone that NFL teams are trying to replicate the Saints’ success and find the next Jimmy Graham.
Lastly, opposing offenses can neutralize oversized cornerbacks by controlling the run game, per Krupka. “They [offenses] hope play action impacts the defensive backs’ eyes or that they jump the fake and allow your wide receiver to get behind the defense.”
Yes, the NFL has turned into a pass-first league. But that doesn’t change the fact that an effective running game does wonders for a team that is looking to push the ball down the field and exploit mismatches.
For a case in point, look at the San Francisco 49ers' Week 14 matchup against the Seahawks. The Niners set the tone on the ground and took advantage of one-on-one matchups deep down the field on play-action passes.
The most memorable of San Francisco’s successful play-action passes from that game was a 27-yard strike from quarterback Colin Kaepernick to wide receiver Anquan Boldin.
Boldin, like Evans, Adams and Robinson, showed that he has the necessary know-how to beat the jam at the line of scrimmage. From there, he out-jumped and outmuscled Sherman for the catch.
Sometimes, there is no defense for a perfect play call and a perfect catch.
Even though oversized cornerbacks are the new craze, general managers, head coaches and offensive coordinators are pulling out all the stops in an effort to counteract them.
Just like anything else in the NFL, the battle between big-bodied corners and opposing offenses will be an ongoing chess match. That is the beauty of the NFL. For every new tactic or schematic look, the opposition answers eventually.
Does that mean oversized corners will become a thing of the past? No, but it does mean they may not be as effective as they once were in 2014. With the help of speedy wide receivers who run good routes, seam-stretching tight ends and a valuable run game, offenses are no longer baffled by long, physical corners.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and statements were obtained firsthand.