If there's a defining image of the 2013 NFL season, it's Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman elevating over San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Michael Crabtree to deflect a would-be-touchdown pass and secure Seattle's victory in the NFC championship game. Crabtree, who at 6'1" is far from short, just couldn't overcome Sherman's height, length and explosion.
It was a triumph of the Seahawks' philosophy of pass defense: strength over speed, length over technique and verticality uber alles.
Throughout free agency and rookie scouting, it's on the mind of every NFL decision maker: How can I add that height, that power, that swagger to my secondary—and how can I add it to my receiving corps?
Oregon State wide receiver Brandin Cooks is entering the NFL in what Stephen White of SB Nation called "a bad year to be short."
Measured at 5'10", 189 pounds at the NFL combine, Cooks simply can't compete in this league-wide arms race. Only six wide receivers out of 50 measured shorter than Cooks at the combine, per NFLCombineResults.com, excluding scatback Dri Archer.
Cooks doesn't fit the trendy profile, and that's bad news in a class of wide receivers NFL Media's Daniel Jeremiah called "as deep as I can remember" on a recent conference call, per an NFL transcript. His NFL Media colleague Mike Mayock told reporters that he thinks six receivers will go in the first round, per NFL.com's Dan Handzus.
Nevertheless, throughout five long months of draft evaluation and hype, Cooks has steadily strengthened his first-round status.
A Standout in Shorts
ESPN's Todd McShay slated Cooks (subscription required) to the New York Jets at No. 18 overall back at the beginning of February, but he called it a "reach" for the Jets' "top need." At the end of April, Bleacher Report NFL Draft Lead Writer Matt Miller graded Cooks out as his fourth-best receiver prospect.
In between came an excellent combine performance.
Cooks recorded the position-best 40-yard dash time, 4.33 seconds, and the fastest 20-yard shuttle and 60-yard shuttle times in the entire draft. Though Archer edged Cooks with the fastest 40-yard dash time at 4.26, Cooks displayed much faster stop/start and change-of-direction skills, smoking Archer's short-shuttle time by a quarter of a second.
Okay, so Cooks is lightning-quick around cones and has blazing deep speed. Can he play?
The answer to that is an overwhelming yes.
Outstanding in Pads
Cooks won the Biletnikoff Award as the nation's top college receiver in 2013, after hauling in 16 touchdowns and a FBS-best (and Pac-12 record) 1,730 receiving yards. Perhaps most impressively, Cooks accomplished this after his 2012 receiving partner at Oregon State, Markus Wheaton, entered the 2013 draft.
Without Wheaton drawing away coverage, Cooks not only still managed to beat Pac-12 defenses, he nearly doubled his production: from 67 catches to 128, from 1,151 yards to 1,730 and from five touchdowns to 16, per Sports-Reference.com.
This stands in stark contrast to fellow prospect Marqise Lee. At USC, Lee lit the Pac-12 on fire in 2012, when he played opposite Robert Woods. When Woods left for the NFL, Lee's production suffered. Though Lee is often connected to the Jets, Rich Cimini of ESPN.com reports that Marty Mornhinweg and the Jets offensive coaches are "all over" Cooks:
Jets OC Marty Mornhinweg attended WR Brandin Cooks pro day yesterday (Oregon State). #Jets have been "all over him," per source.— Rich Cimini (@RichCimini) March 15, 2014
Miller lauds Cooks' "incredibly fast hands" and ability to track the football. "His eyes and focus are top-tier," Miller said, "and he won't forget to put the football away before turning upfield to use his game-changing speed."
After praising Cooks' speed, fluidity, open-field moves and after-the-catch dangerousness, Miller sounded the alarm bell: size concerns. Doubting Cooks could stand up to outside press coverage in the NFL, Miller designated Cooks "a slot receiver-only projection."
Coming up Short?
After admitting a bias toward bigger, more physical receivers, White laid out the problem with drafting Cooks to be an impact wideout.
"Throwing a lot of deep balls to a short wide receiver usually isn't advisable unless there is a bust in coverage or he just blows past everybody," White wrote. "If you throw the ball in a situation where the short wide receiver is well covered, it's unlikely that he's going to be able to go up and make the catch."
White went on to say he was "on the fence" as to whether or not Cooks would be able to consistently get that open against NFL coverage.
Both Miller and White compared Cooks to diminutive St. Louis Rams spark plug Tavon Austin, but Cooks is bigger than Austin. In fact, he's nearly identical in size to the Pittsburgh Steelers' Antonio Brown, a 5'10", the 186-pound wideout. With Cooks' combination of speed, hands and route running, it's quite possible he could develop into a similar threat.
Like Brown, Cooks will likely need time to adapt his game to the NFL. If he lands with a team that already has a quality quarterback and other weapons to keep defenses honest, he'll be able to make an impact from the slot, on screens and in the return game while he learns to find (and create) soft spots in NFL defenses.
It's no wonder top draft experts all see Cooks as a first-round pick:
BleacherReport.com, ESPN.com, NFL.com, CBSSports.com, SI.com
To see if there's still a place for small, quick, clever, sure-handed receivers in the NFL, all you have to do is flip the NFC Championship Game on its head. After all, the 49ers are known for having a big defense and physical secondary too, and they lost.
Seattle's top two receivers in that game were Doug Baldwin and Golden Tate, both of whom measure 5'11". Jermaine Kearse, who is 6'1", was the Seahawks' only 6'0"-plus receiver. And their most dangerous offensive weapon, the 5'10" Percy Harvin, took a star turn in the ensuing Super Bowl.
It's no wonder that short-term trends aside, NFL teams are still high on Cooks as a quality receiving prospect.