A lot has been made of the height of the San Diego Chargers' first-round pick. Cornerback Jason Verrett is just 5’9.5” and the Chargers still selected him 25th overall because he plays a lot bigger than his size might indicate.
Critics say Verrett is a slot cornerback because of his size. In reality, he may eventually be able to play in the slot and on the outside at the NFL level as he did in college. To overcome his height limitation, Verrett needs to augment his athleticism and instincts with football intelligence.
There is no shortage of cornerbacks in the NFL around Verrett’s size that have been successful playing outside and the slot. Brent Grimes, Chris Harris Jr., Brandon Flowers, Alterraun Verner, Cortland Finnegan and the list goes on. Verrett’s height won’t be an issue if he does the other things he needs to do to make a successful transition to the NFL.
The Myth of Cornerback Height?
You would think cornerbacks over 6’0” are required in the NFL judging from rhetoric before and after the draft. In reality, the best cornerbacks still tend to be less than 6’0” on average.
Of the top 15 cornerbacks in 2013 as graded by Pro Football Focus (subscription required), eight were 5’10” or shorter. Those eight players had an average height equal to Verrett, 5’9.5”. Only four cornerbacks in the top 15 were 6’0” or taller.
A similar pattern can be found in 2012, when seven of the top 15 were 5’10” or shorter. The average height of those seven was just a shade over 5’9”. Only three of the 15 were 6’0” or taller. The splits are similar in 2011 and 2010.
|PFF's Top 15 Cornerbaacks 2010-2013 Height Splits|
|Year||5'10" or under||6'0" and over|
There’s no doubt that taller cornerbacks are becoming ubiquitous, but that doesn’t mean short cornerbacks don’t have value. In fact, the rise of the nickel defense means that three cornerbacks are on the field. Few teams have three or four offensive players with a multi-inch advantage over a cornerback who is about 5’10”.
A bigger, taller cornerback may be more effective against bigger, taller wide receivers, but there are still plenty of shorter wide receivers in the league. Many taller cornerbacks are going to struggle covering smaller, shiftier wide receivers, whereas shorter, more agile defensive backs can stick with them.
Ultimately, if a shorter wide receiver has to defend a taller player, he needs to augment whatever physical assets he has with intelligence and technique. This is what the good cornerbacks in the NFL can do regardless of their height.
Intelligence and Technique
One of the smartest zone cornerbacks in recent memory is Asante Samuel, who is just 5’10”, 185 pounds. Samuel has 51 career interceptions, which was the fourth most of all active players in 2013 behind Ed Reed, Charles Woodson and Champ Bailey.
Ronde Barber, Darrell Green and Antoine Winfield are all just 5’9” and had very successful careers. The argument is that wide receivers are getting bigger, faster and stronger than they were just a few years ago, but the reality is that the scheme still plays a significant role in how defenses try to slow them down.
Size advantage or not, throwing up jump balls down the field has a low percentage of success in the NFL. With good awareness and instincts, a smaller cornerback can limit how often they get beat on jump balls. Eventually, these smart cornerbacks end up in a position to make game-changing plays.
At TCU, Verrett lined up on both sides and in the slot. The flexibility means the Chargers can move him around to try to get him in favorable matchups. As he matures, this also means the opposing quarterback will need to be aware of where Verrett is on every play. At least that's the type of upside Verrett has in San Diego's defensive scheme.
Against LSU in 2013, Verrett covered NFL talents Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry while demonstrating the ability to play press, off man and zone, as well as blitz and tackle. Best of all, Verrett demonstrated proper technique and demonstrated the ability to time his jumps to contest balls at their highest point.
You can see that Verrett does a good job staying in the hip pocket of the wide receiver and times his jump just as the ball arrives to knock it away with the proper hand. Verrett did draw a ticky-tack flag, so he’ll have to be careful not to get too aggressive.
Again, you see good technique from Verrett. He whips his head around, times his jump and knocks the ball away. In this instance, Verrett also uses his speed to catch up with Beckham. A more accurate pass would have been harder on Verrett, but it’s a tight window even for the best NFL quarterbacks.
Verrett is the type of highly competitive player who needs to be aggressive to thrive in the NFL. His aggressiveness may get him into trouble at times, but it’s better to have to dial it back than get him to fight for passes in the air.
As long as Verrett can learn quickly from his mistakes at the NFL level and adjust to the mental aspect of the game, he has a chance to be a very good starter. Verrett will take his lumps and lose a few jump balls to bigger receivers, but he already does everything he can to make it difficult for them to do so.
This is all true for any cornerback prospect, so the concerns about his height are overblown. If Verrett fails to reach his potential, it won’t be because he isn’t 6’0”.