Odds stacked against DBs

With wide receivers getting bigger every year, defensive backs are at a distinct disadvantage.

Updated: February 23, 2004, 2:42 PM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

INDIANAPOLIS -- Consider for a moment that the consensus top coverage player in the 2004 draft -- Ohio State's Chris Gamble -- played more at wide receiver than at cornerback in college, and spent only about one season on the defensive side of the football, and it becomes far easier to understand why some secondary coaches here for the combine are beginning to update their résumés.

For the early portion of the combine, the coordinators and secondary coaches watched as a parade of oversized wide receivers paraded through crowded corridors at the Indiana Convention, and gasped at the impressive physical dimensions of the pass-catchers. And then the cornerbacks arrived and they, too, took the defensive coaches' breath away.

Chris Gamble
Chris Gamble is expected to be a first-round pick in the upcoming draft.
But for the opposite reason.

"We're going to be trying to cover monsters with midgets," said Detroit Lions president and general manager Matt Millen. "You meet most of the wide receivers here and you have to reach up to shake their hands. Then the corners come through and it's like you have to bend down just to stare them in the eye. I mean, whatever happened to the whole thing about the cornerbacks getting bigger, too?"

If the 2004 pool of cornerback prospects is any indication, the alleged evolution of the position to bigger and faster edge defenders who could muscle-up with the new age wide receivers in the NFL has abruptly halted. Of the consensus top 10 cornerbacks available for this year's draft, only one, Gamble, measures at least 6 feet tall.

And the former Buckeyes star, who might be the first cornerback off the board on April 24, has logged only one full season at the position. Gamble began the 2002 campaign as a starting wide receiver for coach Jim Tressel and moved to cornerback for the final six games of the season because Ohio State coaches needed him there.

At 6-feet-1½ and 198 pounds, Gamble certainly possesses the body type coaches have come to covet at corner. And most NFL scouts acknowledge he's got the instincts and awareness to play the league's toughest individual position. But there is also a possibility, as Cincinnati Bengals defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier noted, that any team choosing Gamble is going to basically have to start from near-scratch in developing him.

"You might just have to break him down, all the way down to the basement, and start to rebuild him as a pure corner," Frazier said. "There's no doubt he is a talented prospect. Inside that body, yeah, I think there's a cornerback. But the bottom line is that he hasn't had very much exposure to the position."

That specter, that they will choose a cornerback in April and then watch him exposed in September by opposition wide receivers, is the fear that pervades personnel directors and general managers when they consider the position. The lack of size at cornerback is distressing, especially in light of this year's class of gargantuan wideouts, but the lack of quality at the position is downright frightening to some talent evaluators.

There could be as many as five cornerbacks chosen in the first round -- after Gamble the top candidates include Will Poole (Southern California), DeAngelo Hall (Virginia Tech), Dunta Robinson (South Carolina) and Derrick Strait (Oklahoma) -- but all of them might need an industrial-sized vat of Clearasil to camouflage some warts.

Pimples and all, though, teams are going to gamble that the cornerback group will turn out more prospects than suspects. History indicates franchises will "reach" for corners and that the uneven success rate reflects the desperation that forces clubs to snatch up players at the critical position a round earlier than they should.

We're going to be trying to cover monsters with midgets. You meet most of the wide receivers here and you have to reach up to shake their hands. Then the corners come through and it's like you have to bend down just to stare them in the eye. I mean, whatever happened to the whole thing about the cornerbacks getting bigger, too?
Matt Millen, Lions president and general manager

Teams become so fixated on locating a cornerback prospect that they grow oblivious to the flaws of some secondary edge defenders.

One prospect on the rise, and who could bump Gamble from the No. 1 spot, is Poole. A bit smaller than some franchise would like, Poole nonetheless isn't nearly as anorexic as some of the prospects at cornerback, and he definitely has the selective amnesia and the big-play mentality everyone wants. The Trojans star has also been through enough in his short life to appreciate where perseverance, and his own mistakes, have delivered him.

A solid contributor as a freshman at Boston College, he was dismissed from the school for violating unspecified team regulations, sat out a year and then enrolled at Ventura (Calif.) Junior College, before Southern Cal coach Pete Carroll recruited him. There is a hardened, but also humbling, veneer that Poole carries around but he clearly possesses the confidence every good corner must have.

"The time at junior college, it opened my eyes, and got me to rededicate myself," said Poole, who was especially candid about his past woes during a weekend media session. "All of a sudden, you're not at some big-time school, where they pamper you and do all that stuff for you. It's like, 'OK, you blew that chance, big man, and now you're on your own. So what are you going to do to regain the opportunity?' It grows you up."

Unfortunately for Poole, and the other undersized cornerbacks in the 2004 draft class, any experiences they've had, good or bad, didn't add inches or pounds. Their emotional and psychological stature might have been enhanced by battling through some tough odds, but their collective physical stature still leaves scouts concerned.

Little wonder that some bigger defensive backs who have played safety in college, such as Matt Ware of UCLA and Ohio State's Will Allen, are being considered as cornerback possibilities by a few teams. If you can't find cornerbacks, after all, sometimes you just have to create them.

"You cannot play (good) defense in this league," said New York Jets head coach Herm Edwards, "without good cornerbacks. It's that simple. So do you take some chances at the position? Sure, everybody does it, man. Sometimes you roll a 'seven,' and sometimes it comes up snake-eyes."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

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