Commentary

In wake of Welker, teams turning to tinier targets

In wake of New England's success with Wes Welker, many teams are featuring undersized WRs. That contrasts with recent NFL practice, Jeffri Chadiha writes.

Originally Published: October 22, 2008
By Jeffri Chadiha | ESPN.com

Eddie Royal, DeSean Jackson and Lance MooreUS PresswireSmall but dynamic rookies receivers Eddie Royal (left) and DeSean Jackson (middle) have paid big dividends for Denver and Philadelphia, respectively. In his third season, New Orleans' Lance Moore (right) is another small (5-9, 190) but effective receiver.

Denver Broncos wide receiver Brandon Stokley checked the text message on his cell phone in early May and immediately thought one thing: This is a first.

Related
More on the NFL's impact small WRs:
• Chadiha: Little big men
• Scouts: Best 'under 6-0 wonders'
• Scouts: Best 'small' WR prospects
• Scouts: Bigger not always better
• Scouts: NFL's best route runners
• Blog: D. Jackson Mr. October?

He had never met rookie wide receiver Eddie Royal, who recently had been selected by Denver in the second round of the NFL draft, and he didn't know how Royal had gotten his number. Even more surprising to Stokley was the request Royal had left that day. The first-year player wanted to connect with Stokley as soon as possible, primarily so he could learn everything about the Broncos' offense.

After eight seasons in the league, Stokley felt he'd been around long enough to know that many highly drafted rookie receivers usually come in with big egos and great expectations. But after he met Royal and later watched the young man practice during offseason workouts, Stokley saw something special in the 5-foot-10, 182-pound speedster.

"I remember telling people that he was going to be pretty good," Stokley said. "I have an eye for talent when it comes to smaller receivers, and he could do everything you want. He got out of his breaks fast. He had great speed. And he was powerful for a little guy. I could see right away that he was going to be a difference-maker."

Brandon Stokley Highlight, WK 06 vs. Jaguars 2008

NFL.com Video

Jay Cutler pass short left to Brandon Stokley for 11 yards, TOUCHDOWN.

As much as Royal has proved Stokley right -- the rookie has 39 receptions for 392 yards after seven games -- he's also been one of the most recent examples of how smaller receivers are affecting today's offenses.

You've got newcomers like Royal and Philadelphia's DeSean Jackson. You've got less-heralded players like New Orleans' Lance Moore, Minnesota's Bobby Wade and Arizona's Steve Breaston. There are also the familiar faces of Carolina's Steve Smith and Washington's dangerous combination of Santana Moss and Antwaan Randle El. All these players, along with their peers, are proving that size really doesn't matter when it comes to making plays.

This is a stark contrast to the way the NFL had been going for most of the past 15 years. Since the mid-1990s, the trend had been for teams to think that bigger was better when it came to wide receivers, that you were just plain stupid if you didn't have a 6-3, 215-pound target in your offense. The numbers supported that as well. Of the top 30 leaders in receptions in 1998, only five were shorter than 6 feet tall. Five seasons later, the statistics remained consistent, with just four players of that stature ranking among the top 30 in that category.

The league is becoming more about little guys, because a lot of us are run-after-the-catch types. The whole idea is to get the ball in our hands and then let us do our thing.

--Santana Moss, the Washington Redskins' 5-10, 200-pound WR

This season, however, has provided more evidence of a noteworthy shift in offensive philosophy. Sure, there's still a fair share of supersized targets like Denver's 6-4 Brandon Marshall or Arizona's 6-3 Larry Fitzgerald racking up catches. But of the top 30 reception leaders through Week 7, 25 were wide receivers, and 11 of those receivers were players who stood 5-11 or shorter. What was just as impressive was the play of rookies like Royal and Jackson. Royal emerged with 146 receiving yards in a season-opening victory over Oakland; that was the sixth-best single-game total in league history for a player making his professional debut. A week later, Jackson did him one better: He became the second rookie in league history to gain 100 receiving yards in his first two games.

It's those kinds of numbers that are making little receivers as viable as their taller counterparts. As Santana Moss said: "The league is becoming more about little guys, because a lot of us are run-after-the-catch types. The whole idea is to get the ball in our hands and then let us do our thing."

Added Stokley: "I definitely think smaller receivers are getting more respect. Over the last three or four years, you've seen more teams looking for that quick little slot receiver. They want guys who can make the catch, move the chains and put pressure on defenses."

Most players and coaches acknowledge that smaller receivers are gaining popularity for one key reason: separation. Since they're naturally quicker than their bigger counterparts, they have the ability to run more precise routes and explode out of their breaks. In today's game, it's impossible to underrate what that skill means to a quarterback facing cat-quick pass-rushers and exotic blitz packages. Since signal-callers have to get rid of the ball faster than ever, they need receivers who can get open more quickly than ever.

[+] EnlargeWes Welker
Photo by Win McNamee/Getty ImagesWes Welker's success has opened the door for many small receivers. The 5-9, 185-pound Patriots star (83) caught 112 passes last season and tied a Super Bowl record for receptions with 11 catches.

The success of the 5-9, 185-pound Wes Welker in New England is a prime example of this. He went from being a little-known, undrafted receiver who drifted from San Diego to Miami to becoming an elusive star who caught 112 passes for the Patriots in 2007, most of which came on short underneath patterns.

"When you have a guy like that, somebody who is fast and explosive, you can put him in a lot of different places," said St. Louis Rams offensive coordinator Al Saunders. "You obviously would prefer having a bigger guy, but it's harder for them to change direction. When you have a little receiver who can really move, it allows you to create a lot of mismatches."

What I learned from watching those guys is that you have to be a smart receiver, especially when you're small. I really had to learn how to avoid taking the big shot that a taller guy could take.

--Denver Broncos rookie WR Eddie Royal, a 5-10, 182-pound target, on what film study of small WRs like Steve Smith taught him about adjusting to the NFL

That's exactly what many teams are searching for this season. When Philadelphia selected the 5-10, 175-pound Jackson in the second round of the 2008 draft, Eagles offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg spent hours watching film of Welker to see how a player of that stature might be used in the Eagles' offense. But then the former Cal star surprised the team during training camp when injuries sidelined starters Reggie Brown and Kevin Curtis. Along with possessing breathtaking speed and blinding quickness, Jackson had the toughness to beat press coverage despite his slight frame.

Today, the Eagles move Jackson all over their offense in hopes of creating favorable matchups. The Broncos, by the way, are doing similar things with Royal. Since he has the strength to handle press coverage as well -- he bench-pressed 225 pounds a jaw-dropping 24 times at the NFL combine -- the Broncos can split him out wide and play him in the slot. That versatility made the former Virginia Tech star extremely effective in that win over Oakland, as he had nine receptions with two-time Pro Bowl cornerback and fellow Tech alum DeAngelo Hall covering him most of the game.

Along with the obvious physical skills, Royal's intelligence has helped him thrive this season. He's been studying film of smaller receivers like Smith and Indianapolis' Marvin Harrison ever since he was a freshman at Tech. "I did that because I knew I'd have to overcome some limitations when I got to this level," Royal said. "What I learned from watching those guys is that you have to be a smart receiver, especially when you're small. I really had to learn how to avoid taking the big shot that a taller guy could take."

Tommy McDonald, Steve  Largent and Charlie JoinerGetty ImagesAt 5-9, 176 pounds, Tommy McDonald (left) had 84 TD receptions. At 5-11, 187, Steve Largent (middle), missed only four games with injuries in his first 13 seasons. At 5-11, 188, Charlie Joiner played 18 seasons. Each is a Hall of Fame inductee.

Royal's concerns were no different than those many teams had about smaller receivers a decade ago: That they couldn't take the punishment that comes with life in the NFL. Though the league's history is filled with shorter players who thrived in the passing game -- from Tommy McDonald (5-9, 175) to Charlie Joiner (5-11, 188) to Steve Largent (5-11, 187), each a Hall Of Fame member -- the game changed significantly when the West Coast offense became ubiquitous in the 1990s. The system that former 49ers head coach Bill Walsh popularized relied heavily on bigger receivers because it used so many crossing patterns. The common mindset was that if you were going to send players into the crosshairs of so many hard-hitting linebackers and safeties, it was best that they not be undersized.

As Walsh's assistants started to spread across the league during that decade, so did the idea that a big, physical receiver was a must-have. Even teams that didn't run the West Coast offense usually had somebody with size running pass patterns. In fact, it's hard to think of another time in the league when players as large as Terrell Owens, Randy Moss, Herman Moore, Michael Irvin and Cris Carter were dominating the league. Some of these wideouts were so oversized that they made the greatest receiver ever, the 6-2, 200-pound Jerry Rice, seem ordinary in stature.

The common belief then was that most small receivers couldn't thrive at this level. Even after St. Louis and New England won Super Bowls with shorter, quicker receivers, it was still hard for little wideouts to gain popularity. As Mornhinweg said, "You can still probably count on one hand the number of small receivers who can be the top guy in your offense." While that might be true, it is fair to say the numbers are growing in that regard.

At 5-9 and 185 pounds, Smith has been one of the league's best players as the top target in Carolina. Moss and Baltimore's Derrick Mason (5-10, 192) also have proven that they can be productive threats despite their limited size. Meanwhile, Lee Evans (5-10, 197) has become a dangerous playmaker in Buffalo, and we could include Pro Bowlers like Pittsburgh's Hines Ward and Harrison if they both weren't generously listed at 6 feet tall.

Steve Smith, Santana Moss, and Derrick MasonGetty ImagesAt 5-9, 185, Carolina's Steve Smith (left) won the receiving triple crown in 2005. At 5-10, 192, Baltimore's Derrick Mason (center) has 448 receptions the past five seasons. At 5-10, 200, Santana Moss (right) has led Washington receivers since 2005.

What these players have done is open the door for smaller players who had previously been pigeonholed as "third-down" receivers. That's what the 5-10, 185-pound Randle El was in Pittsburgh before he evolved from a converted college quarterback into a player who could be an every-down target in Washington. Stokley, on the other hand, has proven that a 5-11, 192-pound slot receiver can do more than just move the chains. He enjoyed a career year in 2004 with Indianapolis (68 receptions, 1,077 yards and 10 touchdowns), when the Colts made him a regular part of their three-receiver formations.

Top-flight smaller WRs

Here's Jeffri Chadiha's list of the NFL's best wide receivers who stand 5 feet, 11 inches or smaller.

Little Big Men
Player/Team Dimensions Skinny
Steve Smith
Carolina
5-9, 185 His speed, strength and explosiveness makes him one of the best, regardless of size.
Lee Evans
Buffalo
5-10, 197 A burner who would be a Pro Bowler if he played in a more diverse passing game.
Santonio Holmes
Pittsburgh
5-11, 192 This home-run threat will soon be a Steelers' top target as Hines Ward ages.
Wes Welker
New England
5-9, 185 The ultimate possession receiver who thrives on underneath routes.
Laveranues Coles
N.Y.Jets
5-11, 193 Tough receiver who isn't afraid to play hurt.
Derrick Mason
Baltimore
5-10, 192 This former return specialist has more than 740 career receptions.
Santana Moss
Washington
5-10, 200 Dangerous open-field threat who's been Washington's No. 1 WR since 2005
Deion Branch
Seattle
5-9, 192 He made his name in New England but a major knee injury has slowed him in Seattle.
Eddie Royal
Denver
5-10, 182 Rookie sensation who was supposed to contribute as a return man this year until Broncos coaches saw his speed, hands and route-running ability
Joey Galloway
Tampa Bay
5-11, 197 He's finally showing his age this season (36) but he's also had three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons

Another factor that is contributing to the rise of small receivers is the decline of bigger ones. Since so many colleges are running spread formations these days, personnel evaluators say it's tougher than ever to find a larger receiver who runs sharp routes. "You just can't find that many guys like Terrell Owens or Brandon Marshall right now," said Minnesota Vikings receivers coach George Stewart. "If you do find one, he's probably a Pro Bowler."

Added an NFC personnel director: "There are a lot of 6-3 guys in college, but most of them are extremely slow or they're not quick. Look at some of these bigger guys who've come out of USC, for example, like [former Detroit Lions first-round pick] Mike Williams. They usually just lined him up in the slot and let him use his size to out-position a smaller cornerback. A lot of teams do that these days, and those players suffer because they never learn how to run routes."

Of course, that doesn't mean that teams are going to stop looking for bigger receivers to affect their passing game. Smaller receivers still have to face questions about durability, especially a player like Stokley, who has sustained 10 concussions during his career. Most short receivers also aren't as effective as run blockers, and they can be neutralized in the red zone. As Eagles cornerback Sheldon Brown said, "The smaller guys get better separation, but you also have to throw a perfect pass to get them the ball. You can put the ball close to a bigger receiver and he can still make the catch."

But those issues now seem to bother teams less when it comes to personnel evaluations. "I really don't look at size," said Broncos head coach Mike Shanahan. "I see the player. You look at a player like Eddie Royal or Brandon Stokley, and defensive backs have to respect their ability to get deep. That's what you have to do to a defense. They have to know you can go by them or you'll never be open."

Shanahan also admits that he's far more likely to pay attention to smaller receivers who might have slipped through the cracks in previous years. The same is probably true of his peers around the league. "That's no knock on the big guys," Randle El said. "But for the most part, you don't see a lot of those guys who are good at running routes. You've got Terrell Owens, Randy Moss, Chad Johnson and a few others. But now you can name about 15 or 20 of those little guys who are showing what they can do, too."

Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.

Jeffri Chadiha, formerly of Sports Illustrated, is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Chadiha first attended Wyoming on a full football scholarship before injuries led him to transfer to Michigan after two years. He received a Bachelor of Arts degree in communication from Michigan in 1993 before pursuing a career in journalism. Chadiha is also a frequent contributor to ESPN TV.