Teams in need of more offense
NEW YORK -- The NFL's emphasis on penalizing illegal contact against receivers five yards past the line of scrimmage created more offense and more big plays in 2004.
Those wondering whether it would have an impact on this weekend's NFL draft shouldn't be surprised by the results. Cornerbacks were every bit as important with three -- Adam "Pac-Man" Jones (Tennessee), Antrel Rolle (Arizona) and Carlos Rogers (Washington) -- going in the first nine selections. But the interesting twist came from two teams that wanted cornerbacks and didn't get them. In the new, no-contact NFL, the trend seems to be overloading on offense and creating matchup problems.
The Lions and Jaguars each needed cornerbacks. Detroit team president Matt Millen, picking at No. 10, missed out on the "big 3" cornerbacks, so he took wide receiver Mike Williams, the big, powerful receiver out of USC.
The Jaguars went even further by skipping the next trio of cornerbacks available in the first round and taking Matt Jones, who is 6-foot-6, 240-pounds and can run a 4.3 40. Williams and Jones will continue a new trend in which teams are trying to find matchup problems in the middle of the field.
With cornerbacks having to be "hands off," eight tight ends led their teams in receptions last year. Subsequently, the Lions and Jaguars are taking big players with tight end bodies who can run and intend to put them in the middle of the field. Defenses like to take small, quick corners and put them against slot receivers. That strategy might not work. Williams and Jones have the size to overpower them and enough speed to cause them more problems.
"He'll come in as a receiver first," Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio said of Jones, who played quarterback at Arkansas, at his post-selection press conference Saturday. "He's big enough that someday he might go into a tight end, but we're not going to force him into a tight end position to start with. Whether he's playing in the slot or at wideout, he's going to be tough to deal with. He's going to make all the jump-ball plays."
The strategy is the same for Williams in Detroit. Outsiders thought the Lions were crazy for using their third consecutive first selection overall at wide receiver. Having Charles Rogers, Roy Williams and Mike Williams on the same team might be considered overkill. Maybe it will be. However, since they didn't find a challenger to cornerback Fernando Bryant, who struggled during his first season, the Lions were tempted by the damage Mike Williams can cause as an inside receiver.
"He's going to give you a mismatch against most corners even if they're on him," Lions offensive coordinator Ted Tollner told reporters. "He's going to have the body presence to make a play. He can be covered and still be uncovered because of his body presence and he's a very aggressive player at the ball. When the ball goes up, he will go make a play on it. You've seen some of the highlights -- he'll be covered and he comes down with the football."
By no accident, the teams in the AFC South that compete against Jacksonville are preparing for the challenge. They are drafting more cornerbacks. The Colts drafted cornerbacks Marlin Jackson and Kelvin Hayden and re-signed Nick Harper to go with existing cornerbacks Joseph Jefferson and Donald Strickland. Even though the Texans have Aaron Glenn and Dunta Robinson, they traded a No. 2 and a No. 3 for Phillip Buchanon. The Titans used the sixth pick in the draft on Pac-Man Jones.
|“||He's going to give you a mismatch against most corners even if they're on him.”|
|—Lions offensive coordinator Ted Tollner on WR Mike Williams|
Though those moves weren't made for Matt Jones, they were clearly made to prepare for new challenges created by the illegal contact emphasis. Conversely, the additions of players like Jones and Williams could result in defenses needing to stay in nickel coverage more. Some teams are already in nickel 66 percent of their downs.
"Prior to taking Mike Williams, that's been all of our offseason talk -- that we have to get more production on first- and second-down with play-action passes and downfield passes," Tollner said. "We're not making enough 20-yard plus plays. When you have big receivers in the vertical game, he can be covered but if you give him a chance down the field they'll make that play. So very much so, we have got to get the ball down the field and give Joey Harrington more chances to throw it down the field and let these guys make plays."
No wonder defensive coaches complained at the owners meeting about the rules. Their only defense is getting better at cornerback. Meanwhile, offensive coaches are trying to create more mismatch problems in the middle of the field, upgrading the success teams had with tight ends last season and landing bigger receivers to attack the middle.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.