Speed, quickness coveted skills for corners
INDIANAPOLIS -- The evolution of the NFL game, and the manner in which teams evaluate personnel at various positions, often results from alterations to the rules. And with the league having more closely enforced illegal contact penalties in the secondary during the 2004 season, with a dramatic increase in the number of infractions flagged, there could be a trickle-down effect here at the annual predraft combine workouts.
For years, the lament of defensive coordinators and secondary coaches was that the draft pool never featured enough bigger cornerback prospects, guys with the kind of physical dimensions requisite for matching up with the over 6-feet-tall wide receivers which are in such preponderance leaguewide. But now, with a pendulum swinging back toward the coverage players who can run deep and hang with a pass-catcher, rather than redirect the routes by muscling wide receivers, the taller corners may not be such a commodity.
"Some people think that, because of the emphasis on the contact rule, teams will play more zone [coverages] and we'll see less man-to-man," said Atlanta Falcons general manager Rich McKay, co-chairman of the influential competition committee, which last year recommended tighter enforcement in the secondary to help open up the passing game. "That's not necessarily the case. We're still going to see 'single' coverages. What it might do is have an effect on the kind of cornerback you look for."
Which is why a cornerback like Adam "Pacman" Jones of West Virginia, who is very solidly constructed but checks in at only about 5-feet-10, now figures to emerge as the top prospect at his position.
Certainly Jones lacks the "length" that teams have been seeking for the past several years. But he possesses incredible quickness, is ultra-aggressive in coverage, and seems thick enough through his upper body to not be overwhelmed by bigger wideouts.
On the flipside, cornerback Brandon Browner of Oregon State, who measured 6-2¾ and 221 pounds on Sunday, might suddenly be a tad devalued. While he possesses what most scouts would consider prototype size, talent evaluators are curious about Browner's speed in the 40, and even he conceded he has been running in the 4.53 range in preparation for the combine.
There is no lack of irony in the fact that the 2005 draft class might actually include the kind of 6-foot cornerbacks scouts have coveted -- players such as Antrel Rolle (Miami), Corey Webster (LSU), Bryant McFadden (Florida State), Carlos Rogers (Auburn) and Ronald Bartell (Howard) -- but that the league's emphasis on the illegal contact rule will now place their quickness and overall athletic ability under more scrutiny.
Make no mistake, given that cornerback remains a premium position (it now carries the largest qualifying offer for a veteran "franchise" player), several of the bigger cover guys will still be first-round selections. But Jones, even though he is two inches shorter than most teams would prefer, could be the premier guy.
"Yeah, the fact is, your corners better be able to run with people, because the days of just getting your hands on a wide receiver and throwing him around, well, they're over," said Arizona Cardinals defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast. "If you don't have that type of corner, you'd better be able to scheme around the deficiencies. Obviously, in a perfect world, you would have a 6-feet-tall corner who could run with the fastest receivers. But it's not a perfect world, is it?"
Maybe not, but Jones is a player who, with his borderline cockiness, suggested Sunday that he might be the perfect fit for the way cornerbacks have to play now.
Reminded that cornerbacks in the NFL must now adhere to the five-yard rule, which means a defender can't touch a receiver once the potential pass-catcher is more than five yards into the secondary, Jones chuckled.
"Well, in those first five yards, I'm going to have a lot of touches," Jones said.
One of about 15-17 underclass draft prospects who figure to go off the board in the first round, Jones is probably the one cornerback in the 2005 draft class who could be among the top 10 players chosen. His stock has risen quickly and, given his kick return skills and overall excellence in every special teams area, he can help a club in a lot of ways.
On the matter of size, Jones noted that he has very good weightlifting numbers, and that he is strong through the hands, a prime attribute for a cornerback. The combination of quick hands and quick feet, he noted, allows him to still be physical with a wideout, even as he runs upfield with him. And Jones, who scouts agree is extremely competitive by nature, seems to actually play better against bigger wide receivers, because he can use his quickness advantage to get up on them.
Told that Jones' nickname came from how quickly he grabbed for the bottle when he was a baby, one NFC defensive coordinator noted: "He does everything quick."
While he has a air of the street about him, and there are some minor off-field issues on which interested teams will do their due diligence, Jones is a pretty charismatic player. And he certainly is a kid who overcame difficult times, growing up in the hardscrabble southwest Atlanta neighborhood, principally raised by his grandmother after his father left and his mother went to jail for two years on trafficking charges.
All but set to attend hometown Georgia Tech, he backed out of a commitment there when his grandmother, Christine Jones, was diagnosed with terminal cancer and given just five months to live.
"It was too tough to watch her just fade away, so I decided I had to get out of [Atlanta], and she urged me to do it," Jones said. "I had to get away. She was so important in my life and, even when I went to West Virginia, I talked to her every night and my coaches got on the phone with her, too. Even with her being passed now, I still think of her a lot, and she's still a motivation for me. When they call my name as the first cornerback on draft day, she's the one I'll be thinking about the most."
Around the combine
The last word
"I think there's a number of talented tight ends in the league and I'm sure they've opened the doors for the guys on the college level. They're not just used as blockers anymore. They're used a lot in the passing game in a number of different ways, and it makes our job fun to do." -- Heath Miller of the University of Virginia, the consensus top tight end prospect, on how the position has evolved now in the league
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here .
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