- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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For two years, NFL cornerbacks have felt they've been getting the short end of offseason rule interpretations. The emphasis on no illegal contact with receivers 5 yards past the line of scrimmage has drawn increased penalty flags. In addition, the influx of tall receivers has made cornerbacks' jobs more challenging.
As time goes on, though, cornerbacks are starting to stand tall. The demand for highly skilled cover corners has taken top salaries at the position into the $6 million and $7 million a year range. Whether cornerbacks are tall or short, they've turned the corner on the rule changes. NFL defenses shaved 14.2 yards off total passing yards per game and are within 6 yards of the totals before the rule began being enforced two years ago. The completion average dropped from 11.8 to 11.4 yards, within 1 yard of the old totals.
And if that wasn't enough, eight cornerbacks could go in the first round of a draft in which teams are struggling to give first-round grades to a woefully thin receiving group. There are so many corners, teams have the luxury of debating whether to get a tall or short one. If this class of cornerbacks succeeds, the NFL Competition Committee might have to look at readjusting the rules again to open things up more for offenses.
"We may have to look at things in a couple of years if offenses get bottled up," Colts general manager Bill Polian said.
The committee and the league always become concerned if scoring drops to close to 40 points a game, combined. Last year, it fell from 43 to 41.2.
It's hard to keep good cornerbacks down.
"Cornerbacks have always been the best athletes on the field," Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said. "They were just allowed to get away with things and it was just a matter of telling them. Now, they've adjusted."
What was clear at the scouting combine in Indianapolis in February was this class loved to compete and was fearless. Normally, top players shy away from running at the combine, preferring to run on their home turf at their school. Only eight defensive backs didn't run. Also, the entire group posted impressive measurables as a whole. The average defensive back came within a hair of 6-foot. Most ran their 40s in the 4.3-second range.
One of the bonuses of this draft is that four of the top cornerbacks are big. Jimmy Williams of Virginia Tech is 6-3 and 213 pounds. Jason Allen of Tennessee is 6-1, 209. Antonio Cromartie of Florida State is 6-2, 208. Ashton Youboty of Ohio State is 6-0, 189.
"When it comes to corners, big is better because you also have to tackle receivers," Newsome said. "Even though some of the smaller receivers did well last year, it's still a big receiver league."
Allen, one of the bigger corners, agrees.
"You have an advantage being taller and longer," Allen said. "If the ball is in the air, you have a better chance to get up and get it. If the receiver or the ball is a little further ahead of you, you can always use your length and height. The disadvantage is that a little, quicker receiver could give you a problem. If you are too physical, you could end up missing the little receiver."
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the first round involves the selections made by teams that draft cornerbacks. Safety Michael Huff of Texas is expected to be the first defensive back to go, and he's anticipated to land in the top 10. After that, defenses will be choosy.
Even though the Rams would like to add some bulk and height to their small, slight group of cornerbacks, they might lean toward taking Tye Hill, a 5-10, 185-pound coverage whiz who can match up with the top receivers in the NFC West.
The Dolphins, who draft 16th, likely will go in the opposite direction. Coach Nick Saban believes bigger is better. He pretty much puts cornerbacks who aren't 6-foot on his non-draftable list. He could end up going for the 6-3 Williams or the 6-1 Allen.
"When you have to cover big receivers, it's a physical matchup," Allen said. "If I had a choice between going against Steve Smith or Terrell Owens, I would pick Terrell Owens. He's not going to be as quick. With a bigger receiver, you can get up in his face and be physical. With a smaller receiver like Smith, you almost have to play a Cover 2 with a cornerback underneath and a safety on top, and you are not going to be as physical after 5 yards."
Still, the success of Smith and Santana Moss opened offenses' eyes to the advantage of the quick receivers who can get a lot of yards after the catch. It's forcing teams to upgrade the ratings on the smaller, quicker cornerbacks who can run with the receivers.
And that's a smart move, considering research shows that bigger defenders have a shorter longevity.
"In a 10-year study he did of cornerbacks, he noticed that the taller cornerbacks usually don't make it," Titans general manager Floyd Reese said. "How many 6-2 cornerbacks are there in the league?"
Currently, the NFL has only four starting cornerbacks who are 6-2: Gary Baxter of the Browns, Julian Battle of the Chiefs, Andre Woolfolk of the Titans and Mike Rumph of the 49ers, who played a little safety in the past two seasons. There are no 6-3 corners starting in the league.
"The optimum height is about 5-11," Reese said. "Many of the taller cornerbacks tend to get hurt."
Bigger cornerbacks tend to be more physical, which leads to more injuries. Bigger cornerbacks don't fear contact. That leaves them as targets sometimes.
"Big corners like being physical with wideouts," Allen said. "I had two years at cornerback in college and two years at safety. I know coach Saban likes big defensive backs because he tried to recruit me out of high school to play safety. All I know is there is a lot of talent out there at cornerback. I think there will be a lot of guys who will come in and play."
Whether they are big or short, cornerbacks will loom large Saturday in the draft.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
2hEric D. Williams
1dBy Ian O'Connor