Offensive, return abilities make small WRs attractive

The successful NFL campaigns of Santana Moss and Steve Smith make diminutive prospects like Sinorice Moss more appealing.

Updated: February 27, 2006, 2:48 PM ET
By Michael Smith | ESPN.com

INDIANAPOLIS -- Say you didn't follow college ball all that closely and happened to be walking the vast halls of the Indiana Convention Center on Saturday morning and caught a glimpse of this scene: tiny Sinorice Moss swallowed by a group of autograph seekers, some young, some old, most (if not all) taller than the former University of Miami standout receiver. If you had seen him through the small crowd, you would have guessed that the 5-foot-8 Moss was a high school athlete, a child actor, a rapper or something.

Funny, for if you paid any kind of attention to the NFL over the past six months, in particular the playoffs, you would know that it was pretty much impossible to miss little pass catchers like Moss, who every week seemed to be coming up big.

It's not even an issue about the size. If you can play football and you have the heart to go out there and make plays, then size doesn't matter.
Miami's Sinorice Moss

Just three weeks ago -- and a year after New England's Deion Branch (5-9, 193) made history as the smallest Most Valuable Player in Super Bowl history -- Antwaan Randle El (5-10, 192) threw maybe the best pass of this year's title game. Carolina's Steve Smith (5-9, 185) and Washington's Santana Moss (5-10, 190), Sinorice's older brother, were first and second in the league, respectively, in receiving yardage.

Little receivers doing big things isn't exactly a new phenomenon. Off the top of my head, Marvin Harrison (6-0, 175 pounds) and a couple of ex-first-rounders out of Ohio State, Joey Galloway (5-11, 197) and Terry Glenn (5-11, 193), have been doing their thing for years. The Patriots won three Super Bowls with most of their receiving corps checking in under 6 feet.

The trend in recent years, especially in the draft two years ago, was to get a Michael Irvin/Keyshawn Johnson/Eric Moulds/Terrell Owens-type -- 6-3ish, 220-poundish guys who could dominate defensive backs. But this past season, thanks to Smith and the elder Moss, smallish wideouts were on par with their bigger brethren, even if they had to look up at them.

Used to be that if you said the name Moss, everyone knew you were talking about Randy. Santana has made it so that now you have to ask, which one? Baltimore's Mark Clayton (5-10, 195) and Buffalo's Lee Evans (5-10, 197) and Roscoe Parrish (5-9, 168) have come along looking to follow receivers such as Troy Brown (5-10, 196) and Laveranues Coles (5-11, 193) and Glenn and Galloway and Harrison as the next generation of big-time little guys to show that size, or lack thereof, doesn't mean a wideout is automatically slotted for the slot position.

So now newcomers such as Sinorice Moss and Ohio State's Santonio Holmes (5-10½, 185) -- two of the top receivers in what is generally regarded as a weak class for the position and who figure to go early in the draft -- are looked at in a positive light instead of being looked down upon (literally and figuratively).

Look around the league, and it's clear that big plays sometimes come in small packages.

"Watching my brother and Steve Smith this year, they showed that smaller receivers, they can make big plays and they can do the things that the 6-3 receivers or the 6-2 receivers [can do]," said Sinorice Moss, whose brother was a first-round pick of the Jets in 2001 and was dealt to the Redskins last offseason. "In past years, everybody wanted a big receiver. That was the main thing, I need a big receiver. Smaller receivers, they get the job done also."

"I think your preference is still to get the bigger guys. Give me a T.O. without attitude," said an AFC personnel executive. "But the size really doesn't matter. It's the explosiveness of the player and the ability to make plays."

The buzzwords with receivers are "sudden" and "explosive." Those traits usually belong to smaller receivers as opposed to bigger wideouts who tend to have longer strides and aren't as quick in and out of their breaks. Defensive backs will tell you that it's more difficult to play press coverage against a shifty receiver than it is a bigger possession receiver because the latter is the easier target for jams. Guess wrong and miss a Steve Smith at the line of scrimmage, and it's six for the Panthers. Just look at the replay of Smith's touchdown in Super Bowl XXXVIII and ask ex-Patriot Tyrone Poole. The point of emphasis on illegal contact (bumping receivers beyond five yards) makes it even harder to stop the Smiths and Mosses from running free in the secondary.

"A lot of big guys [corners] can't adjust to that," Sinorice Moss said. "They really don't know if a smaller-type receiver like me is coming at him 100 miles an hour."

AP PhotoSantana Moss is a threat as both a receiver and returner.

Smallish receivers have not just a place in the game but, with the evolution of pass-rush schemes, a rather important one. The "bubble" screens, "slip" screens, "smoke" screens -- all the quick passes you're seeing to all the aforementioned diminutive receivers, who can then take it up field and pile up yards after the catch -- are an effective defense against defenses' sending exotic blitz schemes at the quarterback. Get the ball out of the quarterback's hands quickly and into those of a quick, "sudden" player who can make a few moves and take a short pass and turn it into a long touchdown.

There are more advantages to teams' utilizing little guys at wideout. If an offensive coordinator is creative, it can be awfully difficult to take those guys out of the game because they can be moved around and they can be just as dangerous running shorter routes and screens. With a bigger receiver who works downfield, a defense can simply double him with a corner underneath and a safety over the top. And if a smallish receiver is really good, like Smith or Moss, he creates even greater matchup problems when he's moved inside to the slot. Not many teams' top cornerbacks are able to operate inside, so what often happens is this: a Pro Bowl receiver who can take it to the crib on any play versus the defense's third cornerback.

Finally, from a team management standpoint, undersized receivers, if they're versatile and double as kick returners, save a game-day roster spot. Moss and Smith both return punts, so the Redskins and Panthers don't have to carry a kick returner on the roster. They can activate an extra defensive back or lineman or whatever. It's why Jeremy Bloom, the former University of Colorado standout and Olympic skier, is such an intriguing draft prospect.

The only real downside to using smallish receivers is that durability can be a concern (it's one reason the Jets parted with Moss), and they aren't as effective in the red zone.

No biggie. Guys such as Smith (12 touchdowns) and Moss (nine) can score from anywhere.

"It's not even an issue about the size," Sinorice Moss said. "If you can play football and you have the heart to go out there and make plays, then size doesn't matter."

Michael Smith is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Contact him here.

Michael Smith

NFL Senior Writer
Michael Smith joined ESPN in July 2004 as a National Football League senior writer for ESPN.com, covering league news and major events such as the NFL Draft, NFL Playoffs and the Super Bowl, and continues to write breaking news stories. He is also a correspondent for E:60, ESPN's first multi-themed prime-time newsmagazine program, which debuted October 2007.

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