- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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Though he didn't realize it, Jerry Rice entered the NFL in 1985 as a prototype. Only Xerox has had more copies than Rice.
He was 6-2, 200 pounds and supposedly not blessed with burning speed. He just worked hard. Fortunately, he was drafted by a coach -- Bill Walsh in San Francisco -- who could exploit those skills. Walsh designed innovative plays that took advantage of Rice's height advantage over 5-10 corners and his willingness to take his 200-pound body into the middle of the field for catches.
Rice defined two generations of receivers and keeps raising the bar of excellence. He has 1,519 catches for 22,466 yards and needs 14 games to reach 300. Rice set such a standard at the wide-receiver position that the receiver position has been revolutionized more than any on offense. Sure, quarterbacks have gotten bigger and stronger. Linemen are wider and heavier. Tight ends may be 20 or 30 pounds heavier than 20 years ago.
Those gains are neutralized by the expanse of the defenses. It's hard to find teams using defensive tackles lighter than 300 pounds. The sport continues to grow. But at wide receiver, where Rice is still king, the cornerbacks haven't grown much and now receivers stand out like giants.
"I was with Bill Walsh at the East-West game and we were looking at the receivers," Colts general manager Bill Polian said. "He predicted 15 receivers would go in the first three rounds, and they will all play. He said, `Who's going to cover them?"'
Whoever covers receivers this year and in future years better have short term memories. As it turned out, 13 receivers went in the first three rounds and all should play. Their advantage over cornerbacks continues to grow. In few exceptions, cornerbacks are staying a 5-10 and if lucky 190 pounds. Receivers are coming into the league as tall as 6-3 to 6-5 and running in the 4.4 range. Of the seven receivers drafted in the first round -- Larry Fitzgerald, Roy Williams, Reggie Williams, Lee Evans, Michael Clayton, Michael Jenkins, Rashaun Woods -- only Evans is under 6-0, with the other six at least 6-2.
Receivers are bigger and faster. Corners are staying at the same size and aren't as fast. Rice is concluding two decades of showing what a perfectionist can do when he's 6-2, 200 pounds and has an edge in height against the cornerback. The past few years of receivers' drafts could change the game even more.
Couple that with this year's mandate to eliminate illegal contact by defensive players after five yards and offenses should be entering a period of bliss. The NFL works in cycles like this. Defensive coordinators devise enough schemes to neutralize offensive advantages. Rules change to open things up. Defensive readjust.
Around the time Rice entered the league, Bill Parcells and company were coming up with 3-4 schemes to counter the West Coast offense. Bright coaches such as Dick LeBeau came up with zone blitz schemes to force pressure on the quarterback along with taking away his quick strike target in the short zone.
In the past couple of years, the Cover 2 zone made it tougher for receivers to succeed. Lax enforcement of the contact rule gave cornerbacks a better chance to make up for their four to five inch height disadvantage. Those corners could wait for the receiver eight or so yards into the route, grab a hunk of jersey or use their arm to reroute the receiver along with having the security of having a safety lurking behind as insurance.
Now, anything goes. Officials will keep flagging corners until they keep their hands off. Bigger and faster receivers can take advantage of their speed and size. And if that isn't scary enough, offensive coaches are more skilled in figuring out what to do against tricky zone defenses.
Plus, colleges are looking for more of the Jerry Rice's than they are the Walter Payton's of the world. The NFL is a throwing league. Colleges are copying it. This year, the NFL drafted seven receivers in the first round and about half of them have worked in sophisticated enough pass offenses in college they are starting their NFL career at the most difficult receiving spot -- flanker.
"The Southeastern Conference is almost using pro or spread formations exclusively," Polian said. "Most of the teams have three receiver sets. The PAC 10 has been a throwing league for years. More shotgun formations are being used in colleges. Colleges have abandoned the Wishbone enough that you can't count the number of Wishbone teams on the fingers of one hand. You have more and more teams such as Pitt, Illinois, Nebraska and others using the West Coast offense."
Any dramatic change in college philosophies has a ripple effect on the talent coming into the NFL. Though the numbers will change slightly because of the roster cut downs next week to 53 players, as of Monday, there were roughly 157 receivers who are expcted to make teams who were 6-0 or taller. Compare that to the cornerbacks. The 32 teams had only 63 cornerbacks taller than 6-0.
Most teams use three-receiver sets. So here's the scarier numbers. Statistically, a three-receiver set can be on the field 60 percent of the downs. Of the 32 teams, 67 receivers who are among their team's top three are 6-foot or taller. There are only 21 starting cornerbacks at that height who can try to match up against them.
Advantage: receivers. Credit goes to Rice.
"Rice showed the importance that in a West Coast offense of finding an athlete who can run after the catch and take a short pass and turn it into a long-gainer," Titans general manager Floyd Reese said. "It had teams looking for the taller, West Coast type of receiver who can break tackles. You looked for guys who can separate quickly, Now, you are getting guys who are 6-5, 230 pounds and they can all run."
When Rice came into the league in 1985, there were tall receivers. Cris Collinsworth of the Bengals was 6-5. Steve Watson of the Broncos was 6-4. But their weight was in the 190s. Now, the dimensions are incredible. Fitzgerald of the Cardinals is 6-3, 225 pounds. Williams of the Jagaurs is 6-4, 225 pounds. Jenkins of Atlanta is 6-5, 215. And they are as fast if not faster than the 5-10, 180-pound cornerbacks who were drafted to covering them.
Those chances of those receivers succeeding are enhanced because of what defenses have done to try to stop Rice. The West Coast offense has branched in so many directions since the early days of Rice when he worked for Walsh. Back then, the West Coast offense was more left-handed in its nature of running plays. Walsh didn't use the shotgun. He tried to stress short passes to the back as running plays. The original West Coast didn't have hot reads.
Now, different forms of the West Coast offense have evolved. Quarterbacks have the time to view the field by working out of the shotgun. Walsh didn't like to use more than three wide receivers at a time. Now, four and five can be on the field at one time. Every system has a hot read or two in case of blitzes. If defenses bring more people than an offense can block, then it's the quarterback's job to get the ball to the open guy five yards downfield.
Thanks to Rice, more pro level receiving prospects are coming into the league with an understanding of pro offenses. College coaches are taking their best athletes and putting them at wide receiver. The next best athlete is going to cornerback. If the great athlete is tall, he's a receiver.
It's survival. Trends take years of evolution, and this is the age of the wide receiver.
"Wide receivers are so much bigger and better athletes than they were years ago," Reese said. "If you look at positions like corner and maybe defensive end, they have actually gotten smaller. That's why college coaches have to take some of their best athletes and make them corners. Colleges has so many 6-4 receivers coming through you have to find a way to match up against them."
This all started with Rice. Kids grew up wanting to be like Jerry. What's harder to find is those who grow up wanting to be the one trying to cover him and the generations of receivers who followed.
John Clayton is a senior NFL writer at ESPN.com.