By Ryan Lack
Much has been written about the evolution of football and certain positions. These changes in some respects have been forced (e.g. player safety) and some of it has simply been a result of the modern athlete getting bigger, stronger, and faster over time.
One position that never seems to get much pub as a very crucial one on the field is cornerback. It’s a passing league now and the cornerback position may be the single most important one on any defense, and increasingly the hardest to play. But while wide receivers are getting bigger and faster, the corners have stayed the same size, mostly. The position itself needs to change now. Due to numerous rule changes that mainly serve to protect wide receivers, league cornerbacks are now forced to treat wideouts like they would a girl on a first date – they can’t touch them and can barely look at them witout drawing flags. To accommodate this favoritism the make-up of corners needs to evolve.
The solution is pretty straight-forward, right? Just go after bigger corners to match-up against these bigger receivers. As simple as that sounds it’s much more difficult to turn into reality.
The main challenge in this growth of such an important position is a lack of agility and speed the bigger the player gets. The average cornerback in the NFL is 5’11”, 195lbs. That’s not very big but these guys are typically some of the fastest players on their teams. So, what they lack in size they make-up for in speed; however, a speed advantage is only as valuable as your ball skills, and lacking height hurts.
“Out of the 169 cornerbacks who were on NFL rosters as of last Tuesday (September 2012), only 53 of them were 6-0 or taller.” – National Football Post
Being sub-six-feet tall going up against someone like a Calvin Johnson at 6’5″, 240lbs. isn’t what you’d call a favorable match-up. To expect the average cornerback to defend him well isn’t realistic and this has played out on the field with Johnson becoming an absolute superstar in the last few years. Now granted, they don’t call him Megatron for nothing – the guy is a freak – but more and more the size discrepancy is what is really hurting pass defenses. You can’t double-team everyone all the time.
The fact of the matter is that the vast majority of 6’3″+, 215lbs. players aren’t being steered toward being cover corners. If they’re choosing defense over the glitz and big money of offense they’re either a hard-hitting safety that can’t cover or … well, not on defense at all. Especially at that size and bigger, the players lack the agility and speed, mostly the agility, to cover to the degree that is needed. These bigger guys can’t turn their hips in coverage as quickly as they need to the bigger they are, which is why there are so few of them that are successful in the corner spot.
It’s much the same as what we’re seeing with the quarterback position – Cam Newton, RGIII, Colin Kaepernick, and even Vick as one of the first ones, are getting faster, smarter (not always), and developing stronger, more accurate arms. This has been discussed and covered by the media at great length during this year’s playoffs, yet it’s astonishing they haven’t yet taken a closer look at how evolving other positions could be changing the game. Instead, the quarterback infatuation has continued, but with the injury suffered by RGIII perhaps the evolution of the quarterback isn’t as wide spread and, more importantly, smart as the media would like us to believe.
The Seahawks seem to be the only team developing bigger, faster, stronger corners and it’s a model more teams need to adopt instead of focusing so much on how mobile their quarterback is or could be. Yes, it’s difficult to find players in this mold that still have all of the key features of a good corner but they are out there. It really just comes down to the team making a commitment to addressing it in the right way.
The two Seahawk corners here are Richard Sherman (6’3″) and Brandon Browner (6’4″). This isn’t to say that just because they’re big they will be more successful, but I sure do like my chances better with two young and tall corners back there covering the two best pass-catching threats the other team has than someone that’s 5’11”. Teams will say it’s hard to find these big guys but Seattle did it through the draft, not free agency. It’s further proof that the modern NFL player is evolving. Even as they change it’s still on the teams to apply these big bodies in the appropriate spots and in the right schemes.
Surely, entering this season no one thought we’d be pointing to the Seahawks as a blueprint for how to do anything right (Screw you, Pete) but here we are. The bigger corner may not be feasible for every team in the league given there are so few but if more teams aren’t looking at how to get bigger at the position they’re going to get left behind.
We have the pleasure of seeing this theory in motion this weekend as the Seahawks take on the Falcons in the divisional round of the playoffs. This game will pit Sherman and Browner against arguably the best wide receiver tandem in the game in Julio Jones and Roddy White, two fast, agile big bodied receivers that pose a threat to opposing defenses whenever they step on the field. These match-ups will certainly pose a huge challenge for the two cornerbacks and it’s something we’re all looking forward to watching. It may prove out to be the truest test these two corners have been faced with this season, and how they perform can and most certainly should set the tone for how the position is viewed and cultivated across the league for years to come.
Follow Ryan on Twitter at @ryanlack