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Published: Monday, 4/18/2005

Turning the corner into new position

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

There is a contradiction at cornerback.

Some experts feel their role in the National Football League has diminished because of the rule prohibiting contact with receivers more than five yards off the line of scrimmage.

On the flip side, the top 10 cornerbacks averaged a higher salary last season than did the top 10 quarterbacks. Those numbers should not be surprising considering the free-agent contracts that recently went to corners like Samari Rolle, Gary Baxter and Fred Smoot. The average free-agent contract for a cornerback was more than that for a wide receiver.

So it remains very much a premium position.

What has changed is the perception of what a cornerback should be.

For many years, pro teams liked big corners, guys who could jostle with tall receivers, guys who could tackle as well as cover. The prototype corner was 6-2 or 6-3 with good, but not blazing speed.

"Some people think that with the emphasis on the contact rule, teams will play more zone and less man-to-man," said Rich McKay, the general manager of the Atlanta Falcons. "I don't think that's necessarily the case. We're still going to see single coverages. But what [the contact rule] might do is have an effect on the kind of cornerback teams look for."

That's why 5-9 1/2 Adam "Pac Man" Jones from West Virginia has moved to the top of the cornerback list for next weekend's NFL college draft.

Instead of coveting cornerbacks who have the size to re-direct a receiver's routes, NFL teams are focusing more on corners who have the bump-and-run ability to press cover at the line of scrimmage, great speed, and quick back-pedaling skills to hang in on deep routes.

Jones has all of those skills, plus the strength to deal with receivers, regardless of size, when the ball arrives.

He may be the best in a draft that is well stocked with new-breed corners.

Antrel Rolle, who most draft observers see as a coin-flip choice with Jones, is from the University of Miami and checks in at 6-0, 201 pounds. Carlos Rogers of Auburn is 6-0 1/2, 196. LSU's Corey Webster is 6-0, 199. Marlin Jackson of Michigan is 6-0 1/2, 192.

McKay is co-chair of the NFL Competition Committee which, a year ago, mandated tighter enforcement of the contact rule as a means of opening up passing attacks. The game officials did their part as flags flew feverishly through the first several weeks of the season until defenses started to believe they were serious.

Some teams responded by playing far more zone defense.

Still, said McKay, "There are times when cornerbacks are going to be on an island, so you'd better have good ones. The trait of being able to grab, hold, turn and throw [receivers] to the ground has been devalued."

Now it's all speed as corners are called upon to use their quickness to negate wide receivers' size advantage.

"I don't think it will be a major adjustment," Rolle said at the NFL Scouting Combine when asked about the contact rule. "I try to do my damage at the line of scrimmage, then I run with the receiver."

With the draft so well stocked with new-breed, bump-and-run corners, as many as five or six could go in the first round.

The Detroit Lions are looking in that direction with the No. 10 pick, and in the unlikely event either Jones or Rolle are still available it might be tempting for Matt Millen and Steve Mariucci.

A team without a so-called lock-down corner had best have a world-beating pass rush with a foolproof package of blitzes.

Some do. The New England Patriots, for example, won another Super Bowl last season with a rookie free agent and a down-the-line draft pick manning the edges. Bill Belichick and Romeo Crennel, the ex-defensive coordinator who is now the head coach in Cleveland, were able to disguise blitzes that forced opposing quarterbacks to throw early or look for the dump-off so that great corner play wasn't mandatory.

Few teams have that efficient a rush or the coaching smarts to pull it off. That means at least one top-shelf cornerback is needed to stay with an opponent's best receiver and allow the rest of the pass coverage to roll elsewhere.

And it is why the new-breed corner, so well represented in this draft, should dominate first-day selections.

Contact Dave Hackenberg at: dhack@theblade.com or 419-724-6398.



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