When he was the Chiefs’ head coach, Marty Schottenheimer was fond of saying a team can never have enough good cornerbacks.
Nowadays, an NFL team can’t have enough big cornerbacks.
With colleges churning out bigger and stronger targets, and NFL teams running so many multiple wide receiver sets, there’s a premium on defenses matching up against the likes of super-sized receivers such as Calvin Johnson, Andre Johnson, Demaryius Thomas and Brandon Marshall with tall, rangy corners.
The Seattle Seahawks established the template, and won the Super Bowl by deploying tall cornerbacks like 6-foot-3 Richard Sherman and 6-1 Byron Maxwell and extra backs Jeremy Lane and Walter Thurmond, both 5-11. The Seahawks played press man-to-man coverage supported by a powerful pass rush and led the NFL with 28 interceptions.
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Seattle coach Pete Carroll began the process in 2011 by drafting Sherman, a converted wide receiver, in the fifth round and signing 6-4 Brandon Browner out of the Canadian Football League.
Sherman led the NFL with eight interceptions last season in addition to his ballyhooed shutdown of the 49ers’ Michael Crabtree in the NFC championship game. Though Browner was suspended for the final eight games and postseason last year for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy, the New England Patriots scooped him up in free agency.
“Everybody would like to get longer, taller guys that run 4.4, but there are just not very many humans like that in the world,” Carroll said before the 2014 draft. “So it’s rare when you find them, and then you have to develop the guys. You have to make those guys come to life in your coaching.”
The NFL, being the copycat league that it is, made tall cornerbacks a priority in the 2014 draft.
In the first round, five cornerbacks were selected, and four were 5-foot-11 or taller, starting with Cleveland taking 6-foot Justin Gilbert of Oklahoma State with the eighth overall pick. Gilbert, who had 12 career interceptions, is projected as the starting right cornerback opposite 5-11 Pro Bowler Joe Haden.
Also in the first round, Chicago took Kyle Fuller, a 6-footer from Virginia Tech, with the 14th overall pick; the Bengals selected 5-11 Darqueze Dennard of Michigan State with the 24th pick; and Denver used the 31st pick for 5-11 Bradley Roby of Ohio State.
The one exception to the rule in the first round was San Diego, which took 5-9 Jason Verrett of TCU with the 25th pick, but he compensates for lack of height with a 39-inch vertical leap.
The Chiefs are going with more height in the secondary as well. They selected 6-1 Phillip Gaines of Rice in the third round. Gaines’ size — and 4.4 speed — were factors in the Chiefs’ drafting him and subsequently releasing 5-9 veteran Brandon Flowers.
“He has all the physical dimensions we ask for in a corner,” Chiefs general manager John Dorsey said of Gaines. “He’s long, he’s fast, and he has long arms. “
Gaines will join a cornerback corps that includes 6-3 Sean Smith, who started 15 games after signing as an unrestricted free agent last year; and 6-2 Marcus Cooper and 6-0 Ron Parker, who were signed by the Chiefs at the start of the 2013 season after Cooper was released by San Francisco and Parker by the Seahawks.
The premium on tall corners was evident in free agency as well.
Besides signing Browner, the Patriots added 5-11 Darrelle Revis, a five-time Pro Bowler, though they lost Aqib Talib to Denver. Talib, 6-1, will step in for 6-2 Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, who signed with the Giants, along with Thurmond of the Seahawks.
The Seahawks didn’t waste any time replacing Thurmond and Browner. They signed journeyman Phillip Adams, a 6-footer, from Oakland; and drafted Eric Pinkins, a 6-3 safety from San Diego State in the sixth round with the intention of converting him to corner.
And, they have Tharold Simon, a fifth-round pick in 2013 out of LSU, who finished his rookie season on injured reserve. He’s 6-foot-3. Just the way the Seahawks like ‘em at corner.
Standing tall on the corner
These five cornerbacks measure up when matching up against the NFL’s top wide receivers.
Richard Sherman, Seahawks: What can be said about Sherman that the loquacious Seahawk hasn’t already said about himself? But Sherman, 6-3 and 195 pounds, backed up his braggadocio by becoming the best shutdown corner in the NFL. He has intercepted 20 passes in his three NFL seasons, and sent the Seahawks to the Super Bowl when he broke up a last-second pass intended for San Francisco’s Michael Crabtree in the NFC championship game.
Aqib Talib, Broncos: Talib, 6-1, 205, was his own worst enemy early in his career because of numerous off-field issues that led Tampa Bay to dump for the former Kansas star. Talib resurrected his career in two years in New England’s complicated scheme, and his game-ending injury in the AFC championship game allowed the Denver Broncos to exploit the Patriots defense. Denver signed Talib to a monster free-agent contract, and he’ll replace another tall corner, 6-2 Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, who moved on to the Giants.
Darrelle Revis, Patriots: There’s a reason they call it Revis Island, and that’s because Revis, 5-11, 198, has the ability to isolate wide receivers and make them disappear from offensive game plans. Revis was a poor fit for new coach Lovie Smith at Tampa Bay, which last year traded first-and third-round picks to the Jets for the five-time Pro Bowler. Revis made a successful recovery from a devastating knee injury suffered in 2012, and if he approaches his form of 2009 when voted AFC defensive player of the year, he should thrive mugging receivers in Bill Belichick’s system as a replacement for Talib.
Patrick Peterson, Cardinals: There may be no better pure athlete manning the corner in the NFL than Peterson, 6-1, 219, who has exceptional ball skills that have produced 12 interceptions in three seasons since he was taken with the fifth pick of the 2011 draft. Peterson, a Pro Bowler in all three of his NFL seasons, doesn’t just stick to one side of the field. He takes on the opponent’s top wide receiver and is redefining the art of shutdown corner.
Joe Haden, Browns: Haden, 5-11, 190, may be the best cornerback no one knows because he’s played on such awful teams in Cleveland. But Haden, the seventh overall pick in the 2010 draft, was voted to his first Pro Bowl in 2013 and has 13 interceptions in four seasons. Haden is an aggressive, in your-face cornerback who intimidates receivers and forces quarterbacks into mistakes.