INDIANAPOLIS -- The evolution of the NFL game, and the manner in which teams evaluate personnel at various positions, often results from alterations to the rules. And with the league having more closely enforced illegal contact penalties in the secondary during the 2004 season, with a dramatic increase in the number of infractions flagged, there could be a trickle-down effect here at the annual predraft combine workouts.
For years, the lament of defensive coordinators and secondary coaches was that the draft pool never featured enough bigger cornerback prospects, guys with the kind of physical dimensions requisite for matching up with the over 6-feet-tall wide receivers which are in such preponderance leaguewide. But now, with a pendulum swinging back toward the coverage players who can run deep and hang with a pass-catcher, rather than redirect the routes by muscling wide receivers, the taller corners may not be such a commodity.
"Some people think that, because of the emphasis on the contact rule, teams will play more zone [coverages] and we'll see less man-to-man," said Atlanta Falcons general manager Rich McKay, co-chairman of the influential competition committee, which last year recommended tighter enforcement in the secondary to help open up the passing game. "That's not necessarily the case. We're still going to see 'single' coverages. What it might do is have an effect on the kind of cornerback you look for."
Which is why a cornerback like Adam "Pacman" Jones of West Virginia, who is very solidly constructed but checks in at only about 5-feet-10, now figures to emerge as the top prospect at his position.
Certainly Jones lacks the "length" that teams have been seeking for the past several years. But he possesses incredible quickness, is ultra-aggressive in coverage, and seems thick enough through his upper body to not be overwhelmed by bigger wideouts.
On the flipside, cornerback Brandon Browner of Oregon State, who measured 6-2¾ and 221 pounds on Sunday, might suddenly be a tad devalued. While he possesses what most scouts would consider prototype size, talent evaluators are curious about Browner's speed in the 40, and even he conceded he has been running in the 4.53 range in preparation for the combine.
There is no lack of irony in the fact that the 2005 draft class might actually include the kind of 6-foot cornerbacks scouts have coveted -- players such as Antrel Rolle (Miami), Corey Webster (LSU), Bryant McFadden (Florida State), Carlos Rogers (Auburn) and Ronald Bartell (Howard) -- but that the league's emphasis on the illegal contact rule will now place their quickness and overall athletic ability under more scrutiny.
Make no mistake, given that cornerback remains a premium position (it now carries the largest qualifying offer for a veteran "franchise" player), several of the bigger cover guys will still be first-round selections. But Jones, even though he is two inches shorter than most teams would prefer, could be the premier guy.
"Yeah, the fact is, your corners better be able to run with people, because the days of just getting your hands on a wide receiver and throwing him around, well, they're over," said Arizona Cardinals defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast. "If you don't have that type of corner, you'd better be able to scheme around the deficiencies. Obviously, in a perfect world, you would have a 6-feet-tall corner who could run with the fastest receivers. But it's not a perfect world, is it?"
Maybe not, but Jones is a player who, with his borderline cockiness, suggested Sunday that he might be the perfect fit for the way cornerbacks have to play now.
Reminded that cornerbacks in the NFL must now adhere to the five-yard rule, which means a defender can't touch a receiver once the potential pass-catcher is more than five yards into the secondary, Jones chuckled.
"Well, in those first five yards, I'm going to have a lot of touches," Jones said.
One of about 15-17 underclass draft prospects who figure to go off the board in the first round, Jones is probably the one cornerback in the 2005 draft class who could be among the top 10 players chosen. His stock has risen quickly and, given his kick return skills and overall excellence in every special teams area, he can help a club in a lot of ways.
On the matter of size, Jones noted that he has very good weightlifting numbers, and that he is strong through the hands, a prime attribute for a cornerback. The combination of quick hands and quick feet, he noted, allows him to still be physical with a wideout, even as he runs upfield with him. And Jones, who scouts agree is extremely competitive by nature, seems to actually play better against bigger wide receivers, because he can use his quickness advantage to get up on them.
Told that Jones' nickname came from how quickly he grabbed for the bottle when he was a baby, one NFC defensive coordinator noted: "He does everything quick."
While he has a air of the street about him, and there are some minor off-field issues on which interested teams will do their due diligence, Jones is a pretty charismatic player. And he certainly is a kid who overcame difficult times, growing up in the hardscrabble southwest Atlanta neighborhood, principally raised by his grandmother after his father left and his mother went to jail for two years on trafficking charges.
All but set to attend hometown Georgia Tech, he backed out of a commitment there when his grandmother, Christine Jones, was diagnosed with terminal cancer and given just five months to live.
"It was too tough to watch her just fade away, so I decided I had to get out of [Atlanta], and she urged me to do it," Jones said. "I had to get away. She was so important in my life and, even when I went to West Virginia, I talked to her every night and my coaches got on the phone with her, too. Even with her being passed now, I still think of her a lot, and she's still a motivation for me. When they call my name as the first cornerback on draft day, she's the one I'll be thinking about the most."
Around the combine
Matt Jones, the Arkansas quarterback who some teams project as a wide receiver in the NFL, opened eyes on Sunday with a pair of scintillating 40-yard times. The gargantuan Jones, who measured 6-feet-6 and 242 pounds when he checked in, was clocked at 4.40 and 4.37 by scouts. He ran effortlessly and, for a man so big, the times were amazing. Jones, who would prefer to play quarterback but realizes his NFL future will probably be at wideout or perhaps even tight end, had predicted on Saturday that he would run in the 4.4s or better and a few skeptics kidded him about that claim. After Sunday, a lot fewer people are going to doubt Jones when he tells them he can do something. Jones isn't going to be a first-round pick, and never was, but probably moved himself comfortably into the first three rounds now.
As noted here before the combine began, there is a group of tailbacks in the 2005 pool who won't be chosen in the first round, but who will be later-round bargains and enjoy very good NFL careers. One of those tailbacks is J.J. Arrington of the University of California, who ran 4.41 and 4.49 in the 40 on Saturday afternoon. Arrington is a very compact back, shorter than 5-feet-9, but is powerfully built and, obviously, pretty quick. He led the nation in rushing in 2004, Arizona Cardinals coach Dennis Green pointed out, and has nice balance and vision. He won't crack the tailback "Big Three" of Ronnie Brown and "Cadillac" Williams of Auburn or Texas' Cedric Benson, but some team is going to get a very good back in around the second round. Another smaller back to watch is Darren Sproles of Kansas State, who was so quick out of the blocks in the 40 that the scouts monitoring the event made him start over because they couldn't hit the stopwatch fast enough.
The knee injury sustained by Nebraska center Richie Incognito on Saturday afternoon in a simple pass-block drill doesn't not appear as serious as initially feared. While combine officials did not release information on the injury, Incognito was walking around Sunday with only a slight limp and his knee wrapped. Incognito went down in a heap Saturday as he tried to "mirror" another lineman while moving laterally. Before the injury, he posted a 4.90 time in the 40, the best of any of the offensive line prospects.
Sometimes when a school has two prospects at the same position, it is the lesser-known of the players who emerges with the better NFL potential, and that appears to be the case with the two University of Georgia wideouts here. Certainly Fred Gibson is the better known of the two. But the former Bulldogs wideout who is opening more eyes, and who likely will go off the draft board much quicker on April 23, is Reggie Brown. In fact, there are some scouts who contend that, if he continues to progress, Brown might sneak into the bottom part of the first round. That might be a bit too high for him, but there is no doubt Brown is a player on the rise. He ran a 40 time on Sunday in the 4.53-second range but caught the ball very well and was pretty fluid in his routes. Scouts also love Brown's toughness and willingness to block downfield. He began his rise at the practices leading up to the Senior Bowl all-star game and has continued his positive momentum.
Quarterback Aaron Rodgers of the University of California, the possible first overall choice in this draft, claimed two days ago he would run in the 4.8 range. Turns out, he was a man of his word. Rodgers was unofficially timed at 4.80 and 4.71 in the 40 on Sunday, very good times for the quarterback position.
In an earlier combine notebook, it was suggested that LSU defensive end Marcus Spears might require arthroscopic surgery on his right knee to repair some minor damage that he suffered in his combine preparations. Turns out that Spears had the surgery two weeks ago, is well on his way to recovery, and that the procedure elicited no medical "red flags" from team doctors here. Spears, who checked in at 6-feet-4 and 307 pounds, perfect for the strongside end spot in a conventional 4-3 defense or for either end position in a 3-4 front, should be fully rehabilitated in time for his campus workout next month. Spears is not noted as a great pass-rusher, but can anchor against the run, and gets a little more push on the pocket that some people think.
At a time when a lot of the defensive end prospects here are suggesting they can also stand up in a two-point stance and get some snaps at linebacker in a 3-4 alignment, one guy who isn't looking for a hybrid role is Justin Tuck of Notre Dame. Tuck has nice "length" to him, at 6-feet-5 and 268 pounds, and with long arms, but clearly feels that he is best suited to play right end in a 4-3 defense. "I've played my whole career with my hand on the ground, rushing the quarterback from [a three-point] technique, and that's my game," said Tuck, projected by several teams as a first-rounder. "I'm aware that teams are looking for the all-around guy who can do a lot of things. But I think I've established what my strengths are and hope people evaluate me on those."
Just walking down the corridor that connects the Indiana Convention Center to the RCA Dome, former Georgia safety Thomas Davis made quite an impression on scouts Sunday. Davis is 6-feet-1 and a rock-solid 231 pounds, runs well, hits big, and fits the mold of the modern safety in the league. "I look at guys like Roy Williams [of Dallas] and that's my game," Davis said. "I'm kind of a combination linebacker and safety. I love to play close to the line of scrimmage, where I can lay people out. On third down, you can use me in coverage, bring me up inside on the blitz, whatever. I'm going to be a factor."
The last word
"I think there's a number of talented tight ends in the league and I'm sure they've opened the doors for the guys on the college level. They're not just used as blockers anymore. They're used a lot in the passing game in a number of different ways, and it makes our job fun to do." -- Heath Miller of the University of Virginia, the consensus top tight end prospect, on how the position has evolved now in the league
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here.