Inching up draft boards
In a league smitten with oversized corners, Pierre Desir rises above the rest
This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's May 12 NFL Draft Issue. Subscribe today!
SHOULD YOU EVER find yourself on a municipal sewer-line-cleaning team, Pierre Desir has some advice. "You have to time it just right," the cornerback says. "Timing is everything."
You see, the first crewmen to hop off the truck at a work site are the most likely to end up spelunking beneath the street, manually tugging out whatever is clogging the line, be it tree limbs, animal carcasses or good old-fashioned sewage. Same for the squeamish who take the tack of unloading too slowly. Hiding makes one an easy target for hazing.
"You don't want to be one of those guys. Trust me, because I've been those guys," Desir says, shaking his head, reflecting on just one of the many odd jobs he's had to work to support his family of four while also playing football and attending classes. "No, you want to time it out so that you end up being one of the guys up top with the cleaning truck." He pauses and smiles, recognizing he's now speaking to something much bigger than wadded-up waterworks. Then he reiterates: "Timing is everything."
That was Desir's subterranean life three years ago, back when he was a newlywed, a near-broke father of two -- and an anonymous small-school defensive back sidelined without a scholarship. But as he steps to the starting line at his pro day on a mid-March afternoon, that all seems like eons ago. The NFL scouts standing 40 yards away man their stopwatches with shivering fingers, knuckles blasted into rigor by the wind blowing off the Missouri River. "OK, kid!" one shouts. "We're out here at Lindenberg College in the winter wind just to see you! Prove that we aren't crazy!"
Actually, it's Lindenwood University, thank you very much -- a Division II school in St. Charles, Mo. And this, unsurprisingly, is its first pro day. So while Jadeveon Clowney and Johnny Manziel worked out in front of dozens of scouts live on SportsCenter, it's perhaps more impressive that Desir has managed to lure eight NFL evaluators representing five teams to Harlen C. Hunter Stadium. "We could all be somewhere else today," one scout says. "But on Super Bowl Sunday, we saw the future of football, how all defensive backs in this league are eventually going to look. And they look like Pierre Desir."
What the scout means by "look" is, in fact, "look tall." Over the cornerback's four years of college ball, his 6-foot-1 frame helped him grab 25 interceptions. It now helps him stand out among a corner crop top-heavy with small speedsters. In a league suddenly obsessed with lanky defensive backs, Desir has even sneaked into the second round of Mel Kiper's Mock Draft 4.0. How's that for timing.
"People buying into a kid like that, even looking at a kid like that, that's actually the story of a bigger conversion that's happening all over football," says Tony Dungy, longtime NFL coach and godfather of the game-changing, DB-centric Tampa 2 defense. "Everybody's looking into big corners now. They'll look anywhere and everywhere for them."
Even St. Charles.
ST. CHARLES IS where Desir was raised, and it's where he finished his college career. So that's where he was the night of Feb. 2. Surrounded by friends and family (as is his norm; he's a gregarious sort), he was drawn to the edge of his chair as the Broncos' record-breaking offense was bogged down and ultimately broken in Super Bowl XLVIII. And while most fans focused on the shell-shocked sideline looks of Peyton Manning and his supersized receivers, Desir was locked in on the men shutting that troop down. "Every time those guys made a play, I wanted to jump up out of my chair and cheer," he says of the Seahawks corners. "I was saying, 'There you go, fellas, sell them on some big guys!'"
The Super Bowl was the final, very public payoff of a defensive experiment by Seattle coach Pete Carroll. Formerly a subscriber to the NFL's obsession with player specialization, Carroll openly enjoyed his nine years at USC, where he says he stopped overthinking players' roles and began adopting the "best 11 athletes on the field" philosophy.
That creative looseness followed him back to the NFL when he took over Seattle in 2010. He bought into Russell Wilson while others screamed that the quarterback was too short, and he also worked against convention at the corners. Sick of watching his teams get torched by increasingly humongous wide receivers, Carroll looked to plug in a pair of his own giants at corner. He went and got them in 2011, though clearly he wasn't ready to break the bank on the gamble. The Seahawks stole Sherman (6-3, 195) in the fifth round and found the discarded Brandon Browner (6-4, 221), undrafted in 2005, in the CFL.
"He started preaching press coverage to me as soon as I was drafted, and he called me on the phone for the first time," Sherman says. "He said, 'You can do both. You can play press, but you can also play man, that's why we drafted you,' and he told me I'd be doing both a lot as soon as I got to camp."
Doing both is the key; one without the other simply won't work. Carroll sermonizes on inside leverage, demanding that corners pummel receivers at the snap and funnel them to the middle of the field, where a host of pass-minded safeties and linebackers are waiting. For a quarterback, trying to find an open target in the resulting congestion is akin to threading a pass through Grand Central Terminal at rush hour. Ask Manning how that went. If the receivers do manage to get into outside routes, the safeties pick them up, allowing the corners to help on roadblocking the dinks and dunks. "It's about disrupting rhythm," Carroll explained during Seattle's Super Bowl run. "In a world built on three-step drop-and-throw quarterbacks, you want corners who can do anything and everything to break that up."
And so today, in St. Charles, the scouts are testing Desir on anything and everything ...
OK, Pierre, let's see you stand me up at this line. ... Boom!
OK, Pierre, let's see you stand me up at this line, then shed me and find Wes Welker in the middle of the field. ... Boom! Get back! Boom!
OK, Pierre, stand me up at this line, spot Welker, then find me again one-on-one downfield. ... Boom! Get back! Check him! Now go, go, go, the ball is in the air deep!
"To an outsider, that might make all the sense in the world to just go get bigger, stronger corners," says ESPN analyst Eric Allen, a six-time Pro Bowl defensive back who stands 5-10 (maybe). "But the philosophy has always been that speed and fluidity, even in smaller packages, are how you play one-on-one pass defense. What's happened over the last two years is a real departure from that. Honestly, I don't know if these guys even existed 10 years ago. Now they do. But you have to dig for them."
Digging for -- and cashing in on -- such prospects has its benefits. According to Pro Football Focus, quarterbacks completed 69 percent of their passes against non-press coverage in 2013. That number dipped nearly 20 percentage points when the defense played press. And with Sherman and Browner, the numbers are even more stark: They allowed 10 passing TDs combined the past two seasons, only two of which came when pressing, which they did 46.3 percent of the time.
"Every football idea is only as good or bad as the players who have been asked to execute it," Dungy says. "Get the right player and suddenly you have the right idea."
SO IS DESIR that player? Only time will tell. But time has been his ally so far. He and his parents fled revolution-torn Haiti in 1994, arriving in St. Louis a year before the Rams relocated from Los Angeles and made the region football-crazy. Even more serendipitous? Desir's transfer from his first school, Washburn University. After he and high school sweetheart Morgan decided child care for their two daughters was too daunting, Desir moved back home and enrolled at Lindenwood. Unhappy to lose its all-MIAA corner to a conference rival, Washburn refused to release him from his scholarship. But the season Desir was forced to sit out, unclogging sewers and repairing roofs, happened to be the same season that Carroll launched his Browner-Sherman test balloon. And their success sent scouts here, to tiny St. Charles, where Desir's story and demeanor quickly created a fan base among those who are paid to be brutally honest and heartlessly cold. Standing on the EnviroTurf field at Hunter Stadium, these scouts are merely cold -- physically cold.
When Desir posts a 38-inch vertical -- three inches higher than he did at the combine -- they shower him with attaboys. They even give him a second pass at the 40 after the wind slices through his first; he shaves a 4.59 down to a 4.5. "We're not in the business of rooting for kids, but when you know what we all know about this one, it's easy to do," one rep says, scribbling down notes en route to his rental car. "Wherever he lands, I'm a Desir fan."
"That's great to hear," Desir says later, absorbing the compliment with a measured satisfaction. Then he pauses for the punch line -- his timing, as always, impeccable. "But it doesn't hurt to be 6-foot-1 either."
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