Dolphins among clubs supersizing cornerbacks

DAVIE, Fla. -- In a land of munchkins, Randy Moss and Terrell Owens -- already giants in their field -- stand even taller.

Towering receivers make it seem so easy when they leap into the air and come down with the ball for a touchdown. They're tall. They can sky. They're often unchallenged.

The NFL has enough short cornerbacks to fill a forest of Keebler trees. That's the way it has been for years. By football standards, the cornerbacks are uncommonly good for men standing 5 foot 8 or 5 foot 9. You won't see quarterbacks or linebackers that size. Or punters, for that matter.

Cornerbacks are wiry bundles of fast-twitch muscles. What they give up in physicality they compensate with zippiness and vertical leaps.

But cornerback size has become an issue in some front offices.

Teams, including the Miami Dolphins, have made an effort to grow. There's a greater emphasis being placed on matching up physically, whether it be on jump balls in the end zone or press coverage at the line of scrimmage.

"When you have 6-5 against 5-8, you have some discrepancies there," Dolphins secondary coach Todd Bowles said.

Cornerbacks have experienced an acute growth spurt in recent years.

The Elias Sports Bureau found that 31 percent of cornerbacks who started at least eight games in 2004 were listed at 6 feet or taller.

Last year, the number was 41 percent.

No regular starter was taller than 6 foot 2 last year, but the four listed at that height were Nnamdi Asomugha, Antonio Cromartie, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Ike Taylor. So that's the best in the business (Asomugha), the 2007 interception leader (Cromartie), a top rookie last year (Rodgers-Cromartie) and two Super Bowl starters (Rodgers-Cromartie, Taylor).

In previewing the 2006 draft, ESPN's John Clayton noted there also were four 6-foot-2 starting cornerbacks the year before. That quartet was considerably less impressive: Julian Battle, Gary Baxter, Mike Rumph and Andre Woolfolk.

Apparently, finer tall athletes are playing the position now.

"The receivers are getting a lot bigger, the Calvin Johnsons, Randy Mosses and Terrell Owenses of the world," said Bowles, who played eight seasons at safety for the Washington Redskins and San Francisco 49ers. "You can get a 5-8, 180-pound corner with all the quickness and skill in the world, but you get third-and-2, third-and-3, the [receivers are] running slants and pushing them out of the way and bodying them out in the red zone."

In Clayton's story from 2006, he quoted then-Tennessee Titans general manager Floyd Reese as saying the "optimum height [for a cornerback] is about 5-11." Reese cited a 10-year study that suggested taller cornerbacks don't last as long because they tend to be more physical.

Reese, now a senior football adviser with the New England Patriots, has watched his new club grow at cornerback. This offseason, the Patriots traded 5-foot-9 starter Ellis Hobbs and picked up 6-foot Shawn Springs and 6-foot-1 Leigh Bodden.

Elsewhere in the AFC East, the New York Jets have 6-foot Pro Bowler Darrelle Revis and 5-foot-10 Lito Sheppard. The Buffalo Bills have the shortest projected starters. Terrence McGee is listed at 5 foot 9, and Leodis McKelvin at 5 foot 10. But free-agent acquisition Drayton Florence is 6 feet tall.

The Dolphins were concerned with their size at cornerback even before the Bills welcomed Owens to the AFC East.

The Dolphins sometimes felt overmatched last year against a series of big receivers: Moss, Larry Fitzgerald, Andre Johnson, Brandon Marshall and Dwayne Bowe.

Miami kept Marshall and Bowe in check, but surrendered 153 yards to Fitzgerald, 178 yards to Johnson and 125 yards and three touchdowns to Moss.

"You better have some big, strong people that can compete against these guys," Dolphins head coach Tony Sparano said, "because they're big, strong, physical receivers that can take over a game in those situations. I think that you need to be prepared when you're playing against them."

Miami's starting cornerbacks last year were

Will Allen and Andre' Goodman. Both are listed at 5 foot 10, an inch below the league average for an NFL starter.

Goodman departed via free agency. The Dolphins signed Eric Green, a 5-foot-11 former Arizona Cardinal, and selected two more corners early in the draft. They chose Vontae Davis (5 foot 11) of Illinois in the first round and Sean Smith (6 foot 3) of Utah in the second round.

"We like big corners," Sparano said. "In fact, we'll take smaller corners in some situations off the [draft] board, and they might just be good players for other people, just maybe not for us."

Smith received first-team reps at right corner during organized team activities.

"It definitely makes it more difficult for receivers to catch the ball and ball placement for quarterbacks," Smith said. "With my reach and size, you definitely have to keep the ball away from me. With that in my mind, my size helps me out a lot."

Sparano's former team, the Dallas Cowboys, is among those not motivated to get taller at cornerback.

The Cowboys, in fact, have gotten shorter. They traded Anthony Henry and moved Alan Ball to safety. Each is listed at 6-foot-1.

"Our top three corners right now are 5-10 or less, and we're pretty satisfied with that because they all can run," Cowboys assistant secondary coach Brett Maxie said. "They all can play the ball down the field, and they're physical."

Maxie noted the NFC East doesn't have the same physical receivers to worry about as other divisions, especially now that the New York Giants have ejected Plaxico Burress.

"We face faster, smaller guys," said Maxie, who played safety for 13 years in the NFL. "You've got to be able to match up with those guys. You can't sit there and press all day. You've got to be able to play off, react quickly, change it up.

"Some teams would rather go after a tougher 5-foot-9 corner that can play Cover 2 and jam and tackle and be physical at the point of attack rather than go out and get a 6-foot corner who's a cover guy and not real physical."

Maxie also explained the taller a cornerback is, the more difficulty he will have recovering when beat at the line. Once the receiver gets a step, it's tougher for a defender with size to quickly change direction and cover him.

"If you go out and get that bigger corner, he better be able to press at the line of scrimmage," Maxie said. "Secondly, he's got to be able to run."

Those players are difficult to find, but they're out there. One team has two of them. Green Bay Packers cornerbacks Al Harris and Charles Woodson are 6 foot 1 each and made the Pro Bowl last year.

The Dolphins are confident bigger will be better for them.

"You probably lose a little bit of niftiness, but speed and physicalness makes up for that," Bowles said. "With the receivers as big as they are nowadays, you don't see the niftiness in them anymore anyways. That's why we thought it was important."