Hall of Famer: Cardinals rookie could be 'great'

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

Pro Football Hall of Famer Darrell Green knows a great cover cornerback when he sees one, and he thinks he sees one wearing No. 29 for the Arizona Cardinals.

As endorsements go, this one trumps anything the Cardinals or anyone else might offer for Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, the player Arizona coaches and players call "DRC."

"I think he's going to be one of the great ones for a long time," Green said by phone Wednesday.

Green would know. A seven-time Pro Bowl choice in 20 seasons with the Washington Redskins, he first worked with Rodgers-Cromartie before the lithe young cornerback's senior season at Tennessee State. Green's close friend and former Redskins teammate, Tim Johnson, grew up with Rodgers-Cromartie's father, Stanley Cromartie. The connection helped lead Rodgers-Cromartie to the training sessions Green holds for aspiring corners.

"My philosophy in training these kids is to help them understand the man-to-man concepts and develop the skills, the feet and the mentality to be able to take on a receiver one-on-one with no help," Green said.

The concept is increasingly foreign in the NFL, where zone schemes such as Cover 2 have become the prescribed remedy for rules changes that have opened up passing games. Few corners have the skills to hold up consistently well in the current environment.

But when the Cardinals drew up their game plan for containing the Carolina Panthers' Steve Smith, arguably the most dynamic receiver in the league, they placed much of the burden on their rookie corner. The luxury helped them contain other aspects of the Panthers' offense, including their third-ranked rushing attack. Smith wasn't a factor until late in the game, after the Cardinals had built a comfortable lead.

Next up for Rodgers-Cromartie: A likely date with the Philadelphia Eagles' DeSean Jackson in the NFC Championship Game. The experience against Smith should help ease any misgivings.

"I'm going to be honest, when I first heard I had Steve Smith, you talk about butterflies -- I had them," Rodgers-Cromartie told reporters Wednesday. "As I watch film on this man, I see him turn a screen into a touchdown, or fighting for deep balls and jumping over guys that are 6-2 or 6-3, I didn't know if I was ready."

The admission seemed paradoxical, for Rodgers-Cromartie is supremely confident in his physical abilities. After practice Wednesday, he renewed a standing offer to challenge any teammate in a 40-yard footrace. There were no takers. Scouts have clocked Rodgers-Cromartie at 4.29 seconds in the 40, the type of time generally associated with smaller, more muscular athletes.

Rodgers-Cromartie stands 6-foot-2. He weighs about 185 pounds. Athletes with frames that long and lean generally lack the explosive traits needed to excel at cornerback.

"This guy was a long, leggy athlete that had a tremendous amount of suddenness to him," said Steve Keim, the Cardinals' director of college scouting. "His downfield speed was rare, to say the least. His ball skills, anticipation and playmaking ability with the ball in his hands is uncanny. Those guys are impossible to find."

The only question in scouts' eyes was whether Rodgers-Cromartie could transfer his game from the NCAA Division I-AA level to the NFL. Rodgers-Cromartie eased those concerns with a strong showing at Senior Bowl practices in Mobile, Ala.

The Cardinals drafted him with the 16th overall choice. Defensive backs coach Teryl Austin knew what he had from the beginning, but the plan was to bring along Rodgers-Cromartie slowly at first.

Coach Ken Whisenhunt waited until Week 9 before naming the rookie a starter for good. The approach paid off. Rodgers-Cromartie has picked off six passes in his last nine games, including one in each playoff victory. He returned an interception 99 yards for a touchdown against the St. Louis Rams. He set up another return touchdown by blocking a field goal against the Minnesota Vikings.

Rodgers-Cromartie blocked three field goal tries and one extra point attempt during his senior season at Tennessee State. Few possess the quickness and length needed to block extra points from around the edge.

"He is so lightning quick," Keim
said. "His movement on a frame like that is really rare."

The Cardinals' veteran defensive backs have pushed Rodgers-Cromartie to rely upon more than that uncommon athletic ability. Austin, a former defensive back at Pitt, and Pro Bowl safety Adrian Wilson reportedly challenged the rookie after discovering a notebook heavy on doodle sketches and light on meeting notes.

"He is eager to learn," said Ralph Brown, the Cardinals' veteran nickel corner. "You see the phenomenal things he is doing now, you put one, two, three years under his belt, he is a Pro Bowl corner. He is Pro Bowl-caliber now, I think."

To the point that the Cardinals' Pro Bowl receivers, Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin, sometimes have trouble against him in practice.

"Larry sometimes has a hard time with Dominique because Dominique can jump just as high as Larry can and there are not too many corners who can jump as high as he can," Brown said. "He is rangy. He can run as fast as anyone on the field and he can jump as high or as far as anyone. It's awesome to watch him as a rookie coming out of a small school. He has the confidence that no one can catch this ball."

Green, honored as part of the most recent Hall of Fame class, was a rookie in 1983 when the Redskins advanced to the Super Bowl. He earned a Pro Bowl berth for the first time the following season.

Can Rodgers-Cromartie do the same?

"You must continue to strive for the moon and that kid has that kind of mentality," Green said. "Champ Bailey has that type of mentality. I had that kind of mentality. That is what is really driving this kid and he is not going to sit on his laurels. That kid will be back on the grind, focusing on strengthening and enhancing what he has."