Receivers keep getting bigger in the NFL. So cornerbacks have to also.
That helps explain Kevin King, the Green Bay Packers’ top pick in this year’s draft, general manager Ted Thompson’s pick at No. 33 overall.
King measured at 6-feet-3 on the nose at the NFL scouting combine. While the Packers have favored taller cornerbacks since Ron Wolf took over as general manager in November 1991, height like King’s at that position in Green Bay still is a rarity.
Since Day 1 on the job, Wolf placed a minimum height requirement at cornerback of 5-10½. It has been in the Packers’ scouting system since, and while 5-10½ is OK, the Packers generally have been in the camp that taller is better.
In fact, when the Packers have ignored that minimum, they've bombed.
As far as I can remember, the only time Wolf did was with his first draft pick with the Packers, Terrell Buckley in 1992. Buckley, who was 5-foot-10, was the No. 5 pick overall but lasted only three seasons in Green Bay.
And Mike Sherman did it once as well, when he drafted Ahmad Carroll (5-9⅝) in the first round in 2004. Carroll was an unmitigated bust.
So drawing that line probably is a good idea. You might miss on the occasional good or even great small cornerback, but you’ll make fewer mistakes in the long run.
But on the other end of the scale, the Packers in the last 25 years, and really historically, haven’t gone for the super-tall cornerback, either.
There was Michael Hawthorne (listed at 6-3, though he measured 6-2⅞ at the scouting combine) in 2004 and Forey Duckett (listed at 6-3) in 1993-94. Neither did much. Hawthorne started seven games over two seasons with the Packers; Duckett played in three games total.
Before that, you have to go back to Hise Austin, an eighth-round draft pick in 1973 who was listed at 6-3 and played for them as a rookie before moving on to the CFL.
And before that was one of the best defensive backs in team history, Irv Comp, who might have hit the 6-3 mark, though that’s open to question. “The Football Encyclopedia” lists Comp as 6-2, but Eric Goska, an unofficial Packers historian, lists him at 6-3 in his definitive year-by-year reference book “Green Bay Packers: A Measure of Greatness.”
Comp is the Packers’ single-season interceptions leader with 10 (in 10 games) in 1943. He played in an era when defensive backs had less defined roles, so he can’t really be called a safety or cornerback. Essentially, he was both.
And now, the Packers have a cornerback in King who’s at least as tall as those men in an NFL where passing dominates like it never has before. The game has been evolving to taller receivers over the last 20 years, and cornerbacks need to catch up to compete.
The average receiver at the NFL scouting combine going back to 1999, according to data compiled by MockDraftable.com, is 6-0¾; the average cornerback is 5-11¼. That 1½-inch difference is a lot when it comes to competing for passes, especially with today’s restrictions on jamming and hitting receivers.
Richard Sherman’s success with the Seattle Seahawks has been the prime example that extra-tall corners can thrive in today’s game even if he is an exception.
Sherman, who actually measured at 6-2⅝ at the combine, has been first-team All-Pro three times. And there’s 6-3½ Sean Smith, who in 2016 received $20 million guaranteed to sign with the Oakland Raiders.
Smaller cornerbacks have been in vogue because they naturally are quicker and more explosive flipping their hips to turn and run when a receiver makes his move. When contact is limited, that’s crucial. Sherman compensates with his height, arm length (32 inches) and skills playing the ball (he was a receiver his first two years in college).
Whether King has the ball skills and intangibles to be a good cornerback in the NFL, we’ll see in the next few seasons. But his physical testing shows he’s a different kind of athlete. King significantly outperformed Sherman in the 40 (4.43 seconds to Sherman’s 4.56), short shuttle (3.89 seconds to 4.33) and three cone (6.56 seconds to 6.82). Their verticals (King 39½ inches, Sherman 38) were comparable.
“(King is a) better athlete,” said a scout who works for a team in Seattle’s NFC West. “Faster. Richard doesn’t run like this kid. Richard is a technician. … This kid is explosive, blew it away at the combine. I thought he had the best workout of all of them, of all the participants.
“I’m not talking about (receiver John Ross) running fast, I’m talking about the whole thing, skill workout, shuttles, the whole thing. He did the complete workout and blew me away.”
Measureables and testing matter, that’s why NFL teams conduct the combine. But that alone doesn’t make a good football player. Sherman has been one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL for several seasons. The Packers can only hope King will become as good.