DeAngelo Hall and Larry Fitzgerald met more than a decade ago, when Hall was a standout cornerback at Virginia Tech and Fitzgerald an All-America wideout at Pitt, and they developed a friendship that continued in the NFL, where Fitzgerald was drafted third by the Cardinals in 2004 and Hall was taken five spots later by the Falcons. They've faced each other three times as pros, and Hall, now with the Redskins, has even worked out at Fitzgerald's off-season passing camp in Minneapolis. But it wasn't until last fall, when Hall was assigned to shadow Fitzgerald in a Week 2 showdown, that the cornerback had a revelation. Though Washington won 22--21 on a late comeback, Fitzgerald prevailed on the stat sheet, with 133 yards on seven catches, including a 73-yard stop-and-go for a score. Afterward the two met near midfield and posed for a picture. Hall saw the shot and couldn't believe it. "That was the first time I really realized how big he is," the 5'10", 195-pound Hall says of Fitzgerald, who's 6'3" and 218. "In the heat of the battle I don't pay attention to that kind of thing. But when I saw that I barely came to his shoulder pads, I sent him a text like, Damn, man! You're as big as s---."
Over the last decade NFL personnel experts have been on a quest for the supersized, superathletic receiver—and the cornerback who can match up with him. In 2001, only 11 full-time starting wideouts were 6'3" or taller, and Plaxico Burress at 6'5" was the only one over 6'4". Last season 20 starting wideouts measured 6'3" or taller, including four at 6'4" and six at 6'5". The biggest, in impact certainly, was the Lions' Calvin Johnson. Not for nothing did the 6'5", 236-pound All-Pro earn the nickname Megatron. He runs the 40 in 4.35 and has a 45-inch vertical leap, and his 82-inch wingspan allows him seemingly to catch a pass on the left sideline while standing on the right boundary. Last season quarterback Matthew Stafford routinely threw into double and triple coverage to exploit Johnson's physical advantage. The gambit paid off: Johnson led the league in receiving yards, with 1,681, and topped all wideouts with 16 touchdown grabs. "We're basically trying to cover power forwards with point guards when the ball gets down the field," says 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. "It's a problem, which is why everybody's looking for big, fast receivers."
That premium is reflected in recent drafts. Johnson, the second pick in 2007, is one of 14 receivers selected in the top 10 since '03; only four of those wideouts were smaller than 6'3". All three first-round receivers in '11 were 6'3" or taller: A.J. Green (fourth, Bengals), Julio Jones (sixth, Falcons) and Jonathan Baldwin (26th, Chiefs). The year before, Demaryius Thomas (6'3") and Dez Bryant (6'2") were the first receivers off the board, and in '05 the first four picks at the position were 6'3" Braylon Edwards, 6'1" Troy Williamson, 6'5" Mike Williams and 6'6" Matt Jones.
This year all but two of the top 10 prospects are 6'2" or taller. Notre Dame's Michael Floyd, Georgia Tech's Stephen Hill and South Carolina's Alshon Jeffrey, projected to be among the first five wideouts taken, are 6'3" or above. Justin Blackmon, the consensus No. 1 receiver, is 6'1" and 207 but plays bigger because of his physical style and 78½-inch wingspan.
The increased size and athleticism at the position is forcing teams to reevaluate their approach to drafting cornerbacks as well. Some now want corners who are at least 6 feet. "We're definitely getting to the point where you're looking at guys who are 5'8", 5'9" and wondering how many times you're going to end up with a bad matchup," says Lions general manager Martin Mayhew. "Jim [Schwartz, the Lions' coach] observed that every position on the football field has gotten bigger over the last 10 years except for cornerbacks, because the nature of the position requires agility and the need to change direction. When you start getting over 5'9", it's hard to find a guy with those abilities."
Mayhew started 107 of 118 games at cornerback during an NFL career that ended in 1996. Although listed at 5'8" and 178, he never considered his height a disadvantage. Most tall wideouts in those days were straight-line runners, so that on short and intermediate routes Mayhew's quickness allowed him to make up ground. The more imposing wideout of recent years is much tougher to defend, a gap that promises to widen. In 2001 there were five regular starting cornerbacks 6'2" or taller. Last season that number had grown by only two, with the tallest being Seattle's 6'4" Brandon Browner. And this year only three of the top 10 cornerback prospects are 6 feet or taller: Alabama's Dre Kirkpatrick and Montana's Trumaine Johnson are 6'2", and South Carolina's Stephon Gilmore is 6 feet.
Eagles cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, who stands 6'2", ponders why the growth rate at his position has been stalled. "It's a lot easier to find a big guy who can run in a straight line than a big guy who can backpedal, twist and break laterally. Let's just be honest: It's easier to play receiver. The receivers hate me for saying it, but it's true. It requires a lot for a big guy to play corner. It takes a lot of work for me in the off-season to maintain my flexibility and my ability to get low. My legs have to stay at a certain strength, my core has to be at a certain strength."
Last season the Seahawks were the only team with starting cornerbacks who were each 6'2" or taller. Coach Pete Carroll knew that Browner and the 6'3" Richard Sherman might be at a disadvantage athletically and susceptible to penalties, and he was right. The two tied for first in the league with three illegal-contact infractions, and Browner tied for second in the NFL with six pass-interference calls. But Carroll believes size helps against wideouts like Fitzgerald, whom the Seahawks face twice a year. Last year Fitzgerald had receptions on only 14 of the 26 plays on which he was targeted and scored just one touchdown.
"You see receivers at the high school All-America game and the Army all-star game who are 6'5", running 4.5s, and you're like, Holy smokes! How do we defend these guys?" says Seattle G.M. John Schneider. "It just made sense to play with bigger corners. But it's still hard to find corners at that size who have the ability to play 'off' coverage, [or] play press, and run with these guys."
Not just that but also to stand up to a new aggressiveness. "Randy Moss was 6'4", 210, but he wasn't physical," Hall says. "These other guys will attack. You saw how Andre Johnson beat up [Titans 5'10" corner] Cortland Finnegan [in '10]. He pissed Dre off, and Dre will definitely put his hands on you. A lot of corners aren't used to stepping out there on that island and seeing a guy that big and that physical who is pretty much the whole package."
Indeed, when Hill, the imposing 6'4", 215-pound prospect from Georgia Tech (Calvin Johnson's alma mater), looks across the line and sees a smaller cornerback, he senses something more than a size advantage. "Sometimes I can see fear," he says. "Yeah, I see a lot of fear."
SUE OGROCKI/AP (BLACKMON)
REACH FOR A STAR Though "just" 6'1" and 207 pounds, Oklahoma State's Blackmon, likely to be the first receiver picked, boasts an imposing physical style and a 78½-inch wingspan.
JOHN RAOUX/AP (JEFFREY)
HIGH-STAKES GAME The preponderance of prospects like South Carolina's Jeffrey, who's 6'4" and 216, is forcing teams to reweigh the merits of agility versus size at cornerback.