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Incoming defenders must adapt to new rule
INDIANAPOLIS -- Grab that receiver and hold on tight.
That's how cornerbacks covered wideouts in the NFL before last season. Then, after outrage over the way New England's defenders mugged Indianapolis' receivers in the 2003 AFC title game, officials were instructed to strictly interpret the no-contact coverage rules.
They did, and it worked well last season, not exactly hampering the Patriots, either, as they won their third Super Bowl in four years.
The upsurge in illegal-contact penalties had a side effect, because cornerbacks heading to the pros had to made a significant adjustment in their techniques. It will affect this year's draft crop, as well.
"It's different, because you can't beat them up and down the field like you used to," said Miami's Antrell Rolle, generally rated the top cornerback this year. "But that just means you have be physical in the first five yards."
Rolle says that's no problem.
"For me," he added Sunday at the NFL combine, "I don't think it's a major adjustment because I try to do the majority of my damage at the line of scrimmage anyway."
He'd better do it there. Even though most of the cornerback prospects can run with anyone -- including the Randy Mosses and Chad Johnsons of the NFL -- they need to upgrade their fundamentals before heading off to the pros.
There is no contact at the combine or at pro workouts. So scouts and personnel directors must go by the college tapes, where coverage rules and interpretations are different.
Has the premium for cornerbacks in the draft diminished?
"Maybe the type of cornerbacks being taken has changed," Falcons general manager Rich McKay said. "It may change what trait they bring to the table. The trait of grab and pull and throw the receiver to the ground, hopefully that has been devalued."
What carries the most worth these days, as always, is speed and quickness on the corner. Size is an issue, too, because as Titans coach Jeff Fisher points out, most wideout prospects are taller and heavier than the cornerbacks who must cover them.
"You always have to look for bigger cornerbacks to match up with elite receivers," he said.
The best of this year's group are Rolle, Adam "Pacman" Jones of West Virginia, Carlos Rogers of Auburn, Brandon Browner of Oregon State and Dustin Fox of Ohio State.
None of them believes it's a huge leap in style of play from college to pro.
"I'm a physical guy, and you can put a hand on a guy the first five yards," Rogers said. "Then I have the speed to run with him."
The biggest difference, of course, is the quality of who they have to cover. Wide receiver is the deepest and strongest position in the league. Guys like Rogers or Rolle or Jones played against top-level pass catchers in college, but rarely did they see one every week. In the pros, they might see more than one each week.
And with the rules favoring offenses, well, so what?
"I'm very competitive, very confident," Rolle said with a shrug. "I'm a big, physical corner who can run. I'm very physical, very smart. I study plays a lot.
"I've been pretty much a man, press player at Miami. But I can do it either way."
Last year, four cornerbacks went in the first round. That many should get taken in this year's opening round.
It's possible, though, that some cornerbacks may slide because teams feel there is more value from other positions that haven't been hamstrung by strict rules interpretations.
"You might be looking more for a cornerback with more quickness and one who's able to mirror with speed," McKay said, "and not a lockup guy who bumps down the field."