Teams need depth at cornerback

With so much emphasis on multiple-receiver sets, the WR and CB positions are as important as ever.

Updated: June 1, 2004, 2:27 PM ET
By Todd McShay | Scouts, Inc.

The last five NFL drafts have seen an average of 5.6 fullbacks and 15 tight ends selected, compared to 36 wide receivers. Even cutting the receiver total in half, accounting for a typical offensive package with two receivers, one tight end and one fullback, there still have been an average of 12.4 more receivers taken than fullbacks and an average of three more receivers taken than tight ends.

Those numbers are a direct result of the more wide-open offenses being adopted in the NFL. Sure, there will always be ground-based teams lilke the Carolina Panthers, but there is no arguing that the majority of the NFL has traded in its work boots for track shoes.

Fullbacks are a dying breed in the NFL, and tight ends look more like wide receivers with each passing season. Look at the Dolphins -- without the help of uniform numbers it would be nearly impossible to tell WR David Boston, who is a protein shake away from having to move to tight end, from TE Randy McMichael, who is a long jog and a steam away from being a wide receiver.

With so much emphasis on multiple-receiver sets, the wide receiver and cornerback positions are as important as ever. Not only does a team need solid starters at each position, it also needs to have great depth in order to match up.

Having a No. 3 wide receiver who is good enough to be a starter elsewhere typically creates a mismatch that could force the opponent to adjust its entire defensive scheme.

The best way to neutralize a good No. 3, of course, is to have an equally good nickel cornerback. And having a nickel corner who is good enough to be a starter elsewhere could force an offense with just a decent No. 3 receiver to shy away from three-receiver sets in order to keep the defense out of its nickel or dime packages.

In either case, a non-starting player is dictating strategy. While a matchup between Randy Moss and Champ Bailey will get the headlines, it's often the matchup between the No. 3 receiver and nickel corner that provides coaches the opportunity to create a mismatch.

Entering Super Bowl XXXV, the Ravens knew No. 3 WR Brandon Stokley would have a matchup advantage over Emmanuel McDaniel, the Giants' nickel corner, so they made certain to exploit that matchup as quickly and as often as possible. It was no mistake that Stokley scored the game's opening touchdown.

The Patriots provided another great example in their AFC Championship win over the Titans last season. They recognized that the injury to Tennessee's rookie first-round pick Andre Woolfolk left the Titans without a legitimate nickel cornerback, and they attacked that weakness. The Patriots rotated several receivers in and out of the No. 3 spot, but it was the speed of Bethel Johnson that exposed the weakness in the first quarter with a 41-yard touchdown reception.

With such a greater emphasis on nickel personnel, teams are trying to stock up on receivers and cornerbacks via free agency and the draft. Below is a ranked list of the No.3 receivers and cornerbacks that we project to have the best seasons in that specific role. Some of the players are rookies, while others are aging veterans. Some are former starters who have been relegated to a No. 3 spot, while others are up-and-coming players trying to use the nickel position as a stepping stone to a starting job. In any case, this list is not determined by past performance -- it's a projection of the players that we feel will be the best at their craft in '04.

Wide Receivers
Tyrone Calico, Tennessee Titans
Calico seemed a bit overwhelmed early on as a rookie coming out of Middle Tennessee State. He seemed to lose focus from time-to-time, dropped some catchable balls, and finished the season with only 18 receptions. However, as the season progressed, so too did Calico's understanding of the offense. With Justin McCareins (NY Jets) gone, Calico will jump up to the No. 3 receiver position behind Derrick Mason and Drew Bennett. Calico has the size, athleticism and speed to quickly develop into a playmaking starter in the NFL and it wouldn't surprise us if he surpassed Bennett and took over the No. 2 job opposite Mason by the end of the season.

Josh Reed, Buffalo Bills

Reed
Reed
Reed was a pleasant surprise his rookie season as a No. 3 receiver but a major disappointment as a No. 2 receiver in '03. It is very clear that Reed is cut out to play the No. 3 slot role in the NFL and, with the team drafting Lee Evans to take over the outside position opposite Eric Moulds, Reed should have a successful return to the slot role as in '04. He will never be a solid starter on the outside because he lacks prototypical size and speed, but Reed has a chance to develop into one of the NFL's finest No. 3 receivers for years to come because he flourishes over the middle and is so much more effective when he gets a clean release out of the slot.

Kelley Washington, Cincinnati Bengals
Washington was drafted by the Bengals in the third round in 2003. He got off to a slow start in his rookie year but improved as the season progressed and wound up finishing with 22 receptions as the team's No. 3 receiver behind Chad Johnson and Peter Warrick. The Bengals are looking to open it up with more multiple receiver sets in '04, and they certainly have the weapons to do so. When Washington is in the game, he typically plays on the outside and Warrick moves inside to the slot. Some teams will keep their outside cornerback on Washington while others will move him inside against Warrick. Either way, the Bengals will typically have an advantage with Warrick or Washington matched up against a No. 3 cornerback.

Washington stayed relatively healthy as a rookie and was not a distraction On the collegiate level he was an extremely arrogant guy. He also had neck and knee injuries. If he stays healthy and doesn't let his ego get in the way, Washington has a chance to be one of the elite No. 3 wide receivers in the league and an absolute nightmare to matchup against in the team's three-and-four receiver sets.

Nate Burleson, Minnesota Vikings
Burleson has good size and speed, but even better hands and route running skills. He got off to a bit of a slow start and he still has work to do in terms of getting cleaner releases off the line of scrimmage, but still finished with 29 receptions. The team brought in Marcus Robinson to give Randy Moss a proven receiver opposite him, but it's only a matter of time before Burleson wrestles that job away. For now, Burleson should quickly become one of the elite No. 3 receivers in the league and he'll benefit greatly from the attention that Moss and Robinson draw away from him.

Antwaan Randle El, Pittsburgh Steelers
Randle El's production as a No. 3 receiver dipped last season after he showed tremendous promise in his rookie season (2002). He caught 37 passes in '03, 10 fewer than his rookie season. However, while part of the blame needs to be shouldered by Randle El, who lacked the same focus and consistency from the year before, you can also point the finger at the rest of the offense and the fact that he had to take on an increased role in the return game. Randle El will still handle most of the return-game duties, but look for his role to increase on offense, as new coordinator Ken Whisenhunt seems intent on getting him the ball not only as a slot receiver, but also as a quarterback and runner. Randle El is too dangerous with the ball in his hands for him to have so few touches on offense like he did a season ago.

James Thrash, Washington Redskins
Thrash is a good example of a former starter on the downside of his career with enough left, however, to provide terrific production as a No. 3 receiver. In Thrash, the Redskins got a former starter who lacked the speed and disappeared in too many games to maintain a fulltime starting job with the Eagles. However, with Lavernues Coles and Rod Gardner ahead of him on the depth chart in Washington, Thrash becomes a real threat as a nickel slot receiver who has the toughness, experience and hands to become a reliable weapon over the middle of the field.

Tai Streets, Detroit Lions

Streets
Streets
Streets is a tough player. He has adequate speed and good hands, but he's not as consistent as you would want in a No. 2 receiver and he doesn't separate as much as one should, either. Streets has had durability problems in the past, but he stayed healthy the last two seasons and has combined for 119 receptions over that two-year span. The good news for the Lions is that Streets will quickly become an excellent No. 3 receiver. Streets thought that he was coming to Detroit as a free agent to become the No. 2 opposite '03 first round selection Charles Rogers, but that will change quickly with the addition of '04 first round pick Roy Williams. If Williams proves he's ready to play right away, which we think he will, Streets will move back to a No. 3 role. So long as he doesn't sulk about it, he has the physical tools to become one of the best No. 3 receivers in the NFL. He not only has the potential to make the Lions' offense extremely versatile, but he also should give the Lions some veteran leadership that it otherwise lacks at the position.

Donte Stallworth, New Orleans Saints
Call it a hunch, but Stallworth is going to have a breakout season as the Saints' No. 3 receiver in '04. Stallworth has the physical tools of a No. 1 receiver in the NFL, but he is unpolished and his development has been stunted by chronic hamstring problems. He lacks initial quickness and he's still raw in terms of his route running skills and overall craftiness, but Stallworth is reportedly in the best shape of his life and has really made progress in mini-camp. Stallworth should only improve with more experience. He has the potential to develop into an ideal complement to Joe Horn as an outside receiver. If he stays healthy and progresses in '04, he'll be an even bigger matchup nightmare inside as the team's No. 3 receiver behind Horn and Jerome Pathon.

Michael Clayton, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Clayton lacks great speed but he is one of the best blocking receivers to come out of college in some time. He isn't afraid to go over the middle, and he has outstanding hands. Clayton is also a terrific route-runner. While Keenan McCardell has been productive, he is bound to slip because of his age. He probably will start the season as the No. 2 receiver with Clayton seeing time in three-and-four receiver sets. However, Clayton should eventually replace McCardell and develop into an excellent complement to Joey Galloway. With Galloway stretching the field and McCardell working the outside intermediate zone, Clayton should be able to exploit the underneath middle of the field. There's a lot to like about Clayton's aggressiveness and intelligence. He doesn't have the upside that some other first round picks at the receiver position in the '04 draft possess, but Clayton might be the most mature and he is definitely ready to contribute immediately.

Cornerbacks
Walt Harris, Washington Redskins
The Redskins downgraded a little bit when they replaced the departed Champ Bailey (Broncos) with Shawn Springs at left cornerback, but they upgraded their nickel package with the addition of Harris, who is 29 years old but has been a solid starter for much of his eight NFL seasons with the Bears and Colts. Harris doesn't have great playmaking skills and he would occasionally get in trouble versus the league's biggest or fastest receivers when he was forced to play man-coverage on the perimeter, but now that he's a No. 3 cornerback behind Springs and Fred Smoot, Harris no longer has to worry about playing on an island. He is an experienced, steady cornerback that knows his limitations, protects himself from the big play, and will play within the scheme. He won't be a huge playmaker for the Redskins, but he will bring some veteran leadership and consistency to a young secondary that lost its leader to Denver in a trade for RB Clinton Portis.

Reggie Howard, Miami Dolphins
The Dolphins have been solid at their starting cornerback positions for years with Sam Madison and Patrick Surtain, but Jamar Fletcher's failure to develop really cost the team in its nickel package. Howard doesn't have a great upside and he should not be considered a future replacement for the aging Madison, but he is a very competent and reliable veteran who started 29 games for the Panthers the past two seasons. Howard should be one of the most consistent nickel cornerbacks in the NFL in '04 and at the age of 27, he's young enough to make a good career out of the role.

Asante Samuel, New England Patriots
Samuel was a pleasant surprise as a rookie in '03 and we don't see him taking any steps backwards in '04. Samuel doesn't have elite size or speed, but he is a fast cover corner with great toughness, confidence and playmaking ability. He eventually may have to move into a starting role in '05 if the team loses Ty Law and elects to keep Eugene Wilson at free safety. For now, however, Samuel should continue to torment opposing quarterbacks and No. 3 receivers out of the slot position.

Ray Mickens, New York Jets

Mickens
Mickens
Mickens was a third round draft pick of the Jets in 1996 and has played his entire career in New York. He is a durable player that has not missed time since his rookie season. He has spent the majority of his career as a No. 3 cornerback but due to injuries and poor depth at the position, he was forced to start 14 games in '03. Mickens will move back to his more natural position of nickel cornerback in '04 and, despite his age, 31, he still has the skills to remain one of the best in the business. Mickens has very good quickness, is a good overall athlete and shows excellent change of direction skills. Mickens' lack of size is what limits him most, but he fits just fine inside where he typically matches up with shorter receivers and he doesn't have to worry about covering the entire field.

Mario Edwards, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Edwards was drafted in the sixth round by the Cowboys in 2000. He won the starting right cornerback job in '01 and started at that position the past three seasons, but he failed to make significant improvements and the Cowboys elected to let him go via free agency. This could, however, be a case of "one man's trash is another man's treasure", as Edwards not only is a much better fit as a No. 3, which he will be behind Ronde Barber and Brian Kelly, but he also is a much better fit in the Bucs' cover-2. Edwards is quick and does a very good job of sticking with his receiver in the short area, but his biggest weakness has always been his inconsistent ability to turn and run with faster receivers. In the Bucs' cover-2 scheme, Edwards will get safety help deep, which will allow him to play with more confidence and aggressiveness underneath and should lead to him making more big plays.

Chris Gamble, Carolina Panthers
While Gamble had a disappointing junior season and did not run as well as expected at his pro timing day (4.55), he is still a fantastic natural athlete with loads of upside both as a defensive back and return specialist. Gamble is too unpolished to start right away for the Panthers, but with Ricky Manning and Artrell Hawkins slated to start, Gamble will get his feet wet in the role of nickel cornerback as a rookie. Gamble has great playmaking skills but his problem is that he lacks great recognition skills and will be too over-aggressive at times. Those tendencies got him into some trouble as a man-to-man perimeter cover corner at Ohio State, but playing inside against No. 3 receivers with safety help over the top, Gamble will be able to gamble much more and the payout should come in the form of more big plays from a secondary that failed to make the most of its pass rush last season.

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