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Does Size Matter?

The Packers Hope That Smaller-than-Average Players Can Produce Big Results

by Dan Conklin

E-mail: danconklin@packerpedia.com
July 8, 2012

 

When it comes to draft time, NFL scouts and front offices rate potential players on a number of factors, hoping to sort out the ones who will most likely be successful at the next level. Each player's college performances are scrutinized and statistically analyzed; their coaches and other associates are interviewed; their character and work ethic are evaluated; and their “measurables” are... well... measured at the NFL combine and their college pro days. All of these factors are discussed at length as scouts, coaches, and GM's prepare to decide which player will be their best option when Roger Goodell says that they are now on the clock. Any questionable issues for a particular player raise red flags that, if enough teams are concerned about them, can cause the player to drop several rounds or even out of the draft entirely.

In some cases this is because of character risks. It is generally considered a bad thing for a draft-eligible player to get busted for a drug possession, a DWI, a domestic abuse situation, or a barroom fight. And repeat offenders are particularly disconcerting. It is not unusual for a player with first-round talent but significant character concerns to be completely taken off of the draft board for many teams.

Other players find themselves dropping because their talent may not translate to the NFL level because their speed isn't good enough, or because of injury concerns. But some players with otherwise excellent reviews drop for one simple reason: they aren't deemed to be big enough to play in the NFL, at least not at their specific position.

There is a general belief in NFL circles that size matters, and while smaller players may have had success at the college level, they are unlikely to find similar success in the NFL. At the very least, they are often considered to be role players and not every-down players, thus making it difficult to justify drafting too highly.

It seems that the Packers have been accumulating several of these players over recent years. The most recent addition to this list has been Iowa defensive tackle Mike Daniels. This report from www.sidelinescouting.com was typical of many of the pre-draft scouting reports: “Positives: A tremendous athlete...very tough to block...one of the quickest defensive tackles...posted an astonishing 41” vertical leap at 291 pounds...hands are something to behold...(blocking him is) almost like trying to push a bowling ball in the sand.” But this glowing report was soon tempered by: “Biggest knock is his size...probably not an everyday player in the NFL.”

With the average NFL defensive tackle standing at 6'3”, Daniels, who is listed at 6'0”, raises concerns about being worn down and manhandled by larger offensive linemen. Thus, despite his impressive statistics in sacks and tackles-for-loss (13 and 24-1/2 during his last two seasons at Iowa), Daniels slipped to the bottom of the fourth round at #132 to the Packers. One has to wonder where he would have been drafted had he been 6'3”.

In the 2011 draft, the Packers also picked up a couple of players in later rounds that would probably have been drafted earlier had they been taller: Arkansas tight end DJ Williams (round 5, pick # 141) and Appalachian State inside linebacker DJ Smith (round 6, pick #186).

As a sophomore, DJ Williams led his Arkansas team with 61 receptions, 723 yards, and 3 touchdowns, and was a semifinalist for the John Mackey award to the top college tight end. His production dropped as a junior to 32 receptions, 411 yards, and 3 touchdowns as he focused on developing his blocking skills, but his numbers returned his senior year to 54 catches, 627 yards, and 4 touchdowns. That season, he went on to win the Mackey award. He was thought to go as high as the second round of the 2011 draft, but fell to the Packers in round 5. The most likely reason? Size.

The average tight end in the NFL is 6'5”, yet Williams is only listed at 6'2”. Leading up to the draft, many scouts felt he would not be successful as a normal tight end, but should be considered instead as an H-back or even a fullback. (Incidentally, Williams was compared to New England Patriots' tight end Aaron Hernandez, who is exactly the same size at 6'2” and 245 pounds and who won the Mackey award the year before Williams did. At 79 receptions, 910 yards, and 7 touchdowns, Hernandez may be changing the perception of what size is required to be a successful NFL tight end. Perhaps Williams will be able to add to this change of perception.)

A 3-1/2 year starter as a linebacker at perennial FCS powerhouse Appalachian State, DJ Smith amassed an impressive 525 tackles, including 32 for loss. He was described by his college defensive coordinator as “probably the most intelligent football player I've ever been around”, and has contributed to a combined high school, college, and NFL record of 124-13 (.905 winning percentage) along with five championships. And he had a knack for playing his best games against the toughest opponents. But at a listed height of 5'11”, Smith falls short of the NFL average for linebackers of 6'2”, and was drafted by the Packers in the 6th round. Yet when thrown into a starting role because of injuries for three games, Smith performed admirably, averaging 9 tackles, securing one interception, and even being awarded a game ball in week 14 against the Oakland Raiders.

In each of these cases, the Packers picked up players with impressive college production, but most likely did so later in the draft than may have been the case had it not been for the simple factor of height. But don't tell any of these players that their NFL career will be limited by their size. They don't want to hear it.

Better yet, tell them. It may put a chip on their shoulder that propels them to prove everyone wrong. UCLA running back Maurice Jones-Drew was passed over at least once in the 2006 NFL draft by every single team, many of them listing his 5'7” stature as the reason why he would not succeed. Jones-Drew responded by wearing the number 32 to remind himself of the number of teams who overlooked him, and then went on to be one of the most consistent running backs in the league. This past season, he was the NFL rushing leader with 1,606 yards.

One doesn't have to look far around the league to find players who have succeeded quite well despite not having prototypical size. The most obvious place to start is with New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees. At 6'0”, Brees is about two or three inches shorter than most quarterbacks. It is thought that shorter quarterbacks aren't able to see over tall linemen to find their targets downfield. Brees's answer? An NFL record 5,476 passing yards in 2011. Just think what he could have done if he could have seen his receivers better.

Or how about former Indianapolis Colts safety Bob Sanders? At 5'8”, Sanders is a good three inches shorter than most safeties, but he packs a wallop like few others. While he has had a history of injury problems, when healthy he completely changed the Colts ability to stop the run, and was instrumental in their successful Super Bowl run in 2007. Or Washington Redskins linebacker London Fletcher (5'10”), who led the NFL in tackles in 2011 with 166 and has never finished lower than seventh since the 2004 season. (In his early years, he was often edged out by 5'11” Miami Dolphins tackling machine Zach Thomas.)

Or perhaps we could look at Denver Broncos diminutive (5'11”) defensive end Elvis Dumervil, who has averaged 10.5 sacks per season, including a league-leading 17.0 in 2009. Or teensy Saints running back Darren Sproles (5'6”), who led all running backs in receiving in 2011 with 86 catches and 710 yards. Or New England Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker (5'9”), who over the past five seasons has averaged an unheard-of 111 receptions per season and was league leader in three of those seasons. Or 5'9” Carolina Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith, who when he has an NFL-caliber quarterback to work with can put up as big of numbers as anyone in the league.

Hopefully, the point is clear. Just because a player is smaller than average doesn't mean they can't produce big-time in the NFL. But it often means that they will get drafted lower than they should, which gives teams an opportunity for tremendous draft bargains. The Packers are hoping that's how it will work out for Daniels, Williams, and Smith.

There's something built deeply into our culture that reminds us that size doesn't have to be a barrier and that hard work and belief can overcome all obstacles. We find it in the stories of David and Goliath, and The Little Engine that Could. We find inspiration from Rudy or Seabiscuit or Rocky vs. Ivan Drago. Through these stories we remind ourselves to never give up and to reach for the best we can possibly be. We find hope and courage and renewed vision.

Perhaps we will see some of these stories unfold over the next years in Green Bay. After all, what better place than a town that is too small to support a major professional sports franchise?

 

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(Photo Credit: Associated Press)