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The case against tall cornerback gets more support from 2020 defensive results

Not all tall corners are bad, but the odds are stacked against them.

NFC Championship - Tampa Bay Buccaneers v Green Bay Packers Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

I’ve never liked taller corners, for as long as I’ve followed football. It’s not that tall corners are all terrible, as Richard Sherman is one of the best to ever play, and one of the tallest to ever play. It’s just that physics seems to be a major impediment to a big and tall corner. For one thing, effective corners need to be quicker than their receiver counterparts, as receivers know where they’re going while corners have to read and react. Being smaller than the receiver means they have less mass to force a direction change on, and thus, will have an easier time in coverage.

It stands to reason that smaller corners may suffer in other areas of the game, like run support, and if you hit on a “total package” guy who excels in coverage and as a tackler, that is obviously ideal. However, the primary job of a corner is to cover pass catchers. Everything else is gravy, and doesn’t really matter much in the grand scheme of things.

I’m writing this partially because of an interesting post by Vincent Verhei at Football Outsiders, which I’ll get to in a second, but also because of Kevin King. You should never make generalizations based on one player, or person, but Kevin King is 6-3, and if your theory is that tall corners will tend to struggle, King is your guy.

When King was drafted he was an outstanding athlete, and it’s easy to see why his profile was so attractive, but his size also always made him a poor fit in Green Bay. He has always been better in press man than zone, he’s always struggled as a tackler, and once Jaire Alexander came along and started dominating in zone, King completely stopped fitting into the scheme.

King’s size also likely contributed to his almost constant leg injuries. While King excelled in the combine agility drills, all of that cutting is harder on taller guys due to all of the physics reasons stated above. He’s clearly lost a step, and I suspect most read-and-react tall players tend to suffer similarly.

So, my mind immediately goes to King when I think about tall corners, but he’s not the genesis of that opinion. That honor goes to the 6-4 Lenny Walls, one of the weirdest corners ever to play the game.

Not a Broncos game went by where the announcers didn’t discuss Walls’ height, and for the most part, Walls just wasn’t very good. In fairness to Lenny, he actually was pretty good for one season in 2003, with 15 passes defended and a bunch of tackles. Unfortunately, he crashed and burned after that, suffering constant leg and shoulder injuries. That, combined with general ineffectiveness would have him in the CFL just a few years later.

Back to Verhei’s post at Football Outsiders. He compiled stats on the size and effectiveness of various position groups (including conclusive evidence that the Packer receiving corps is composed of a bunch of giants), and his findings support this notion, but in an interesting way.

“In general, defenses with taller secondaries tended to struggle (you’ll recall that the Lions were dead last in defensive DVOA). Curiously, height was most strongly correlated with those stats that are usually associated with defensive linemen and linebackers. Teams with tall secondaries tended to get fewer sacks (correlation with sack rate: -0.343) and stuffs (correlation with stuff rate: -0.319) while giving up more adjusted line yards (correlation with ALY: 0.405) and more first downs in short-yardage runs (correlation with POWER%: 0.423).”

I think the correlation with line yards is especially interesting, and I wonder if there is some schematic selection bias baked into that. King has always been a better man corner, and man can be vulnerable to running just because man corners have their backs turned to the line. That said, I also just think it’s tougher for taller, leaner players to tackle effectively. The obvious counter to King is Jaire Alexander, who is small, and great.

You may be wondering what this means for the newly drafted Eric Stokes. While not as tall as King, is still on the tall side, and like King, seems to struggle in run support and with tackling. That said, Stokes is more medium-tall, not an outlier like King, and there are tons of similarly sized corners who have been successful in the NFL, like Darius Slay and Kyle Fuller. If Stokes fails, height probably won’t be the issue.

The correlation here isn’t overwhelming, and as I said, it’s not like tall corners never work, but I think we can categorize this as a trend where, if you go against it, your scouts better be right.