Football, a sport once played by men at Princeton in leather helmets, has evolved rapidly in recent years. For example, we now live in a world where the most coveted free agent wide receiver is only 5’10.”
Meet Randall Cobb. Fresh off his first 1,000-yard season, Cobb was aiming for a salary in the neighborhood of $12 million a year.
That’s certified crazy. But you know what’s crazier? He nearly reached it in his new four-year, $40 million contract.
Cobb is part of a movement. Wide receivers, it appears, are getting shorter. Or at least the good ones are. In terms of receiving yards, seven of the top 13 players in the league last season checked in under six feet.
2014 Receiving Leaders
|Antonio Brown||5’10”/180 lbs.|
|Demaryius Thomas||6’3”/229 lbs.|
|Julio Jones||6’4”/220 lbs.|
|Jordy Nelson||6’3”/215 lbs.|
|Emmanuel Sanders||5’11”/186 lbs.|
|T.Y. Hilton||5’10”/183 lbs.|
|Golden Tate||5’11”/195 lbs.|
|Dez Bryant||6’2”/225 lbs.|
|Jeremy Maclin||6’0”/200 lbs.|
|Odell Beckham||5’11”/198 lbs.|
|Randall Cobb||5’10”/191 lbs.|
|DeAndre Hopkins||6’1”/214 lbs.|
|DeSean Jackson||5’10”/178 lbs.|
*All heights and weights from Pro Football Reference
The height equality movement is a fairly new phenomenon. Only four of the top 13 receivers in 2009 were below six feet. Five years before that, none were.
On average, the top 13 yard-earners from 2014 were just a tad over six feet (72.15 inches). That’s an inch shorter than they were in 2009 (73.08) and nearly two inches less than in 2004 (73.85). Kevin Hart might be lining up for the Jets in a few years if this trend continues.
They seem to be getting lighter too. The top 13 wide receivers from last season weighed an average of 201.1 pounds. Compare that to 2009, when the same group averaged 207.1.
There’s a reason Dustin Pedroia plays for the Red Sox and not the Patriots. Short and skinny isn’t supposed to work in football. The game is built on power and strength. In the NFL’s version of natural selection, the durable 6’4,” 230-pounder is the one who lasts, not the 5’10” bag of bones.
So how did Cobb and Antonio Brown leap to the top of the food chain?
A pioneer named Wes Welker made it all possible. During his six-year stay in New England, Welker revolutionized the slot receiver position.
Height is optional in the slot. As long as you can get open, there’s a decent chance you’ll succeed. Every quarterback needs a safety valve and Welker was Tom Brady’s. Julian Edelman has filled that role the last two years in Welker’s absence.
The emergence of Welker and others has coincided with the league-wide passing boom. Quarterbacks are more protected than ever, and they’re taking advantage. In place of the running game, teams are increasingly using the short passing game to control clock.
That’s not to say every 5’10” player has to be a possession receiver. Brown isn’t used that way and neither is DeSean Jackson. But the recent prevalence of slot receivers has certainly leveled the playing field for the, shall we say, “height-deprived.”
Cobb won’t win a ton of jump balls, but he doesn’t have to. In Green Bay, he played the slot while 6’3” Jordy Nelson caught most of the deep passes.
Think of it like shot selection in basketball. If given a choice, you always take the closer shot. That’s why they call it “high percentage.” The same goes for passing. It’s easier for Aaron Rodgers to thread the needle to Cobb on a slant route than bomb it down the field to Nelson on every play. This creates a real need for players with Cobb’s skill set.
Now that passing rules the land, it goes without saying players like Cobb are going to get more opportunities. Just look at the numbers from ten years ago. Back then, the top 13 wideouts averaged 1,279.9 receiving yards. This past season, that same group averaged 1,393.7.
Of course, none of that qualifies as hard evidence that players under six feet are more talented. If that were true, teams would be actively searching for short wideouts.
So far, that hasn’t happened. Demaryius Thomas (6’3”) and Julio Jones (6’4”) were both first-round picks. Emmanuel Sanders (5’11”) and T.Y. Hilton (5’10”) went in the third round. Welker wasn’t even drafted. Tall receivers still are and probably always will be the gold standard. Such is life.
With that said, teams have gotten much more flexible when it comes to size. Four of the last 12 receivers taken in the first round were under six feet, including two in last year’s draft (Odell Beckham and Brandin Cooks). In the seven drafts prior to 2012, only four of 24 first-round receivers fit that criteria.
Nobody makes a more compelling case for the short receiver than Beckham. He took the league by storm last season, reeling in 1,305 receiving yards in only 12 games. That’s the most by a rookie since Anquan Boldin in 2003. Simply put, he did things humans shouldn’t be able to do, and he did it while standing at just 5’11.”
Losers of the genetic lottery, AKA most of us, can relate to Cobb and his reasonable stature. He’s now making eight figures. We’ve sure come a long way since those leather helmets.