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SAM FARMER ON THE NFL

They're the little big men of the NFL

Diminutive players such as Maurice Jones-Drew and Steve Smith, once thought too small for pro football, now thrive at the top of the statistical charts. Quickness and the proliferation of spread offenses are factors.

November 11, 2009|SAM FARMER | ON THE NFL

Some of the NFL's tallest timber this season are mere bonsais in comparison to their football counterparts.

The league leaders in touchdowns (Maurice Jones-Drew), yards rushing (Chris Johnson), receptions (Steve Smith) and sacks (Elvis Dumervil) are all sub-6-footers. And at 6 feet, New Orleans star Drew Brees, a most-valuable-player candidate, is the NFL's shortest starting quarterback.

From 5-foot-6 Darren Sproles in San Diego to 5-8 Ray Rice in Baltimore, from 175-pound DeSean Jackson in Philadelphia to 185-pound Wes Welker in New England, pros all around the country are proving there's a place for the little man in America's biggest game.

And remember, it is not uncommon for players to be listed a little taller than they actually are.

"What we've seen is as the players in the league get bigger and bigger, some of these smaller guys who have great quickness are almost impossible for some of these big guys to catch," said NBC's Cris Collinsworth, among the NFL's taller and lankier receivers when he played.

"These guys were almost forbidden fruit at one time for NFL guys. They loved them when they saw them, they'd watch them on tape and say, 'Gosh, look how fast and quick this guy is, but he's only 5-7 or 5-8.' They wouldn't even invite them to camp. Now, there's guys who are not only making rosters but they're having a big impact on the game."

NFL history is filled with examples of little men doing big things. But this season, it seems, in a league where 6-7 tackles are commonplace and 300 pounds is a jumping-off point for linemen, the number of pint-sized playmakers is remarkable.

Former NFL coach Jon Gruden, now a "Monday Night Football" commentator, said part of that is because of more spread formations that allow skill-position players such as running backs and receivers to operate in open spaces rather than the more confined spaces of more traditional schemes.

"It used to be where teams were running a classic I-formation set," Gruden said. "Every time the tailback carried the ball it was between the tackles. You needed a certain size and prototype look about them in order to physically hold up.

"With the introduction of all these spread offenses where you're seeing shotgun formations, one-back sets, wide receivers, tight ends and backs spread all over the field, there are needs and traits that guys are looking for. Guys who can work in space and use their quickness."

But it isn't just offensive players. Denver's Dumervil, the league's shortest defensive end at 5-11, has 10 1/2 sacks. That ties him for the NFL lead with Minnesota's Jared Allen, who is 7 inches taller. Just behind them with 9 1/2 is Indianapolis' Dwight Freeney, once considered almost freakishly short for the position at 6-1.

When Rex Ryan left his job as Baltimore's defensive coordinator to become coach of the New York Jets, he brought with him safety Jim Leonhard, who at 5-8 and 186 pounds plays much bigger than he actually is.

Then again, that's mandatory for a smaller player harboring any hopes of making it to football's highest level.

"When you're smaller, a lot of people look down on you and think you can't get the job done because of your size," said Pittsburgh Steelers running back Stefan Logan, who at 5-6 and 180 would be small even for a kicker. "But as you can see you've got some guys who come in and have a lot of confidence in themselves and are able to take on all challenges because they had to deal with it their whole life. It's, 'He's not tall enough.' Or, 'He's too light.' "

At the University of South Dakota -- where he might never have been recruited if not for a highlight tape his dad helped him compile -- Logan earned the nickname "Joystick" for his rub-your-eyes speed and dazzling abilities with the football in his hands. He set school records in yards rushing (5,958) and all-purpose yards (7,859), but still had to prove himself for a year in the Canadian Football League before the Steelers came calling.

"Any time you're out there, the other guy's always got a size advantage," Logan said. "You'll hear him say, 'Oh, man, I'm fixin' to dog this little dude.' But then you get out there and show them, and it's, hey, I'm not going to back down from anybody. And then they're looking at you like, 'Dang, this little guy is going to get after it. I've got to keep on my toes.' That's what I try to do every time I'm out there."

Of course, there are distinct advantages to being a smaller player. Some defensive backs would rather fight for jump-ball passes with big receivers than spend all afternoon chasing a little guy all over the field. And a diminutive running back can disappear behind a forest of offensive linemen. In Baltimore, where the average height of those linemen is almost 6-5, Rice can vanish behind a wall of blockers a head taller than he.

Rice told the Baltimore Sun: "I figure that by the time a guy would see me, I would already be five yards downfield."

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