The way Adam Jones has it figured, it simply isn't much of a challenge to play wide receiver in the NFL anymore. But being the guy assigned to prevent a wide receiver from catching passes with even the rules of the sport conspiring against you -- that's a different story.
"Everybody can't play corner, if you think about it," the standout cornerback from West Virginia University said recently. "Anybody can be a receiver."
West Virginia cornerback Adam Jones is likely to be an early draft pick on Saturday.
(Scott Groves - AP)
Those in the NFL seem to agree -- to a point -- as this weekend's draft approaches. Last year brought one of the most passing-friendly seasons in league history after the sport's rulemakers instructed game officials to strictly enforce the prohibition on defenders impeding receivers more than five yards downfield. The NFL's decision-makers were happy with the record-breaking results and have no plans to change the rules to give defensive players any help next season, so teams are more desperate than ever to find cornerbacks who can play effectively.
"It's really a game slanted toward the offense to be successful," New York Jets Coach Herman Edwards said at the NFL scouting combine in late February in Indianapolis. "It's hard to find that shut-down corner any more because of the rules. It's very hard, with the rules the way they are, to sit out there and shut people down."
But the league's talent evaluators believe there are plenty of good cornerbacks in this year's draft class, beginning with Miami's Antrel Rolle, Jones and Auburn's Carlos Rogers. Rolle likely will be the first cornerback drafted Saturday, and Jones and Rogers probably will vie to be the second player to come off the board at the position. At least two of the three likely will be top-10 selections.
"It's a good group," Tennessee Titans Coach Jeff Fisher said at the combine. "There's size in this group. . . . Everybody's looking for the big corners. Your receivers probably average 6 [feet] 1 and 195 [pounds]. The corners probably average about 5-11 and 185. There's a discrepancy there, so you're always looking for the bigger corners."
Jones decided to skip his senior season at West Virginia to enter the draft. He is a charismatic player who says he tries, by gobbling up all the big plays available to him, to live up to the nickname ("Pac-Man") first given to him when he was a baby and had an unquenchable thirst for his bottle.
He was raised by his grandmother, Christine Jones, in a poor neighborhood in College Park, Ga., and was set to play at Georgia Tech before learning that his grandmother was dying from cancer. Doctors gave her five months to live. He and his grandmother decided that he should go away to school, he says, because he couldn't bear to stay close to home and watch her deteriorate. So he headed to Morgantown, W.Va., and they spoke by phone daily. The only game he missed during his college career came when he returned home during his freshman season, on the night before his grandmother died.
"It was very hard," Jones said. "We talked every night . . . . My grandma was like my pride and joy. . . . She waited until I got home, and then she passed that [next] morning."
He excelled at returning kicks as well as covering opposing receivers at West Virginia, and he matter-of-factly compares himself to Charles Woodson and Champ Bailey. "I'm just trying to be one of the best to ever play this position," Jones, who also played running back in high school but was viewed as a cornerback by virtually every college that recruited him, said at the combine.
Confidence is a must for a top cornerback, and Rolle also possesses it in abundance. "I think I just bring so much passion to the game," he said at the combine. "I love doing what I do. I can play either the run or pass. I think I am the best corner in this draft. . . . I'm very confident in my game and I just feel I can bring it to the next level."
Rolle, who is not related to Baltimore Ravens cornerback Samari Rolle but often is asked if he is, has had to explain a few incidents from his recent past to the NFL teams interested in him. He was suspended for a game during his junior season following an on-the-field fight with Virginia Tech cornerback DeAngelo Hall, now with the Atlanta Falcons.
He was arrested by Miami police last July following a fight near the school and charged with disorderly conduct, resisting an officer without violence and felony battery on a police officer. But prosecutors dropped the case in August. Rolle, whose father is the police chief of Homestead, Fla., said at the combine that he is an "outstanding player" with "great character."
Some observers thought he played better as a junior than as a senior, but Rolle said he did not regret his decision to finish his career at Miami instead of entering last year's draft.
"My junior season, I was pretty much all-out, no worries about anything," he said. "My senior season, our defensive unit wasn't as smart and as well put-together as our defenses we've had in the past. I was worried a lot about other people's positions, probably trying to do a little bit too much when I shouldn't have."
Most NFL teams appear to have Rolle rated ahead of Jones. "I think everyone would consider them the top two cornerbacks," Houston Texans General Manager Charley Casserly said at the combine. "I think you know more about Rolle than you know about Jones. He's a senior, so you could scout him all year and know he'd be in this draft."
Still, much will be expected from both, even as rookies playing the game's most unforgiving position. Rolle said he's well aware of the NFL's restrictions on clutching-and-grabbing tactics by defensive backs but intends to utilize the same physical style he used in college.
"You can't beat them up all the way down the field like you used to," Rolle said. "But you have five yards to do what you want to do."