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Browns' search for taller cornerbacks falls in line with Seahawks' model

May 21, 2014 -- 6:00am

By Tony Grossi | ESPNCleveland.com

 

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The Morning Kickoff …

Carbon copies: In the NFL, Super Bowl champions set the trend for the following season.

The rush to copy the Seattle Seahawks is on. And whether it’s by coincidence or design, the Browns appear to be following Seattle’s team-building blueprint almost by the letter.

To wit:

* The Seahawks are driven by a punishing defense.

The Browns hired Mike Pettine, a defensive-minded head coach, and have invested a lot of resources on the defensive side – signing linebacker Karlos Dansby and safety Donte Whitner in free agency, and making cornerback Joe Haden the highest-paid player on the team with a new contract extension.

* On offense, the Seahawks are driven by a physical running game.

The Browns hired Kyle Shanahan, an offensive coordinator with a proven track record in committing to a physical, downhill running game. They signed running back Ben Tate and offensive lineman Paul McQuiston (a former Seattle starter) in free agency. Through the draft, they added two powerful rookie backs – third-round draft pick Terrance West and undrafted Isaiah Crowell – and nasty guard Joel Bitonio in the second round.

* The Seahawks are led on offense by a fiercely competitive quarterback with rare leadership qualities that enable him to overcome less-than-ideal height (5-11) at the position.

The Browns drafted Johnny Manziel, a fiercely competitive quarterback with rare leadership qualities. He is the first college football player in history to win the Heisman Trophy as a (redshirt) freshman. He happened to be the only quarterback under six feet (5-11 ¾) among the top 20 QBs in the draft.

* The Seahawks did not have a wide receiver who was drafted by them higher than the second round.

The Browns neglected the receiver position in the draft and filled needs by signing recycled veterans Nate Burleson, Miles Austin and Earl Bennett.

* The Seahawks employed a deep stable of cornerbacks taller than the average at the position (5-11).

Depending on the scouting service, there were four to five cornerbacks among the top 10 in the draft who measured a true six feet or taller, and the Browns selected two of them – Justin Gilbert, 6-0 1/8, and Pierre Desir, 6-1.

Cornering the market: The last of these Seattle trends might be the longest one coming for the Browns. They ended the 2013 season with the following cornerbacks on the field – Haden (who is 5-11), Buster Skrine (5-9), Julian Posey (5-10) and Leon McFadden (5-9).

Last year the Browns allowed 29 touchdown passes – tied with four other teams for 22nd in the NFL and four TDs worse than the league average of 25.1. I’m not going to blame lack of height for all their pass coverage woes; Haden actually had fewer problems with towering No. 1 receivers such as Calvin Johnson and A.J. Green than he did with the shorter, quicker ones like Antonio Brown.

The fact is that Pettine demands his cornerbacks to play the press-and-run style that Seattle favors. And Gilbert, the Browns’ No. 1 overall pick from Oklahama State, and Desir, a fourth-round gem from Lindenwood (MO) University, fit the mold because of their height and arm length.

Of the top 30-ranked cornerbacks in the 2014 draft, Gilbert had the second-longest measured arms (33 1/8 inches) and Desir was third (33 inches).

It was not by coincidence that these two cornerbacks were hotly pursued by the Browns.

Browns scout Chisom Opara said, “In getting comfortable with Coach Pettine's defense, one of the things that does stand out is that you do learn when you're long, it gives you a lot bigger margin for error. You don't have to be as perfect with your feet or your hips, but if you're close enough where your length can make up that difference, then there is some value to that.”

Size matters: There are always exceptions at every position, but NFL players are bigger and taller than ever. The average receiver now measures 6-1, the average cornerback is 5-11.

While speed used to be the No. 1 trait sought in cornerbacks, Seattle has shown that size is an invaluable attribute that is redefining the position.

The Seahawks’ starting cornerbacks last year were 6-3 Richard Sherman and 6-4 Brandon Browner. When Browner was suspended for violating the league’s substance abuse policy, coach Pete Carroll replaced him with 6-1 Byron Maxwell. Their top backup now is 6-2 Tharold Simon. They signed a 6-3 undrafted free agent and intend to convert him from safety to cornerback.

At the NFL Combine in February, Carroll expressed concern about the copycats dwindling an already-shallow pool of taller cornerbacks.

“Big, fast guys are the fewest people around,” Carroll said. “Everybody would like to get longer, taller guys that run 4.4. But there are just not very many humans like that in the world, you know. So it's rare when you find them and then you have to develop the guys.

“So you have to make those guys come to life in your coaching and how you adapt your style and your ability to fit it. We've been doing it for a long time and always been looking for longer guys because we have such a commitment to bump-and-run corners. This is nothing new --- this goes back 20 years. But it's just rare that you can find them."

In their expansion era, the Browns have had only two big cornerbacks of consequence – Gary Baxter (6-2), a 2005 free agent signee from Baltimore who blew out both knees in his second season with the Browns; and Anthony Henry (6-1), a Butch Davis draft pick in 2001 whose 10 interceptions as a rookie match the all-time franchise record for a season.

 

Tony Grossi covers the Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR, ESPN 1540 KNR2 and www.espncleveland.com.

He has covered the Browns with distinction since 1984 and is one of 46 voters for the National Football League Hall of Fame. Use the hashtag #HeyTony on Twitter or email your “Hey Tony” questions to tgrossi@goodkarmabrands.com

Follow Tony on Twitter @tonygrossi

 

 

 

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