Tough to turn a corner


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Jan 22, 2006
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Tough to turn a corner
Rookie DBs don’t become stars right away
The Kansas City Star

As accomplished as he is today — two career Pro Bowl appearances and the fattest contract in Chiefs history — time was when cornerback Patrick Surtain survived on physical skills alone.

He eventually acquired the know-how that allowed him to become one of the best at his craft. He sure didn’t arrive in the NFL with it.

Like most young cornerbacks, he took awhile to learn the nuances of playing the position.

“It’s the receivers,” Surtain said. “In college you might go against one or two elite receivers a year, and maybe they’re not even elite. In the NFL, there are no slouches. You’ve got to come every single weekend. And you probably get scrutinized more than any other player on the field except the quarterback.”

The Chiefs appear intent not only on selecting at least one cornerback in this weekend’s draft, but playing him right away. They have a void in their starting lineup at cornerback opposite Surtain, and new coach Herm Edwards brings with him from Tampa Bay and the New York Jets a history of playing rookie defensive backs.

The Chiefs interviewed several potential first-round cornerbacks last week, including Florida State’s Antonio Cromartie, South Carolina’s Johnathan Joseph, Virginia Tech’s Jimmy Williams and Fresno State’s Richard Marshall.

Pat Dennis in 2000 was the last rookie cornerback to be a regular starter for the Chiefs. Before that, they had to go back to Kevin Ross in 1984.

Dennis didn’t last and was soon out of the league, while Ross eventually became among the best corners ever to play for the Chiefs. The Chiefs suffered through growing pains with both.

That’s the norm for rookie cornerbacks. Sometimes teams reap the eventual rewards for playing a rookie, but seldom does it pay immediate rewards.

It apparently won’t stop the Chiefs.

“We’d like to think that is a position that has some depth and quality this year,” Chiefs president/general manager Carl Peterson said. “There are going to be some good cornerbacks, whether it’s the first or second round, that you would hope if not immediately would be able to start and contribute for you pretty quickly.”

Edwards as secondary coach with Tampa Bay started a rookie cornerback named Donnie Abraham. As head coach with the Jets, he started one rookie corner, Justin Miller, and two first-year safeties, Erik Coleman and Kerry Rhodes.

None was drafted in the first round, but Edwards lived to tell about the experience.

“For the most part, I’ve been very fortunate,” Edwards said. “The guys we’ve picked kind of worked out. But I also knew the system we were in. That’s very, very important, to understand your system and understand what you’re going to ask this player to do.

“If you’re a talented guy, you can almost play in (any system).”

Left unsaid by Edwards is that lower-round cornerbacks are usually only successful in a defensive system right for their particular talents. Teams often make mistakes by trying to force a cornerback without the proper skills into a certain system.

Judging a cornerback’s ability in college also can be difficult.

“The problem you have in college football when you try to view a corner is that if he’s a good player and he has a (positive) reputation … first of all, how many good receivers is he going to play against?” Edwards said. “How many (good) quarterbacks is he going to play (against)? The next problem you have is that they’re really not going to throw the ball to him a lot, so all you really see is him move and turn. You can see him move and that he’s fast and that he can cover a (slow) receiver …

“You can get (high-) quality defensive backs without always going to the first pick. I’m not saying there are not some available guys in the first round. I’m just saying if you don’t get one in the first round, I don’t panic and say, ‘Now we can’t play.’ I’m smarter than that. I’ve been in the league too long for that.”

Among this year’s cornerbacks, ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper ranked Miami’s Kelly Jennings as the most polished and most likely to start immediately.

“He’s so experienced,” Kiper said. “He’s worked against some (high-) quality wide receivers at Miami and against the opposition. He’s a very fundamentally sound corner.”

Otherwise, cornerbacks who are first-round candidates carry some risk, as they usually do. Cromartie missed all of the 2005 season with a knee injury. Though his knee may be sound, he has much less experience than some of his counterparts.

Other risky cornerbacks include Joseph (“You either think he’s going to be the best corner in the draft or you can’t stand him,” NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said) and Williams (“He’s a boom or bust, either an All-Pro or a washout,” Mayock said).

The Chiefs, given their recent trials at cornerback, might tend toward the safer pick — if there were such a thing. Surtain, who didn’t establish himself as a regular and one of the league’s best cornerbacks until his third NFL season with Miami, can speak for that.

“I can’t say I really knew what I needed to know as a player until my third season,” he said.

He mentioned the skills of the opposing receivers as one reason for the tough transition from college to pro. He didn’t mention those of the opposing quarterback, though he could have.

Rare is the college quarterback who can make all of the throws, but they’re everywhere in the NFL. Pro corners who sleep on certain routes quickly wind up on the bench or in another line of work.

“It’s tough to do, play corner as a rookie,” Surtain said. “It’s a big adjustment. I think besides quarterback, corner is probably the hardest position to make that jump.

“The defensive systems teams are running today are so elaborate. There’s a lot more studying you have to do than in college.”
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