Derrick Mason reportedly announced his retirement from professional football last night at age 35. This is despite back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons and a very promising young quarterback under center. Mason established himself with impeccable route-running, good quickness and great on-field awareness. He was one of the few small receivers who was able to be productive through intelligence and hard work. In today’s athletic world the guys getting drafted in the first round and dominating in the league today are guys who are well over six feet tall, like Andre Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald and Calvin Johnson. That type of height seems to almost be a prerequisite. This trend makes Mason’s accomplishments all the more impressive. Having said this, it has to make one wonder if the smaller receivers are a dying breed?
Due to the fact that athletes today are bigger and faster, not only would we expect the receivers to just be bigger but it would seem they would have to be in order to gain some sort of advantage over the defensive backs who seem to be coming into the league bigger and faster than ever before. Over the last three seasons 33 different players have caught 80 passes in a single season. Only nine of those players were under six-feet tall. One of those nine was Steve Smith, who does not play like the typical small receiver, and two of them, Brian Westbrook and Reggie Bush, are running backs. There are also a couple of receivers who were not their team’s number one target and thus did not garner most of the attention. Maybe even more notable is that it wasn’t until the third round of the ’09 draft that a team took a sub-six-foot pure receiver; that is, a player who only played receiver in college.
Wes Welker has been extremely productive the last two seasons and this has to inspire hope amongst the younger, smaller receivers out there. This potential for smaller receivers to succeed is quite valid, however it comes with a few conditions. The first is that it is unlikely that a small possession receiver can be your number one guy. Eddie Royal caught 91 passes for almost 1,000 yards last year for Denver however it is clear that he benefited from all the attention that Brandon Marhsall demanded. Welker’s production has been aided by the presence of Randy Moss. If a smaller receiver got the attention of the shutdown corner or commanded a double team every snap they would not be as productive.
The second condition is that they can really only be valuable against zone coverage or when running short routes against man coverage. If they are smart they will be able to quickly find the holes in the zone and their quarterback can hopefully hit them in due time. If they are covered man-to-man they can prey off of their quickness as well as their knowledge of where they are supposed to go, but this advantage is very short-lived as the bigger and stronger defensive back can jam them at the line or catch up with them on a longer route.
The third condition is that they need a good quarterback. This sounds obvious and one could say that most receivers need a good quarterback. Smaller receivers need a smart qb who can quickly find them in the defense. The throw is going to have to be timely, strong and very accurate. If you’re a bigger, faster receiver, or Steve Smith, the throw does not have to be as accurate or as timely because you are likely bigger and faster than the man guarding you and can therefore win the battle on sheer physicality.
The final condition is that the small receiver needs the best set of hands. The throw is going to be in there quickly and the small receiver is going to get hit hard. Guys like Braylon Edwards and Terrell Owens can afford to drop more passes because they are always going to get balls thrown their way, as they are the bigger, faster, number one wide receiver. If you’re a small receiver and you drop a couple of passes it may be unlikely that you will see another ball thrown your way.
The little receiver does have a chance of survival and hopefully will not die out in the Darwinian National Football League. However it is very unlikely that a smaller receiver will be a productive number 1 guy, Steve Smith is the rare exception, not the rule. There is still hope for the smaller receiver so long as they run the best routes, have the best hands, and the best knowledge of the opposing defense. A good quarterback never hurts either.