NFL teams lust after tall receivers, right? Wrong! While it may be true they attract attention in the lead up to the NFL Draft in any given year, the great, tall receivers are relatively rare finds. Enamored with finding the next Calvin Johnson, teams and fans alike comb through college prospects, and their eyes fix quickly to any wide receiver with 6'4" in the measurable-s line. Yet, in the current top receivers ranking at NFL.com, nine of the Top 20 are 6'1" or under in height. Whether this has to do with the aforementioned rarity of speedy, big receivers, I really don't know. Since 2007, the receiver with the most catches is 5'9" Wes Welker (703). Calvin Johnson - over the same time period - had 509 receptions. But it's yardage that's the thing, you say? Hmm... Well, Megatron has a slight edge, with 8,148 receiving yards, versus Welker's 7,774. The area where the big, tall receivers have an undeniable edge is in touchdowns. Johnson's 58 dwarfs (no pun intended) the 5'9" Welker's 45 touchdowns. Tall guys in the red zone are handy to have, but that's really the only area that screams advantage to me.
The world of the NFL wide receiver is in its heyday. Pass-happy offenses are flinging the ball around in record numbers. The trend toward finding tall, fast, lanky receivers with great hands is undeniable, but it doesn't tell the whole story. "Smallish" wide receivers are making their mark like never before. With the defensive trend toward huge corner backs to counter these fleet giants sprinting down the field, the opportunities for small, lightning quick receivers are exploding. New England's Bill Belichick has known for some time, that the right size mix can vex opposing defenses. What's more, quarterbacks who possess the small receiver option are inherently more successful than those who don't. Matt Stafford has some great statistics, but little post season success to show for all the times he's thrown to Johnson. This season, if you asked Tom Brady who he misses most, it would no doubt be the reliable Welker, or an un-injured Danny Amendola. It's about having that one weapon available flitting around underneath coverage, or flashing out to the sidelines in a key moment.
One of the least heralded weapons for Drew Brees these last couple years has been the diminutive Lance Moore. In 2012, he quietly accounted for 20-ish% (1,041 receiving yards) of Drew Brees' 5,177 passing yards. On teams with fewer offensive weapons - like the St. Louis Rams in 2012 - small receivers represent an even more important role as "safety blankets", like Danny Amendola did for Sam Bradford. Now with New England, Amendola accounted for just shy of 20% of Bradford's total passing yards.
While many watch the NFL Draft for the billboard huge receivers, I think we discount how many teams are searching just as keenly for small and elusive slot receivers? When St. Louis' Jeff Fisher studied Tavon Austin prior to the 2013 NFL Draft, I have little doubt he looked at the West Virginia speedster's ability to fill the Amendola void, as much as his game-breaking play ability. While I think Austin's skill-set is far in advance of Amendola's overall, it's plain to see he's being used almost exclusively in this vein currently in St. Louis' offensive scheme.
If you consider how the Rams are building their offensive personnel right now, it looks more like they're trying to counter the huge defensive secondaries in their division - the NFC West? Amendola was quite literally the only receiver to confound the defensive powerhouses of Seattle and San Francisco in 2012. In fact, it seems wide receiver corps may have to be expanded more than they are now, to include both tall and small players to counter individual teams based on the size of the defensive backs they possess. Say what you want, but if a team's facing a defensive backfield like Seattle's, you may want to "go small" at wide receiver. Conversely, when facing corner backs who are "vertically challenged", the "Calvin Johnson-Brandon Marshll-AndreJohnson types" are the way to go.
This is an age of specialization in the NFL. The small, reliable receivers so often overlooked aren't going away any time soon. Yes, having a 6'5" giant with a 40" vertical leap is more than handy to have around. But when it comes to moving the first down chains, and making defensive secondaries respect the underneath zone passing lanes, give me a Welker any day of the week...