Teams need depth at cornerback

With so much emphasis on multiple-receiver sets, the WR and CB positions are as important as ever.

Updated: June 1, 2004, 2:27 PM ET
By Todd McShay | Scouts, Inc.
The last five NFL drafts have seen an average of 5.6 fullbacks and 15 tight ends selected, compared to 36 wide receivers. Even cutting the receiver total in half, accounting for a typical offensive package with two receivers, one tight end and one fullback, there still have been an average of 12.4 more receivers taken than fullbacks and an average of three more receivers taken than tight ends.

Those numbers are a direct result of the more wide-open offenses being adopted in the NFL. Sure, there will always be ground-based teams lilke the Carolina Panthers, but there is no arguing that the majority of the NFL has traded in its work boots for track shoes.

Fullbacks are a dying breed in the NFL, and tight ends look more like wide receivers with each passing season. Look at the Dolphins -- without the help of uniform numbers it would be nearly impossible to tell WR David Boston, who is a protein shake away from having to move to tight end, from TE Randy McMichael, who is a long jog and a steam away from being a wide receiver.

With so much emphasis on multiple-receiver sets, the wide receiver and cornerback positions are as important as ever. Not only does a team need solid starters at each position, it also needs to have great depth in order to match up.

Having a No. 3 wide receiver who is good enough to be a starter elsewhere typically creates a mismatch that could force the opponent to adjust its entire defensive scheme.

The best way to neutralize a good No. 3, of course, is to have an equally good nickel cornerback. And having a nickel corner who is good enough to be a starter elsewhere could force an offense with just a decent No. 3 receiver to shy away from three-receiver sets in order to keep the defense out of its nickel or dime packages.

In either case, a non-starting player is dictating strategy. While a matchup between Randy Moss and Champ Bailey will get the headlines, it's often the matchup between the No. 3 receiver and nickel corner that provides coaches the opportunity to create a mismatch.

Entering Super Bowl XXXV, the Ravens knew No. 3 WR Brandon Stokley would have a matchup advantage over Emmanuel McDaniel, the Giants' nickel corner, so they made certain to exploit that matchup as quickly and as often as possible. It was no mistake that Stokley scored the game's opening touchdown.

The Patriots provided another great example in their AFC Championship win over the Titans last season. They recognized that the injury to Tennessee's rookie first-round pick Andre Woolfolk left the Titans without a legitimate nickel cornerback, and they attacked that weakness. The Patriots rotated several receivers in and out of the No. 3 spot, but it was the speed of Bethel Johnson that exposed the weakness in the first quarter with a 41-yard touchdown reception.

With such a greater emphasis on nickel personnel, teams are trying to stock up on receivers and cornerbacks via free agency and the draft. Below is a ranked list of the No.3 receivers and cornerbacks that we project to have the best seasons in that specific role. Some of the players are rookies, while others are aging veterans. Some are former starters who have been relegated to a No. 3 spot, while others are up-and-coming players trying to use the nickel position as a stepping stone to a starting job. In any case, this list is not determined by past performance -- it's a projection of the players that we feel will be the best at their craft in '04.

Todd McShay

ESPN Senior Writer