MINNEAPOLIS — Written on a piece of paper in front of Antoine Winfield was a comparison of the height and weight of the No. 1 receivers in his division during his first and 14th NFL seasons.
Funny how things can change when a short man’s career keeps eluding extinction from one millennium to the next.
“Yeah,” said Winfield, looking at the piece of paper, “that pretty much sums up the direction the NFL is going.”
In 1999, Winfield was a 5-9, 180-pound rookie with the Bills. The top receiver in the AFC East that year was the Colts’ Marvin Harrison, a 6-foot, 175-pounder who caught 115 passes for 1,663 yards and 12 touchdowns.
“Marvin was sort of tall and real skinny,” Winfield said. “Great player, though.”
This season, Winfield is still stuck on 5-9, 180 as a 35-year-old veteran leading the Vikings’ young secondary back into the tall timber that is the NFC North. Sunday at Ford Field in Detroit, they face the division’s top receiver, Calvin “Megatron” Johnson, a 6-5, 239-pounder who caught 96 passes for 1,681 yards and 16 touchdowns a year ago and leads the league in receiving yards (369) and catches of 25 yards or more (four) this season.
How good is he? Well, his goal is 2,000 yards receiving. And no one is snickering.
“A guy that size was a tight end in 1999,” said Winfield, shaking his head. “But the difference is this guy is running 4.2, 4.3 and can jump out of the gym.”
And he’s not the only receiver towering over the Vikings’ secondary as it tries to erase last year’s disastrous performance while helping the team end an 11-game losing streak within the division. The Bears now have the 6-4, 230-pound Brandon Marshall, while the Packers have the underrated 6-3, 217-pound Jordy Nelson.
So what’s a 5-9 cornerback to do in today’s NFL?
“No. 1 for me is I like to play an ‘off’ technique; play outside of him so I got a chance to see the quarterback throw the ball and still have him in my peripheral so I can see him,” Winfield said. “I play over the top of him so if there is a jump-ball situation, I slow down a little bit and maybe throw him off.”
Winfield knows going in that he won’t win any jump balls with many of today’s receivers.
“(Coaches) preach or try to teach to go up and try to get the ball at its highest point,” Winfield said. “I don’t have a chance.”
So Winfield has a Plan B.
“I let him go up and as he’s coming down, I’ll punch up through his hands,” Winfield said. “Just play his hands and get the incompletion. It won’t be an intercepted ball for me on a jump ball. Not at all.”
One of the reasons Chris Cook was drafted in the second round in 2010 was his size. He’s considered a giant by cornerback standards, but at 6-2, 212 pounds, he’s still giving up 3 inches in height and nearly 30 pounds to “Megatron.”
In his last game against Detroit — Week 3 of last season — Cook was the primary defender on Johnson. He showed that he can contend with him, swatting away a deep ball while helping hold him to one catch for 7 yards as the Vikings took a 20-0 halftime lead. But Johnson went on to catch six more balls for 101 yards and two touchdowns as the Lions won 26-23 in overtime. Johnson’s brilliant 40-yard catch over Cedric Griffin in overtime set up the game-winning field goal.
“I feel like you have to slow him down at the line of scrimmage,” Cook said. “He’s a big, tall guy and it takes him a while to get going when he’s going down the field. I feel like if you can interrupt him at the line and slow down the timing of the routes, it messes up the timing of their whole offense.”
It’s not like the small receiver has no place in today’s NFL. New England’s 5-9 Wes Welker led the league in receptions with 122 last year, while the Vikings’ 5-11 Percy Harvin is as dangerous a play-maker as any in the league. But there’s a definite shift toward taller receivers.
“Look at colleges, or even high schools,” Winfield said. “I look at the receivers my son (Antoine Jr.) is covering at Eden Prairie High School. I don’t know what these kids are eating these days, but they all seem to be 6-3, 6-4, 6-5.”
At least Antoine Jr., a 5-7 corner, knows where to go for some advice on the evolution of the receiver position.