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Rookie Has Size Disadvantage

We seldom hear the words “too” and “big” used together in the same sentence. An employee never tells the boss that a paycheck is too big. A guest never tells the hotel manager that a room is too big. A would-be bride never tells the would-be groom that an engagement ring is too big. But when it comes to playing wide receiver in the National Football League, there actually is such a thing as being too big. 

In fact, only four wide receivers 6-foot-5 and over made the Pro Bowl between the years 1970 and 2013 (Harold Carmichael, Cris Collinsworth, Calvin Johnson and Vincent Jackson). During that same period of time, 12 wide receivers 6-foot-5 and over were selected in the first two rounds of the draft. A few – including Plaxico Burress and Joe Jurevicius – had long and productive careers, but the majority made little to no impact in the NFL. Matt Jones leads that dubious list.

This brings us to Michael Clark. At nearly 6-foot-6, the undrafted rookie from Marshall towers over Jordy Nelson (6’3) and Davante Adams (6’2), who are among the tallest pair of starting wide receivers in the league. And it’s almost comical to see Clark standing next to Randall Cobb (5’10) in the huddle. But there’s nothing funny about how the former college hoops star has played through the first two weeks of training camp.

Clark has made at least one eye-opening play in every practice. That would be impressive for any rookie wide receiver, but it’s especially impressive for a rookie wide receiver who only played football for one season in college. As a junior at Marshall in 2016, Clark caught 37 passes for 632 yards and five TDs. That’s pretty darn good for a young man who probably didn’t know a curl route from a dig route 15 months ago.

So what’s the problem? While Clark has certainly taken advantage of his great height at times during camp by outjumping smaller defensive backs, it’s probably worked to his disadvantage more often. That’s because he builds to speed and takes time to get started coming off the line. He also isn’t very sudden out of his breaks, which makes creating separation down the field a challenge. Both of these things are typical of wide receivers taller than 6-foot-5, and it’s why there have been so few good ones in recent memory.

If Clark keeps producing, there’s a good chance he’ll stick around on the practice squad and even an outside chance for the 53. But if he’s ever going to be more than a gimmick player at this level (red zone target/kick blocker), he’ll probably have to add weight and become a move tight end. And while he’ll never be much of a blocker at that position, his strengths will still be strengths and his weaknesses will be less of a liability.

There’s a reason you don’t see many college basketball stars becoming NFL wide receivers. Guys like Antonio Gates, Tony Gonzalez and Jimmy Graham go from forward to tight end. And while I’m in no way suggesting Clark is going to be the next Gates, I do think that’s the only chance he has of having a career in the NFL. In the meantime, fans should enjoy watching him play wide receiver. It’s a sight we seldom see.

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About Robert Tahan