As political commentator George Will noted in an excellent column this week, one that emphasized that the increased size and hitting torque of players might make it impossible for the NFL to inevitably address all of its concussion-related issues, football is a game for big people. That doesn't mean, though, there isn't still room for some smaller playmakers. And teams continue to look for them.That isn't to suggest that the Darren Sproles-sized back will become commonplace in the league. Certainly the New Orleans Saints star, who established a single-season mark for all-purpose yards (2,696) in 2011 and registered 86 catches, is a special talent at 5-feet-6. There simply aren't many guys like him. But there has been a bit of a re-emphasis on the smaller, change-of-pace back in the past few seasons, and that's likely to continue.
"I just think that, if you get me in some situations, I'm going to make [defenders] miss, and be able to make plays," said Atlanta Falcons second-year back Jacquizz Rodgers, who, like Sproles, is only 5-6. "There's a place for me."First-year Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter has insisted during the offseason that he wants to reduce the workload for starter Michael Turner this year and also introduce the screen pass to the Atlanta attack, something that was sorely missing under predecessor Mike Mularkey for four years. The aim in both cases is to take advantage of Rodgers' quickness in space, his ability to elude tacklers and, of course, his big-play speed. [Around the NFL: Tim Tebow throws an interception in his preseason debut with Jets]
Koetter, though, isn't the only coordinator so inclined. The smaller back might not be quite in vogue yet around the league, but teams are looking more toward that type of No. 2 runner as a viable complement to their starter. Statistics indicate that the physical profile at the starting tailback position hasn't varied a whole lot from 10 years ago. The average dimensions from 2002 to the 32 presumptive starters for this season, in fact, are eerily similar. But there are a number of factors – the emphasis on speed, the continued erosion of tackling in the NFL, particularly in space, and the increase in big plays – has made the smaller back of more interest to teams again.In Pittsburgh, fifth-round rookie Chris Rainey, a former University of Florida star with blistering speed and quickness and premier fluidity, is expected to be a key part of the new offense installed by first-year coordinator Todd Haley. When he was in Kansas City, Haley developed a similar role for the undersized Dexter McCluster, who occasionally aligns in the slot. Notably, both Rainey and Rodgers scored touchdowns in their respective teams' Thursday night preseason openers.
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