ATLANTA — All one has to do is to take a look at the rapid rise of the Seattle Seahawks’ dominant defense — they finished fourth in the NFL in total defense in 2012 — to see the value of tall cornerbacks.
At the left corner, Richard Sherman, standing 6-foot-3, was a first-team Associated Press All-Pro selection. On the right side of the Seattle defense is 6-4 Brandon Browner, who posted three forced fumbles, three interceptions and six passes defended in 12 regular-season games. That’s on top of 23 passes defended in the previous season.
Some of the best NFL receivers — 6-5 Calvin Johnson or 6-3 Julio Jones — aren’t getting any shorter and aren’t going away. To combat this trend, NFL teams are finding taller cornerbacks to handle the taller wideouts.
Enter North Carolina State’s David Amerson, a projected mid-to-late pick for Round 1 in the upcoming draft (possible dip to Round 2). Amerson was listed at 6-3 on North Carolina State’s Web site — but at 6-1 on NFL.com’s list of draft profiles. Regardless, he’s tall for a corner.
When Amerson stepped on the Wolfpack’s practice field for the first time as a freshman, the coaches immediately turned the high school safety into a boundary corner.
“I went into it with open arms and tried to learn everything I needed to know about it, and it worked out for me,” Amerson said.
Amerson’s defensive coordinator at North Carolina State was Mike Archer, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ linebackers coach from 1996-2002 — and someone clearly attuned to NFL trends, in terms of defending taller receivers. Archer often schemed against tall receivers like Calvin Johnson (Georgia Tech) or Hakeem Nicks (North Carolina) during ACC play.
As a true sophomore in 2011, Amerson led the nation in interceptions (13). When a player does that, opposing offenses are going to be less inclined to throw in their direction later on. They’ll pick on someone else instead.
Still, the Greensboro, N.C., product followed up that effort with five more interceptions last season, including a pick-six return from 55 yards. Not surprisingly, Amerson made himself eligible for the draft as a true junior.
In addition to height, ball skills for defensive backs are of critical importance in today’s NFL. With the majority of rules favoring offenses, many head coaches and defensive coordinators don’t mind giving up “empty yards” — yards that don’t lead to points allowed. In that respect, nothing is more important than creating turnovers.
Amerson’s ball skills might come in part from playing basketball. He played youth football, but did not participate in high school football until his junior year. As a high school freshman and sophomore growing up not far from North Carolina’s basketball-crazed Tobacco Road, Amerson competed only in basketball.
“I’ve just always been able to catch the ball,” Amerson said. “I have pretty big hands. … Me and my friends playing around, I would always try to do trick catches. I’ve just always been good at catching the ball.”
At the NFL Combine scouts and team executives queried Amerson about his relative youth — whether he was ready to handle the rigors of the NFL.
“They asked me what was my reason for coming out as a junior and stuff like that and do I feel like I’m old enough to handle everything that comes along with the league?” he said. “I say of course.”
Amerson was in Atlanta last week to film “The Panel,” a Fox Sports South original program debuting March 18, where potential draftees are grilled by current and former NFL players. Amerson seemed particularly impressed by long-time veteran linebacker Takeo Spikes, the lone defensive player on the segment.
“You can definitely tell that they’re smart football players as well as men,” Amerson said. “You know those guys definitely know football, especially Takeo. He’s a linebacker. You get a leadership mentality when he’s talking to you so you can definitely feel that.”
Amerson said he received some good mentoring and constructive criticism on the set, which was filmed at midtown Atlanta’s swanky W Hotel.
“I mean, good things like what to expect your rookie year and how to handle it,” he said. “Some things they feel I need to work on. It was all good.”
Specifically, he said they talked to him about jamming receivers near the line of scrimmage and re-routing them and the need to use his hands more. In the NFL, where players’ size and athleticism sit on more equal footing than they do in college, technique becomes the difference-maker.
“That’s one thing I probably learned this year more than anything,” he said. “I had to really get back to my technique. When all else fails, technique is going to get you through everything. If you’re tired or nervous, anything, as long as you’ve got technique, you’ll be fine.”
Having been through the stress of the combine, participating in “The Panel” landed more on the enjoyable side of Amerson’s pre-draft activities.
“It’s definitely been a roller coaster,” he said. “It’s been fun at the same time. Just taking it all in, taking it one day, one event at a time. Just run right through it really.
“(The show) is definitely fun. You know, you can be nervous at first but at the end of the day it’s all fun. Definitely get some stuff off your chest. Talk to different guys, some veterans and things like that. It’s definitely good.”
In a few more weeks, he’ll celebrate. Then, it will be time to get to work.