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NFL's smaller players produce big results

For Jim Leonhard, the expressions of disbelief are almost always the same.

At 5-10, 185 pounds and with a boyish face that makes him look as if he is 18 years old, Leonhard surprises just about everyone he meets when they find out he's an NFL player.

"They either don't believe you or they give you a little look like, 'You can't be,' " the Jets safety said. "For some reason, everyone expects when you're a football player that you're going to be 6-2, 250 pounds."

For Maurice Jones-Drew, the doubters were virtually unanimous in their skepticism. At 5-7, he was too short to play in high school . . . and then college . . . and then the pros.

"I heard it from Pop Warner on," the Jaguars running back said. "They'd say, 'Well, he's doing well in Pop Warner, but when he gets to high school, where there's no weight limit, he's going to get shut down.' When I did well in high school, they said, 'Well, that's because he's playing against kids who aren't as good as the team he's on. Just wait till he gets to college.' And then in college, they'd say, 'He can't play in the NFL, because he'd be going against grown men who get paid.' "

And for LaDainian Tomlinson, being short only served as motivation. "I heard that a bunch, and I loved it," the 5-10, 210-pound Chargers running back said. "It gave me fuel. It was really something that pushed me to want to be great."

Too short to play in the NFL? There really isn't such a thing anymore. With increasing regularity, players once considered too small to play at the top level of professional football are defying stereotypes they've confronted from the time they first put on a helmet and shoulder pads.

Long list of shorter stars

The examples are everywhere. From Leonhard, Jones-Drew and Tomlinson to 5-11 Vikings rookie receiver Percy Harvin, 5-9 Giants running back Ahmad Bradshaw and 5-8 Ravens running back Ray Rice, there's definitely a place in the NFL for short people.

And with an increasing emphasis on speed on both sides of the ball, especially with the added use of spread offenses, short players are more than welcome in pro football.

"Height doesn't have anything to do with your football intelligence," said Leonhard, who joined the Jets this year as a free agent from Baltimore. "Everyone is looking for the players who look the part, but in the NFL, there aren't a lot of positions that height really factors into how well you can play.

"Everyone always asks, 'How do you deal with covering guys this much taller than you, or tackling guys this much bigger than you?' But you don't really think about it. It's just football. It's just another guy who happens to be bigger than me."

Rather than look at his size as an impediment, Leonhard believes it worked to his advantage growing up.

"If you're undersized, it forces you to learn the game," he said. "The only way for you to have success is to learn the game, where if you're bigger, faster or stronger, you don't necessarily have to get better at football. You can just 'out-physical' everyone. A lot of smaller players have the mental edge because they understand how to succeed in any situation because they know the mental side of the game better. It forces you to learn."

Ground control

For many shorter running backs, their diminutive stature can be used to their benefit. It's a big reason the NFL has seen many shorter backs succeed over the years.

Consider: Emmitt Smith, the NFL's all-time leading rusher, led Dallas to three Super Bowl titles in the 1990s. He was 5-9. Former Giants running back Joe Morris, a key player in the team's first Super Bowl win after the 1986 season, was 5-7. And Hall of Fame running back Walter Payton of the Bears was 5-10. Former Lions All-Pro running back Barry Sanders was 5-8.

"Football has a lot to do with leverage," said Bradshaw, the Giants' second-leading rusher behind 6-4 Brandon Jacobs. "You have a little guy that's strong, he can get leverage. As a running back, you've got that leverage, and with a tackler coming up, you tend to get a little lower than them."

Rice, who leads the Ravens with 1,041 yards, believes his compact build makes him a more effective runner.

"I'm built lower to the ground, so I think it helps me," said the former Rutgers star, who grew up in New Rochelle. "If I have to use my speed, I can do that, and if I have to use my power, I can use that, too. I've never really felt it was a disadvantage for me."

Spreading the wealth

The increased use of spread offenses has been a boon to shorter players. With more teams going to formations that attempt to get players into open space, as opposed to the days of "smash-mouth" football that stressed playing between the tackles, the shorter, quicker players have found a place.

Consider: 5-9 Patriots receiver Wes Welker, who plays in the slot and usually runs to an open spot in the defense on his patterns, leads the team with 105 catches for 1,158 yards.

Giants receiver Steve Smith, only 5-11, leads the NFC with 85 receptions. Steve Smith of the Panthers, just 5-9, has been an All-Pro.

There also is a less quantifiable factor in smaller players that might have as much to do with their success as anything. Tomlinson likes to call it heart.

"I don't think size matters, because it's the heart of a guy that takes you a long way," he said. "If you're tough, you're tough, and that will show no matter how small you are."

Jones-Drew says it has to do with an area a little bit north of the heart.

"As shorter guys, we have that chip on our shoulder, and it gives us that edge a little more than some other players," he said. "In this league, playmakers come in all shapes and sizes. You don't have to be the typical 5-10, 6-foot running back.

"You can be whatever you want, as long as you make plays when the ball's in your hands. At the end of the day, it's about 'want-to.' We want it more than other players."

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