The next big little thing

Charles Robinson
Yahoo! Sports

Week after week in 2005, Sinorice Moss watched the numbers pile up like a stockbroker watching his portfolio go through the roof.

The wide receiver from the University of Miami would catch the scrolling ticker on the sports channel or run his finger along the statistics on a computer screen. He'd seek out the names Santana Moss, Steve Smith and Antwaan Randle El. All three were short in stature and long in NFL odds. They were his compass.

So where they had traveled, the 5-foot-8 Sinorice Moss hoped to follow. And in a year when he needed to sway NFL scouts, he couldn't have picked better shepherds.

"It's pretty good timing, huh?" Moss said looking at his feet and flexing calves that looked like softballs jammed into tube socks. "Seeing my brother Santana and Steve Smith do their things (last season), I think it opened the eyes of a lot of coaches in the NFL. With me coming out and showing my speed and explosiveness, catching the balls that I catch (and) being able to run good routes, I think I could open a lot of coaches' eyes, too.

"I don't think I could be coming out (of college) at a better time."

For a wideout who falls well below the NFL's must-have 6-foot-tall standard, that's an understatement. Moss is hitting the draft in a year when short is chic – or, at the very least, workable.

While it might be a little over the top to say the pendulum is swinging to shorter receivers, it's safe to say they'll get longer looks in the 2006 draft, thanks to career years by many of the NFL's smallest wideouts.

One season after 5-9 Deion Branch captured MVP honors in Super Bowl XXXIX, six wide receivers under 6 feet posted 1,000-yard receiving seasons in 2005. And the league's two most prolific wideouts – Steve Smith and Santana Moss – weren't even close to "prototype" size. Both of them stand in the 5-9 to 5-10 range and still managed to combine for 3,046 receiving yards and 21 touchdowns last season.

"It's great timing for him," said San Francisco 49ers coach Mike Nolan, who coached Sinorice Moss at the Senior Bowl in January. "The smaller guys have kind of gone out of the deal in the NFL, but there are some smaller guys – Antwaan Randle El is another one of those guys that's not even mentioned – (who) have some versatility."

Now, Moss is one of the players who could make some of the biggest draft gains since season's end. Despite playing on the losing South team in the Senior Bowl, he walked away with MVP honors after running for 27 yards on a reverse and catching three balls for 45 yards, including a spectacular touchdown in the back of the end zone. The award puts him in impressive company of draft climbers from the past six years, including quarterbacks Charlie Frye and Philip Rivers, running back Larry Johnson, Randle El and quarterback Chad Pennington.

Widely considered a late first-day pick heading into the Senior Bowl, Moss has some forward momentum, and he appears to have positioned himself in solid second-round territory going into this month's scouting combine in Indianapolis.

"He's got our attention," Nolan said "… I don't want to say he's got a complete game yet, but somebody is going to get a good football player with him.

"The thing that I like about Moss (is that) he's built like his brother. They have great lower bodies. They might not be the tallest, but they are sturdy guys. When you have a little guy, and he's little all over, they get blown up in the game. But people have to know the difference between a sturdy shorter guy and a frail guy. He's certainly one of those sturdy guys."

Oddly enough, one of Moss' biggest hurdles has been escaping the comparisons that come with being the younger brother of a college and NFL star.

While Santana Moss has opened some doors by succeeding without blessed size, that prosperity added hurdles for Sinorice. It dogged him at Miami's Carol City High School, where he was dubbed "Little Santana" by teammates yet ended up playing wideout in a run-oriented offense. He did develop into a prime recruit – catching 23 passes for eight touchdowns and 506 yards as a senior – but he never reached the Parade All-American status some had predicted.

And the pressures only found new life when Sinorice chose to attend Miami, where his brother blossomed into a receiving and special teams phenom before the New York Jets chose him in the first round of the 2001 draft. That Sinorice even became a Hurricane was somewhat of a surprise. Some thought he would flee Santana's shadow and attend Tennessee, which had also courted him heavily.

"(Going to Miami is) a sign in the competitive nature part of the equation," said an NFC scout who watched Sinorice at the Senior Bowl. "Some guys shy away (from a school) if a brother or their father was a big shot (there). (Sinorice) had to know what he was getting into when he went to Miami. He had some footprints to step into, and he did it. I like to see that. The guys who shy away from it you have to ask why, and that's not the case here."

Like his experience in high school, though, Sinorice Moss wasn't able to fulfill the greatness most expected. He had enough of an impact to play in 12 games as a true freshman in a hometown fishbowl where even his first practice made big news (he had to do a 100-yard crabwalk for loafing). That rough start extended for three years, as Moss fought through ankle, hamstring and quadriceps injuries and struggled to find his place among more established receivers.

Whether it was Kellen Winslow Jr., Andre Johnson or Roscoe Parrish, Moss often got lost in the mix until his senior season, when he posted career highs in catches (37), receiving yards (614) and touchdowns (6). In the larger view of his career, it didn't help that the Hurricanes always had a deep rotation at receiver and never seemed to have an established quarterback. They alternated between Brock Berlin and Derrick Crudup during Moss' sophomore and junior years and then struggled with inexperienced starter Kyle Wright in 2005.

Now Moss is entering the draft with the typical knocks on his size – despite the success of his brother, Smith and Randle El – and some questions about the competition he faced in his biggest games. Scouts have been particularly prickly about Moss' best performances coming against the likes of Colorado, Temple and Duke.

"He's got some 'big-play' in him, but he disappears, too," an AFC personnel man said. "Even if he puts up big numbers (in workouts) you're not going to see him shoot up draft boards (because) he's 5-8. That happens to the 6-3 specimen types or 6-foot guys with zip. They fit a broader need. The small players have to fit what a team wants to do."

Look no further than San Francisco as an example of what Moss is going to face with many teams. Despite Nolan's good impression, 49ers pro personnel director Scot McCloughan has made it clear he prefers larger, prototypical wideouts because of the injury and durability factor. Undoubtedly, that's going to knock Moss down a few pegs on draft boards. But Moss did sit down with 10 teams at the Senior Bowl, and he could easily convert some disbelievers at the combine, where his speed and agility should impress.

"There's a lot of time to open eyes," Moss said. "Hopefully I've done that (at the Senior Bowl) and shown …"

Moss stopped for a second and shrugged.

"If I haven't opened everybody's eyes, that's OK," he added. "I still have time."

Time and timing. For once, they're both working in Sinorice Moss' favor.

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