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The NFL's Historical Focus On Size Of Players May Be Changing

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The NFL draft may not be till next month, but the debate about who will be picked first is heating up. Oklahoma quarterback and reigning Heisman Trophy winner Kyler Murray is currently considered the favorite, despite his undersized body frame. Coming in at a slim 5-foot-10, Murray isn't your typical NFL quarterback. The league is known for prizing height for the QB. And here he is at the NFL combine talking about his size.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KYLER MURRAY: I've never been the biggest guy on the field. I'm always the smallest guy in the field. You know, I've said it multiple times, you know, I feel like I'm the most impactful guy on the field and the best player on the field at all times.

CORNISH: Here to talk more is Lindsay Jones, writer for the website The Athletic. Welcome to the program.

LINDSAY JONES: Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: So what makes Kyler Murray so intriguing to take with the first pick?

JONES: Well, he is such a dynamic, unique athlete. And like you mentioned in his interview at the NFL combine, he is the best athlete on the field at almost every time. And that's what we saw his final year at Oklahoma when he won the Heisman is that he is just such a dynamic, unique athlete. And a lot of coaches - the innovative coaches especially - look at him and think that he can do things that no other quarterback in the league could possibly do.

CORNISH: What are the concerns about size?

JONES: With smaller quarterbacks, they just have difficulty with their vision and their sight lines and how they can see around the field when all of the other men are so big. So that's certainly the concern with the height. And if he had come in at 5-foot-9, even 5-foot-9 and 7/8 as opposed to just over 5-foot-10, that would have been a deal breaker for almost every NFL team, I think.

So the fact that he was 5'10", while, you know, that quarter half an inch might not seem like a big deal to the rest of us, it's a very big deal in the NFL. The other concern about his size is that when he was in college, he played at under 200 pounds. And it's very difficult for a quarterback and the pounding that they take - especially when they're running and on the move - the hits that they're going to be taking from defensive linemen who are 250, 275, 300 pounds.

So it's a big question of, how much weight can he hold comfortably while still being that dynamic athlete - and if he can hold up to the type of pounding that he will take once he's in the NFL.

CORNISH: Do you get the sense that teams have evolved in their thinking in that they're willing to take on a guy Murray's size?

JONES: Some have. I don't think that is something that is league-wide. There are some coaches and general managers who are very stuck in their ways about what they think a quarterback should look like from a height and weight perspective.

But we are starting to see some of these changes. Baker Mayfield, who was the No. 1 pick in last year's draft, is only 6-foot-1. And we were having these same sort of discussions about Baker Mayfield's size. He was tremendously successful as a rookie last year.

And then Russell Wilson, the quarterback from the Seattle Seahawks, who is also 5-foot-10 - he has really changed a lot of the ways that we look at quarterbacks and think about how successful a shorter quarterback can be.

CORNISH: One more thing. Kyler Murray also played baseball, right? Can you talk about his decision to choose going pro with the NFL?

JONES: Yes. This has been a lot of drama over the last several months because even his last year at Oklahoma, he said repeatedly that he was committed to playing pro baseball. He was drafted last year by the Oakland A's with the assumption that he would play his last year at Oklahoma, and then he would go to play baseball. But he had this tremendous final season where he won the Heisman Trophy.

And this momentum started building that not only could he be a viable NFL quarterback, but he could be a high first round pick. He decided that this is where he wanted to go. You can look short term versus long term, the amount of money, you know.

I think he's looking at it - I would rather play football. My career earnings over the course of 15 years might not be quite as high as a max baseball contract, but this is certainly something that he wants to do and will be financially viable for him.

CORNISH: That's Lindsay Jones, NFL writer for the website The Athletic. Lindsay, thanks for the update.

JONES: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.