Just don't tell him he's small.
|Cortland Finnegan plays the kind of game that can make any coach smile. (US Presswire)|
Me: "You're small, so how do you make up for it?"
Finnegan: "I am small? I didn't know that. I don't feel like I'm small. I feel like you're a small guy."
Well, I am.
So is he. And he was joking about it. He's too good a guy to get testy about it. Instead he uses the size questions -- he weighs 188 pounds -- as motivation.
"That's fuel to the fire," Finnegan said.
Fuel enough that he's likely on his way to his first Pro Bowl. If he somehow gets left off in December when the teams are announced, it would be a major mistake.
The only AFC corner who is better than Finnegan right now is Oakland's Nnamdi Asomugha, who's been one of the best the past three years but has never been selected to the Pro Bowl.
As for Finnegan, his climb to elite player is pretty impressive for a former college safety at Samford who wasn't drafted until the seventh round.
"It's been a lot hard work," Finnegan said. "I've been able to make plays because I'm comfortable with the defense and comfortable with the people around me. When you're comfortable with both of those, you can just go out and play football."
He has four interceptions is also a willing tackler in run support, which is why he headlines my list of breakout players who could be on the way to their first Pro Bowls.
When you watch Finnegan play, he always seems to be in the middle of a fracas or two. You can see him pushing and shoving or playing through the whistle. "Chippy" is a word some use to describe his play, which might hurt him some with the player portion of the voting in December.
Finnegan simply doesn't back down.
"I think when people see that on tape they respect you for that," Finnegan said. "They know it's going to be a contest. If they don't come and play, it's going to be a long day."
The small man packs a big punch.
Oops, sorry. I promise I won't use the word small again.
The way he plays, this is one corner you don't want to make mad.
Here are the other 10 breakout players who could be headed to their first Pro Bowl:
Barrett Ruud, LB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
He is a fiery spark in the middle of the Tampa Bay defense. In their cover-two scheme, the middle linebacker is asked to do a lot.
Ruud does it all well.
He can play the run, but he's also capable in pass coverage. He has 79 tackles, three sacks and two interceptions.
Ruud is a big reason the Bucs are fifth in total defense.
Roddy White, WR, Atlanta Falcons
He is third in the league in catches with 58 for 903 yards (15.6 average) and six touchdowns. White had a good season in 2006 when he had 83 catches for 1,202 yards and six touchdowns, but with Matt Ryan playing well as a rookie, he's even better.
White struggled his first two seasons, leading some to label him a bust as a first-round pick. So what changed?
"I had to put more focus on football," White told me this summer. "I stopped going out as much. A couple of friends told me I couldn't be in the club as much. I knew I could be one of the elite players in the league. I just had to show everybody I could do it."
Smart man. He's now an elite receiver in the NFL.
Chris Snee, G, New York Giants
It's hard to say this is a breakout season for Snee, since he's been one of my Pro Bowl guards the past couple of seasons.
But he has never been the real one.
That will change this year. Snee, the Giants' right guard, is a big reason they lead the league in rushing. He's a mauler in the run game and has improved greatly as a pass blocker.
He's much more than just the son-in-law of coach Tom Coughlin. Snee is a dominant player who will get to Hawaii this season.
LaMarr Woodley, LB, Pittsburgh Steelers
When I saw him in camp this summer, I knew he was ready for a big second season in the league. He hasn't disappointed.
He has 9½ sacks in nine games to show his pass-rush burst. He's also a good run player, his thick body capable of holding up at the point of attack.
With James Harrison getting 12 sacks playing on the other side, it might be tough for Woodley to get to the Pro Bowl, unless he has a flurry of sacks in the next couple of weeks.
Darrelle Revis, CB, New York Jets
The second-year corner from Pitt has developed into the smooth cover corner the Jets expected when they traded up to get him in the first round of the 2007 draft.
Revis has four interceptions and has showed off his ability to play man coverage, covering the other team's best receivers.
Revis started all 16 games as a rookie but didn't get an interception. He did get credit for having 13 passes defensed. One of his four picks this season went for a touchdown, against Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner.
Get used to seeing him in the Pro Bowl a lot. He's that good.
Nick Collins, S, Green Bay Packers
Who's having the biggest defensive breakout season?
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He is tied with teammate Charles Woodson for the league lead in interceptions with five.
Not bad for a player many Packers fans and media members wanted benched last season for Aaron Rouse.
Collins has become a big-play safety, with three interception returns for touchdowns, one off the league record of four held by three men. Collins also has 48 tackles and has been credited with 14 passes defensed.
A fourth-year player from Bethune-Cookman, he has shut up a lot of critics of the Green Bay safeties -- including me.
Michael Roos, LT, Tennessee Titans
The Titans have arguably the best line in the NFL. Roos is the best player on that line.
He is the perfect left tackle with good feet in pass protection. He also plays with a nasty streak. He teams with right tackle David Stewart to form the best tackle tandem in the league.
Roos was a second-round pick out of Eastern Washington in 2005. He has started 58 consecutive games and signed a long-term deal last spring that made him the third-highest paid tackle in the league.
That was a smart move by the Titans.
Jay Ratliff, NT, Dallas Cowboys
He started 15 games in 2007 when Jason Ferguson went down with an injury, but the job was his this season when Ferguson was traded to Miami.
Ratliff has more than held up at the position. He's been arguably the Cowboys' best defensive player.
He has six sacks, a lot for a nose, and he has held up well against the run. A former seventh-round pick out of Auburn, he has surpassed a lot of expectations. When you're the team's best defender, outdoing a star-studded group that includes DeMarcus Ware, that's saying something.
Michael Turner, RB, Atlanta Falcons
In his first season with the Falcons, signed as a high-priced free agent, Turner has been everything the team expected.
He is third in the league in rushing with 971 yards, averaging 4.3 per carry. His 227 carries are one fewer than the 228 he had in four seasons in San Diego as LaDainian Tomlinson's backup.
I wondered if he could be the featured back, but he's more than showed he can do it. Here's his best stat: He has 285 more rushing yards than L.T.
Brandon Jacobs, RB, New York Giants
He had a solid season in 2007, rushing for 1,099 yards. But he wasn't what you considered an elite back.
He is now.
The 260-pound Jacobs has already rushed for 879 yards and scored 11 touchdowns. His ability to pound defenses is a big reason the Giants are leading the league in rushing.
In talking to defensive players who have faced him, it isn't fun tackling Jacobs, which is why he's on his way to his first Pro Bowl.
Other breakout players in the mix for their first trip to Hawaii: Jahri Evans, G, Saints; Davin Joseph, G, Bucs; Madison Hedgecock, FB, Giants; Montel Owens, ST, Jaguars; Tanard Jackson, S, Bucs; Leon Washington, KR, Jets; Chad Greenway, LB, Vikings; Haloti Ngata, DT, Ravens; Samson Satele, C, Dolphins; Le'Ron McClain, FB, Ravens; Carlos Rogers, CB, Redskins.