Wide-out class of '02 already receiving distinguished honors

Second-round selections making biggest impact

Pro Football

October 18, 2002|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

Antonio Bryant brought a brash attitude into the NFL draft last April and it dumped him into the bottom of the second round.

Deion Branch brought a reputation as a playmaker who played bigger than his 5-foot-9 frame and it elevated him from a fourth-round projection into the top 65.

Arriving in the second round from opposite directions, these two rookies have shown once again the NFL draft is no science. They are among the headliners in the class of 2002 wide receivers that already is distinguishing itself.

Donte Stallworth, the first receiver taken in the draft, caught a touchdown pass in each of his first four games with the New Orleans Saints before a knee injury knocked him out of the past two.

Josh Reed, the fifth receiver taken, had eight catches for 110 yards and a touchdown in Week 2 for the Buffalo Bills. And Andre Davis, the seventh wide-out to go, had a two-touchdown game in Week 3 for the Cleveland Browns.

Three wide receivers were taken in the first round last spring. Another eight went in the second. Surprisingly, it's the second-rounders who have made the bigger impact.

If anything, the first six weeks of the season have underscored the quality and depth of receivers in this draft.

"There were six or seven receivers taken in the second round that we had as first-round talent," said Stephen Jones, the Dallas Cowboys' director of player personnel. "This seems to be a good class of receivers."

Phil Savage, the director of college scouting for the Ravens, says opportunity has embraced raw talent.

"They're off to a good start as a group because the abilities [are] combined with opportunity," Savage said. "That's what it's all about for a rookie; when they get the chance, showing what they can do."

Bryant was a first-round talent who dropped to the Cowboys with the 63rd pick. One pick earlier, the Pittsburgh Steelers took quarterback-turned-wide receiver Antwaan Randle El. Two picks later, at No. 65, the New England Patriots grabbed the diminutive Branch. It's a threesome to watch.

Bryant pulled down a game-winning 24-yard touchdown pass to beat the Carolina Panthers last Sunday and is averaging 14.5 yards per catch.

Branch leads all rookie receivers in catches and yards. His 37 catches are fifth best in the AFC and his 408 yards are seventh.

Randle El leads the NFL with a 29.6 kickoff return average, thanks to his 99-yard touchdown return in Week 6. Combining his receiving, rushing, passing and return yardage, the former Indiana quarterback has 679 all-purpose yards in five games.

A third-round projection, the 5-9 Randle El is filling the "slash" role that Kordell Stewart popularized.

"He played wide-out at the Senior Bowl and played well," Savage said. "He gave an indication he could probably do it. Then he went to a team that's had success in creating some plays for Kordell Stewart and Hines Ward. So they have experience trying to work a guy into their lineup."

The Cowboys debated character questions about Bryant, then took him with their second pick in the second round. When Raghib Ismail had season-ending neck surgery in August, Bryant became the first rookie wide receiver to start the opener for Dallas since Michael Irvin in 1988. Jones isn't ready to make Irvin comparisons - just yet.

"With the career Michael had, I wouldn't want to put that on him yet," Jones said. "[But] he may be one of the top offensive players we brought in here since the Emmitt Smith, Troy Aikman, Michael Irvin days. We see him being able to make that kind of impact."

Bryant was suspended twice at Pittsburgh a year ago for two fights with players and an ensuing argument with an assistant coach. Jones says his track record has been distorted.

"His deal is all from a competitive standpoint, verbalizing what's on his mind," Jones said. "It's not off-the-field issues. He's a highly competitive person who believes he should be getting the ball every play."

Branch went from a passing offense at Louisville to a passing team in the NFL that wasn't turned off by his size. The Patriots liked his productivity at Louisville, where he caught 143 passes for 2,194 yards and 18 touchdowns in two years.

Branch started twice in place of injured Troy Brown and had 13 catches for 128 yards in a loss to San Diego. He was named the AFC's Rookie of the Month for September.

Catching on

The class of 2002 receivers has already made an impact in less than half a season, and much of the splash has been made by second-round picks.

Draft Over.

Player, team rd. pick Rec. Yds. Avg. TD Skinny

Donte Stallworth, Saints ... 1 13 15 179 11.9 4 Proven he's a playmaker at this level

Ashley Lelie, Broncos ........ 1 19 9 125 13.9 0 Bulked up, adjusting to pro game

Javon Walker, Packers ...... 1 20 9 137 15.2 1 Had big opening day with 4 catches

Jabar Gaffney, Texans ..... 2 33 13 139 10.7 1 Starter in Houston's No. 32 pass game

Josh Reed, Bills .................. 2 36 19 263 13.8 2 Solid No. 3 behind Moulds and Price

Tim Carter, Giants .............. 2 46 1 10 10.0 0 Injury left him behind the curve

Andre Davis, Browns ......... 2 47 20 263 13.2 4 Four TDs came in first three games

Reche Caldwell, Chargers.. 2 48 4 28 7.0 1 Caught game-winner vs. Chiefs

Antwaan Randle El, Steelers 2 62 19 234 12.3 0 Versatility suits slash role

Antonio Bryant, Cowboys..... 2 63 19 275 14.5 2 Playmaker who brings an attitude

Deion Branch, Patriots ......... 2 65 37 408 11.0 2 Had 13-catch game vs. Chargers

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