Trying to land impact receiver, Ravens take a hit

Team might give it another try at next weekend's NFL draft

Nfl Draft

April 18, 2004|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

In 1998, the lure of speed prompted the Ravens to draft Patrick Johnson in the second round when Hines Ward was still on the board.

Two years later, big-game performances persuaded them to use a top 10 pick on Travis Taylor when Laveranues Coles and Darrell Jackson lasted into the third round.

These attempts to land an impact receiver represent the major disappointments on what has become a revered drafting resume. For a franchise that has prided itself on selecting a future Pro Bowl performer at nearly every position, the Ravens have dropped the ball when it comes to finding a wide-out with the right speed, instincts and toughness.

The elusive search might continue in next weekend's draft, in which the prevailing question is whether the Ravens will look to fill their biggest need by tapping the most heralded receiver class in draft history.

Although team officials have hinted they are shying away from using their top pick (51st selection in the second round) on what could be the ninth- or 10th-rated receiver, they are clear on one point: Selecting receivers has become one of the riskiest propositions in the draft.

"Anywhere on the first day, it is a hit and miss," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "It is and you wouldn't think so. You'd think a guy could play on sheer athleticism. For whatever reason, that position is one where Anquan Boldin is truly the exception."

For every Boldin - a late second-round pick by Arizona who turned into a Pro Bowl performer as a rookie - there are colossal first-round busts like Thomas Lewis (New York Giants, 1994), Marcus Nash (Denver, 1998) and R. Jay Soward (Jacksonville, 2000).

For every Torry Holt (St. Louis' first-rounder in 1999) and Chad Johnson (Cincinnati's second-rounder in 2001), there are letdowns like Taylor and Patrick Johnson. The only two receivers picked by the Ravens on the draft's first day have failed to average more than three catches per game during their NFL careers.

According to Ravens director of player personnel Phil Savage, receiver, running back and cornerback are the second-hardest positions to evaluate, ranking only behind quarterback.

Historically, the numbers back up that assertion. Of the 41 receivers taken in the first two rounds since 1999, only 23 are slated to start this season for their original teams. Just four (Holt, Boldin, Chad Johnson and David Boston) over that span have been named to the Pro Bowl.

"What I think is the real difficulties for a receiver is that they have so much to learn," Savage said. "There are so many variables involved."

Many college teams rely on run-and-shoot systems that feature a handful of primarily quick routes. But those receivers who have showcased NFL size and speed don't necessarily make a successful jump to the next level because defenses are much more sophisticated.

Unlike the assortment of zone defenses in college, pro receivers face more physical man coverages and have to learn how to get open.

They have to learn how to run precise routes and break off those routes when a blitz is coming. They have to learn how to concentrate on the ball while in traffic and hold onto it while taking a hit over the middle.

Talent can get a receiver into the league, but becoming a technician will keep him there.

"Very few of them have the opportunity to do all these things when they get on our level," Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said. "You have to be able to develop them properly and bring them along in the right manner, just like you do with a quarterback."

Just like a quarterback, the right offensive system factors into the success of a receiver.

Whether it's a problem with the system or an overestimation of talent, the Ravens have used seven draft picks in their eight-year history on receivers - from Jermaine Lewis to Javin Hunter - with minimal results. Only once (Taylor in 2002) has a receiver drafted by the Ravens caught more than 42 passes in a season.

The Ravens' problems with receivers have boiled down to consistency. Taylor disappeared too frequently, Johnson dropped too many passes, and promising fourth-rounder Brandon Stokley got hurt too often.

"You have to have a lot of pieces in place for a guy to come in and fit in at that spot and make that kind of impact," Savage said.

When first analyzing receivers, scouts look for such physical attributes as size (preferably 6 feet 2 or taller), speed (runs the 40-yard dash around 4.4 seconds) and reliable hands.

They study these players at games, on film, at the combine and at pre-draft workouts. They try to get a feel for intelligence through interviewing the players and their coaches.

But the hardest aspect to gauge could be the most important.

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