Catching on is tough

Transition time means teams tread carefully on receivers

NFL Draft

April 24, 2008|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN REPORTER

They were game-breakers on the college level, capable of turning simple 10-yard passes into jaw-dropping, 80-yard touchdowns.

So why doesn't that kind of excitement and production automatically carry over to this year's NFL draft when it comes to wide receivers?

It's simple: Receivers usually take longer to develop and sometimes only tease those who drafted them.

Mark Clayton of the Ravens is a perfect example.

Drafted 22nd overall out of Oklahoma in 2005, Clayton led all rookie receivers with 44 catches. After improving to 67 receptions for 939 yards and five touchdowns in 2006, nagging injuries and an inept offense limited Clayton to 48 catches for 531 yards and no touchdowns last year.

Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome, who played wide receiver at Alabama before becoming a Hall of Fame tight end with the Cleveland Browns, equates the transition wide receivers have to make from college to the pros to another position at which rookies rarely excel.

In fact, Newsome thinks receiver might be the second-hardest position for a rookie to play effectively after quarterback.

"They're asked to do so many things before the snap and then when they start running. And, that's before they catch it," Newsome said. "I think it's a tough position for guys to come in right away and play, especially with what they have to go through in college."

Given that only one receiver in this year's class, Devin Thomas of Michigan State, is considered a consensus top-15 pick (but probably not a top-10 pick), and factor in that the Ravens have needs at other positions, it's doubtful Newsome would choose a receiver early.

He won't be alone.

After what Marques Colston has done in New Orleans his first two seasons after being a seventh-round draft pick out of Hofstra, and what other more highly regarded receivers haven't done recently, there seems to be a trend to fill other holes before going for a wideout.

According to a recent story on NFL.com, only two of the 43 receivers taken in the first round over the past 10 years have gained more than 1,000 yards as a rookie. Of that group, 26 have still yet to gain more than 1,000 yards in a season. The only one to gain 1,000 yards his first year who is now a star is Randy Moss.

Dwayne Bowe, picked 23rd overall last year by the Kansas City Chiefs out of LSU, finished with 70 catches for 995 yards and five touchdowns, outperforming both Calvin Johnson (48 catches for 756 yards and four touchdowns) and Ted Ginn Jr. (34 catches for 420 yards and two touchdowns), selected second and ninth overall by the Detroit Lions and Miami Dolphins, respectively.

So how does this year's draft-eligible group of receivers stack up, and what separates the top echelon from the rest?

According to most mock drafts, the top receivers aside from Thomas will go in the second half of the opening round, or drop down to the second or third round.

Most have listed Texas' Limas Sweed, DeSean Jackson of California and Oklahoma's Malcolm Kelly in that next group of receivers after Thomas. Others, including Indiana's James Hardy (who visited the Ravens last week) and Virginia Tech's Eddie Royal, could also sneak into the second round.

The most familiar name missing from that group is Mario Manningham. The former Michigan star has had a difficult audition for the NFL, both in terms of on-field performance and off-field issues, including lying during his interview at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis about testing positive for marijuana while in college.

"Manningham did not run well at the combine. He ran better at his Pro Day, but he is not really a good route runner from what you can make out of him," said former Dallas Cowboys personnel director Gil Brandt, who now works for the NFL.

Still, given what he demonstrated during his three seasons in Ann Arbor, Manningham could become this year's steal at receiver.

"I think Manningham is another one of those guys that you're going to get down the line who's pretty good, or who has the possibility of being pretty good," Brandt said.

The one similarity among many of the receivers being considered is their limited experience - most are juniors.

"I think this year, the reason why there's a clump on our board is because they're juniors and we just don't have as much information as you would like to have," Newsome said. "Eric [DeCosta, the Ravens' director of college scouting] has done a study, and the study he did on junior receivers coming out didn't show very well."

Yet Newsome admits more receivers are listed on his draft board than players at any other position because "production counts so much for a receiver, where it doesn't in a lot of other positions."

Brandt said that the strength of this year's rookie receiving corps might be in sheer numbers.

"I think there's a lot of people there at wide receiver," Brandt said recently. "I think what happened was that there were 50 guys [playing receiver] that came to the combine. A lot of them looked pretty much alike."

don.markus@baltsun.com

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