Tough Catch

Finding Receivers Who Can Hold Up In Nfl Is Elusive Draft Pursuit

Six Days To Go

April 19, 2009|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,

Wide receiver is a position known for high-profile NFL draft busts such as Charles Rogers, David Terrell and Mike Williams, players picked in the top 10 who never became productive regulars, much less stars.

"It has the highest mortality rate of any position except quarterback, and it's almost as high," says Gil Brandt, former vice president of player personnel for the Dallas Cowboys.

Receivers are of particular interest this year because the Ravens need a deep threat - they have talked to the Arizona Cardinals about trading for Anquan Boldin - to help Joe Flacco reach his potential and because Maryland's Darrius Heyward-Bey is expected to go in the first round.

Both sagas could turn on the physical trait most likely to seduce general managers into bad picks: speed. There are other factors that make receivers difficult to analyze, such as the ability of the quarterback and the difference between the college and professional game.

"We tend to look too kindly on guys who run well and too negatively on guys who don't," ESPN draft expert Mel Kiper Jr. says, before reeling off a list of Hall of Famers with average speed. "That's where you can't look too much at that. But it's hard not to."

Of the 37 receivers picked in the first round since 2000, only 10 can be written off as absolute busts, with Rogers (second overall), Terrell (eighth) and Williams (10th) chief among them. About that many, including Larry Fitzgerald (third), Andre Johnson (third) and Reggie Wayne (30th), have become stars. An even bigger group, which includes the Ravens' Mark Clayton, has offered modest production.

Receivers picked in the top 10 have been 50-50 bets for stardom, and many of the most productive receivers in the league, from Steve Smith and Hines Ward (both third-rounders) to Derrick Mason (fourth-rounder), were picked later in the draft.

This creates the understandable feeling that teams are better off waiting a round or two to pick pass catchers on draft day. In fact, no receivers were selected in the opening round last year.

NFL Network draft specialist Mike Mayock says receiver is a risky position to draft in the first round but adds that fans and journalists magnify the problem by expecting too much too soon. Most college receivers have not been forced to fight their way off the line of scrimmage or make regular route adjustments on the run.

"Because of the physical issues and the mental issues, it's a very short line of wide receivers who can come out of college football at a level where they can catch 50 or 60 balls," Mayock says.

The Ravens have experienced several sides of the receiver conundrum. They picked Travis Taylor 10th overall in 2000, thinking they were getting a big-play threat. Taylor had a few decent seasons but never caught more than 61 passes or scored more than six touchdowns in eight seasons. They drafted Clayton 22nd overall in 2005 and have received production more in line with that slot.

Receiver is a hard position to evaluate, Ravens director of player personnel Eric DeCosta says, but not always for obvious reasons.

"An interesting thing when looking at all wide receiver busts is, how many of those busts had good quarterbacks around them?" DeCosta says. "The thing about wide receivers that makes it unusually difficult is there's a relationship between a quarterback and a wide receiver. They work hand in hand."

Allure of Heyward-Bey

Heyward-Bey, who could be a target for the speed-loving Oakland Raiders at No. 7, is exactly the type of unfinished player who makes Mayock and others nervous.

Though personnel men invariably promise they won't be blinded by great 40-yard-dash times, Heyward-Bey did himself a favor by running faster than any other prospect at the NFL scouting combine. His combination of size, speed and good attitude has teams intrigued, despite questions about his receiving technique and route-running.

Could the Maryland receiver be the classic case of a player who looks better on draft day than he ever will on an NFL field?

"I kind of like Heyward-Bey," Brandt says. "He's a good player, but six or seven in the draft? If he ran 4.6 or 4.7 in the 40, he would not be picked that high."

Mayock worries about Heyward-Bey's hands, noting that he's hard to evaluate on that front because not many passes came his way in college.

"If I'm going to draft a receiver in the first round, I want great hands," Mayock says. "Now with the ball already in his hands, he's special."

That comment speaks to the quandary general managers face with receivers. Many prospects show impressive physical gifts. Few have had to do the things that will be expected of them in the NFL.

Brandt, Mayock and many other evaluators feel more comfortable with Texas Tech's Michael Crabtree, who isn't as fast as Heyward-Bey but showed unusually good hands and body control as a hugely productive college star.

Straight-line speed doesn't come into play that often in the NFL. Instead, receivers must make quick, precise moves in tight spaces.

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