|Thursday, October 18
Receivers have difficulty catching on
By Len Pasquarelli
Less than midway through a season in which rookie wide receivers were expected to make an immediate impact, the jury might still be out on several of the young pass-catchers, but it is obvious some teams are guilty of repeating a common error of judgment in assessing the value of a first-year player at the position.
Because when it comes to selecting a wide receiver, and especially investing a first-round choice in one, recent history has proven that there are two words that should be uppermost in the minds of general managers and personnel directors.
Although it would seem to be a skill position at which rookies could render immediate dividends -- much like at running back, where pure athletic instinct can compensate for a lack of experience -- wide receiver has traditionally been a sore spot, especially in the first round. The drafts of the last 10 to 12 years are riddled with examples of highly-regarded wide receivers who never approximated their potential.
While it would be premature to affix the "bust" label to the wideout class of 2001, the warning signs already are there, and it appears that most of the receivers are struggling with the move to the NFL.
"There is so much more to learn than (in college), where you can get by on natural ability and where the cornerbacks aren't as physical," said Chicago Bears rookie David Terrell. "In the NFL, these guys have their hands all over you, and you're trying to read (coverages) on the run, and your head is about to explode with all the information that you have to assimilate."
There were six wide receivers chosen in the first round of this year's draft, the most since a 1988 lottery that produced standouts like Tim Brown, Michael Irvin, Sterling Sharpe and Anthony Miller. And like Terrell, most of them have been overwhelmed by the demands of the NFL passing game and designs in which success is as much a function of mental acuity as raw athleticism.
Only one of the first-round wide receivers, Rod Gardner of Washington, has started every game. Koren Robinson has started in four of five contests for the Seattle Seahawks. The other four -- Terrell, Reggie Wayne (Indianapolis), Santana Moss (New York Jets) and Freddie Mitchell (Philadelphia) -- have combined for nine appearances and one start.
Granted, the numbers are skewed by injuries to Moss and Wayne, with the former still recovering from preseason knee surgery and the latter just now healthy after rehabilitating a strained hamstring. Even taking into account the typical attrition through injury, however, the receivers from this year's draft are suffering more from the same kind of bruised egos their recent predecessors also confronted.
"There is definitely some culture shock involved," Wayne acknowledged. "You come in expecting to be good from the outset and you find out pretty quickly it just isn't the same game."
Penciled in as a starter nearly from the beginning of camp, Gardner leads all rookie wide receivers with 16 catches for 209 yards and one touchdown. The other first-rounders have an aggregate 21 receptions for 249 yards and zero touchdowns. Wayne, Mitchell and, of course, Moss, have combined for two catches and 20 yards.
Then again, no one should be too surprised by the lack of production -- at least no one who has studied the recent trend at the position.
"It's probably the position at which teams make the most first-round mistakes," former Green Bay Packers general manager Ron Wolf said.
That's apparently not enough, however, to convince some franchises that it is always dicey to invest a first-round choice on a wide receiver.
In the past five drafts, 20 wide receivers were chosen in the first round. While several have developed into top-flight performers, few made a splash as rookies. Even dating back to 1990, at a time when the passing game didn't place quite as many cerebral demands on wideouts, the success rate for first-year wide receivers is abysmal.
As a group, the 35 wide receivers selected in the first round from 1990 to 2000 averaged just 8.4 starts, 34.4 receptions, 476.4 yards and 3.1 touchdowns as rookies. Only nine registered more than 700 yards in their first year. Just nine had more than 50 catches and seven had more than five touchdowns. Three of the first-rounders -- Joey Galloway of Seattle (1995), Terry Glenn of New England ('96) and Minnesota's Randy Moss ('98) -- posted 1,000-yard seasons as rookies, but clearly represented the exception and not the rule.
The 2000 contingent was indicative of how rookie wide receivers, even those chosen in the first round, are prone to problems. The fourth overall choice in the draft, Peter Warrick, came to the Cincinnati Bengals exuding confidence and big-play ability but caught just 51 passes. Before he was sidelined by a wrist injury late last season, Plaxico Burress proved he was a sloppy route-runner. The enigmatic R. Jay Soward of Jacksonville demonstrated a poor work ethic and was eventually undone by a substance abuse problem that currently has him sidelined as a repeat offender.
Of the 31 wide receivers drafted overall in 2000, just Warrick and Kansas City first-round pick Sylvester Morris started at least 10 games. The leading rookie receiver last year was Seattle third-round choice Darrell Jackson, the 80th player chosen overall and the 14th wide receiver to go off the board.
"It's definitely a position where you can get solid players in the middle or late rounds," said Miami vice president of personnel Rick Spielman. "Unless a guy is really special, you don't have to reach for a wide receiver in the first round."
Indeed, one of the few rookie wide receivers who has played well so far this year is Chris Chambers, the Dolphins' second-round choice. Regarded as a little timid on some inside routes by many scouts, Chambers has displayed overall toughness and aggressiveness in going for the ball. His 11 receptions rank third among rookie wide receivers and he is one of just four wideouts drafted to have a touchdown catch.
Another middle-round choice, third-round pick Marvin "Snoop" Minnis of Kansas City, has made some impact. But typical of the rollercoaster ride most rookie wide receivers experience, Minnis was demoted on Wednesday from the starting lineup after he ran the wrong route.
Those kinds of mistakes in so-called "route adjustments" are common for rookie receivers. Even though passing offenses at the college level have become more sophisticated over the last 10 years, they still can't compare to the NFL game in terms of the mental demands. Still, at draft time, people keep grabbing wide receivers in large numbers.
Since the 1970 merger, 94 wide receivers, or an average of more than three per year, have been selected in the opening round. Nine franchises have chosen four or more first-round wideouts in that period. Pittsburgh and Cincinnati took six each.
"Despite the rather uneven results, it's still a position people look to," Minnesota Vikings vice president of player personnel Frank Gilliam said. "You're always looking for the guy who can hit the home run for you. Unfortunately, those guys sometimes strike out, but that doesn't mean that you quit looking. And I'm guessing that, this year, there will be a lot of looking going on. There should be plenty of shopping for wide receivers."
And, as always, there will be some bad deals. Ten years from now, when some relatively nondescript wide receiver selected in the fourth round of this draft is still playing and most of the 2001 first-rounders are out of the league, scouts still will be making egregious errors at the position. People forget, for instance, that Cincinnati took Cris Collinsworth in the second round of the 1981 draft but, before choosing him, selected the eminently forgettable David Verser in the first.
The reasons there are so many high-round wide receiver failures in the NFL are many, but the most common denominators are the speed of the game, the sophistication of NFL offenses and the caliber of cornerback they must compete against. Those components can combine to transform a receiver who has great hands and runs the 40 in under 4.4 seconds into a butterfingered buffoon who couldn't run out of sight in a week.
"I would think for any young wide receiver, no matter how much success he had in college, his head is going to be swimming in that first exposure to the NFL," longtime receivers coach Milt Jackson said. "I mean, some things don't change, like a '9' route is a '9' route at every level of the game, OK? But now you throw in all the route adjustments in the NFL, you ask a player to read the secondary on the run and maybe break off a pattern in certain situations, and paralysis sets in. You can almost see the wheels turning in these kids' heads. And now suddenly, because he has to think instead of react, that 4.5 guy isn't as fast anymore, is he?"
Nor can college wide receivers prepare for the NFL by practicing against cornerbacks with the kind of coverage skills of a Deion Sanders or a Charles Woodson. There are few colleges that will play "press" coverage, with a cornerback right up in a receiver's face counting sweat beads on his forehead. Throw a rookie wide receiver into even a seven-on-seven passing drill, and he is apt to confront tighter coverage than he has ever experienced in a college bowl game.
Add the lack of maturity with which some wide receivers enter the pro game and the struggle all of them face to fit into a new system and a playbook that must read like hieroglyphics, and it is a prescription for potential failure.
"It's a tough position," said Indianapolis Pro Bowl performer Marvin Harrison, one of those few first-round wide receivers taken in the past five years who has succeeded.
"There's so much going on, especially at this level, that it takes a lot of hard work to master it. The guys who just come in and think they're going to get by on athleticism alone are in for a big letdown."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.