Quarterbacks often get the credit for leading prolific passing attacks, but without exceptional receiving threats, their throws would fall to the ground -- or end up in the hands of eager defenders.
Impact wide receivers are often selected early in the draft. Detroit Lions freak Calvin Johnson and Arizona Cardinals beast Larry Fitzgerald have made good on their promise as top-three overall picks with their Pro Bowl-caliber production. But only eight of the top 20 wide receivers in 2011 (in terms of receiving yardage) were past first-round picks; running backs, whose future success is notoriously difficult to predict, did slightly better, with nine of the top 20 rushers coming from the first round.
Teams are starting to realize that waiting for value by taking a receiver in the second or third round instead of reaching in the first can pay off, just as it can with running backs. This is especially true for this year's receiver class, which is very deep.
Receivers aren't even necessarily the most successful pass-catchers anymore; the work of some top NFL receivers was slightly overshadowed last season during "The Year of the Tight End." The ascension of New Orleans Saints TE Jimmy Graham and the New England Patriots duo of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez changed the way that position is viewed. "Gronk" and Graham finished sixth and seventh in receiving yardage, respectively, ahead of fellow Pro Bowl players Brandon Marshall and Mike Wallace. Unfortunately, this year's tight end class sorely lacks elite talent and depth.
Still, impact players can be found in every round of the draft. Here are the receivers and tight ends in each tier of this year's class that I think will enjoy the most success at the pro level.
Impact first-round receivers and tight ends are constant threats to make the big play, putting up Pro Bowl-caliber numbers in both yardage and touchdowns.
Justin Blackmon, WR, Oklahoma State: Although not considered to be in the elite class of "Megatron" or Fitzgerald, Blackmon is physical and fast enough to be a playmaker in any offense. He'll be a reliable target at each level of the field, capable of beating corners on slants, digs and vertical routes. Like New York Giants star Hakeem Nicks, Blackmon plays bigger than he measures (Blackmon is 6-foot-1, 207 pounds, while Nicks is 6-1, 212). Teams shouldn't allow Blackmon to fall very far, unlike Nicks, who was scooped up by the Giants with the 29th overall pick in 2009.
Michael Floyd, WR, Notre Dame: Some scouts believe Floyd's off-field troubles and pedestrian quickness out of breaks will prevent him from being an impact player at the next level. They might have thought the same thing about Dwayne Bowe, who fell to the 23rd spot in 2007. The Kansas City Chiefs' leading receiver has only averaged about 1,000 yards a season, and in 2010, when everything was clicking on the team's offense, scored 15 touchdowns. Floyd has similar size and speed, and his strong run-blocking skills are a great bonus.
Coby Fleener, TE, Stanford: Fleener, who has a 6-foot-6, 246-pound frame and elite speed, is a potential matchup nightmare for NFL linebackers and safeties. If he's placed in the right system, there's no reason to believe he can't be just as potent a vertical threat as Graham. The footwork he displayed while working as a receiver when Andrew Luck needed better outside targets was not ignored by scouts. If he falls out of the first round due to different team needs, someone's going to get a great bargain early Friday evening.
Impact receivers and tight ends who are taken in the second and third rounds are regular producers without possessing elite size or speed. They either stretch defenses vertically or prove difficult to stop in clutch situations.
A.J. Jenkins, WR, Illinois: Even though Illinois didn't feature a feared passing attack, Jenkins' game is not unlike that of the aforementioned Wallace (who was similarly underutilized at Ole Miss). He displayed smooth route-running skills and solid hands in a fine week at the East-West Shrine Game, earning a call-up to the Senior Bowl in January. And the sub-4.4-second 40-yard dash times that Jenkins ran at the NFL Scouting Combine clued teams in to his potential as a difference-maker, whether he's lined up in the slot or outside.
T.Y. Hilton, WR, Florida International: The only thing that can prevent Hilton from becoming an excellent slot receiver and returner at the next level is his health. His strong route-running ability and vision, his quickness with the ball in his hands and his underrated toughness give him a chance to make an impact on special teams as a rookie. He could also surprise defenses if allowed to run free inside.
James Hanna, TE, Oklahoma: Hanna generated some buzz with an impressive combine performance that would have had him rated among the better receiver prospects, despite his size (6-4, 252). His production was not outstanding in Oklahoma's wide-open attack (27 receptions, 381 yards, two touchdowns in 2011), but he has the ability to be a legitimate chain-mover inside, like Tony Moeaki was in his rookie campaign with Kansas City.
Impact receivers and tight ends taken in the later rounds should at least be regular complementary threats on offense and/or key contributors on special teams.
DeVier Posey, WR, Ohio State: The depth of the receiver class and the fact that Posey missed much of the 2011 season with an NCAA suspension could make him a steal on the third day of the draft. He possesses the size (6-2, 211) and 4.4 speed that teams covet in an outside receiver. He also flashed potential as a vertical threat, despite the uneven quarterback play he had to work with at Ohio State.
Devon Wylie, WR, Fresno State: Wylie's injury history is also difficult to ignore. Finally ridding himself of foot and hamstring problems, Wylie came up big as a senior receiver (37 receptions, 494 yards in his last six games) after primarily acting as a returner early in the season (two punt returns for touchdowns in the first six games). His quickness should earn him time in the slot as a rookie and get him a spot on special teams.
Rhett Ellison, TE, USC: The son of two-time Super Bowl champion Riki Ellison (who played with the San Francisco 49ers from 1983 to 1988) has made a name for himself with his versatility. His ability to block in the run game and move the chains as a receiver could make him a starter sooner rather than later. He is also a willing and able tackler on special teams, which increases the odds he'll secure a roster spot.
Follow Chad Reuter on Twitter @ChadReuter