Teams counting on young, unproven receivers to contribute

  • By Pat Kirwan
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Paul Connors / Associated Press
NFL teams are hoping their young receivers have the sort of season Steve Breaston enjoyed in 2008.

The 2009 season will be no different than any other in terms of all of the turnover in personnel. That means a number of young players will need to elevate their games.

After visiting half the league on my training camp tour, and getting a chance to watch most of the teams on tape as well as talking to the general managers and head coaches around the league, there are a number of young wide receivers with little to no NFL production so far on the launch pad of their careers.

It can be tricky when teams declare the starters on the roster. When it comes to the third and fourth wide receiver, they often play more snaps at the end of the season than a player listed as the starter at another position, such as fullback or tight end. For example, Steve Breaston is the third wide receiver on the Cardinals, but he had more than 1,000 yards receiving last year because Arizona had more than 500 plays in formations with at least three wide receivers.

Before examining the receivers poised to be this year's Breaston, here's a glimpse of how many times teams are in personnel groups with more than two wide receivers and are counting on a young player to step up.

Teams counting on a young wideout to step up
Plays with more than two WRs
+290 (Cutler in Denver, +490)

Players that have been in the league for one or two seasons with little to show for their time are at a crossroads for the teams mentioned above, and the teams need a big jump in production.

Who is this year's Jerricho Cotchery? The Jets receiver caught 25 passes and no touchdowns in his first two seasons, but then had 235 receptions in the last three years.

New Orleans' Lance Moore caught one pass in his first two years, then jumped to 32 in his third season and 79 last year.

Wes Welker had one receiving touchdown in his first three years in the league and didn't even catch a pass in his first season, but -- like Cotchery and Moore -- Welker increased his production when he had to.

On average, teams target their top four receivers in the following range: A No. 1 wideout will see the ball come his way about 125 times a season, a No. 2 gets about 80 opportunities, a No. 3 gets 50 shots and a No. 4 has about 25 looks. So, for a young receiver who was fifth on the depth chart last year and probably had between zero and 10 balls thrown his way all season, stepping into a No. 2 or No. 3 role is a big responsibility.

Here's a look at nine wide receivers who are going to be expected to do a lot more than last year, and a few thoughts on how they may handle the opportunity.

Receivers expected to produce this season
2008 production
2009 preseason -- in three games
Dwayne Jarrett
10 receptions, 0 touchdowns
2 receptions, 0 touchdowns
Jarrett moves up to the No. 3 role on a team that limits the number of multiple receiver sets. Jarrett is adequate in that spot, but any injury that moves him up to a No. 2 slot may be more than he's ready for.

0 receptions, 0 touchdowns
5 receptions, 0 touchdowns
It is a big jump from no receptions to starting. He is reunited with Jay Cutler from their college days at Vanderbilt, and with Cutler the Bears should be throwing more. Bennett has to be this year's Lance Moore.

Sam Hurd
0 receptions, 0 touchdowns
6 receptions, 0 touchdowns
With T.O. gone, Hurd will get his chance to be at least the No. 3 receiver and possibly the No. 2. Hurd has one touchdown catch in three years, and all signs point to a jump in production. However, don't expect a Wes Welker-type jump on a team with a big-time tight end and a solid run game.

4 receptions, 0 touchdowns
4 receptions, 0 touchdowns
The Colts are a big multiple receiver team (more than 500 plays) and with Anthony Gonzalez replacing Marvin Harrison as the No. 2 option, it opens up the slot as the third receiver and fourth target (behind tight end Dallas Clark). Peyton Manning will go to Garcon if the coverage dictates, and defenses will give Manning this kid before Reggie Wayne or Clark. Garcon could be the target of close to 50 passes this year.

Malcolm Kelly
3 receptions, 0 touchdowns
6 receptions, 0 touchdowns
Kelly appears to be slightly ahead of Devin Thomas for playing time. He has never scored a touchdown, but had a good camp this summer. The Redskins will use multiple receiver sets about 25 times a game, and Kelly could be the No. 3 target. Don't be surprised if he gets into the 30-35 reception territory this year.

12 receptions, 3 touchdowns
6 receptions, 1 touchdown
There are so many weapons in the Saints' passing attack. Meachem has been a disappointment as a first-round pick to date, but his game is coming around as he heads into his third season. Drew Brees could turn him into the No. 3 receiver, and with the Saints he should see his opportunities triple from 2008.

4 receptions, 0 touchdowns
5 receptions, 0 touchdowns
Eli Manning has liked what he has seen from Manningham this spring and summer. Without Plaxico Burress, it will be receiver by committee in New York. Not sure Manningham is ready for the jump from obscurity to four or five chances a game, but the door is open for him.

Chansi Stuckey
32 receptions, 3 touchdowns
6 receptions, 1 touchdown
The Jets may trade for a big-time receiver, which would move Stuckey down to the No. 3 slot. However, right now he's the No. 2 receiver and is quickly building a relationship with Mark Sanchez. It would not surprise me to see Stuckey follow the career production of his teammate Jerricho Cotchery. He may even see more plays come his way if he's the slot receiver in a three-wideout package.

Limas Sweed
6 receptions, 0 touchdowns
7 receptions, 0 touchdowns
The Steelers are a passing team now, and after they did not re-sign Nate Washington the third wideout spot became available. Typically, the Steelers like to develop their own players. Sweed has height, which the other receivers don't possess and he should see Ben Roethlisberger go his way between 35 to 50 times this season.

Legedu Naanee
8 receptions, 0 touchdowns
5 receptions, 2 touchdowns
Naanee only has 16 career receptions but has moved ahead of Buster Davis and probably Malcom Floyd. In the Charger offense, this former fifth-round pick should be a target close to 25-30 times over the course of the season.

Finally, seven receivers that have never caught a touchdown pass in the NFL and three others with modest success at best are going to play key roles in 2009. Defensive coaches have a lot of other things to worry about with No. 1 receivers, vertical tight ends and running backs always poised for a 100 yards rushing. So now is the time for these guys to step up or start to fade. For every Lance Moore or Wes Welker that came through when opportunity knocked, twice as many couldn't deliver.


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