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Toughest transition? Why rookie wide receivers struggle in NFL

Ask an average fan to name the easiest transition from college to the NFL, position-wise, and you're likely draw one common answer: wide receiver. The thought is that the relevant skills -- speed, hands and body positioning -- translate directly to the next level, especially as the NFL has become more of a passing league.

That answer would seem to make perfect sense, but it's wrong.

Wide receiver has become one of the toughest positions for rookies to adapt to in the pros. There are a lot of challenges that factor into this: eluding press coverage, getting separations on a break, running disciplined routes (both in terms of positioning and timing) and mastering the myriad sight adjustments and choice routes that are a big part of the modern pro game. Those are all very difficult aspects of the process. So is gaining the trust of your quarterback. If you're a veteran, like Peyton Manning or Aaron Rodgers, you don't want to throw to someone you hope is going to be in the right place, or someone you think is going to run the correct route. You want the receiver you know is going to make the right sight adjustment. You want the guy who will make the out-cut at exactly 7 yards -- not 6 or 8 -- and who'll tap his toes inside the boundary to complete the catch.

Pro teams are pretty good at identifying the can't-miss prospects these days -- a natural like Jerry Rice would never last until the 16th overall pick today, as he did in the 1985 NFL Draft -- and very few truly sensational talents fly under the radar. Of the top 11 players in receiving yards last year, eight were former first-round picks and another (Vincent Jackson) went in the second. Only Wes Welker (undrafted free agent) and Brandon Marshall (fourth round) weren't high picks.

But there are still outright busts from recent years, which illustrates how tricky it can be to project receiver talent: Darrius Heyward-Bey, taken seventh overall by the Oakland Raiders in 2009; Jon Baldwin, taken 26th overall by the Kansas City Chiefs in 2011; A.J. Jenkins, taken 30th overall by the San Francisco 49ers in 2012. Before this season started, San Francisco and Kansas City actually swapped their misses, hoping to find some redemption for their respective evaluative missteps. Go back 10 more years, and you can find a raft of high-profile first-round disappointments. In each of those instances, players exhibited enticing physical tools, and teams assumed they could "coach 'em up" into being consummate pros. But the position requires a mixture of grittiness, guile and football intelligence that isn't always easy to identify.

Of course, some special talents do indeed arrive game-ready. Percy Harvin caught 60 balls -- and added 1,156 yards on 42 kickoff returns -- in his rookie year with the Minnesota Vikings, immediately establishing himself as a valuable (if somewhat injury-prone) asset. The Cincinnati Bengals' A.J. Green and Atlanta Falcons' Julio Jones might be the best pair of pure wideouts to arrive in the same class (2011) in more than a decade. Last year, the Tennessee Titans' Kendall Wright and Jacksonville Jaguars' Justin Blackmon both eclipsed 60 receptions, although Blackmon is currently serving a four-game suspension for violating the NFL Policy and Program for Substances of Abuse.

Most of those who have succeeded early have been blessed with great physical tools. As Michael Irvin, the Hall of Fame wide receiver, recently told me, "I used to be a big guy in this league. Now, I would just be average size." Calvin Johnson, Andre Johnson, Marshall, Demaryius Thomas, Jackson and Dez Bryant ranked from No. 1 to No. 6 in receiving yards last season, and each of them is 6-foot-2 or taller.

The receivers picked in the first round this year have gotten off to a mostly inauspicious start. The St. Louis Rams' Tavon Austin, the first wideout taken in April, has logged a respectable 12 catches, but for just 88 yards. He's shown flashes of absurd speed, but he still hasn't convinced doubters who disagreed with the decision to spend a high first-round pick on a 5-8 guy with a slight, 174-pound frame. Cordarrelle Patterson had a sweet kick return for a touchdown on Sunday, but he still hasn't gotten up to speed with a Vikings offense that is begging for him to contribute; he's posted just three catches for 24 yards. The one first-round pick who has excelled at wideout is DeAndre Hopkins. The Houston Texans rookie has 12 catches for 183 yards, including four that went for 20 yards or more (just three NFL receivers have more thus far). Hopkins also made back-to-back catches -- including the game winner -- to secure an overtime win over the Tennessee Titans on Sunday. That's the kind of performance that'll quickly make a quarterback trust you.

Interestingly enough -- and further complicating the evaluation process -- Hopkins was the least physically impressive of the wide receivers to be drafted in the first round. But in college, he exhibited some of the key factors that you look for when judging a player's ability to make the next step. At Clemson, Hopkins was a crisp route runner with good hands who was dangerous after the catch; he was also a decent downfield blocker. Though he possesses just above-average speed, he gets into that top gear quickly. And while he doesn't have a big frame, he has a gift for locating and snatching the ball. He doesn't boast the explosive raw tools of Austin or Patterson, but he's become a reliable, productive part of the Texans' offense in just two weeks of regular-season action.

Hopkins also gets to learn from one of the best, lining up opposite a perennial Pro Bowler in Andre Johnson. Johnson himself always had a can't-miss tag, and he's lived up to it, amassing 838 catches for 11,476 yards and 56 touchdowns in his career. But he wasn't the first wide receiver taken in the 2003 NFL Draft. That honor went to Charles Rogers, who was selected second overall, one spot ahead of Johnson. Rogers was out of pro football by 2006, finishing his NFL career with 36 catches for 440 yards and four touchdowns.

This begets a lesson all NFL teams must heed: It's not just about having tools, it's about how you use them.

Follow Brian Billick on Twitter @coachbillick.

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