When scouting receivers, draft with caution

Watch a wide receiver catch a football and it looks like a pretty routine chore, doesn't it? Yeah, there's nothing to it until you start checking out those NFL defenses, too.

Outside of perhaps quarterback, wide receiver may be the most difficult position for scouts and coaches to project college players in the draft and how they'll fare in the league.

Over the last 10 years, NFL teams have drafted 43 wide receivers in the first round. Of those, just two had 1,000-yard seasons as rookies -- the same number of 1,000-yard seasons produced by receivers drafted after the first round.

Twenty six of the 43 first-round receivers never have had a 1,000-yard season and, of the other 17, eight have had but a single season in which they gained 1,000 yards.

Man-to-man coverages, bump-and-run, multiple defenses, and speed -- much more of it than receivers are used to seeing in college -- make pro football a very different game.

"People don't want to say it's different -- but it is a different game because of the amount of man-to-man (coverage)," said an assistant coach from an NFC team.

"Every cornerback is good," added an AFC offensive coordinator. "There are some really good corners in college, but you can always find a matchup some way. A lot of times, guys aren't really good at getting off a bump-and-run, and they've just got to learn how to do that.

"(The receivers are) so athletic and so good coming out of college, that a lot of times they can just ... run by (cornerbacks). In this league, there's got to be some technique to it, because our corners are all so good, so physical, you're not going to out-athlete them. If you think you're just going to out-speed guys in this league, you won't be around very long."

Simply put, that is the biggest factor, according to coaches and personnel executives: Speed. In the NFL, receivers can't run away from cornerbacks anymore.

Another factor that is "true for any position," explained a scout for an AFC team: the increased complexity of modern defenses. He said, "There's a lot more reading (defenses) involved and knowing what you're doing, than there used to be."

"The routes they were able to separate themselves on (in college), those things are gone," said a former NFL general manager. "You almost have to re-invent yourself, unless you're truly a phenomenal talent. This particular group of receivers is going to come into the league and have to re-invent themselves, figure out what they can do and how well they can do it."

Over the last decade, the only first-round wideouts to go over 1,000 yards receiving were Minnesota's Randy Moss in 1998 and Tampa Bay's Michael Clayton in 2005. Moss, of course, has continued strong, but Clayton, after gaining 1,193 yards as a rookie, has totaled just 1,029 yards in the last three seasons.

The other two 1,000-yard rookie receivers were Arizona's Anquan Boldin, a second-round choice, in 2003 and New Orleans' Marques Colston, a seventh-rounder, in 2006.

The late Tony Razzano, personnel chief of the San Francisco 49ers in the 1980s, used to say that he'd never draft a wide receiver in the first round because he felt it took time for receivers to develop and he could get better value later in the draft. Razzano stuck to his beliefs; he even admitted he would not have chosen Jerry Rice in the first round.

After 13 games of Rice's rookie season, he hadn't gained even 500 yards. A late-season push brought him to 927. You may recall, however, that he went on to a fairly successful career. But his slow start -- not unusual for a wideout -- may help explain why some teams are still reluctant to choose one in the first round.

Indianapolis' Reggie Wayne caught passes for only 345 yards as a rookie, Chad Johnson 329, Isaac Bruce 272 and T.J. Houshmandzadeh 228. Wayne was a first-round pick, Johnson and Bruce second-rounders and Houshmandzadeh a seventh-rounder. Among the six wideouts drafted in the first round a year ago, one (Robert Meachem, New Orleans) never got into a game and another (Buster Davis, San Diego) started just one game. The receiving leader in the group was Kansas City's Dwayne Bowe, who started 15 games and caught 70 passes for 995 yards. Combined, the six first-round picks averaged less than 500 yards receiving.

Of course, there are exceptions to any trend. As a rookie with New England in 1996, Terry Glenn caught 90 passes, a number he has not since approached. Kevin Johnson was Cleveland's top receiver his first three seasons in the league, which were the expansion Browns' first three years. Andre Johnson was the team's leading receiver in each of his first four seasons with the Houston Texans.

"A lot of times, teams will take a receiver in the first round for the future, not to step in right away," said the NFC assistant. "I think (the slow starts) are more the situation than it is the player. Also, there are so many receivers when you go to the draft or the combine -- that's always the largest group of players you're evaluating -- so you have late round choices that make it. Because there's so many, it's very difficult for a guy to go to the head of the group."

To some degree, the difficulty receivers have jump-starting their professional careers seems odd, because college teams throw the ball much more today than they did, say, 20 or even 10 years ago.

The problem is that many of them do not utilize pro-style offenses.

"The style of offense that they're throwing it in is not the same style we're throwing," the offensive coordinator said. "There are a lot of people using that spread offense. It's hard to find a lot of wide receivers that are running a route tree. A lot of it looks like run-and-shoot offenses (in college) and there haven't been a lot of run-and-shoot offenses that have been successful in this league."

Veteran NFL writer Ira Miller is a regular contributor to NFL.com.

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