Caught up in the hype

The Baltimore Sun

Elevated by 40-yard speed, raw passing game numbers and sometimes reputation, the position of wide receiver is a favorite target in the first round of the NFL's college draft.

But recent history has shown it's more quagmire than haven at the top of the draft, more risk than reward.

Eight of the past 13 wide receivers taken in the top 10 picks either have been outright busts, have run afoul of the league's substance-abuse policy, or simply have under-performed when they had the chance.

That's an alarming failure rate of 61.5 percent at the top of the draft.

Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said it's a point of discussion in league circles whenever executives and coaches get together.

"That's one of the topics we talk about, the success and failure of wide receivers that come out," he said. "If you take a junior wide receiver, you're taking a chance. We've had our failures with that.

"[If] you take a guy who has been there four years, like Demetrius [Williams, fourth round, 2006], then you've got a chance to maybe get a steal."

The drought goes back to 2000, when three wide receivers - Peter Warrick, Plaxico Burress and Travis Taylor - were selected in the first 10 picks.

While not total busts, Warrick, the fourth pick and Taylor, the 10th (by the Ravens), never lived up to expectations. Only Burress did, but the Pittsburgh Steelers made no attempt to keep him when he became a free agent.

The biggest bust in the group was Charles Rogers, the second pick in 2003. He broke his collarbone twice, failed multiple drug tests and played only 15 games in three years with the Detroit Lions.

The 2001 draft produced back-to-back busts in David Terrell (eighth pick) and Koren Robinson (ninth). Terrell has played with three teams but did not play in 2006. Robinson is on NFL suspension for substance-abuse violations and in jail for violating probation after leading police on a 100-mph chase. Robinson had an arrest on drunken driving charges in 2005.

Is this any way to build a football team, with decisions like those?

"I'll tell you what," said Eric DeCosta, director of college scouting for the Ravens. "People get seduced by the measurables, by the size and the speed.

"This is just my opinion - not based on any fact - but the polished receivers in college usually end up being the best receivers in the NFL."

The best example of that was in the 2005 draft. Four wide-outs were drafted before the Ravens took Mark Clayton with the 22nd pick. Three of the four, excluding Braylon Edwards at the third pick, have been disappointments.

Troy Williamson went seventh to the Minnesota Vikings, Mike Williams 10th to the Lions and Matt Jones 21st to the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Speed elevated Williamson and Jones, and a poor evaluation of Williams put him in the top 10.

"A guy like Matt Jones is not an easy predictor," DeCosta said, "whereas a guy like Mark Clayton is because you get a chance to see him in all his polish and savvy on the field. That translates very well to the NFL."

Russ Lande, a former Cleveland Browns scout who publishes his own draft guide, said the biggest mistake is the overemphasis of 40-yard dash times at the scouting combine.

"A lot of mistakes are made at receiver," he said. "If you look at a team's draft board in December, before the all-star games and workouts, and then after the combine, the receivers and corners change drastically because of the 40. Teams buy into the hype."

Speed figures to play a role in Saturday's first round, too. Four of the consensus top five receivers are juniors, and of those, only Georgia Tech's Calvin Johnson is considered a sure thing. Johnson should go at the top, between the first and fourth picks.

Ted Ginn Jr. of Ohio State is considered the fastest player in the draft and has added value as a return man. Dwayne Bowe of LSU and Robert Meachem of Tennessee also have been helped by their 40 times.

DeCosta believes intelligence plays a big role in how well receivers adapt to the NFL, as well.

"The sophistication of the defenses at the NFL level, and the multiplicity of the offenses is different from college, where a guy may only have to run three or four different routes and may not make any sight adjustments," he said.

Newsome pointed to the maturity factor at wide receiver. That was what short-circuited Rogers in Detroit.

"We thought Rogers had a chance to be a great player," DeCosta said. "I think there were some warning signs that teams overlooked with him. I think Charles Rogers has tremendous physical ability, but he's never been able to overcome his immaturity."

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