Once a 'crapshoot,' finding wide receivers in NFL draft 'is easier now'

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It was 10 years ago when wide receiver Mark Clayton arrived in Baltimore and embraced the expectations that came with being a first-round NFL draft pick.

Over five seasons, Clayton averaged 47 catches and 623 yards and caught 12 touchdown passes. He led the Ravens in receiving just once and failed to make the dynamic impact that both the team and the player had hoped for after he was the 22nd overall pick in 2005.


"I wanted to make a difference and I absolutely felt like that would happen. But the way the ball is being tossed around nowadays is different than it was back then," Clayton said in a phone interview with The Baltimore Sun. "Our system was different, our approach to winning games was different, the rules were different. Now, you're getting these prolific offenses setting records year after year. It's crazy. It's flashy, it's awesome. But it might not necessarily be Ravens football."

The Ravens' inability to draft and develop an elite wide receiver is one of the few blemishes on general manager Ozzie Newsome's resume. Since taking Clayton, the Ravens have used 10 of 81 draft selections on receivers and only two of those players — 2007 third-rounder Yamon Figurs and 2011 second-rounder Torrey Smith — were picked in the first three rounds.


But the changing nature of the position, both at the college and pro levels, has some NFL officials believing that receivers are easier to project than ever before. Once considered boom-or-bust propositions, wide receivers are now considered by many draft insiders as the safest picks that teams can make. As many as six of them might go in the first round on April 30 — the Ravens hold the 26th overall pick.

"I've thought a lot about that over the years, obviously, because we've had some struggles at that position. What I would say is that college football is changing. We see guys being more productive earlier," Ravens assistant general manager Eric DeCosta said. "Number two, it's very, very hard to be a really good wide receiver without a really good quarterback."

The Ravens have an accomplished quarterback, but what they're lacking is a young, game-breaking wide receiver to replace Smith and become Joe Flacco's go-to guy for the rest of the decade.

While their chief rivals — the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals — have found prolific pass catchers in the draft, the Ravens have relied on free-agent signings (Derrick Mason, Steve Smith Sr.) or trades (Anquan Boldin) to fill their No. 1 receiver role.

"Look, every team has their spots where they're strong and there are other areas where you struggle," said Daniel Jeremiah, a former Ravens scout who is now an analyst for NFL Network. "I do think when you look at the money that Torrey Smith got, they were able to hit on that one. I'm sure that they're hopeful that they can continue down that road. It's something I know that they are aware of and they've worked on."

A draft weakness

At the team's predraft luncheon this month, Newsome bristled at the suggestion that the Ravens haven't drafted an "impact" receiver. He pointed to the five-year, $40 million contract that Smith signed last month with the San Francisco 49ers.

Smith certainly made an impact, catching 30 touchdown passes over four seasons and averaging a franchise-high 16.9 yards per reception. However, the former Maryland standout never developed into one of the game's most prized commodities: a complete, No.1 receiver.


Newsome has found Pro Bowl players in just about every round and at almost every position, but he has yet to draft a wide receiver who has earned that distinction. Jermaine Lewis, a fifth-round pick in 1996 out of Maryland, was invited to two Pro Bowls, but as a return specialist.

Of the 21 receivers that Newsome has drafted, only four (Smith, Clayton, Lewis and 2000 first-rounder Travis Taylor) have caught 75 or more balls during their Ravens' careers. Since 2008, the year they took Flacco, the Ravens have drafted six receivers and only one of them — Michael Campanaro — is still in the organization. The likes of Marcus Smith, David Reed and Tandon Doss haven't measured up.

"Once you have a bad miss, sometimes you don't even want to go down that road again," said John Middlekauff, a former NFL scout. "But the Ravens are built to win in other ways. I really think a lot of it is they just haven't drafted high enough to get a guy that they really like."

The Ravens' recent approach has been to take late-round fliers on wideouts, selecting Tommy Streeter in the sixth round in 2012, Aaron Mellette in the seventh round in 2013 and Campanaro (River Hill) in the seventh round last year. Neither Streeter nor Mellette caught a regular-season pass with the Ravens.

"We've done studies on that as far as the success rate in different rounds at different positions. Receiver is a little bit of a crapshoot in the first round. It turns out, it's a crapshoot in every round," Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said at last month's league meetings. "Obviously, your chances are [better] the higher you pick a guy, but it's hard to predict."

Of the NFL's top 10 receivers last season, five of them were drafted in the second round or later. In 2013, only four of the top 10 receivers were first-round picks.


'Finding them is easier now'

In a recent conference call with season ticket holders, Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti talked about emulating the Steelers' approach to finding receivers. Pittsburgh has been successful drafting dynamic receivers in the middle rounds, getting Emmanuel Sanders (2010) and Mike Wallace (2009) in the third round, Martavis Bryant (2014) in the fourth and Antonio Brown in the sixth (2010). Brown led the NFL in receiving last year.

Gil Brandt, who was the Dallas Cowboys' vice president of personnel for three decades, has long said that receivers have "the greatest mortality rate of any position, including quarterback." However, he acknowledges the narrative has changed a bit.

He pointed to the performance of last year's rookie receiver class, headed by Sammy Watkins, Odell Beckham Jr. and Mike Evans.

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"Colleges are passing the ball so much more than ever before. High schools are passing it more than ever before," Brandt said. "We have high schools in Texas that regularly throw the ball 50 times. Receivers that we get coming into the league are a lot better than ever before. The level has risen. Finding them is easier now than it was five years ago, but it's still not easy."

Jeremiah, the NFL Network analyst, called wide receivers Amari Cooper (Alabama), Kevin White (West Virginia) and DeVante Parker (Louisville) the three safest picks in the draft, primarily because of how much visibility the three had in college and the style of offense that they played in.


"You're seeing such high volume of targets, high volume of throws. You're seeing these guys run all different kinds of routes," he said. "You're getting a chance to purely evaluate them. You're getting a chance to see how they'll perform when you get some press coverage in their face. You're not having to guess as much."

So much has changed since the last time the Ravens drafted a receiver in the first round. In 2005, Clayton joined a team that had a defense-first mentality and a physical running game, but lacked stability at quarterback.

"Personally, from a performance standpoint, things certainly could've gone better. But looking at the big picture — the system, the coaching philosophy, our approach to winning — my role was to be consistent and make plays," Clayton said. "Apart from the injuries, I felt like I was able to do what was asked."

Clayton chuckled when he was asked if he would like to play in the Ravens' current offense. The present-day Ravens are more balanced and Flacco is considered one of the best deep-ball throwers in the NFL. It certainly appears to be a far better situation for a rookie wide receiver to walk into.

"I've got tremendous confidence in Joe Flacco and his ability to develop receivers," DeCosta said. "I think, you look at guys that have not performed or have been misses in the NFL and you have to look at the quarterback. They've got to work hand-in-hand. It works the other way, too. A quarterback has to have some pretty good playmakers around him. … It's a lot of different factors, but I'm confident. I think we do a really great job of evaluating players. I think we know what we want. We've made our share of mistakes, but I think we're ready to move forward and nail some guys."