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Tuesday, April 24, 2007
Updated: May 9, 1:49 PM ET
Draft risk study: Wide receivers

By Ted Kluck
Special to Page 2

By position: QB | RB | WR | O-line | DE | DT | LB | CB | S | Study wrap

A trend has haunted bad teams like the Detroit Lions over the past several years: taking wide receivers in the first round of the NFL draft.

Historically, a good many of the NFL's more successful wideouts have been taken in later rounds: Isaac Bruce went in Round 2; Hines Ward, Steve Smith and Terrell Owens were third-rounders; Cris Carter and Andre Reed were fourth-round picks. However, there have also been a number of success stories like Randy Moss and Marvin Harrison coming out of the first round.

Success criteria, first-round wide receivers

We've set the bar at five years in the league, in addition to an average of more than 40 receptions per season. A Pro Bowl selection is the wild card that will potentially trump a shortcoming in another area. In this age of 100-catch seasons, that's setting the bar pretty low, you might say. But I feel like this accounts reasonably for injuries, bad quarterbacking (you know who you are, Falcons wideouts) and other uncontrollables. And for players who have yet to play five years in the league, we'll use a combination of stats accrued to this point and gut feelings about the player.

1989
Team Pick Player, School Games Avg. catches Pro Bowls Bust?
Browns 13 Eric Metcalf, Texas 179 41.6 3 No
Patriots 16 Hart Lee Dykes, Oklahoma State 26 41.5 0 Yes
Colts 22 Andre Rison, Michigan State 184 57.1 5 No
Falcons 27 Shawn Collins, Northern Arizona 49 19.6 0 Yes

Metcalf was a unique situation in that he saw as much time at RB as he did at WR early in his career, but still logged a very respectable career as a receiver and kick returner, averaging over 41 catches per season. Dykes appeared in only 26 games for the Pats, and Rison had a long, productive and erratic (see: TLC) career with several NFL clubs.

1990: No first-round wide receivers

1991
Team Pick Player, School Games Avg. catches Pro Bowls Bust?
Lions 10 Herman Moore, Virginia 149 60.9 4 No
Cowboys 12 Alvin Harper, Tennessee 100 27.2 0 Yes
Falcons 13 Mike Pritchard, Colorado 127 46.8 0 No
Cardinals 23 Randal Hill, Miami 103 32.8 0 Yes

Remember Randal "Thrill" Hill? Though he appeared in 103 games, he averaged only 32 catches per season, with no Pro Bowls, so we're attaching the bust label. Pritchard, who at first glance might be bust-worthy, carved out a decent career in Atlanta and Denver. Harper was a disappointment, and Moore starred for bad Lions teams throughout the '90s.

1992
Team Pick Player, School Games Avg. catches Pro Bowls Bust?
Redskins 4 Desmond Howard, Michigan 136 13.6 1 Yes

Hard to call a player with a Pro Bowl appearance and a Super Bowl MVP on his résumé a bust, but then again, I'm guessing Washington expected more than 13 catches per season when it spent the fourth pick on Howard.

1993
Team Pick Player, School Games Avg. catches Pro Bowls Bust?
Bears 7 Curtis Conway, USC 167 49.5 0 No
Colts 16 Sean Dawkins, California 139 49.4 0 No
Dolphins 25 O.J. McDuffie, Penn State 115 46.1 0 No

All three were solid if not spectacular, no Pro Bowls, but all hovering around 50 catches per season over long NFL careers.

1994
Team Pick Player, School Games Avg. catches Pro Bowls Bust?
Steelers 17 Charles Johnson, Colorado 128 39.3 0 No
Lions 21 Johnnie Morton, USC 182 52.0 0 No
Giants 24 Thomas Lewis, Indiana 35 18.5 0 Yes
Browns 29 Derrick Alexander, Michigan 127 46.3 0 No

Johnson was on the bubble, but his midround status, coupled with the fact that he was very close to 40 catches per season and had a long career, kept him off the bust list. Thomas Lewis, however, appeared in only 35 games and was a nonfactor. Alexander and Morton were both solid over the course of long careers. The best receiver in this draft, though, was Isaac Bruce, taken in Round 2.

1995
Team Pick Player, School Games Avg. catches Pro Bowls Bust?
Redskins 4 Michael Westbrook, Colorado 87 35.6 0 Yes
Seahawks 8 Joey Galloway, Ohio State 161 51.0 0 No
49ers 10 J. J. Stokes, UCLA 118 38.0 0 Yes

We're affixing the bust label to Westbrook, who, as the No. 4 pick, averaged only 35.6 catches per season over an 87-game career. Galloway has been solid throughout, spectacular at times, and Stokes was underproductive.

1996
Team Pick Player, School Games Avg. catches Pro Bowls Bust?
Jets 1 Keyshawn Johnson, USC 167 73 3 No
Patriots 7 Terry Glenn, Ohio State 137 53.0 1 No
Rams 18 Eddie Kennison, LSU 168 44.5 0 No
Colts 19 Marvin Harrison, Syracuse 170 92.9 8 No
Bills 24 Eric Moulds, Mississippi State 170 66.5 3 No

1996 was a banner year for first-round wideouts, boasting the standout Harrison, who embodies very few of the diva-esque qualities of the typical NFL wideout. There, I used the word "diva." I promise it won't happen again.

1997
Team Pick Player, School Games Avg. catches Pro Bowls Bust?
Giants 7 Ike Hilliard, Florida 130 43.7 0 No
Dolphins 15 Yatil Green, Miami 9 18.0 0 Yes
Bucs 16 Reidel Anthony, Florida 68 28.8 0 Yes
Panthers 27 Rae Carruth, Colorado 22 20.6 0 Yes

As solid as 1996 was, 1997 was equally terrible. Fans in the state of Florida will remember Yatil Green and Reidel Anthony. Fans of the penal system will remember Rae Carruth. Ike Hilliard was solid for the Giants, just barely sneaking over the bust bar.

1998
Team Pick Player, School Games Avg. catches Pro Bowls Bust?
Titans 16 Kevin Dyson, Utah 58 29.6 0 Yes
Vikings 21 Randy Moss, Marshall 138 75.1 5 No
Broncos 30 Marcus Nash, Tennessee 7 4.0 0 Yes

Kevin Dyson is known for almost scoring in the Super Bowl, Marcus Nash is known for his Arena League career and Randy Moss is known for being sensational but a locker room cancer. Still, you know a lot of teams wish they'd taken him.

1999
Team Pick Player, School Games Avg. catches Pro Bowls Bust?
Rams 6 Torry Holt, NC State 126 89.0 5 No
Cardinals 8 David Boston, Ohio State 75 52.5 1 No
Steelers 13 Troy Edwards, Louisiana Tech 88 29.0 0 Yes

Troy Edwards is now playing for the AFL's Grand Rapids Rampage, and Boston now weighs an astounding 350 pounds with 2 percent body fat and runs a 3.9-second 40. He is now a fringe player, but his Pro Bowl season makes it hard to call him a bust. Torry Holt will be in the Hall of Fame.

2000
Team Pick Player, School Games Avg. catches Pro Bowls Bust?
Bengals 4 Peter Warrick, Florida State 80 45.8 0 Yes
Steelers 8 Plaxico Burress, Michigan State 101 57.5 0 No
Vikings 10 Travis Taylor, Florida 99 44.0 0 No
Chiefs 21 Sylvester Morris, Jackson State 15 24.0 0 Yes
Jaguars 29 R. Jay Soward, USC 11 14.0 0 Yes

Though Warrick technically (barely) met our criteria, I still labeled him a bust, due to the fact that he was the fourth pick, had a short career and never developed as a deep threat. He was last seen playing for the Las Vegas Gladiators of the AFL. At least Las Vegas is a good, stable environment for professional athletes to flourish as people. Soward and Morris were among the worst draft choices in recent history.

2001
Team Pick Player, School Games Avg. catches Pro Bowls Bust?
Bears 8 David Terrell, Michigan 54 25.6 0 Yes
Seahawks 9 Koren Robinson, NC State 75 40.3 0 Yes
Redskins 15 Rod Gardner, Clemson 90 34.5 0 Yes
Jets 16 Santana Moss, Miami 81 48.3 1 No
Eagles 25 Freddie Mitchell, UCLA 63 22.5 0 Yes
Colts 30 Reggie Wayne, Miami 93 65.0 1 No

This was another ugly, ugly, first round for WRs, made serviceable by the presence of Reggie Wayne and, to a lesser extent, Santana Moss. KoRo has seen his share of the police blotter, while Terrell, Gardner and Mitchell have basically vanished. Robinson was really on the bubble (his Pro Bowl selection was as a kick returner); however, for a top-10 choice, his catches per year and future outlook are too grim to endorse.

2002
Team Pick Player, School Games Avg. catches Pro Bowls Bust?
Saints 13 Donte' Stallworth, Tennessee 68 46.6 0 No
Broncos 19 Ashley Lelie, Hawaii 79 39.2 0 Yes
Packers 20 Javon Walker, Florida State 64 45.2 1 No

Overall, not a terrible year for the wide receivers, and the mantra for this class may very well be "Big-Play Potential." Walker and Stallworth have more than had their moments, while Lelie has struggled but keeps getting opportunities. According to the criteria, Lelie is a bust, and I'm comfortable with this label for now.

2003
Team Pick Player, School Games Avg. catches Pro Bowls Bust?
Lions 2 Charles Rogers, Michigan State 14 18.0 0 Yes
Texans 3 Andre Johnson, Miami 61 77.5 2 No
Cardinals 17 Bryant Johnson, Penn State 61 41.0 0 No

While Joey Harrington received the majority of the hate, Rogers may well be the biggest waste of resources in the Matt Millen era, which is saying something. Andre Johnson looks like a star on a bad team, and Bryant Johnson has been a complimentary guy in a deep corps in Arizona.

Crunching the Numbers: First-Round WRs, 1989-2003
Number of WRs drafted: 51

Notable busts: J.J. Stokes, Ike Hilliard, Reidel Anthony, R. Jay Soward, Marcus Nash, David Terrell, Charles Rogers

Number of busts: 23

Bust percentage: 45 percent

Number of wideouts with at least one Pro Bowl appearance: 16

Pro Bowl percentage: 31 percent

Teams with multiple busts: Broncos, Redskins

For the sake of comparison
Percentage of first-round RB busts: 49 percent

Conclusions
According to the numbers, wide receiver seems to be a slightly safer pick than running back, though both are risky positions. Wide receivers tend to play longer -- more a function of WR being a safer position -- than their backfield counterparts, who tend to be injured more often and burn out faster.

Based on my aforementioned prejudices, the 45 percent number seems pretty indicative of bust potential, but there were several players on the borderline. Guys like Desmond Howard and Ashley Lelie, who graded out as busts, arguably could have gone the other way, but when a club drafts a first-round wideout it is expecting a Reggie Wayne or even a Joey Galloway, not a 35-catch guy.

Still, if our numbers teach us anything, it's that a number of the can't-miss wide receivers in this year's draft will actually miss.

Ted Kluck is not a scientist, rather he is the author of three books, including "Facing Tyson: Fifteen Fighters, Fifteen Stories" (Lyons Press 2006) and a full-fledged draft geek. He recently spent a season playing professional football as a member of the Battle Creek Crunch (GLIFL) where he was, without a doubt, a bust.