Teams need to let first-round WRs develop

NFL teams need to learn that first-round receivers don't always have to turn into No. 1 receivers, writes John Clayton.

Originally Published: May 10, 2006
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

Jimmy Smith's sudden retirement should prove simple solutions aren't easy in the NFL.

Smith was the Jaguars No. 1 receiver for a decade. When he clicked with Keenan McCardell, Jacksonville was a perennial playoff contender. But age eventually catches up to every athlete, and teams must plan accordingly. It would appear the simple solution to replacing a No. 1 receiver is to use a No. 1 draft pick on a receiver.

Not so fast. It's not that easy. The Jaguars have used three first-round picks in the past seven drafts on receivers -- R. Jay Soward (2000), Reggie Williams (2004) and Matt Jones (2005) -- and none has produced a season with more than 36 catches.

Finding a No. 1 receiver has been a No. 1 headache for many teams.

Since Mike Shanahan took over the Broncos in 1995, he has invested 16 draft choices in receivers and hasn't found one yet. Included in those choices are two first-round picks (Marcus Nash and Ashley Lelie), one second-round pick (Darius Watts) and two third-rounders (Travis McGriff and Chris Cole). The most catches a receiver drafted by Shanahan has had in a season is 54, by Lelie in 2004.

The list of first-round failures is endless. Sylvester Morris (Kansas City, 2000 draft), Freddie Mitchell (Philadelphia, 2001), David Terrell (Chicago, 2001), Soward (Jacksonville, 2000) and Rod Gardner (Washington, 2001) headline the list of recent failures. Eleven of the 16 first-round receivers taken between 2000 and 2003 haven't or won't get second contracts from the teams that drafted them. Of the other five, Reggie Wayne is the only one to have actually secured a new deal. The Lions have used three top-10 picks on wide receivers in the past four drafts and are still buried in the bottom of the passing stats.

In a passing league, why do teams drop the ball on receivers in the draft more than any other position?

The answer is simple: expectations.

If a first-round pick isn't putting up No. 1 receiving numbers three or four years into his contract, he's considered a disappointment and he won't be re-signed. Just because the first-round pick is included in his bio, does he have to put up No. 1 receiver numbers to be a good player?

One of the problems in the NFL is the turnover of coaches and how dramatically systems can change when new hires come in. Big receivers fit best in West Coast offenses. Smaller, quicker receivers who are better running after the catch fit better in the Mike Martz-Al Saunders-Norv Turner-Don Coryell system. But converting one receiver to fit into the other type of offense doesn't always work, so teams tend to move on and find alternatives.

Look at what's going on in Detroit. Roy Williams, Charles Rogers and Mike Williams have the ideal size for a West Coast offense that needs bigger bodies to go across the middle for catches. But they don't fit new coordinator Mike Martz's offense. Only Roy Williams has the skills to fit the Martz system. Expect Rogers to be gone before the start of the regular season, and Mike Williams might be on the way out next offseason.

High expectations drove Santana Moss and Plaxico Burress from the teams that drafted them. Despite being injury prone and inconsistent in the West Coast offense, Moss, who was the Jets' first-round pick in 2001, had a 1,105-yard season with the team in 2003. But that wasn't good enough so they shipped him to the Washington Redskins where he re-emerged as a Pro Bowl receiver and one of the most exciting players in the NFC. Indeed, Moss became the No. 1 receiver in a scheme for which his skills are a better fit.

The same can be said for Burress in Pittsburgh. He had a 1,008-yard season in 2001 and a 1,325-yard season in 2002. Good numbers. Still, the Steelers' No. 1 receiver was Hines Ward, a tough, physical leader who has carried the Steelers to the Super Bowl. Unless you're the St. Louis Rams, it's hard to have two No. 1 receivers, so someone has to be No. 2, and that was Burress.

Because of that, Burress wasn't offered a contract following the 2004 season and he left for New York where he helped the Giants and Eli Manning make the playoffs.

Unless teams want to waste time and money developing No. 1 receivers, they should change the standards on what they are looking for from first-round wide receivers. Steve Smith (Carolina), Chad Johnson (Cincinnati), Derrick Mason (Baltimore), Chris Chambers (Miami), Ward (Pittsburgh) and Deion Branch (New England) are among the many receivers who have developed into No. 1s even though they weren't taken in the first round.

It's possible to become a star in the NFL through hard-work, training and execution. Look at Smith, whose 5-foot-9, 185-pound body didn't fit the first-round prototype. The Panthers invested a third-round choice on him in 2001 thinking he might be a good third receiver who also could return kicks.

Smith came to the Panthers with an attitude. He believed he was a No. 1 receiver and played with a chip on his shoulder. His overconfidence often collided with management. But as Smith played and developed, he became the No. 1 receiver. Last year, he was the league's best receiver. He was right, he was a No. 1. But because expectations weren't unrealistic, Smith had time to develop into a Pro Bowl receiver.

It was interesting to hear Ward's offseason complaints about the Steelers using first-round picks to try to replace him. He fought and scrapped and battled to be the Steelers' go-to receiver. No No. 1 pick can take that reality away from him. The more Ben Roethlisberger goes to Ward, the more success the Steelers have.

What has to be remembered is that first-round picks go in the first-round for a reason. They have the height, speed and athletic skills that spew out numbers that place them among the top 32 athletes in the draft.

Say what you want about Lelie in Denver, but the guy is a talent. Even though he hasn't developed into the long-term replacement for Rod Smith and probably will be traded before too long, he has skills. He has averaged 17.9 yards per catch during his Broncos career. But the Broncos always wanted more out of him and found his replacement when they traded for Javon Walker. Lelie wants out and Mike Shanahan wants him out.

But the expectations for Lelie were too high because he was a No. 1 pick. If Darius Watts, a second-round disappointment, averaged 17.9 yards a catch and 42 catches a year as the team's No. 2, he'd be deemed a success and probably would get a second contract from the Broncos and more time to develop. Because Lelie didn't put up No. 1 numbers, he's being treated with disdain.

The No. 1 problem with drafting a receiver No. 1 is that he's not allowed to be a No. 2, unless he's Wayne with the Colts. It's no surprise that Wayne is the only first-round receiver drafted since 2000 who has secured a second contract from the team that drafted him.

NFL teams had better learn that first-round receivers don't always have to turn into No. 1 receivers.

John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer

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