Stallworth, Lelie and Walker need to step up
Entering their third seasons, it's time for Donte' Stallworth, Ashley Lelie and Javon Walker to break through.
Despite what has become an instant pudding mentality in some quarters of the league, with owners increasingly demanding immediate gratification, most personnel directors still cling to the old adage that it takes three years to accurately evaluate a draft haul.
And, by extension, to truly gauge the value of the individual players in a draft class.
Three receivers of immense potential, all of them selected in the first round of the 2002 draft, all of them expected to be consistent deep threats by this juncture of their respective NFL careers. Three guys slowed, during their first two campaigns, by nagging injuries. Three wideouts who have flashed breathtaking playmaker abilities but who now, entering their third seasons, must maintain that occasional explosiveness or run the risk of perhaps being labeled as duds.
"(It is) time for it to all come together for me," acknowledged New Orleans wide receiver Donte' Stallworth, the 13th prospect selected overall in 2002, but a player limited to just 10 starts in his first two seasons. "This is my time now. People have expectations for me, but no one has bigger expectations than I do, and I aim to meet them."
Similar sentiments have been expressed by the other two wide receivers picked in the first round of the 2002 draft, Ashley Lelie of Denver and Green Bay's Javon Walker, as they have progressed through mini-camps with an eye toward experiencing a breakout 2004 season. But talk is cheap and making plays in mini-camp seven-on-seven drills, working in T-shirts and shorts and against only a modicum of contact, is not daunting.
What each of the junior-year wide receivers must do in 2004 is dispense with the small-talk and begin dispensing big plays instead.
There have been, for each of the young wideouts, stretches of brilliance. Over the final six regular-season games of '03, for instance, Walker averaged 23.5 yards on 17 catches and scored five touchdowns. He had six grabs for a gaudy 25.8-yard average in Green Bay's two playoff appearances. Stallworth has 11 touchdowns on just 67 career catches, an impressive average of one score every 6.1 grabs, and has authored five receptions of 40 yards or more. Lelie has produced eight catches of 40-plus yards on just 72 receptions, and 49 of his catches have been for first downs or touchdowns.
Lelie also had a five-game stretch in the middle of last season, though, when he did not register a single reception for more than eight yards. Walker and Stallworth, each of whom has experienced similar fallow periods, can commiserate with such droughts. And therein is the rub, both for the three wide receivers, and certainly for the teams relying on them to emerge in 2004 as legitimate threats.
Consider this: Through two seasons, the three wide receivers have averaged 67.7 catches, 1,095 yards and 8.3 touchdowns. Those are the kinds of numbers their teams are counting on for one season from the young sprinters. None of the three has caught more than 42 balls in a season. Lelie posted only two more catches in 2003 than he did during his rookie season. Stallworth's production spiraled from 42 receptions and eight scores in 2002 to just 25 catches and three touchdowns last season.
Glancing back at the 2002 draft shows that there were second-round wide receivers -- Antonio Bryant (Dallas), Antwaan Randle El (Pittsburgh), Andre' Davis (Cleveland) and Deion Branch (New England) -- who arguably have made more notable impacts than the three first-rounders from that lottery. In some ways that isn't too surprising, since history has demonstrated that, for whatever reasons, first-round wide receivers very rarely enjoy instant success at the NFL level.
A two-year apprenticeship, however, is more than sufficient tutelage time, and so three franchises are equally anxious for their three former first-rounders to step up and deliver in 2004. Said Broncos offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak, when asked about Lelie during one of the team's offseason sessions: "He's got to really escalate and getting going this year. I mean, it's important he become a big-time player in this offense."
|“||(It is) time for it to all come together for me. This is my time now. People have expectations for me, but no one has bigger expectations than I do, and I aim to meet them. ”|
|— Donte' Stallworth, Saints WR|
For the long-striding Lelie, and the others as well, that means snippets of solid play will not be enough. The Packers, Broncos and Saints aren't looking for the Kodak moment anymore. They expect their young receivers to produce highlight reels, instead, in their third season in the league.
That will mean, for each of the players, increased dedication to the craft and, especially for Stallworth, more attention to conditioning. That the former Tennessee star has missed eight games in two seasons is attributable to nagging hamstring injuries that also limited him at times in college. Stallworth has concentrated much more on physical readiness this offseason and, from a technical standpoint, paid a lot more attention to detail. Lelie, who also has a history of hamstring strains, and Walker likewise have been more diligent on and off the field.
"You can see some of the detail stuff, the things we used to have to try to drill into Javon, coming naturally now," said Packers offensive coordinator Tom Rossley. "It's seems that those things have sunk in now. He's doing things more naturally. We saw in the second half of (last season) what he can do. This has to be a big year for him."
It is, indeed, a critical season for all three of the 2002 first-round wide receivers. None of the three is in jeopardy yet of having the "bust" tag hung on him. It would be hyperbole to suggest patience is wearing thin. But a three-year gestation period, most grizzled old scouts would agree, is plenty of time to work through the rough spots. The three wide receivers won't disagree with that notion.
"Yeah, it's time now," Lelie said, "to make it happen."
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Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.
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