Commentary

Tip Sheet: WR talent runs deep

Recent drafts have produced plenty of gems beyond first round

Originally Published: June 25, 2010
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

Austin Collie & Mike WallaceUS PresswireAustin Collie, left, and Mike Wallace each made sizable contributions as rookies in 2009.

Of the 15 rookie wide receivers with 30 or more catches last season, 10 were chosen in the third round or later and eight were selected in Rounds 4 through 7. Four of the rookie wide receivers, in terms of yardage leaders, were selected after the first 80 choices went off the board.

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The Indianapolis Colts' Austin Collie, who tied for the most receptions by a rookie wideout (60) in 2009 and led all first-year wide receivers in touchdown catches (seven), was a fourth-round pick. The Pittsburgh Steelers' Mike Wallace, the leader in average catch (19.4 yards) and receptions of 20 yards (14) and 40 yards (six) among rookies with more than 30 receptions, was a third-rounder. The Oakland Raiders' Louis Murphy (nine starts) and the New England Patriots' Julian Edelman (seven), the only rookie wide receivers who made more than five starts, were selected in the fourth and seventh rounds, respectively.

Little wonder that in the 2010 draft, and even in drafts before that one, general managers and personnel directors were confident they could unearth productive wide receivers outside of the first round.

"The history is that there have been some solid wide receivers later [in the draft], and that you can get someone who can help you," said Tampa Bay Buccaneers general manager Mark Dominik, who is counting on rookies Arrelious Benn (second round) and Mike Williams (fourth) to bolster the Bucs' passing game in 2010.

It's notable that the Bucs' Sammie Stroughter, who registered 31 receptions as a rookie and projects as the club's slot receiver this season, was a seventh-round selection in 2009.

There were only two wide receivers chosen in the first round in April -- Demaryius Thomas (taken by Denver at No. 22) and Dez Bryant (taken by Dallas at No. 24) -- and that represents the third fewest of this millennium. Not every draft, of course, features so few first-round wideouts; there were seven first-rounders in 2004 and six each in 2009 and 2007. But five of the past 10 drafts have included three or fewer wide receivers taken in the first round, and two of the past three had two or fewer. In the 2008 draft, no wide receivers were chosen in the opening round.

Part of the reason is that so many wide receivers chosen outside of the first round have posted solid campaigns as rookies. Another factor: For whatever reason, first-round wide receivers have historically faltered in their initial seasons and have not immediately provided good return on the lucrative investments made in them.

In the past 10 years, seven of the players who led the NFL or were tied for the lead in catches by a rookie wide receiver were chosen after the first round. That includes three of the past four seasons.

"I think the mentality is that every wide receiver feels he's a first-rounder," said the Bucs' Williams, the former Syracuse star who was a first-round talent but slipped to the fourth round because of some off-field problems in college. "So when those guys aren't taken then in the first round, they feel like they have to step up and show people. There's definitely something to prove."

Said Benn, who was Williams' roommate for Tampa Bay's recent minicamp, and who was regarded by several scouts as a first-round prospect: "You come in, not with a chip on your shoulder, but a boulder."

Both the Bucs' rookies could conceivably start this season, and there seems little doubt that Benn and Williams will be starters at some point in 2010.

They are hardly the only wide receivers chosen after the first round expected to be significant contributors as rookies.

Golden Tate (Round 2) is expected to be a playmaker for a Seattle Seahawks team that ranked 30th in passing offense in 2009, and had only four completions of 40 yards or more, second fewest in the league. Jordan Shipley (Round 3) could be the Cincinnati Bengals' slot receiver. The Denver Broncos' Eric Decker (Round 3), the Philadelphia Eagles' Riley Cooper (Round 5) and the Cleveland Browns' Carlton Mitchell (Round 6) could be regulars in their teams' wide receiver rotations.

In fact, all eight of the wide receivers chosen in the third round could end up playing significant roles for their franchises. Five franchises each took two or more wide receivers after the third round two months ago, and most of them are expected to land roster spots as rookies.

The Carolina Panthers, who want to rebuild their receiving corps around four-time Pro Bowl performer Steve Smith (who broke his arm last weekend in a game of flag football), grabbed a pair of wideouts, Brandon LaFell of LSU and converted quarterback Armanti Edwards of Appalachian State, in the third round.

"We're counting on those guys [for 2010]," acknowledged Carolina general manager Marty Hurney.

One of the game's most electrifying wide receivers, Smith himself was a third-round choice in 2001.

The league is filled with wide receivers who were chosen later than the second or even third round, and who made their marks. Of the 29 wide receivers who had 30 or more catches as rookies in the past three years, 10 were chosen in the fourth round or later. Five of the 21 wide receivers who had 500 or more yards as rookies were taken in the fourth round or later.

"Guys who aren't first-rounders come in so motivated and ready to prove people wrong," Mike Williams said. "Once they learn the playbook, it's like, 'OK, let's just play ball now.' They're hungry. Like me. I'm not just hungry, I'm starving, man."

Len Pasquarelli, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.