Johnson might be worth top pick

Although history might suggest that you don't need to take a wide receiver at the top of the draft, Calvin Johnson could end up being historically good, writes Len Pasquarelli.

Updated: April 18, 2007, 2:52 PM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

Prone to exaggerate the physical attributes of just about any player they are asked to evaluate publicly, scouts seem to have gone absolutely head over heels with hyperbole in assessing Georgia Tech wide receiver Calvin Johnson, the highest-rated prospect on most NFL franchises' draft boards.

Even in a business in which excessive praise is an inherent element of the pre-draft posturing process, talent scouts have resorted to terms typically reserved for priceless diamonds in assaying Johnson's unique skills.

Pristine. Brilliant. Unsullied. One in a million.

Scouting report: Calvin Johnson
Strengths: Possesses exceptional overall physical tools. Is tall, well-built and strong. Displays rare speed and athletic ability for his size. ...

Weaknesses: Will lose focus at times. Has dropped too many passes trying to get up the field before securing the ball. ...

Complete scouting report Insider
McShay on Johnson
Those are the kinds of characterizations that scouts employ in gushing over Johnson, who could become only the third wide receiver in history to be the first overall selection. But if it sounds as though teams are attempting to implement a 24-carat con job when it comes to Johnson, well, it doesn't take close examination through a jeweler's loupe to realize he is definitely a gem.

"Watch him for just a play or two, the way Calvin carries himself in everything he does, and you can understand pretty quickly what you've got here," said Georgia Tech coach Chan Gailey, who as an NFL offensive coordinator and head coach tutored some top-shelf wide receivers. "He's the best I've seen. [He's] the real deal, all right. Calvin is the closest thing to can't-miss that I've ever had."

Said Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy: "The feeling pretty much is that he'll jump right into our league and be a star."

If that's the case, Johnson will be a rare find indeed.

Although teams generally invest a lot of choices in outside pass-catchers -- with more players chosen at wide receiver than at any other position in the past 10 years -- it is not a position that has produced high dividends. Particularly not in terms of first-round prospects. The consensus among most veteran scouts is that viable receivers, guys who can line up and play quickly, are usually available in later rounds. And the failure rate of first-round wide receivers is unusually high.

Alarmingly so, in fact.

Indeed, recent history offers a pretty good indication that wide receivers don't have to be first-rounders to be first-rate. That said, in the past 10 years, there have been 41 wide receivers picked in the first round. The first-round results, however, have been mixed at best.

We wrote about this in March, but some of the numbers bear repeating.

Of the 27 wide receivers from the first rounds of the 1997-2003 drafts, 14 are out of the league entirely and nine are with franchises other than the ones that drafted them. Only four have appeared in multiple Pro Bowl games. There were 13 wide receivers taken among the top 10 picks in the 2000-2006 drafts. Just three of them have made at least one Pro Bowl appearance. By comparison, four are out of the league right now. The rookie wide receiver who made the biggest impact in 2006, Marques Colston of New Orleans, was a seventh-round choice, the 252nd player chosen last year. Anquan Boldin of Arizona, who in 2003 set the league record for most receptions by a rookie, was only a second-round choice that season. The leading pass catcher in the NFC in '06, Detroit's Mike Furrey, was an undrafted free agent in 2000. He played in both the short-lived XFL and the Arena Football League before ever making an NFL roster, was a safety for the St. Louis Rams before moving to wide receiver full time, and had more tackles (59) than catches (21) entering the 2006 campaign.

Since 1970, only two wide receivers, Irving Fryar of New England in 1984 and Keyshawn Johnson of the New York Jets in 1996, were chosen with the first overall selection. The two combined for nearly 1,700 catches and more than 23,000 yards, but neither is likely to be elected to the Hall of Fame.

Of the top 10 wide receivers in 2006 in terms of catches, Furrey was an undrafted player and T.J. Houshmandzadeh of Cincinnati and Green Bay's Donald Driver were seventh-rounders.

"The guy is an absolute freak. You name it. Size. Speed. Hands. Mental toughness. He's the whole package. I hope they threw away the mold after they created him … because, man, there better not be another monster like him anywhere out there."
Jimmy Williams, Falcons CB
But even with the reams of empirical evidence that suggest it's not that difficult to unearth a good wide receiver outside the first round, maybe even on the second day of the draft, it will be hard for teams to pass on Johnson. Teams that allow Johnson to get by them might, like the franchises that ignored Randy Moss in 1998, come to rue the day. There aren't likely to be many teams that pass on Johnson, though. Even if he isn't the first choice overall, he certainly will be the favorite target of several franchises eager to trade up in the first round to snatch him.

Johnson has physical tools similar to those of Moss. And he comes minus the character issues Moss brought with him into the league. As good a player as Johnson is, his coaches and teammates -- and now the NFL personnel people who have put him under the microscope -- say he is an even better person, if that's possible.

If the projections are on target, and if he plays with a quarterback who simply gets the football anywhere near his frame, Johnson could be a Hall of Fame-caliber performer.

"The guy is an absolute freak," said Atlanta cornerback Jimmy Williams, a second-round pick in 2006 and a guy who -- while at Virginia Tech -- lined up against Johnson. "You name it. Size. Speed. Hands. Mental toughness. He's the whole package. I hope they threw away the mold after they created him … because, man, there better not be another monster like him anywhere out there."

Opposing cornerbacks can be forgiven if they suspect that Johnson might have been the creation of some latter-day Dr. Frankenstein with football as his passion. He combines the size, power and speed, certainly, of some of the game's greatest wide receivers.

Start with the physical dimensions, with Johnson having measured 6 feet 5, 239 pounds at the February combine workouts. Add the measurables, as Johnson ran a blistering 4.35-second time in the 40-yard sprint at the combine, then followed that up with a pro day performance on campus in which he posted a remarkable 42-inch vertical jump and a standing long jump of 11 feet, 7 inches.

Then there are the on-field numbers. In 29 college games, Johnson totaled 127 receptions for 2,151 yards. His average touchdown catch was for nearly 22 yards. He scored on long bombs, and his superior size made him a tremendous red zone target. And it didn't matter that, in many games, Johnson was double- and even triple-teamed.

"Flawless," said longtime NFL personnel chief Ken Herock, who is now retired, but who prepares prospects for combine interviews and worked with Johnson this spring. "That is really the only word that fits. He's like 'The Natural,' but only in football cleats instead of baseball spikes. I know the history of wide receivers in this league, the first-round guys who haven't made it. No one has to worry about this guy joining that group."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer at ESPN.com.