Commentary

First round littered with WR risks

Originally Published: April 25, 2009
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

Michael Crabtree and Darrius Heyward-BayUS Presswire, Getty ImagesMichael Crabtree, left, was considered the No. 1 wide receiver in the draft, but speedster Darrius Heyward-Bay was the first one off the board.

As best the ESPN army of draft correspondents could determine, actor Tom Cruise didn't sleuth his way into any of the NFL decision rooms Saturday afternoon, or turn in any official selection cards to the commissioner.

Odd, because when it came to choosing wide receivers, the selections in the first round were definitely the stuff of risky business. And what faces the first-round wide receivers as rookies might be a mission impossible.

Six wide receivers went off the board in the opening round, tying for the second most in any draft's initial stanza. In an unusual quirk, no wide receivers were taken in the first round last spring. But at least six wide receivers were chosen in three of the four first-round classes prior to that. And in the past 10 years, only once have fewer than three wide receivers been selected in the first round.

All six of the wideouts taken in Saturday's first round carry some degree of uncertainty about their potential NFL productivity, at least as rookies. From the first wide receiver off the board, Raiders No. 7 pick Darrius Heyward-Bey, to Kenny Britt of Rutgers, chosen by the Tennessee Titans with the 30th pick, there were clear concerns about all of the prospects.

And rightly so.

Despite his prototypical size and 4.3-second 40 speed, Heyward-Bey never caught more than 51 passes in a season at the University of Maryland, never averaged more than 15.4 yards per reception, and was known as much for his questionable hands as his lightning-quick speed. And that was in a pro-style offense. Texas Tech's Michael Crabtree, chosen by San Francisco with the 10th pick, was probably the most polished of the wide receiver prospects, but he played in a run-and-shoot-type of offense in college, and sustained an ankle injury last season that still concerns some teams. He will have to find a middle ground for his personality to fit in with 49ers coach Mike Singletary.

Missouri's Jeremy Maclin, Philadelphia's selection at No. 19, doesn't play as big as his size (6-1, 208) and isn't as quick on the field as he is running for a stopwatch.

The Eagles have five veteran receivers, including 2008 second-round pick DeSean Jackson, and Maclin could find it difficult to carve out playing time as a rookie.

Percy Harvin of Florida was a virtual steal for the Minnesota Vikings at No. 22, because he possesses top-10 talent. But the elusive Harvin reportedly tested positive for marijuana at the NFL combine, underwent ankle surgery last fall and is said to have attitude problems. And there is some question about what position is Harvin's best spot. At Florida, he often lined up at tailback, and returned kicks. So his route-running might leave something to be desired.

The New York Giants' choice at No. 29, North Carolina's Hakeem Nicks, has great size (6-1, 215), but reported to the combine at least 10 pounds overweight, so some clubs question his work ethic. The final first-round wideout, Britt, also possesses tremendous size (6-4, 215) and runs precise routes, but lacks straight-line speed.

"When you look at the history of the great wide receivers who have played for the Oakland Raiders, it's always been about the vertical [deep] speed," said coach Tom Cable, explaining the surprising choice of Heyward-Bey.

But Raiders owner Al Davis tends to place far too much emphasis on 40-yard speed, and not nearly enough on production. Which might at least partly explain why the Raiders are generally choosing in the top 10.

Of course, taking risks on wide receivers in the first round seems like a bad and unbreakable habit in the league. It seems like it's done just about every year. So, basically, this draft isn't too dissimilar to most lotteries of the recent past. That doesn't make it right, just typical.

In the past 10 draft classes, there have been 40 wide receivers chosen in the first round. Of that group, 16 are currently out of the NFL. And few wide receivers enjoy productivity in their rookie seasons. In their initial years in the league, the first-round wideouts of the past 10 years have averaged only 7.8 starts, 35.9 catches, 292.9 yards and 3.0 touchdowns.

Only eight of the 40 caught 50 passes or more as rookies, and just four had more than 60 receptions. Just six players had 800 yards or more as rookies, and only one, Michael Clayton of Tampa Bay, posted a 1000-yard campaign. You have to go all the way back to 2004, with Larry Fitzgerald of Arizona, to find a first-round wide receiver who has been to multiple Pro Bowl games.

But history indicates that choosing unproductive wide receivers in the first round of the draft is old hat. Wide receivers as rookies tend to be as much suspect as prospect. Yet, the temptation remains.

"This wasn't our plan, not the guy we targeted, but he fell right into our laps," Eagles coach Andy Reid said of Maclin.

The Eagles are hoping he won't fall on his face, like many first-round rookies before him.

Some other discernible trends from the first round:

  • New Cleveland coach Eric Mangini learned well from his mentor about dealing in the draft. Despite all the talk of early trades, there were only five deals in the first round, and Cleveland made three of them -- all three times trading down to accumulate extra picks. The other two trades? They were made by the master of draft wheeling and dealing, Bill Belichick of New England, who twice traded down in the round.

  • Once again, offensive tackles were popular in the first round. There were four tackles taken in the opening round, not quite the seven of a year ago, but it's obvious that left tackle in particular has ascended to near-skill-position status.

  • The SEC got back to its position of prominence in the first round. Over the past three years, first-rounders from the ACC have outnumbered those from the SEC, 25-21. But the first round Saturday featured eight SEC players, the most from any conference.

  • Not surprisingly, it was hardly "safety first" for teams. Once again, there were no safeties chosen in the first round. Although the draft was deep at cornerback, only two cover defenders, Ohio State's Malcolm Jenkins (chosen by New Orleans) and Illinois' Vontae Davis (chosen by Miami), went off the board in the first round.

    Senior writer Len Pasquarelli covers the NFL for ESPN.com.