Consistency bodes well for future
The 2009 wide receiver class has been an unappreciated delight.
Percy Harvin, Hakeem Nicks and Jeremy Maclin each have caught 126 passes or more in just two seasons. Despite a rookie holdout, Michael Crabtree has 103 receptions. Mike Wallace of the Steelers, a third-round pick, has a 20.3-yard average per catch.
From this group of winners, it's hard to pick the best of the lot, but I'm going to go with Maclin. I concede the gap isn't much. There is just something consistent and smooth about Maclin's style of pass-catching.
There is no question Maclin works in the shadow of DeSean Jackson, who is the main receiver in Andy Reid's West Coast offense. Jackson clearly isn't Jerry Rice as a talent, but Maclin, as a No. 2 target, reminds you a little of John Taylor, the former 49ers stud who played opposite Rice.
Maclin is 6-foot, one inch shorter than Taylor, but his 198-pound frame is 13 pounds heavier than the former 49er. He caught 70 passes last season making the adjustment from Donovan McNabb to Michael Vick, but he clearly has the look of a receiver who will catch 90 to 100 in a season.
Talk about consistency: Maclin averaged 13.8 yards a catch as a rookie and kept the same number his second season. As good as Maclin is now, averaging 63 catches a season, you can see plenty of room for improvement.
His yards-after-contact average is low at 1.4 yards a catch, but that number can improve. It's not as though he can be classified as a player ready to make a breakout season, but it seems inevitable that he will go over 1,000 yards in receiving this year after getting 773 as a rookie and 964 last season.
It will be fun in the future to watch all of these receivers develop, because each has his own style. Maclin has nice size as a split end working alone against a cornerback on the weak side of the field. Harvin is quick and explosive out of the slot. Crabtree is a tall, dangerous target out of the slot. Nicks is a big-play receiver with big hands and a physical style. Wallace is an ideal deep threat.
For the moment, the nod goes to Maclin.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
Skills, stable situation equal success
The 2009 NFL draft was a great one for receivers, but the one who'll have the best career was the fifth one off the board. Hakeem Nicks of the Giants is the complete package, and of all the promising young wideouts entering the third seasons of their careers, he's the one best set up for long-term success.
The biggest concern about Nicks coming out of North Carolina was whether he had the top-end speed a No. 1 NFL wideout needs to stretch the field. But his 14.6 yards-per-catch average in his first two seasons answered that. Of the receivers in this group, only Pittsburgh's Mike Wallace (at an incredible 20.3) has a higher average.
But while Wallace has functioned only as a deep threat, and Philadelphia's Jeremy Maclin may have more speed, Nicks has much more to his game. He's a devoted film-study nut (since high school, he claims). He's been a great-hands red zone target for Eli Manning. He has the size to outmuscle defenders in the end zone. He locates the ball in traffic better than any other receiver in this group and, more importantly, better than the defensive backs who are covering him. The latter skill is critical, because it makes him a risky guy to defend even with double-teams.
Nicks is, in short, the best all-around receiver in this exciting third-year group. He's shown the ability to do more things on the field than has Percy Harvin, and he's proved more to this point than has Michael Crabtree. He also finds himself in far more secure and potentially beneficial surroundings than either of those two.
Nicks' quarterback situation is stable -- Manning is signed long term in New York and already has developed a rock-solid trust in him. He also has complementary receivers, Steve Smith and Mario Manningham, who have excelled in specific roles. Having Smith as the possession guy and Manningham as the deep threat prevents teams from focusing all of their coverage on him the way, say, 49ers opponents can on Crabtree. The Giants build depth well at certain positions, and that helps players develop at their own pace. They're in luck with Nicks, whose pace has been swift.
Nicks wasn't the first receiver taken in the 2009 draft. But given what he's already shown and where he finds himself, he's the one in line for the best career.
Dan Graziano is the NFC East blogger for ESPN.com.