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Holmes, Clayton more proof of late first-round receiving gold

11/5/2007

The Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens are fierce rivals with a lot in common.

Each team is built around defense and the running game. Each team has a dedicated blue-collar fanbase. And each team pairs a veteran wide receiver with a youngster recently drafted near the end of the first round.

Top pick wideouts like Calvin Johnson and Ted Ginn Jr. get the most attention when they enter the NFL, but this year's leading rookie wideout actually is a player chosen in the second half of the first round -- Dwayne Bowe of the Kansas City Chiefs. The fact is, wide receivers chosen late in the first round tend to do just as well as wide receivers chosen with the first few picks. Pittsburgh and Baltimore have taken advantage of this fact by reloading on offense with Santonio Holmes (25th overall selection, 2006 draft) and Mark Clayton (22nd overall, 2005 draft), respectively.

Given some of the problems the Detroit Lions have had in recent seasons, some fans might wonder if wide receivers even merit a first-round pick. A quick look at the career totals of every wide receiver drafted between 1993 and 2003 shows that 32 out of 42 first-round picks have at least 150 career receptions. So far, so good.

Thirty out of 49 second-round picks have matched that amount, a smaller percentage but still a majority. Thereafter, only 28 out of 295 wide receivers drafted during this time period reached 150 receptions. Ninety-four of those players, or 32 percent, never caught a single NFL pass. Of the 206 receivers drafted from the fourth round on, 142 caught fewer than 20 passes.

The occasional hidden gem can be found in Rounds 3 through 7, but the production of an average player taken in those rounds is much lower than a receiver taken in the first two rounds. Within Rounds 1 and 2 , there's also a big difference between the average production of a first-round wide receiver and a second-round wide receiver.

Of course, one could argue that the dramatic success of Randy Moss (18th overall, 1998) and Marvin Harrison (19th overall, 1996) skews the data in a relatively small sample. But a closer look shows that they skew the data no more than Torry Holt (sixth overall, 1999). Here are the top wide receivers drafted from 1993 to 2003. For a simple measurement, we'll use fantasy points: one point per reception, one point for 10 yards and six points for a touchdown.

(Note that we left Sylvester Morris off our list of late first-round picks, since he played for only one season before injuries ended his career.)

When we compare the 10 best early first-rounders to the 10 best late first-rounders, there's very little difference in the production of the two groups. The early first-rounders tend to produce more per game, but the late first-rounders have proven to be more durable.

Of course, that's only true of the late first-rounders who weren't complete busts. This is the biggest difference between the top of the first round and the bottom. Every wide receiver drafted in the first half of the first round from 1993-2003 played at least 50 games with two exceptions: Yatil Green and Charles Rogers.

In the second half of the first round, there are more out-and-out busts: Marcus Nash, R. Jay Soward and Thomas Lewis, not to mention the curious case of Rae Curruth.

However, it seems fairly clear that neither Santonio Holmes nor Mark Clayton will fall into that category. And when you can avoid an out-and-out bust, the end of the first round provides the most value at wide receiver, providing strong contributors who come with substantially cheaper price tags when compared to the receivers chosen in the first few picks.

Why do these late first-rounders tend to succeed? It certainly helps to be drafted by a more stable team with a more experienced quarterback, rather than suffering through growth pains with a fellow youngster (as Andre Johnson did with David Carr, for example).

Better teams also can take their time and not force rookies into the starting lineup before they are ready.

Certainly this was the case with both Holmes and Clayton. Holmes did not start until Week 14 of his rookie season. One year later, he is Pittsburgh's leading receiver.

Clayton struggled to find playing time as a rookie and didn't do much with Kyle Boller as his quarterback -- but last year, paired with veteran Steve McNair, he blossomed with 939 yards, five touchdowns and what seemed like an NFL record for catching tipped passes.

Clayton is struggling with ankle injuries this year, so he might not be a major factor this Monday night. But both Clayton and Holmes are going to be important players in the Baltimore-Pittsburgh rivalry for years to come.

Aaron Schatz is president of Football Outsiders Inc. and the lead author of Pro Football Prospectus 2007 and 2008. Ned Macey is a writer for FootballOutsiders.com and Pro Football Prospectus 2007.