Commentary

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

Wide receivers chosen late in the first round tend to do just as well as those taken with the first few picks. The Steelers' Santonio Holmes and the Ravens' Mark Clayton seem to be just the latest examples.

Originally Published: November 2, 2007
By Aaron Schatz and Ned Macey | FootballOutsiders.com

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.

Early first-rounders
Player Year Pick Games Rec. Yards TDs Fantasy Points FP/G
Torry Holt 1999 6 110 619 9487 54 1892 17.2
Keyshawn Johnson 1996 1 151 744 9756 60 2080 13.8
Andre Johnson 2003 3 61 311 3953 17 808 13.3
Terry Glenn 1996 7 121 523 7776 38 1529 12.6
David Boston 1999 8 75 315 4699 25 935 12.5
Joey Galloway 1995 8 145 550 8501 64 1784 12.3
Plaxico Burress 2000 8 86 338 5378 29 1050 12.2
Santana Moss 2001 16 67 235 3899 28 793 11.8
Donte' Stallworth 2002 13 56 195 2791 23 612 10.9
Curtis Conway 1993 7 167 594 8230 52 1729 10.4
Average     104 442 6447 39 1321 12.7

Late first-rounders
Player Year Pick Games Rec. Yards TDs Fantasy Points FP/G
Marvin Harrison 1996 19 154 927 12,331 110 2820 18.3
Randy Moss 1998 18 125 634 10,147 98 2237 17.9
Eric Moulds 1996 24 154 675 9091 48 1872 12.2
Reggie Wayne 2001 30 77 304 4164 28 888 11.5
Javon Walker 2002 20 48 157 2444 22 533 11.1
Derrick Alexander 1994 29 127 417 6917 40 1,354 10.7
Johnnie Morton 1994 21 182 624 8719 43 1754 9.6
O.J. McDuffie 1993 25 115 415 5,074 29 1096 9.5
Eddie Kennison 1996 18 152 482 7384 37 1442 9.5
Ashley Lelie 2002 19 64 168 3007 12 542 8.4
Average     120 480 6933 46 1454 12.1

(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.