By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 23, 2008
If an NFL team picks the wrong quarterback in the first round of the NFL draft, the mistake is perceived as franchise-altering, and the player's failures eventually are compared to those of Ryan Leaf, Heath Shuler, Tim Couch or Akili Smith.
But while it might not be quite as damaging to a franchise -- or to the careers of the general manager and coach who make the choice -- the numbers indicate it is far more commonplace for a club to select the wrong wide receiver than the wrong quarterback in the opening round. In fact, a quick study of the past 10 years of the draft suggests more first-round gaffes are made at wide receiver than any other position.
The lesson: If you're an NFL general manager or coach and you're thinking about drafting a wideout in the first round Saturday, you might want to think again. For every Randy Moss, Larry Fitzgerald or Torry Holt the first round yields, it produces at least one wide receiver more along the lines of Peter Warrick, R. Jay Soward or Freddie Mitchell.
"If you look around the league, you'll probably find as many late-round receivers playing as the top-notch guys in the draft," former Tennessee Titans general manager Floyd Reese said in a telephone interview. "You find some guy in the sixth round who's maybe not as tall or as big as you'd like but he's fast, and the coaches fall in love with him because he's a deep threat and he ends up playing for you and playing well."
One thing is clear: NFL teams love to use first-round picks on wide receivers. It only makes sense in these pass-happy days in the league, in which the rules have been tweaked to benefit quarterbacks and wide receivers and make it almost impossible for defenders to cover gifted wideouts without violating the clutching-and-grabbing restrictions.
Last year, six wide receivers were chosen in the first round. Only one went in the first round the year before that, but there were six first-rounders in 2005 and seven in 2004. Over the past 10 years, 43 wide receivers have been picked in the first round, more players than at any other position; 2006 was the only year in that span in which fewer than three wide receivers were taken in the first round.
The list contains more players with undistinguished NFL careers than accomplished ones.
"The wide receiver position, in spite of what people think, is a hard position to evaluate and draft," Reese said. "There are so many variables: Does he fit our scheme? Are the coaches going to like him? Are there talent or character issues? If you find a big tackle who's strong and willing to work and has good feet, the chances are that he's going to be able to come in and play for just about any team in the league. But receiver is different. Everyone just says 'receiver,' but in reality a West Coast receiver is different from a deep threat is different from a spread receiver is different from a slot receiver."
Baltimore Ravens General Manager Ozzie Newsome said at his team's pre-draft news conference last week that wide receiver might be the toughest position to evaluate other than quarterback.
"They're asked to do so many things before the snap and then when they start running," Newsome said. "And that's before they catch it. I think it's a tough position for guys to come in right away and play, especially with what they have to go through in college."
Charley Casserly, the former general manager of the Washington Redskins and Houston Texans, said he thinks teams make mistakes on wide receivers most often because they misjudge players' speed.
"I went back and looked at it one time, and the one common ground I found is that the players weren't as fast as the teams thought they were," Casserly said. "You also get the same issues that you get at other positions -- character, work ethic, intelligence, toughness. Those are common to all positions. But in this case, it really seems to come down to speed."
Speed might seem easy to judge. But Casserly said it isn't because a scout or general manager can't simply go by a player's time in the 40-yard dash. Players now prepare extensively for the NFL scouting combine and their pro day for scouts, usually by working with a speed coach, and the clocking on the track doesn't always translate to on-field swiftness, Casserly said.
"Now you have players who are trained better and better for the combine," Casserly said in a telephone interview. "The 40 times are more artificial than ever. It comes down to playing speed, game speed."
This year's group of wide receivers is not regarded as bountiful. Some observers believe there will be few wideouts coming off the board in the opening round Saturday. "The wide receivers, I think you're looking at a bunch of guys you would hope to be good number two receivers," Casserly said. "I don't think you have those front-line number one receivers. There's no consensus first-rounder."
Said Newsome: "I think this year, the reason why there's a clump on our board is because they're juniors, and we just don't have as much information as you would like to have. Eric [DeCosta, the Ravens' director of college scouting] has done a study, and the study he did on junior receivers coming out didn't show very well. So I think that's the reason . . . but then again, every year there are probably more receivers on our board than any other position because production counts so much for a receiver, where it doesn't in a lot of other positions."
The Redskins have the draft's 21st overall pick and could be in the market for a wide receiver to go with Santana Moss and Antwaan Randle El.
"Everybody wants the biggest, fastest, most dominating receivers that they can possibly get," first-year Redskins coach Jim Zorn said earlier in the offseason. "That's what we'll be looking for, and hopefully we'll have an opportunity to get a good guy."
But Zorn discounted the popular notion that the Redskins absolutely must have a bigger wide receiver for the offense to function properly, and he said it's impossible to know before the draft which position they'll target in the opening round.
"I couldn't tell you it's going to be this guy," Zorn said. "With the 21st pick, it's hard to tell."