Athleticism, Not Production, Has Maryland's Darrius Heyward-Bey Among Top Receiving Prospects in NFL Draft

The NFL draft is genius TV, but just try to get Wilbon and Kornheiser to watch. And..."the big Wilbonski" crushes the PBA's top bowler. Video by Atkinson & Co.
By Steve Yanda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 24, 2009

Darrius Heyward-Bey did not rank in the top 100 in the country in receptions, receiving yards or receiving touchdowns last season. Despite being Maryland's most dynamic offensive threat, Heyward-Bey touched the ball only 19 times during the Terrapins' first six games and went nearly a month without catching a ball.

And yet, there's a good chance Heyward-Bey will hear his name called during the first round of tomorrow's NFL draft. After all, he said, the film doesn't lie. Flip on tape of any Maryland game over the past three seasons and witness the explosiveness with which Heyward-Bey bursts off the line of scrimmage. His speed is too alluring to pass up, his playmaking too tantalizing to ignore.

"The key about receiving is everybody can make the simple five-yard catch," Heyward-Bey said. "It's all about if you're going to get tackled after those five yards or are you going to make a play? That's what teams evaluate."

Heyward-Bey acknowledged NFL teams probably took notice of the fact he tallied only 42 receptions, 609 receiving yards and 5 receiving touchdowns in 2008. Compared to Texas Tech's Michael Crabtree or Missouri's Jeremy Maclin -- both of whom had more than 95 receptions, 1,100 receiving yards and 12 receiving touchdowns last season, and both of whom are considered the draft's top-rated pass catchers -- Heyward-Bey's production appears insufficient.

Sources said, however, Heyward-Bey is graded as a first-round talent because statistics are not the best method of evaluation. There are other factors more indicative of potential for success.

"I think he's kind of a wild card in this draft," said Gil Brandt, who was vice president of player personnel for the Dallas Cowboys for 28 years and now works as a personnel analyst for "He didn't have much of a quarterback, and he still did a pretty good job. . . . If he were at Texas Tech, he'd have probably caught 100 passes."

At Texas Tech, Crabtree caught balls thrown by Graham Harrell, who completed 70.6 percent of his passes and won the 2008 Unitas award as the country's top senior quarterback. At Maryland, Heyward-Bey lined up most frequently with Chris Turner, who notched a 57.2 percent completion percentage.

Brandt gushed over Heyward-Bey's time of 4.3 seconds in the 40-yard dash at the NFL combine, the fastest among all receivers. He raved about Heyward-Bey's 38 1/2 -inch vertical leap, as well as his ability to adjust to balls thrown over his shoulder.

But then Brandt moved on to the questions that arise in nearly every conversation about Heyward-Bey's pro prospects. The speed is evident, but can Heyward-Bey develop into a more sound route-runner? His arms are long, but his hands are relatively small. Can he be a dependable pass-catcher?

Over the past three months, Heyward-Bey trained with quarterbacks Matthew Stafford and Josh Freeman in Arizona before returning to College Park, where he worked out twice a week with former Maryland quarterback Sam Hollenbach.

Hollenbach, who played with Heyward-Bey in 2006, spent time with the Washington Redskins in 2007 and understands the value of Heyward-Bey's speed. He also knows that single trait will not allow Heyward-Bey to flourish.

"I don't see him being viewed as a one-dimensional player, but I think his speed is very important," Hollenbach said. "It's one of the reasons why he's going to be drafted very high. I also think, to be honest, that it can be overrated, as well. In my experience, the best receivers are definitely fast, but they also run very good routes, and they have great hands. Those two things are more important than speed."

When Heyward-Bey toed the line of scrimmage with his left foot, as Hollenbach said he does even if he is lined up on the right side of the field, the quarterback reminded the wide receiver NFL teams probably will ask him always to put his outside foot forward before the snap. And when Heyward-Bey ran a dig or hook route 15 yards, as it is executed at Maryland, Hollenbach advised him to run it 20 yards deep, as it is performed in the NFL.

Heyward-Bey was aware of the questions that would surround his draft status when he decided in January to forgo his senior season of college football. Always one to plan for the worst, Heyward-Bey cautiously took a risk that may be on the verge of paying off.

"Coming out as a junior, I told myself I had to be okay going in the second round," Heyward-Bey said. "I feel like if you go in there with too big of expectations and things don't go that way, you'll come out disappointed at the other end."

Throughout the run-up to the draft, Heyward-Bey learned how he and his pass-catching brethren were being assessed by NFL teams, and that knowledge makes him even more confident he won't end up crestfallen on Saturday.

"Can this guy fit into our system? What are his good qualities and bad qualities? What can I teach him? What does he have that I can't teach that he's just born with? They look at a lot of different things," Heyward-Bey said. "But production, I would have to say, in my eyes, is the last thing they look at."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company