Everyone is in agreement: the 2014 draft class of wide receivers is stacked. But don't get too excited about the new skill guys contributing in Year 1. A trend in the college game has made the pro wideout learning curve much steeper
The one thing all NFL executives have told the truth about during the runup to this draft is depth of the wide receiver class. Tall, short, playmaker, possession receiver—whatever your flavor, chances are you’ll find it in this year’s draft from the first round all the way through undrafted free agency.
“I would say that’s a position where you could probably draft a player in any of the seven rounds, and I think our board stacks that way,” Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said. “If there is an opportunity for us to add another receiver, we will definitely do it.”
Eagles general manager Howie Roseman also said it’s likely that he’ll select a receiver at some point just because of the way the draft board is stacked with receivers thanks to 17 underclassmen adding to an already strong senior group.
“When you look at the talent in this draft and when we look at our board about how good the receivers are in this draft, I think there will be a point in this draft, and that could be in the seventh round when we have a guy in the fourth round, that there is going to be a really talented receiver (available),” Roseman said. “The wide receiver position always goes later to begin with, and now with the influx of the underclassmen at the wide receiver position, I just think that’s how it’s going to turn out now.”
That’s a good thing considering by rough estimate approximately 21 NFL teams could use at some help either at receiver (Jets, Eagles, Browns, Lions, Buccaneers, Panthers, Raiders, Titans, Chargers, Chiefs, Rams, 49ers, Seahawks, Cowboys, Steelers, Jaguars, Saints, Cardinals) or tight end (Patriots, Bills, Packers), which is a heavy and taller receiver when you talk about coming from the college ranks where space is king and blocking is forgotten.
So many teams, so many players available. Fans are tripping over themselves to identify which of the incoming rookies will be the final piece of the puzzle.
Here’s a tip: don’t hold your breath. Most draft picks regardless of position don’t provide much of an impact until their second season. Just look at last year’s draft. You’d have to go down to offensive tackle D.J. Fluker, taken 11th overall by the Chargers, to find the first rookie to be inserted into a starting lineup and have an instant positive impact, and even he wasn’t sensational. Others that stood out in the first round: DT Sheldon Richardson (13th, Jets), DT Star Lotulelei (14th, Panthers), S Kenny Vaccaro (15th, Saints), S Eric Reid (18th, 49ers), OG Kyle Long (20th, Bears), CB Desmond Trufant (22nd, Falcons) and C Travis Frederick (31st, Cowboys). Others played at an acceptable rookie level, and might be very good in short order, but just didn’t deliver the impact that most figure a first-round pick to have.
The results at receiver and tight end are even worse. Only 19 players in the past five drafts have caught at least 50 passes as rookies. Seven of those players were drafted after the second round (Tampa’s Tim Wright was undrafted). There were 35 receivers or tight ends taken in the first two rounds (18 in the first) during that span. That’s an immediate return rate, with 50 receptions being the bar, of 34.3 percent.
“I think it is harder (to draft receivers), because you look back at the history of receivers drafted high, the success rate at that position is lower than other positions,” said Roseman.
Why is there such a learning curve for receivers entering the NFL from the college ranks? There are multiple factors, which almost all go back to the widespread appeal of the spread offense.
“The game is different. Their route-trees, the amount of routes, the systems. You see a lot of receivers being matched up in the right system, taking advantage of what they can and can’t do,” said 49ers general manager Trent Baalke, who hit on Michael Crabtree (10th overall in ’09) and missed with A.J. Jenkins (30th in ’12).
The spread offense has a double negative effect on receivers going to the next level. Most NFL offenses have options routes built into their patterns, where the route is adjusted based on the coverage being played by the defense. Some teams, like the Patriots, who have long struggled to develop young receivers, have up to four different options on a route. Both the receiver and the quarterback have to see the route exactly the same way.
"You’re teaching a player a concept," Belichick says. "We call a play within that play, 11 people know what to do. In a lot of cases, that’s not what they’re doing in college."
In college spread offenses, receivers often have predetermined routes, or they’re looking at a coach on the sideline to signal in the route. The quick-paced offenses often have the receiver run the same pattern over and over again because winning each play by the pace, instead of winning one-on-one, is more important.
“I'd say there's a lot of teams and a lot of players we've talked to in the last couple of years where … I don't want to say it's common, but certainly more common,” said Patriots coach Bill Belichick. “Run a go, run an in, run an out, you know. Run a bubble screen. Whatever it is. It's given independently to a number of players. Maybe four, five, six or seven different components of a play. Yeah. I'd say that's a little different than the traditional call a play, we all have an assignment, we all go out and run the play. I think that's becoming more and more common in college football.”
It’s become a challenge for NFL teams to get those receivers up to speed as rookies.
“Yeah, absolutely,” Belichick said. “Because they haven't done it. I'm not saying they can't do it. It's just that in some cases, they haven't done it. You're teaching a player a concept. We call a play within that play, 11 people know what to do. In a lot of cases, that's not what they're doing now (in college).
“Conceptually, though, it's a definite difference between hearing one thing and running a play and hearing another thing and running a play and just hearing your assignment and not getting the concept of the play. It's just different. When you're trying to run plays as fast as you can run them without a huddle (in college), as soon as the play is over, run to the line and run the next play, it's obviously faster to just give the guy an assignment rather than run the whole play and try and communicate the whole play and get everybody to do it. Teams that are running those types of offenses in college have obviously developed a system that facilitates a faster tempo. And that's part of it. It's something we are having to, I don't want to say adapt to, but it's different than some of the traditional play calling we're familiar with.”
The flip side of the spread offense is the effect that it’s having on defenses, and how that trickles down the receivers.
"Most of the time, your third receiver is going to be better than their third cornerback. So there’s not enough defensive backs to cover these guys,” Roseman said. “So what defensive coordinators in college football are doing is, they’re playing softer (coverage). You don’t see a lot of press coverage, you don’t see a lot of the challenge they get in the National Football League.”
The days of zone coverage being prominent are over. The best defenses are either playing man coverage, or zone with a man coverage element to it. That’s a foreign concept to almost all college receivers, and it’s a rude awakening for them in the NFL.
“That’s the hardest thing to project—how a guy is going to get off the line of scrimmage against press coverage,” Roseman said. “When he’s going against a 5-8, 180-pound guy [in college], now he’s got to go against a 6-1, 200-pound guy with 34-inch arms (in the pros).”
So the days of looking at a college receiver and being able to easily project him at the next level are largely over, which means it’s more difficult to find receivers who will instantly have an impact as a rookie. Teams are putting more emphasis on private workouts to determine exactly how they’ll react to tighter coverage. They’re also looking more closely at tests that measure intelligence, and exercises that demonstrate whether or not they’ll be able to retain and process the schemes used in the NFL.
“Most of the time, it’s more in the make of the player than it is in the physical traits of the player,” Baalke said. “That’s sometimes harder to determine. You can’t always see that on film. There’s a lot that goes into it.”
1. It didn’t happen until the other day, but Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome finally saw one of the strangest coincidences in this year’s draft. New Browns general manager Ray Farmer, one of the few African-American general managers in the NFL, has the fourth and 26th picks in the first round of Thursday’s draft thanks to a trade (Trent Richardson) that now-fired general manager Mike Lombardi made the previous year. In 1996, Newsome had the exact same picks in his first year directing the Ravens’ draft thank to a trade that Lombardi helped make the previous year before being let go. “That he has the same two picks that I had? It's ironic,” Newsome said this week. “I have a lot of respect for Ray and I know he'll do a great job with those picks.” Newsome had the type of draft, his first time out, that makes careers. Despite owner Art Modell wanting to fill a need at running back with Lawrence Phillips, Newsome stuck to his board and drafted Jonathan Ogden, who played guard for a season before moving to left tackle. With the 26th pick, Newsome took linebacker Ray Lewis. First two picks, two Hall of Famers who helped win two Super Bowl titles. Does he have any advice for Farmer? “Just to trust the information that he has. Let the information make your decisions,” Newsome said. “(Ogden) was the highest rated guy on the board, so we trusted the information. If you spend nine months preparing for a draft and you set your board, why are you going to get to game day and then change? That never works, whether you're calling plays, calling defenses or drafting players. We were just going to take the best players. There was sentiment for us to take Lawrence Phillips in the room, but we stayed true to our board and laid the foundation of how to do it.”
2. Speaking of Farmer, I thought his answer this week about the perceived slipping of Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, especially after a brutal pro day workout, was right on point. “It really comes down to how does he play football?” Farmer said. “The analogy that I keep throwing out is if we went outside and shot basketball and I can’t hit a shot—I just can’t buy a bucket; I can’t make a lay-up; I can’t really dribble; I dribbled off my foot twice; and it’s gone out of bounds—but then every time we play, I score 30, have 10 boards and five steals, do you want me on your team or are you going to pass me because I couldn’t warm up right? That’s the way I look at it. It really comes down to how does a guy play football.”
3. All general managers are on the spot this time of year, but I’d say that the Vikings’ Rick Spielman has a little more heat on him than most. As general manager of the Dolphins in 2004, he spearheaded the decision to trade a second-round pick to the Eagles for A.J. Feeley to be the team’s franchise quarterback. It didn’t work. In ’11, he picked Christian Ponder 12th overall. That doesn’t look like it’s going to work. Now Spielman has a third opportunity to pick a franchise quarterback. Spielman is a grinder and a good talent evaluator overall, but if he doesn’t pick the right guy this time around, it’s very difficult to see him getting that opportunity again anywhere.
4. Packers general manager Ted Thompson doesn’t say very much ever, which is why the way he talked about new outside linebacker Julius Peppers jumped out. “There’s no evidence of any decline in his play, in our opinion,” Thompson said this week. “He still has the same athletic traits that he had coming out. He’s had a remarkable history in the NFL in terms of durability. We’re looking forward to it. I think he is, too.” Thompson doesn’t like paying older players, but when he does it (CB Charles Woodson, DT Ryan Pickett) he’s usually spot on (the signing of center Jeff Saturday as an emergency stopgap was a different situation, in my opinion).
5. Apropos of nothing: I don’t pretend to be a draftnik, but one of the players who caught my eye watching film was Central Florida running back Storm Johnson. While scouting UCF quarterback Blake Bortles, it was Johnson who actually impressed as the most talented player on Golden Knights’ offense, and I know a few NFL personnel executives who share the same opinion. Johnson (6-0, 209 pounds) has a strong NFL body, quick feet and decent speed. He may not go until the third- to fifth-round range, but don’t be surprised if he shows well as a rookie.