Third Year Wide Receivers: An Anecdotal Prospectus
The 2008 draft is memorable for a few things, it’s quarterbacks, it’s offensive tackles, Chris Johnson, uh, Vernon Gholston…and of course, the fact that no receivers went in the first round for only the second time in the Super Bowl Era (1990).
That’s pretty memorable. Now, that’s also a bit misleading, it’s not that there was a complete void in the WR class for just that season: 10 WRs were picked in the 2nd round of the 2008 draft, leading me to believe less that the class was lead to be weak, and more along the lines of having a year where all the prospects in the class had their flaws.
Through two years, we have a single receiver from the class who is on the verge of stardom, and that’s Phildelphia’s DeSean Jackson. Jackson is the best receiver, the best runner, and the best returner among all the receivers in this class. That would give him the triple crown among receivers from the 2008 NFL draft, and also makes it unnecessary to project him beyond this point. He can be summarized as such: his best days are ahead of him.
For a bunch of receivers in the rest of this class, their futures aren’t so clear. I will try to analyze the rest of these players and offer a projection for their future, based on statistical and anecdotal evidence. For sake of simplicity, I will grade each players potential on a scale from 1-5, with 5 being a potential pro bowl performer in the future, and a 1 being a guy who might have already had his best season(s).
2nd round, 33rd pick: Donnie Avery, St. Louis Avery had real flashy numbers coming out of the University of Houston, so I wasn’t particularly surprised when the Rams made him the first receiver drafted in 2008. He spent the first three years of his UH career reeling in passes from current Eagles QB Kevin Kolb, the 33rd pick from the prior year, and actually had his best year as a senior after Kolb left. Avery’s pro career hasn’t gone quite as planned in St. Louis, but this is as much because of inconsistencies at the quarterback position as any other reason. If you’re looking for a “surprise” 1,000 yard receiver this year, and you happen to believe in Sam Bradford as a rookie, Avery is virtually certain to start and finish this year as St. Louis’ number one receiver, and apparently, their internal evaluation measures have determined that Avery is not part of the problem, but rather, the solution. As disappointing as his 2009 season was, there was enough blame in St. Louis to go around. Eventually, I think Avery is going to end up not being the go to guy in St. Louis, but if he’s a starting wide receiver in each of the next three years for the Rams, I don’t think that should shock anyone. Potential: 3
2nd round, 34th pick: Devin Thomas, Washington Devin Thomas’ rate production hasn’t been all that different from that of Donnie Avery’s, but Thomas has had the advantage of a single quarterback starting every one of his 30 career games. If you want to assume that having Marc Bulger as a QB is as much of an advantage of Jason Campbell, you can defend that to an extent, but then you’d have to discount Avery’s production when Bulger was out of the lineup. At this point, Devin Thomas’ career boils down to a single great performance against the New Orleans Saints, a December 1st game where he caught 2 TDs…and hasn’t been in the end zone since. Thomas’ career has been terribly disappointing to date, and while a lot of people feel that having Donovan McNabb will help make his career, a lot of people said the same of Reggie Brown as well. Potential: 2
2nd round, 36th pick: Jordy Nelson, Green Bay Nelson remains buried behind Donald Driver, Greg Jennings, and splits time as the third WR with James Jones, but he has managed to increase his contribution even with increasingly limited opportunities, which is certainly a good sign. Green Bay has one of the strongest receiving corps in the league, and Nelson enters this third season as a fantasy super-sleeper: the guy who could step into Donald Driver’s role with no meaningful dropoff in production before other fantasy owners in your league realize what is happening up in Lambeau. Look no further than Nelson’s 6-3, 215 lb frame the reason why he, not James Jones is going to replace Driver, who is at a much more advanced age than you would suspect (he’s 35 already). Nelson is the guy in this class who should break out not only with great numbers, but the guy who can make a difference on the field. Potential: 5
2nd round, 41st pick: James Hardy, Buffalo Hardy’s the dude who was drafted in the 2nd round because he was tall. I had Devin Thomas pegged as the super bust of this class coming out of the draft, but after an injury and ten catches in two seasons, Hardy’s not going to be in favor of the new coaching staff, and his potential of developing into a quality starter in the NFL is basically nil. Potential: 1
2nd round, 42nd pick: Eddie Royal, Denver Maybe the surprising thing following the mass purge in Denver is that Eddie Royal is still around. He fit Mike Shanahan’s attack quite will in 2008, but strictly as an underneath target who averaged a mere 10 yards per catch. Last year, Royal’s production fell off the cliff, as no one suffered more from Kyle Orton taking over at quarterback than Royal, who caught fewer than half of the passes where he was marked as the intended receiver, and didn’t even get 5 yards per target, which would have been a disappointing figure had he been a running back. As a receiver, Royal’s projection is strictly as a no. 3 slot receiver type, and he’s never going to reproduce his rookie year. He’s still around, so there’s something that Josh McDaniels sees here, but if he’s going to run more two TE sets in the future, it’s Shanahan’s 2nd round pick that is coming off the field to make room for McDaniels’ second rounder in 2009, TE Robert Quinn. Potential: 2
2nd round, 51st pick: Malcolm Kelly, Washington Malcolm Kelly ran right through the San Diego secondary for a career long 84 yard reception last year in Week 17, which helped him sport a less-promising-than-it-looks 13.9 yards per catch figure. Bad defense or not, that catch did occur, and Kelly has flashed some ability to carry out longer developing routes and be a lanky downfield target who should really help QB Donovan McNabb in Washington. Like his teammate Devin Thomas, Kelly’s first two seasons have been largely a disappointment, but the potential to succeed in the NFL is there. He can’t fall victim to the injury bug again this season, or his window of opportunity in Washington will vanish. Potential: 3
2nd round, 53rd pick: Limas Sweed, Pittsburgh The news of the day in the NFL today is that Sweed suffered a potentially serious injury to his Achilles tendon, which could sideline him for the 2010 season. In honesty, Sweed was probably going to be sidelined for the season anyway even if he was healthy. Sweed has underperformed everyones expectations, and when you combine serious injury with disappointing prospect, you have a guy who probably needs to be looking at a career outside of football. Potential: 1
3rd round, 70th pick: Earl Bennett, Chicago Bennett couldn’t get onto the field as a first year player, but he was excellent last year, his 717 receiving yards were 4th in this draft class in 2009, behind only Jackson, Mario Manningham, and Pierre Garcon. Bennett was the most productive Chicago receiver in 2009, and his rapport with Jay Cutler going back to their college days in 2005 gives him an added advantage in the Mike Martz system. Martz declared publicly that he’s happy with the current crop of receivers, so Bennett will be in the starting lineup for at least one more season. Potential: 4
3rd round, 81st pick: Early Doucet, Arizona The Cardinals moved Anquan Boldin to Baltimore, which also moves Steve Breaston into the starting lineup, and puts Doucet in the slot. He’s been underutilized in his first two seasons in Arizona, but his 12.6 yards per catch is excellent for a slot receiver, as is his 71% catch rate. I’m discounting a bit for his positioning behind Breaston and Larry Fitzgerald in the Arizona receiver hierarchy, but Doucet has all the makings of an excellent slot receiver for Matt Leinart and the Cardinals. Potential: 3
3rd round, 84th pick: Harry Douglas, Atlanta Douglas missed all of 2009 with an injury, but his career got off to a really promising start, and if his ACL is fully healed going into 2010, I see no reason that Douglas can’t emerge as a 2a type option on the interior, splitting catches between the numbers with TE Tony Gonzalez Potential: 3
3rd round, 95th pick: Mario Manningham, NY Giants Manningham’s 822 yards receiving last year ranked second among receivers drafted in this class in 2009, but Manningham’s maddening inconsistentcies makes me believe that 2009 will be a career high for Manningham in both receiving yards and receiving TDs at the end of his career. Hakeem Nicks and Steve Smith are going to be the no. 1 and the no. 2 in New York for the forseeable future, and early on this year, Manningham is probably going to be unable to keep Ramses Barden, a 3rd rounder in 2009, and Domenik Hixon from getting their reps. If they struggle, Mario Manningham will get another crack at being a starting receiver for the Giants, but as of right now, his potential impact looks minimal from where I’m sitting. Potential: 1
3rd round, 97th pick: Andre Caldwell, Cincinnati Caldwell played the role of no. 2 receiver in the Bengals offense, which netted him 51 catches and 3 receiving TDs, but outside of catching a respectable 64% of targets, there’s no dimension to Caldwell’s production. He outlasted Lavarnues Coles on the Bengals roster, which is cool, but he’s also going to fall behind TE Jermaine Gresham, WR Antonio Bryant, and will be in a dogfight camp battle for the slot receiver position with advanced rookie WR Jordan Shipley that I do not expect him to win. Consequently, I’m not thinking he will make it to his second NFL contract. Potential: 1
4th round, 126th pick: Lavelle Hawkins, Tennessee He’s a smaller receiver out of Cal who offers the Titans a nice deep threat on the outside, but is certainly not ahead of Kenny Britt or Justin Gage on the outside, and thus, his playing time doesn’t figure to greatly increase in 2010. I think he’s got the potential to come off the bench and make a big play or two, but until he can bring some consistency to his offense, that’s about his limit to assist Vince Young in developing into a strong NFL quarterback. Potential: 2
4th round, 128th pick: Keenan Burton, St. Louis Burton isn’t the accomplished player that Donnie Avery is, but as a fourth round pick in the same draft, he actually made an improvement in 2009 with an in-flux QB situation, and that bodes well for an improvement in 2010. He’s still at least a year away from a breakout season, and his role in developing rookie Sam Bradford might be quite limited, but if he can make a handful of plays this year, he could emerge as Bradford’s go-to receiver someday. Potential: 2
6th round, 174th pick: Josh Morgan, San Francisco As a second year WR, Morgan made it all the way up to 51 catches. His DYAR production was the best among all San Francisco receivers last season. I’m not sure he’s going to be a superstar someday, and I still want to see what Jason Hill can develop into before Morgan is declared a starter, but Morgan is the odds on favorite to emerge as the Batman to Michael Crabtree’s Superman. Potential: 3
6th round, 205th pick: Pierre Garcon, Indianapolis More, I think, than Austin Collie, Garcon really benefited from Anthony Gonzalez being hurt last year. Garcon brought the speed element back to the Indianapolis offense, and he remains the guy most likely to stay in the lineup in order to generate the big plays opposite of Reggie Wayne. That’s his niche going forward. Problem is, I don’t think he is good enough as a receiver to get a lot of looks with a healthy Gonzalez, and Collie, Dallas Clark, and Wayne. Because of that, he doesn’t have all that much potential for the future. Potential: 2
7th round, 224th pick: Steve Johnson, Buffalo Well, I think he’s more likely to get a roster spot in 2010 than James Hardy is, but Johnson’s reported potential just hasn’t turned into very much production. He was pretty good in 2008, but did not accomplish very much in 2009, and could be looking at the waiver wire sooner rather than later. Potential: 1
7th round, 226th pick: Chaz Schilens, Oakland Schilens is the gem/steal of the late rounds among 2008 receivers, and his production has been weighed down by constant injury and poor quarterback play. Schilens himself is quite an incredible talent, and is really the true no. 1 WR on the Raiders. Problem is, he’s hurt again right now for minicamp, and really needs to get out there and develop that rapport with Jason Campbell. Schilens is the receiving talent that Campbell never had in Washington, and Campbell is the quarterback that the former Aztec has quite frankly never had. Potential: 4