Observer study: Search for No. 1 wide receiver comes with a catch

jperson@charlotteobserver.comMay 3, 2014 

NFL Draft Football

Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins is considered the best wide receiver in the 2014 NFL draft and a potential top-5 pick, but history shows there are no sure things.

RICHARD SHIRO — AP

The Carolina Panthers enter the deepest wide receiver draft in five years with a clear need at the position.

While general manager Dave Gettleman signed three veteran receivers to replace the four wideouts the Panthers cut or lost in free agency, none of the newcomers or young holdovers on the roster is a clear, long-term complement to franchise quarterback Cam Newton.

In an era dominated by downfield passing attacks, the Panthers head into this week’s draft without a true No. 1 receiver.

The Observer compiled a list of the NFL’s top 40 receivers – essentially, those talented enough to be considered No. 1s – and analyzed how they ended up with their current teams, and looked at how long it took each to become an impact player.

The conclusion? Finding a premiere receiver is not easy.

The Observer’s analysis showed:

•  More than half (24) of the league’s top 40 receivers were drafted in the first or second round. Another, Cleveland’s Josh Gordon, was selected in the second round of the 2012 supplemental draft, in exchange for the Browns’ second-round pick in 2013.

•  Only five of the 14 receivers drafted in the top 10 over the past decade made the Observer’s list, so taking a receiver early does not guarantee a player will be a star.

•  About one in five receivers (8 of 41) drafted in the second round since 2004 were among the top 40 receivers in 2013.

•  Teams are nearly as likely to find a franchise receiver picking late in the first round as those drafting one early. That’s good news for the Panthers, who pick 28th overall in Thursday’s first round.

•  Of the Observer’s 2013 top 40, 80 percent (32 of 40) became impact players within their first two years in the league, and 19 did so as a rookie.

•  Among the league’s top 10 receivers, nine are 6-foot-3 or taller (the 10th – Dallas wideout Dez Bryant – is 6-2 and 225 pounds).

•  The majority of the best wideouts (27 of 40) are still with their original team, including eight in the top 10. Ten signed as unrestricted free agents, including two – Steve Smith and DeSean Jackson – after they were cut during the offseason. Three others were acquired in trade.

The Panthers of course have done their own studies and analyses. Gettleman, who broke into the business as a scout, said teams should expect a transition period with a young wideout, regardless of the round in which he’s drafted.

“History will tell you that wideouts don’t assimilate quickly,” Gettleman said last week. “I trust our evaluation process.”

Gettleman, the former New York Giants’ pro personnel director, said he had only two receivers with first-round grades last year, his first as the Panthers’ general manager.

The two presumably came from a group that included Tavon Austin, DeAndre Hopkins and Rock Hill’s Cordarrelle Patterson, all of whom were drafted in the first round and had productive rookie seasons.

Draft experts believe six wide receivers could be taken in the first round this year, possibly all before the Panthers pick. The group includes Clemson’s Sammy Watkins, widely considered the best receiver available and likely a top-five pick.

The deep and talented group reminds Gettleman of the 2009 draft, when six receivers were taken in the first round. Four of the six first-rounders from ’09 are among the Observer’s top 40 wideouts, including former Independence High and North Carolina standout Hakeem Nicks.

Nicks was the only receiver the Giants drafted in the first round during Gettleman’s 13 years running the pro personnel department. The Giants had success drafting receivers in the second round (Rueben Randle, Steve Smith) and third round (Mario Manningham), and discovered Pro Bowl receiver Victor Cruz at a tryout for local players.

The Panthers were among the other teams who called Cruz, one of four undrafted players on the Observer’s list of the league’s best wideouts.

Gettleman might think he has a future Cruz in Charlotte. Tavarres King and Marvin McNutt are late-round draft picks Gettleman signed last year and kept on the active roster all season.

Top teams had star receivers

Looking at the rosters of the four teams who played in the conference championship round last season, only Denver had a receiver considered among the game’s top five wideouts – Demaryius Thomas, whose 1,430 receiving yards ranked fourth in the league.

But three of those four teams had at least two wideouts among the league’s top 40. Seattle and Denver, who met in the Super Bowl, each had three.

The Broncos had Thomas, Wes Welker and Eric Decker, who signed with the Jets during the offseason. The Super Bowl-champion Seahawks had Golden Tate, Percy Harvin and Doug Baldwin.

The Patriots were the only team among the final four with just one elite receiver. Julian Edelman, a seventh-round pick from Kent State, spent four seasons waiting behind Welker before breaking out with a 105-catch season after Welker went to Denver.

Edelman is an outlier among the Observer’s top 40 receivers, the only one of the 40 to have his breakout season in his fifth season – and one of only eight to do so after his second year.

Longer road, with speed bumps

Not all highly drafted receivers develop quickly – or at all. Some struggle with the more sophisticated passing offenses in the NFL; others have the misfortune of being drafted by teams without an established quarterback.

And some are just busts.

Two such first-round picks – A.J. Jenkins and Jonathan Baldwin – will forever be linked after being dealt for each other in a rare player-for-player trade last summer. Jenkins, who underperformed in San Francisco after the 49ers took him 30th overall in 2012, was sent to Kansas City in exchange for Baldwin, the 26th pick in 2011 who fell out of favor with new Chiefs coach Andy Reid because of his issues with dropped passes.

The new surroundings did not help either player. Jenkins had eight catches for 130 yards with Kansas City in 2013, while Baldwin managed just three receptions for 28 yards for the Niners.

The struggle of Darrius Heyward-Bey, the No. 7 overall pick by Oakland in the deep receiver draft of ’09, offers another cautionary tale.

Al Davis, the late Oakland Raiders owner, loved Heyward-Bey’s speed and drafted him ahead of Harvin, Nicks, Michael Crabtree and Jeremy Maclin. But Heyward-Bey, now 27, was a raw receiver who – after a nearly 1,000-yard receiving season in 2011 – regressed in 2012, when he was plagued by drops. He signed in April with Pittsburgh, his third team in as many seasons.

Gettleman was in New York for that ‘09 draft. “It was Crabtree, Heyward-Bey, Maclin, those guys, Hakeem and Kenny Britt,” he said. “It was those five (and Harvin).

“The two guys that stuck out were Crabtree and Maclin. Maclin was pro-ready. There was no doubt about it. I was shocked that at Missouri he ran the full complement of routes.”

Finding receivers who can run the entire, nine-pattern “route tree” is becoming more difficult for NFL scouts because of the proliferation of spread offenses in college football. Gettleman said one of the receivers in this year’s draft, whom he did not identify, ran only four routes in college.

“I look at a guy and he’s caught (90) balls. I put the tape on of every ball thrown to him. Of those 90, 45 were flash screens. The other 45 he caught, he ran to three spots,” Gettleman said. “So, do they understand coverage? They’re going to have to learn the whole route tree. How long is it going to take them to assimilate?

“That’s why we spend as much time with these kids on the road, bringing them in, to figure that out.”

Bigger is better

The limited passing offenses at the college level have put a premium on taller, bigger receivers who can win one-on-one matchups with NFL defensive backs.

“They don’t have to run as many routes and they don’t have to get in and out of breaks like the smaller wideouts,” NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said. “They’re running a bunch of outside-the-number fade routes that become converted back-shoulders. It’s just a jump ball. Any time you get a one-on-one with a defensive back with his back turned, and you get a big, superior athlete, the odds favor the wide receiver.”

That has made it a big man’s game among the NFL’s most dangerous receivers. On the Observer’s list of the top 40 wideouts, nine of the top 10, and 11 of the top 13, are 6-3 or taller.

Calvin Johnson, the Detroit wideout and the league’s premiere receiver, tops the list at 6-5 and 239 pounds.

The best receiving prospects in this week’s draft are not overly big, with just two of the top six wideouts taller than 6-1 – Texas A&M’s Mike Evans and Florida State’s Kelvin Benjamin, both of whom are 6-5. But several of the second- and third-round receiving prospects are good-sized players, including Indiana’s Cody Latimer (6-3, 215), Vanderbilt’s Jordan Matthews (6-3, 212), Clemson’s Martavis Bryant (6-4, 211) and Penn State’s Allen Robinson (6-3, 220).

Carolina’s situation

Since the week in March when the Panthers cut franchise receiving leader Smith and lost three other wideouts in free agency, nearly every draft expert and armchair scouting director has talked about Carolina’s need to draft a receiver.

During his pre-draft press conference last week, Gettleman conceded he’d like a young wide receiver.

After Carolina released Smith, Panthers wideouts Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn Jr. and Domenik Hixon left in free agency, signing contracts richer than Carolina would or could offer.

To replace them, Gettleman brought in Jerricho Cotchery, Jason Avant and Tiquan Underwood, who have combined for one 1,000-yard receiving season (Cotchery in 2007, as a member of the Jets) and zero Pro Bowl appearances.

All three have sterling reputations as locker room leaders, but each could best be described as a complementary receiver.

“Cotchery is a better slot. Tiquan Underwood is kind of an X, an outside wide receiver with good speed,” said Mayock, the NFL Network analyst. “And Jason Avant is a player that I saw a lot of in Philadelphia that I have a ton of respect for. He’s tough. He’s smart. He’s great in the locker room.

“He’s not overly gifted. But he comes to play every Sunday.”

Panthers coach Ron Rivera says he is not convinced his team needs a No. 1 receiver. On a team built around its stout defense and effective running game, Rivera said, the Panthers only need to replace the 10 combined catches a game they lost among the receivers who left.

A chance to do more

The Panthers have other needs, too. They’re looking for a left tackle to replace Jordan Gross, who retired after 11 seasons, and they could use a young cornerback.

The offensive tackle group is talented, though not as deep as the receiving class. Gettleman insists he’ll take the best player available and won’t reach to fill a positional need.

The Panthers have taken only two wideouts in the first two rounds in the past 10 drafts – Dwayne Jarrett in 2007 and Keary Colbert in 2004. And while Gettleman doubled up on defensive tackles with his first two picks in last year’s draft, it’s worth noting he and the Giants took a wideout (Nicks at No. 29) in the last receiver-rich draft, with nearly the same draft position as the Panthers this year.

“I’m not going to insult your intelligence,” Gettleman told reporters last week. “You all know it’s a heckuva wide receiver draft and there’s a solid tackle group.”

But the Panthers could face a tough decision if the tackles and wideouts ranked highest on their draft board are gone when it’s their turn to pick at 28.

Mayock worked through a mock draft recently in which the top five tackles and his six highest-rated wideouts – Watkins, Evans, LSU’s Odell Beckham, Oregon State’s Brandin Cooks, USC’s Marqise Lee and Benjamin – had all been taken in front of the Panthers.

Mayock had the Panthers drafting Virginia offensive tackle Morgan Moses in that scenario.

In Mel Kiper’s most recent mock, the ESPN draft guru predicted the Panthers would take Fresno State’s Davante Adams, who at 6-1, 212 pounds was the nation’s leading receiver last season with 131 catches and was second with 1,719 receiving yards.

“Do I think Marqise Lee or Kelvin Benjamin could get to (the Panthers)? Yeah, they could. But it’s a little bit of a crapshoot right now,” Mayock said. “All six first-round wideouts could be gone before 28. I think all five tackles could be gone by 28. So they could be looking at a Morgan Moses, or a Davante Adams at wideout.”

Person: 704-358-5123; Twitter: @josephperson

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