TAMPA, Fla. -- When you’re watching NFC South teams this Sunday, keep an eye on the wide receivers. By choice and by circumstance, you’re going to see something rare.
You’re going to see a whole bunch of rookie wide receivers starting or playing a lot. That’s rare because there’s a school of thought, and most NFC South teams have backed it up through the years, that you shouldn’t ask too much of rookie receivers too soon.
We’re almost certainly going to see at least three rookies start at receiver for NFC South teams on Sunday and a fourth will get considerable playing time. A fifth might even be active for the first time in his career. In Week 5 of the NFL season, it’s kind of amazing that NFC South teams are leaning so heavily on rookie wide receivers, especially when not a single one of them was a first-round draft pick.
Tampa Bay’s been starting Mike Williams, a fourth-round pick, since the start of the season. Tampa Bay coach Raheem Morris hinted strongly during the bye week that second-round pick Arrelious Benn will get increased playing time going forward, probably splitting time with second-year pro Sammie Stroughter. The Bucs play at Cincinnati on Sunday.
In Carolina, it appears highly likely the Panthers will start two rookies at receiver on Sunday against Chicago. They likely will go with third-round pick Brandon LaFell and sixth-round pick David Gettis as the starters. Armanti Edwards, who is converting from playing quarterback in college, might be on the game-day active list for the first time this season.
In Carolina, this wasn’t exactly the plan. The Panthers, who traditionally have been very patient in playing young receivers, wanted LaFell starting as a rookie, but they thought Gettis and Edwards would have time to develop. But that’s all changed because the Panthers are likely to be without Steve Smith due to an ankle injury. They cut veteran Dwayne Jarrett after he was charged with driving while impaired Tuesday morning. The rookie receivers will be working with rookie quarterback Jimmy Clausen.
While putting rookie receivers around a young quarterback might sound like a formula for disaster, that’s actually the plan the Buccaneers have had since draft day.
“We made the conscious decision to draft these young guys and let [quarterback] Josh [Freeman] grow with them," Morris said.
Morris then pointed to the New Orleans Saints and how they let a young crew of receivers grow up around Drew Brees. Not a bad example, although Brees had been a starter in San Diego before coming to New Orleans in 2006. Freeman’s only been starting since the second half of last season.
“They, and I’m talking the wide receivers and Josh, always talk about growing up together," Tampa Bay receivers coach Eric Yarber said. “We talk about that as a staff. We’ve got a lot of young guys, but eventually these guys are going to become big-time players in this league."
Williams already has shown promise. In three games, he has 12 catches for 139 yards and two touchdowns. Although Benn was the higher draft pick, he hasn’t been much of a factor so far after missing some preseason time with an injury. But the Bucs are saying that’s about to change.
“Arrelious is coming on very well," Yarber said. “Early on, he had to spend a lot of time in the playbook. But now that he’s got the plays down, he’s playing much faster and we’re seeing the real Arrelious Benn now."
Still, is it wise or even productive to rely on rookie receivers so early? History has shown it’s a position that often takes time to grow into. Atlanta’s Roddy White, now the best receiver in the NFC South, didn’t really produce until his third year and he was a first-round pick. Smith spent a year as a kick returner before even getting a chance at wide receiver. Then, there’s a pretty lengthy list of guys who never really developed.
Carolina drafted Jarrett, Keary Colbert and Drew Carter and got very little from them. Tampa Bay used early picks on Michael Clayton and Dexter Jackson. Clayton had a big rookie year, but did nothing after that. Jackson never even made an impact and couldn’t make Carolina’s roster in the preseason.
Yarber admits there are challenges to playing rookie receivers right away.
“It is difficult because of the physicality on the outside against bump and run," Yarber said. “The guys in college are going against maybe one good DB that’s physical. On this level, every DB they face is physical and good at rerouting you. They’ve got to get used to the physicality on the outside.’’
But it’s far from just being a physical thing. The Panthers have been historically hesitant to play rookie receivers too much because they believe the mental adjustment takes time. In four seasons, Jarrett never was able to grasp the playbook. They don’t have much choice but to go with rookies now.
In Tampa Bay, the choice was made deliberately. The Buccaneers let veterans Antonio Bryant and Mark Bradley go to clear the way for Williams and Benn. They held onto Clayton through the preseason, but cut him once they were comfortable with the way the rookies were progressing.
Still, the Bucs admit their receiving corps is very much a work in progress and that affects the entire offense.
“You have to scale back a little bit," Yarber said. “You want to get them out there, but you don’t want to give them too much. That’s when you get to paralysis by analysis. They’re thinking so much that they can’t play fast. You need a happy medium that you don’t taper the offense down too much, but you don’t want to put too much in so that they’re thinking too much and they don’t play fast.
“One thing that can be a detriment to young guys early on is if you give them too much, they can lose confidence. You don’t want to give them too much too soon. You want them to have some success that they can build on and develop confidence and play better."
For better or worse, much of the NFC South is turning to rookie wide receivers.