INDIANAPOLIS -- When it comes to selecting wide receivers in the NFL draft and then developing them into big-time contributors, the New England Patriots could use a comeback route.
Misses include Taylor Price (third round, 2010), Brandon Tate (third round, 2009), Chad Jackson (second round, 2006) and Bethel Johnson (second round, 2003), with the Jackson and Johnson selections magnifying the struggle because the Patriots aggressively traded up to secure them. Three times, there have been game-changing receivers selected shortly after the Patriots' pick -- Pittsburgh's Mike Wallace in '09, Green Bay's Greg Jennings in '06 and Arizona's Anquan Boldin in '03.
Why such a hard time for the Patriots at receiver?
The question is especially relevant this year, considering the team's glaring need for an outside threat and the fact the position rates as one of the deepest and most talented in this year's draft.
The Patriots aren't alone: Receiver is among the most boom-or-bust positions on a yearly basis. Two general managers (the Chiefs' Scott Pioli and the Rams' Les Snead) and one former team president (the Colts' Bill Polian) helped paint a picture at the NFL combine as to why that is the case.
While every position involves a projection of some sort, the personnel men say receiver is one of the toughest when factoring how a college player will transition to the pros. Snead opined that quarterback might be the only one harder to analyze.
For Pioli, one of the challenges of evaluating receivers is determining how well they can escape press coverage and then get open when the size advantage they might have had in college is negated in the pros.
"College receivers don't get a lot of press coverage, and if they get it, it's not good quality press coverage," he said. "There are some really good corners in this league that know how to press, and really good defensive coordinators that know how to set things up.
"In the big picture, it's getting off the line and then the ability to get open in the NFL. In the college game, a lot of big receivers know how to use their bodies in college as a way that they get open, or they have a snapshot of time to be open, and that doesn't necessarily work in the NFL. In that sense, it's a little bit different because you have to find out, first of all, how is he going to get off the line of scrimmage? And then how, beyond size, is that player going to be able to get open?"
Polian expounded on Pioli's thoughts, adding his own wrinkle to the discussion.
"At the college level now with all the spread offenses, they don't see much man-to-man coverage," Polian said. "Even the great ones that you would expect to get double-teamed don't, because the spread doesn't allow that. So the first thing you have to find out is 'Can they separate from man-to-man coverage?' You hope to see that in the all-star games.
"The second thing you want to find out is 'What is the true speed?' Because whether you like it or not, speed is an important factor -- less so in the West Coast offense, more so in the Tom Moore [old Colts offense] or Patriot offense. That you find out here [at the combine].
"I think you can measure hands pretty easily at the collegiate level. Do they have dexterity? Can they adjust? All of those things, you can see at the collegiate level. But separation from man coverage, and true speed, are the things that you have a difficult time measuring."
Snead, the first-year Rams general manager who worked under former Patriots director of college scouting Thomas Dimitroff with the Atlanta Falcons the past four seasons, agreed that press coverage is a big change for receivers coming into the NFL. Then he added a slightly different perspective on another challenge for clubs.
"There are a lot of sight adjustments in the NFL, based on coverages," he said. "If the receiver can react without thinking, which slows you down, that's something that is hard [to project]. That's probably why it takes a little more time for them to come on, not discounting the whole timing thing with your quarterback as well."
So how, then, does a talent evaluator garner enough comfort and confidence that a receiver will be able to do those things?
This is the projection that has mostly eluded the Patriots since 2002 -- tying together the football intelligence with important physical attributes such as speed, quick feet, strength, good hands and toughness.
If there is good news for the team, the projection seems to be getting easier in recent years.
"A big part of it is that in college football, they are throwing the ball more now," Snead opined. "Like the NFL, there are a lot of timing routes, so I think they're coming into the league more ready to run an NFL offense."
Yet while it might be getting easier, it's still one of the toughest, according to Polian, who pointed to former Bills receivers Don Beebe and Andre Reed and Colts receiver Reggie Wayne as those who entered the league with a tougher projection -- Beebe from little-known Chadron State, Reed as a tight end and Wayne with a slower-than-desired 40-yard dash time -- but successfully made the transition.
"It's right up there in difficulty, because they're seeing coverages that they haven't seen before and they're playing players every week that maybe they played against once at the collegiate level -- every week you're seeing an All-American," Polian said.
"They're playing against sophisticated coverages that they've never dreamed of seeing before. Try go playing against the Jets and figuring out what they're doing, post-snap and pre-snap. And then they have to play and practice for 24 weeks as opposed to 13 in college, so it takes a big toll on their bodies. It's a very difficult position to play, in addition to which, if you've been in a spread offense, a conventional NFL offense is much more complex."
So these are some of the variables in play for teams taking the plunge at receiver, which highlight some of the Patriots' struggles and perhaps why Bill Belichick has leaned heavier on free agency at the position in recent years. But even then there is a projection with veteran receivers and it doesn't always work out (e.g. Chad Ochocinco, 15 catches in 2011).
For Snead, who was part of the Falcons' brain trust that traded up to the No. 6 spot to select Alabama receiver Julio Jones last year, drafting a talented receiver alone isn't good enough. There has to be a road map to follow from the first day the receiver enters the facility.
"What you have to do is ask, 'What's the best plan to develop this player the fastest?' and everybody in the building that is going to touch that player needs to know the plan and then execute it," he said.
"It's like teaching your kid to ride a bike. You have to rep it and work it, and eventually the guy goes from training wheels to riding his bike, and the next thing you know you come home and he's jumping and built a ramp in the driveway, and as a dad you're scared to death because he's doing wheelies. I think that's the process."
The Patriots haven't had a young receiver going the wheelie route for almost 10 years now. Instead, there have been too many flat tires.
In a year in which need meets depth and quality in the draft, the Patriots would like nothing more than to have a new ramp built leading right into Gillette Stadium.
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.