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Friday, April 8, 2005
Updated: April 11, 2:07 PM ET
First-round WRs struggle as rookies

By Len Pasquarelli
ESPN.com

Among the many elements of the brilliant performance authored by Tampa Bay Bucs wide receiver Michael Clayton last season was this overlooked factoid: The former LSU star, selected with the 15th overall slot in the 2004 draft, became only the fifth rookie wideout since 1990, and just the fourth first-rounder, to reach the 1,000-yard mark in his debut campaign.

So, can a receiver with the same surname, Mark Clayton of Oklahoma, a certain first-round pick in two weeks, repeat the feat in 2005? Nothing against the former Sooners star, a splendid technician who has demonstrated to league scouts that he is far quicker than they anticipated, but the odds aren't good.

Chew on this for a second: ESPN.com colleague John Clayton has recorded as many 1,000-yard performances as 50 of the 54 first-round wide receivers from the last 15 years posted in their rookie years. (Feel free to pause here, to shake from your mind's eye the image of The Professor shagging passes from, say, Sean Salisbury.)

"Until you go through the experience yourself, honestly, you can't understand how tough the transition is from college and into the NFL for a rookie wide receiver," said Michael Clayton, who had 80 catches for 1,193 yards and seven touchdowns for the Bucs in 2004. "Forget what people tell you. It's harder than they say. I mean, for a while there, even for a first-round guy, you're lucky just to be treading water."

In most cases, things end up going swimmingly for young wide receivers chosen in the first round. There typically comes a point where they cast off their rookie mantle, at least figuratively, and emerge as productive pass-catchers. Track the recent history of wide receivers chosen in the first round and, characteristically, they make a quantum leap either late in their rookie season or, more often, in their sophomore year.

That said, league personnel directors concede that the "bust rate' of first-round wideouts probably is surpassed only by the level of failure at the quarterback position. While that sobering reality might serve as a cautionary caveat emptor for those franchises considering a wide receiver in the first round of this year's draft, chances are that it will be largely ignored.

Once again the wide receiver position will be well represented in the opening round. And once again, most of the pass catchers chosen in the first round will register uninspiring statistics in their maiden voyages. The mixed results at the wideout position are about as certain as death and taxes.

Actually, the first-round class of '04 was better than most, but its aggregate performance probably was more aberration than trend. The good news: The seven first-round wide receivers from last year's draft averaged 40.1 catches, 597.1 yards and 4.8 touchdowns, all of those numbers better than the means for the past 15 years. Still, two of the seven had fewer than 10 catches each, two failed to start a single game and three combined for a total of just two touchdowns.

Until you go through the experience yourself, honestly, you can't understand how tough the transition is from college and into the NFL for a rookie wide receiver. Forget what people tell you. It's harder than they say. I mean, for a while there, even for a first-round guy, you're lucky just to be treading water.
Michael Clayton, Bucs WR

Those statistics won't be enough to halt the steady stream of wide receivers into the first round. There likely won't be seven pass-catchers chosen in the first round in two weeks, but there figure to be five or six. At least two, Braylon Edwards of Michigan and Michael Williams of Southern California, look like locks to be in the top 10. Besides Oklahoma's Clayton, who leads a strong contingent of Sooners wideout candidates, Troy Williamson (South Carolina), Reggie Brown (Georgia) and Terrence Murphy (Texas A&M) could all go off the board in the top 32 picks.

Not since 1992, when Heisman Trophy winner Desmond Howard of Michigan was taken by Washington as the lone first-round wideout, has there been fewer than three players at the position chosen in the opening round. The average for the past 15 drafts is 3.6 first-round wide receivers and four times since 1990 there were five or more selected. Given the attrition rate, the number of wash-outs at the position, one might surmise that teams would demonstrate a tad more restraint, but that hasn't been the case.

Especially with the manner in which the game has evolved into more of a throwing game, the fascination with wide receivers isn't apt to abate anytime soon. The re-emphasis on the illegal contact rule in 2004, which further opened up passing lanes and permitted wide receivers to frolic through secondaries, will further stoke the demand.

"It was always a premium position,' said one veteran AFC wide receivers coach. "And it's even more so now. But the [irony] is that, in most cases at wide receiver, you don't get the instant results. Guys don't just come into the league and make a quick impact."

The statistics certainly validate that assessment.

Of the 54 wide receivers chosen in the first round since 1990, only eight registered 60 or more catches as rookies. Just a dozen had 750 receiving yards in their first seasons and only 12 scored more than five touchdowns. Nine didn't start a single game as rookies and 18 of the 54 started fewer than three contests. Ten players, including Rashaun Woods (San Francisco) and Michael Jenkins (Atlanta) from last year's class, had 10 catches or less. Thirteen rung up fewer than 200 receiving yards and 12 failed to score a touchdown.

The stark averages for the first-round wide receivers from the last 15 draft classes: 7.5 starts, 34.0 catches, 474.4 yards and 3.1 touchdowns.

"Yeah, that pretty much sounds like the reality of it," said Detroit Lions coach Steve Mariucci, whose team chose wide receivers in the first rounds of each of the last two drafts, Charles Rogers in 2003 and Roy Williams last year. "But you've still got to have those guys to play the game the way it's played now. Plus, there are always going to be some factors that [diminish] the numbers. I mean, the two guys we took both played well as rookies until they were injured."

Still, at a skill position where logic might suggest immediate success, wide receivers haven't delivered at levels expected of them. Since 1990, there have been 23 running backs, for instance, who rushed for 1,000 yards as rookies, no matter the round in which they were selected. But in that same stretch, just five wide receivers, with Anquan Boldin of Arizona the lone player chosen outside of the first round, went for 1,000 yards.

Last season's rules changes might loosen things up and permit some young wideouts to achieve more as rookies. But at least one current standout, who struggled as a first-round pick in 2001 when he caught only 27 passes and did not score a touchdown, thinks the lot will remain a difficult one for young wide receivers, even those selected in the earliest stages of the lottery.

"It's culture shock,' said Indianapolis Colts standout Reggie Wayne. "You come in thinking, 'How tough can it be?' And halfway through your rookie season, it's still like, 'When is this going to get easier, man?' It takes a while to learn the ropes."

Maybe so. But if history is any indication, that won't stop teams from stringing together a bunch of high-round wide receiver picks in two weeks.

Around the league
• The buzz is that, despite opening negotiations on four fronts with players who they are considering for the top spot in the draft, Utah quarterback Alex Smith is the man with whom San Francisco officials and coaches are most enamored. That doesn't mean that Smith will be the top choice, at least not yet, and the 49ers will entertain in coming days California quarterback Aaron Rodgers, Michigan wide receiver Braylon Edwards and Miami cornerback Antrel Rolle. But if all the financial ramifications are removed from the equation -- which, of course, they are not -- Smith currently tops the wish list.

With the second overall choice, there are strong indications now that all the rhetoric about the Miami Dolphins choosing Auburn tailback Ronnie Brown is pretty much the stuff of smokescreens. It's no secret that Dolphins first-year coach Nick Saban would prefer to trade down from the No. 2 spot and amass additional choices. But if he is forced to exercise the choice at No. 2, a strong likelihood since it doesn't appear any team is desperate to provide the Dolphins a parachute, no one should be shocked if Miami takes a quarterback in that slot.

• Timing is everything in football, just as in life, LSU cornerback Corey Webster acknowledged to ESPN.com this week. And so maybe, if he could turn back the clock, Webster would have bypassed his final season of college eligibility last spring and gone into the 2004 draft. Had he been in last year's lottery, Webster, who had a brilliant '03 season, one in which he snagged seven interceptions, probably would have been a first-round choice. But he stayed in school for his senior year, suffered a series of injuries (including a nagging hamstring strain), and had an uneven season that dropped him on some 2005 draft boards. "But you know what, I have no regrets, honestly," Webster said. "My mother is an educator and she desperately wanted me to get my degree. My dad kept talking about how he wanted one more year of games at Tiger Stadium. Yeah, I came real close to going [into the draft]. And there are a lot of people, even now, who keep telling me that I should have. But it was my decision to stay. And I'm glad, I did, honestly. And, no, I'm not looking back."

The good news is that Webster finished his bachelor's and now owns a degree in general studies. From a football standpoint, the news is good, too. Finally healthy again, Webster recently worked out for scouts and was clocked on most stopwatches in the mid-4.4s in the 40. His stock, on the decline, is rising again. There is at least an outside chance, particularly if there is an early run on cornerbacks in the first round, that Webster could sneak into the bottom part of the stanza. He is no worse now than a high second-round pick.

There were 33 cornerbacks at the combine and only nine of them were 6 feet or taller. Webster, at 6-feet-0 , was one of them. Plus, if his times are solid, he possesses the right combination of size and speed. "People seem to go back and forth at the [cornerback] position," Webster said. "Everybody wanted the bigger corner. Then, they changed the [illegal contact] rules and scouts were saying they had to get the pure 'cover' guys. Well, I fit both categories, so I think I'll be all right. I feel like I'm headed in the right direction again." Indeed, it will be tough for teams to ignore a corner who has started 29 games at a big-time program and been tutored by Nick Saban in every cover package imaginable.

• It's too late for Andrew Walter to challenge Auburn's Jason Campbell or David Greene of Georgia for the No. 3 spot on draft boards behind top-rated quarterbacks Alex Smith of Utah and Aaron Rodgers of California. But the former Arizona State star boosted his stock at a Wednesday audition for league scouts.

Just about four months removed from surgery to correct a third-degree separation of his right shoulder, suffered in the 2004 season finale, Walter was finally at a point in his rehabilitation where he could work out for NFL talent evaluators. While his arm strength isn't yet back to where it was before the surgery, Walter had a very impressive session, one that should get him chosen in the middle rounds. At 6-feet-5 and 235 pounds, Walter showed surprising movement skills and was clocked at under 4.9 in the 40. But more important than his straight-line speed was the fact he threw well in half-roll and full-rollout simulations, something about which the scouts harbored some reservations. In general, Walter's footwork was better than everyone felt it would be and teams now at least have a viable indicator of how far along the Sun Devils star is in his overall recovery. Walter is a three-year starter, a very bright player who threw for 10,617 yards, with 85 touchdown passes and 36 interceptions during his college career.

Travis Henry
Running Back
Buffalo Bills
Profile
2004 SEASON STATISTICS
Rush Yds TD Rec Yds TD
94 326 0 10 45 0
• Don't you just hate flip-floppers? Yeah, us, too, except when we are forced to reverse positions on an issue. Like the much discussed trade of Buffalo Bills disgruntled tailback Travis Henry to the Arizona Cardinals for left offensive tackle L.J.Shelton, who clearly has fallen out of favor with coach Dennis Green and his staff. We reported in this space two weeks ago that the swap would almost certainly occur before the draft.

And now? We're not so sure. For one thing, upon further inspection, the Buffalo staff isn't nearly as enamored of Shelton as it once appeared to be. There are some Bills coaches who feel that Shelton would not be a starter in Buffalo, and that he probably would serve only as the team's No. 6 offensive lineman. That means, barring an unexpected event, the Bills plan to move starting center Trey Teague to left tackle, the position he played early in his career, with the Denver Broncos. It also probably means there will not be a straight player-for-player swap between the Bills and the Cardinals. The Bills still feel they need to get something more in return for Henry, a two-time 1,000-yard rusher, who lost his starting job to Willis McGahee last season, and who has vowed he will never again play in a Bills uniform.

So if Henry isn't shipped off to Arizona, where does he go? Maybe back to the Bills, who certainly can afford to keep him, especially with a palatable base salary of $1.25 million. Sure, there would have to be some fences mended for Henry to play in Buffalo again. But the rhetoric and posturing of March and April, such as that done by Henry a couple weeks ago, typically is long forgotten [and forgiven] when teams start doling out paychecks.

There also is the possibility that Buffalo could find a trade partner other than Arizona, and that notion isn't so far-fetched. A few other clubs have contacted Bills general manager Tom Donahoe and, while none has yet to approximate the ardor of the Cardinals, plenty can happen before the draft. Do not discount teams such as Tampa Bay, Seattle (if the Seahawks suddenly found a buyer for "franchise" tailback Shaun Alexander), Houston and Minnesota as potential suitors.

• In case anyone missed it, erstwhile St. Louis Rams right offensive tackle Kyle Turley, who missed the entire 2004 because of a recurring back ailment, suggested last week that he wants to return to the NFL as a defensive end. The position, which Turley has not played since high school, will exert less pressure on his back, the seven-year veteran feels.

"I need to play a position where I have more freedom to move around and get out of problem situations," Turley said. "My back was injured on pass plays [on offense]." There are no guarantees, of course, that Turley, who will be 30 in September, can resume his career, no matter what position he plays. He underwent back surgery in March 2004 and has been adamant that he won't have another procedure. His weight, once as high as 309 pounds when he played tackle, dipped to 235 pounds a few months ago. Even at 265 pounds now, after weeks of a stringent training regimen, he hasn't regained full strength. And, of course, there is the hardly incidental matter of his strained relationship with the Rams, and more specifically, with coach Mike Martz. Last year, it was widely reported that Turley threatened bodily harm to Martz after the St. Louis coach questioned the ardor with which the offensive lineman was rehabilitating.

Turley has targeted 275 pounds as the weight he hopes to reach and is serious about a comeback. No one should count on him being back in the NFL in 2005, though, especially as a defensive end.

Carlos Hall
Defensive End
Kansas City Chiefs
Profile
2004 SEASON STATISTICS
Tot Ast Solo FF Sack Int
41 27 14 0 3 0
• There's an old baseball adage that contends the best trades are those that benefit both teams. That holds true in football, of course, as well. And so, at least on paper, the deal this week that sent Tennessee defensive end Carlos Hall to Kansas City for a fifth-round pick in the 2005 draft appears to be a win-win situation. A restricted free agent, Hall had worn out his welcome with the Titans, who made him the low-level qualifying offer back in March to retain a right of first refusal. Tennessee coaches felt that Hall, who posted eight sacks as a rookie in 2002, while filling in for the injured Jevon Kearse, drew too many penalties and was undisciplined. And he had collected just 5 sacks (and more personal foul flags than that) in the past two seasons.

But the Chiefs, who need young pass rushers, saw an opportunity to land a guy with upfield skills, and at a reasonable price. There is a chance that Hall, who will compete with second-year veteran Jared Allen for the starting job at right end, will be nothing more than a situational pass-rusher. But even in that role, if the Kansas City staff gets him turned around and playing with the kind of fervor and quickness he demonstrated as a rookie, a fifth-round choice might be a small price to pay. Kansas City defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham, who was the linebackers coach in Tennessee for part of Hall's tenure with the Titans, is familiar with the youngster and knows what buttons to push.

The Titans, who would have received only a seventh-round pick for Hall had they allowed the Chiefs to sign him to an offer sheet and then declined to match it, instead will get a selection two rounds higher. With the rebuilding job they face, general manager Floyd Reese and coach Jeff Fisher need a lot of additional draft choices. Dumping the enigmatic Hall also clears the way for the Titans to accelerate the curve for young ends like Travis LaBoy, Antwan Odom and Bo Schobel, all chosen in the 2004 draft.

• One sidelight on the Hall deal: Amazingly, in a league where trading used to be a lost art, it is the seventh deal since Spring 2004 in which a client of Drew Rosenhaus found a new home. The other deals in which the NFL's most high-profile representative played a significant role included tailback Clinton Portis (from Denver to Washington), defensive end Adewale Ogunleye (from Miami to Chicago), cornerback Mike McKenzie (to New Orleans from Green Bay), cornerback Duane Starks (from Arizona to New England), wide receiver Santana Moss (from the New York Jets to Washington) and tailback Reuben Droughns (to Cleveland from Denver).

In some deals, Rosenhaus was more a broker than in others. But you think players around the league don't notice when an agent can suggest he helped exert change? Think again. Rosenhaus has acquired about 30 new clients in the past 18 months -- most recently, star wide receiver Terrell Owens and left offensive tackle Tra Thomas, both of the Philadelphia Eagles -- and the perception that he is a guy who can make things happen certainly hasn't hurt.

• We got a few calls and e-mails from Atlanta Falcons fans last week suggesting that, in a recent story on the restructuring of tailback Warrick Dunn's contact, we miscalculated the salary-cap charge for the 2006 season. Good questions, all, and well-intentioned. But, alas, Falcons fans, our numbers, with a 2006 cap charge of $8.5 million, were correct. Here's how: There is a charge of $1.083 million for the prorated share (one-sixth) of the $6.5 million signing bonus that Dunn received when he joined the Falcons as a free agent in 2002. The prorated share of the $3.35 million renegotiation bonus Dunn received when he reworked his contract two weeks ago counts for $1.17 million. There is a base salary in 2006 of $2.5 million and a $1 million roster bonus. Now, here's where the calculations get tricky: There is a hit of $2.825 million for 2006, of which Falcons fans obviously were unaware, for what the NFL Management Council and the NFL Players Association deem as "incentives and other charges." It is real money, and counts against the cap, that had to be added to bring the restructuring in line with the league's so-called "30 percent rule."

Also, it seems, Atlanta fans (at least several of those who phoned) were misled about the $1.43 million qualifying offer the team made to starting left offensive tackle Kevin Shaffer. It was apparently suggested somewhere that the qualifying offer does not count against the Falcons' salary cap until Shaffer signs the one-year offer, which he almost certainly will do next week. Not true. Qualifying offers tendered to restricted free agents count against the salary cap as soon as they are made. They are not held in abeyance until the player signs the contract. Hope that clears things up.

• Punts: His denials notwithstanding, Dallas wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson has had some discussions with Dallas officials about his future. Johnson debunked reports this week that his absence from the team's offseason conditioning program is contract related. ... The Jets are not actively shopping "franchise" defensive end John Abraham, but would listen hard if someone makes a viable offer. New York officials don't feel they will be able to reach a long-term deal with Abraham and still are wary of his recent injury history. ... Bucs coach Jon Gruden still is checking out just about every veteran quarterback still in the unemployment line. He recently worked out journeyman Brock Huard and there are rumblings that he might meet with Doug Flutie as well. ... Several owners to whom we spoke this week for the first time acknowledged they are concerned about the viability of Arizona businessman Reggie Fowler's bid to purchase the Minnesota Vikings from Red McCombs. Things are moving so slowly, and so curiously, that there is a chance the proposed deal might not be ready for a vote at the May league meetings in Washington, D.C. ... Redskins coach Joe Gibbs is less than happy that wide receiver Santana Moss, obtained from the Jets in the deal that sent receiver Laveranues Coles back to New York, has so far been absent from the club's voluntary workout program. ... Teams are starting to check out deep-snapper candidates to sign as free agents after the draft. One small-school player garnering some interest in that regard is Jordan Hicks of Georgetown (Ken.) University. A defensive end by trade, but a guy whose future is as a snapper, Hicks is the younger brother of Reese Hicks, who has been in camp with several NFL teams.

• The last word: "I'll say this: Those four linemen were on a defense that was ranked 32nd in the National Football League [against the run] in 2004. Somebody please tell me what the big to-do is. If we added four linemen from a team that had been ranked 32nd in run defense, I think you guys would have asked me about that right off the bat."  Cleveland first-year general manager Phil Savage after the Denver Broncos acquired four former Browns defensive linemen via free agency and trades

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here Insider.