Friday, November 18, 2005
Rookie receivers slow to catch on
By Len Pasquarelli
Frustrated by a subjugated role in the Cleveland Browns' offense, rookie wide receiver Braylon Edwards went public this week with his grievances about getting too little playing time and too few opportunities to generate game-changing plays.
"The bottom line is, I'm here to make plays," Edwards said. "I'm tired of being around when I know I can make a play and not being able to make that play. I can make plays. That's the bottom line. That's why I was drafted. That's why I'm here. Sooner or later, they've got to give me a chance to do that."
No one who knows Edwards, and the unwavering confidence and competitive nature of the Cleveland first-rounder, was surprised by his insistence that the Browns need to get him the football a lot more in the final two months of his maiden NFL campaign. No one familiar with the recent history of first-round wide receivers, however, should be all that surprised that the former University of Michigan star, the third player selected in the 2005 draft, has posted only pedestrian numbers to this point of the season.
Because for first-round wide receivers, history has demonstrated, this is generally how a debut season transpires: High expectations are overshadowed by humbling statistics.
One of the most celebrated college receivers of the last several years, and viewed by NFL scouts as a can't-miss prospect, Edwards has 17 catches for 294 yards and a touchdown in seven appearances. But consider this: Even if Edwards is shut out the rest of the season -- not likely, given that coach Romeo Crennel and coordinator Maurice Carthon admire his intensity, and are plotting to enhance his profile -- he will have been more successful than many of the wide receivers chosen in the first round over the last 15 years.
|INSIDE TIP SHEET
It's unclear how the Herman Edwards-to-Kansas City rumors started. But one thing is clear, Edwards should keep his focus on the Jets for now. That's just one of the topics Len Pasquarelli addresses Inside Tip Sheet.
• Inside Tip Sheet
Yeah, for the first-round wide receivers since 1990, the numbers have been that anemic. So the bottom line is that, even if the Cleveland football brain trust gets Edwards on the field sooner, he probably won't start making big plays, at least with any degree of consistency, until a bit later in his career.
Like perhaps in his second season.
"It really does take a full [season] to get up to speed," said Arizona Cardinals second-year wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who leads the NFL in receptions, with 61. "You come in thinking that you're going to make a splash, but it's not that easy. The game is faster, so much more sophisticated, and every cornerback can cover. You don't get any easy games. They make you earn every catch. It just takes awhile to learn the ropes."
The third player selected in the 2004 draft, the same first-round slot Edwards occupied in the 2005 lottery, Fitzgerald actually had an extraordinary rookie season compared with the average debut campaign for first-round wide receivers since 1990. He grabbed 58 passes for 780 yards and eight touchdowns. In his second season, though, Fitzgerald is posting eye-opening numbers, and projecting his current statistics over the course of the season, he would finish with 108 receptions for 1,518 yards and nine touchdowns.
Those projections aside, it isn't unusual for wide receivers to make such quantum leaps in their second seasons in the league. And that's because it is pretty standard fare for first-round wide receivers to struggle miserably in their freshman NFL campaigns.
From 1990 to 2004, there were 55 wide receivers selected in the first round. The average output for their rookie seasons: 7.5 starts, 34.2 receptions, 472 yards and 3.1 touchdowns. Those numbers eventually spiraled upward exponentially for many first-round wideouts, but not until they experienced the growing pains of a difficult rookie campaign.
So, even were he to catch no passes in the Browns' remaining eight games, Edwards still would have posted more receptions than a dozen of those 55 first-round wide receivers selected 1990-2004. His 294 yards would be more than 19 of them managed. His one touchdown would be one more than 11 of the first-round wide receivers got as rookies. None of that will serve as any consolation for prideful Edwards, of course, but the statistics are reflective of how difficult it is for most first-round wide receivers to make an immediate impact in the league.
In fact, of the six wide receivers chosen in the first round of this year's draft, just one -- Matt Jones of the Jacksonville Jaguars -- owns statistics that project out to the average numbers for a rookie pass catcher. And Jones, the leading receiver among all rookie wideouts, with 24 catches, is a converted college quarterback. The full-season projections for this year's first-round class, based on the six players' current statistics: 32 catches, 405 yards and two touchdowns. That places them slightly below the norm but hardly brands the six wideouts as collective busts.
Instead, their mundane performances only reinforce the difficulty of breaking in quickly at what is expected to be a game-breaker role.
"Because I played quarterback [at Arkansas], I was accustomed to a lot of [terminology]," Jones said. "But then they hand you your first NFL playbook and it's like nothing you have ever had to learn before. It's like trying to learn another language overnight. And that isn't even accounting for the physical [elements] of the game. Everyone wants to be as good as they can be, as fast as they can be, but it doesn't always happen that way."
Added one current wide receivers coach who was charged with tutoring multiple first-round wide receivers during his tenure in the league: "I like to hand them the playbook the first time, then back away and watch the looks on their faces when they open it up. It's like you gave them the Manhattan [telephone] directory and asked them to commit it to memory by the next morning. It really is like they entered another world."
|One plus for Braylon Edwards? He's averaging 17.3 yards per catch.|
Indeed, even the increased sophistication level of college passing attacks now doesn't always prepare wide receivers adequately for the harsh realities of the professional game. Every aerial design in the NFL is based on nuances such as route conversions and sight adjustments, and heightened precision that characteristically doesn't exist in colleges. Before a young wide receiver can start making plays, he must first stop his mind from spinning with the intricacies inherent at the NFL level.
The misconception is that -- because they are offensive skill-position performers and great athletes -- wide receivers, much like tailbacks, can enter the NFL and produce quickly. For whatever reason, not even some of the savviest talent evaluators have embraced the truth, which is that the two positions have produced disparate results among first-round picks of the last 15 years.
Of the 55 wide receivers chosen in the first round between 1990 and 2004, just four of them -- Joey Galloway (Seattle, '95), Terry Glenn (New England, '96), Randy Moss (Minnesota, '98) and Michael Clayton (Tampa Bay, 2004) -- posted 1,000-yard years as rookies. Only nine of the wideouts were chosen for even one Pro Bowl. Over the same stretch, there were a dozen first-round tailbacks who rushed for 1,000 yards in their rookie seasons.
In fact, since 1990, only one wide receiver selected outside the first round -- Arizona's Anquan Boldin, a second-round pick in 2003 -- has registered a 1,000-yard year as a rookie. Since the 1970 merger, only nine wideouts, regardless of the round in which they were chosen, posted 1,000 yards as rookies. Moss is the lone first-rounder since '90 to have more than 50 catches, at least 1,000 yards and double-digit touchdowns in his first season in the league.
Over the last 15 years, there have been 15 first-round wide receivers who rang up 50 or more catches as rookies, but 13 who had fewer than 15 receptions. Nine of the 55 first-rounders since 1990 had fewer than 10 catches as rookies, and seven of them had five or fewer. At least all six wide receivers from the first round of the 2005 draft already have double-digit receptions, and all but Mark Clayton of the Baltimore Ravens have achieved triple-digit yardage.
The good news for Edwards and the other first-round wide receivers from this year's draft is that a player's rookie statistics aren't an accurate indicator of what he eventually will accomplish.
Herman Moore, the former Detroit Lions star who registered 670 receptions in a mostly brilliant 12-year career that included four Pro Bowl berths, had just 11 catches for 135 yards in his 1991 rookie season and failed to score a touchdown. Johnnie Morton had only three catches, 39 yards and one touchdown in 1994, but has 614 receptions since then, including eight seasons with 50 or more grabs. Santana Moss, who has emerged with the Washington Redskins this season as one of the NFL's most explosive players, rang up just two catches for 40 yards with the New York Jets in 2001. Reggie Wayne of the Indianapolis Colts? Zero touchdowns as a rookie in 2001. Buffalo's Eric Moulds' rookie stats included just 20 receptions, 279 yards and two scores. And Javon Walker of Green Bay, who was on his way to being one of the NFL's premier playmakers until a knee injury ended his 2005 season before it began, scored all of once in 2002.
Sure, there are always going to be first-round washouts such as Thomas Lewis (New York Giants, 1994), Marcus Nash (Denver, 1998), R. Jay Soward (Jacksonville, 2000) and Freddie Mitchell (Philadelphia, 2001). But if Edwards is as good as most scouts, and Edwards himself, think he is, he'll have a great NFL experience.
Even if his rookie season is nothing more than an often-difficult learning experience.
||It really does take a full [season] to get up to speed. You come in thinking that you're going to make a splash, but it's not that easy. The game is faster, so much more sophisticated, and every cornerback can cover. You don't get any easy games. They make you earn every catch. It just takes awhile to learn the ropes. ”
||— Larry Fitzgerald, Cardinals WR
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here .