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Thursday, March 11, 2010
Quick fixes rarely land big catch

By John Clayton
ESPN.com

Pity the teams in desperate need of wide receivers.

Finding a No. 1 receiver may not be as hard as finding an elite quarterback, but the mission certainly adds peculiar colors to general managers -- either gray hairs or pink slips. Each place a general manager turns -- whether it's free agency, the trade market or draft -- he finds dangers.

So what is the best way to find a top receiver?

Obviously, the best way is through the draft. Being patient with a drafted receiver and developing him is the safest way. Patience finally paid off for the Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants after years of being pressured to hit free agency hard or pursue trades.

The Eagles are set for years with the receiving corps of DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin and Jason Avant, who just signed a five-year extension to be the No. 3 receiver.

Steve Smith
Thanks to the development of Steve Smith and other young pass-catchers, the Giants were able to withstand the loss of Plaxico Burress.

The Giants didn't panic after Plaxico Burress' incarceration and now have come out ahead with Steve Smith, Hakeem Nicks and Mario Manningham.

Meanwhile, Steve Smith of the Panthers has been a No. 1 receiver for years, but he was drafted as a developmental receiver who offered return ability.

The only problem with using the draft is the time it takes to see results. It takes a two- to four-year commitment to revamp a receiving corps with the draft. If it works, the next problem is locking those receivers into long-term contracts. Only stable organizations that aren't turning over coaching staffs and front offices can handle that mission.

Like everything in life, teams are looking for the quick fix. Recent history has shown teams that it might be better to pursue a trade rather than count on free agency to fix desperate receiving needs.

Naturally, general managers hate using draft choices to trade for top receivers. The landscape changed even more when Jerry Jones and the Dallas Cowboys overspent in draft-choice compensation for Roy Williams. The price of a No. 1 wide receiver is considered to be a first- and third-round pick. Jones gave the Detroit Lions a No. 1, a No. 3 and a No. 6 and was given back a No. 7 to balance the trade.

Williams has been more of a No. 3 receiver than a No. 1, catching 57 passes for 794 yards and eight touchdowns in 25 games in Dallas. Miles Austin came off the bench last season to become QB Tony Romo's top receiver and ended up going to the Pro Bowl.

The Williams trade has clearly impacted the past couple of wide receiver deals and should have an impact on the trade value of Denver's Brandon Marshall. Braylon Edwards has No. 1 receiving talent, but the Browns traded him to the New York Jets during the 2009 season for a No. 3, a No. 5 and two Jets backups.

In fact, if you look over the past six years, it's better not to invest a first-round choice in a trade for a wide receiver. The Seahawks didn't get the full return for the first-round pick they used to acquire Deion Branch in 2006. Branch hasn't done better than a 725-yard season in his four years in Seattle and has started only 37 of 64 possible games.

Teams interested in trading for Marshall simply might not be willing to give up a first-round pick even though he's young and has had three consecutive 100-catch seasons. Marshall's off-the-field issues could leave him vulnerable to an eight-game suspension or more if he has another misstep. Plus, the team that acquires him will be forced to pay him more than $9 million a year.

The Broncos could decide to keep Marshall if the Seahawks or other teams won't offer more than a second-round choice in a trade. The only problem with that is he's still going to demand No. 1 receiving money.

The simple solution for teams in need of wide receivers is free agency, but don't expect return for the investment. The Bengals gave Laveranues Coles a four-year, $27.5 million contract and cut him after one year. In 2008, the Jaguars gave Jerry Porter a six-year, $30.4 million deal and cut him after a season. Drew Bennett, Kevin Curtis, Donte' Stallworth and others have failed to live up to $5 million-a-year contracts.

Drafting receivers in the top 10 also has its pitfalls. The failures outnumber the successes. Calvin Johnson of the Lions, Larry Fitzgerald of the Cardinals and Andre Johnson of the Texans have soared, but their successes have been topped by the failures of Ted Ginn Jr. (Dolphins), Troy Williamson (Jaguars), Roy Williams, Reggie Williams, David Terrell, Koren Robinson, Peter Warrick and David Boston. The latter five are all out of football.

The smart thing for a team to do is target particular receivers, be patient and don't overspend in draft-choice compensation. The Ravens waited for more than a year to acquire Anquan Boldin from the Cardinals and were able to reduce what was once a first-round price to third- and fourth-round picks, while getting a fifth-rounder in return.

The Seahawks and other teams interested in Marshall would be wise to wait out the Broncos and try to get him for a second-round choice and maybe a couple of extra picks sprinkled in.

What will be interesting in April is to see what happens to Oklahoma State wide receiver Dez Bryant. Bryant definitely has top-10 talent, but taking him in the top 10 could be dangerous. He didn't play last year and he hasn't been healthy enough to run a 40-time for teams.

The key to acquiring a top receiver is not giving up too much to get him. That requires patience and control, qualities hard to maintain in a quick-fix society.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.