Stallworth, Lelie and Walker need to step up

Despite what has become an instant pudding mentality in some quarters of the league, with owners increasingly demanding immediate gratification, most personnel directors still cling to the old adage that it takes three years to accurately evaluate a draft haul.

And, by extension, to truly gauge the value of the individual players in a draft class.

That's why a trio of wide receivers from the 2002 draft, the latest guinea pigs in the NFL testing laboratory, and three guys trying to locate the formula for success, will be under heavy scrutiny in 2004. Let's dub the experiment, which will put all three under a public microscope, "wide receivers cubed" for lack of any better handle.

Three receivers of immense potential, all of them selected in the first round of the 2002 draft, all of them expected to be consistent deep threats by this juncture of their respective NFL careers. Three guys slowed, during their first two campaigns, by nagging injuries. Three wideouts who have flashed breathtaking playmaker abilities but who now, entering their third seasons, must maintain that occasional explosiveness or run the risk of perhaps being labeled as duds.

"(It is) time for it to all come together for me," acknowledged New Orleans wide receiver Donte' Stallworth, the 13th prospect selected overall in 2002, but a player limited to just 10 starts in his first two seasons. "This is my time now. People have expectations for me, but no one has bigger expectations than I do, and I aim to meet them."

Similar sentiments have been expressed by the other two wide receivers picked in the first round of the 2002 draft, Ashley Lelie of Denver and Green Bay's Javon Walker, as they have progressed through mini-camps with an eye toward experiencing a breakout 2004 season. But talk is cheap and making plays in mini-camp seven-on-seven drills, working in T-shirts and shorts and against only a modicum of contact, is not daunting.

What each of the junior-year wide receivers must do in 2004 is dispense with the small-talk and begin dispensing big plays instead.

There have been, for each of the young wideouts, stretches of brilliance. Over the final six regular-season games of '03, for instance, Walker averaged 23.5 yards on 17 catches and scored five touchdowns. He had six grabs for a gaudy 25.8-yard average in Green Bay's two playoff appearances. Stallworth has 11 touchdowns on just 67 career catches, an impressive average of one score every 6.1 grabs, and has authored five receptions of 40 yards or more. Lelie has produced eight catches of 40-plus yards on just 72 receptions, and 49 of his catches have been for first downs or touchdowns.

Lelie also had a five-game stretch in the middle of last season, though, when he did not register a single reception for more than eight yards. Walker and Stallworth, each of whom has experienced similar fallow periods, can commiserate with such droughts. And therein is the rub, both for the three wide receivers, and certainly for the teams relying on them to emerge in 2004 as legitimate threats.

Consider this: Through two seasons, the three wide receivers have averaged 67.7 catches, 1,095 yards and 8.3 touchdowns. Those are the kinds of numbers their teams are counting on for one season from the young sprinters. None of the three has caught more than 42 balls in a season. Lelie posted only two more catches in 2003 than he did during his rookie season. Stallworth's production spiraled from 42 receptions and eight scores in 2002 to just 25 catches and three touchdowns last season.

Glancing back at the 2002 draft shows that there were second-round wide receivers -- Antonio Bryant (Dallas), Antwaan Randle El (Pittsburgh), Andre' Davis (Cleveland) and Deion Branch (New England) -- who arguably have made more notable impacts than the three first-rounders from that lottery. In some ways that isn't too surprising, since history has demonstrated that, for whatever reasons, first-round wide receivers very rarely enjoy instant success at the NFL level.

A two-year apprenticeship, however, is more than sufficient tutelage time, and so three franchises are equally anxious for their three former first-rounders to step up and deliver in 2004. Said Broncos offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak, when asked about Lelie during one of the team's offseason sessions: "He's got to really escalate and getting going this year. I mean, it's important he become a big-time player in this offense."

For the long-striding Lelie, and the others as well, that means snippets of solid play will not be enough. The Packers, Broncos and Saints aren't looking for the Kodak moment anymore. They expect their young receivers to produce highlight reels, instead, in their third season in the league.

That will mean, for each of the players, increased dedication to the craft and, especially for Stallworth, more attention to conditioning. That the former Tennessee star has missed eight games in two seasons is attributable to nagging hamstring injuries that also limited him at times in college. Stallworth has concentrated much more on physical readiness this offseason and, from a technical standpoint, paid a lot more attention to detail. Lelie, who also has a history of hamstring strains, and Walker likewise have been more diligent on and off the field.

"You can see some of the detail stuff, the things we used to have to try to drill into Javon, coming naturally now," said Packers offensive coordinator Tom Rossley. "It's seems that those things have sunk in now. He's doing things more naturally. We saw in the second half of (last season) what he can do. This has to be a big year for him."

It is, indeed, a critical season for all three of the 2002 first-round wide receivers. None of the three is in jeopardy yet of having the "bust" tag hung on him. It would be hyperbole to suggest patience is wearing thin. But a three-year gestation period, most grizzled old scouts would agree, is plenty of time to work through the rough spots. The three wide receivers won't disagree with that notion.

"Yeah, it's time now," Lelie said, "to make it happen."

Around the league

  • It remains the longest of long shots, but there is still some chance that unrestricted free agent middle linebacker Jeremiah Trotter could return to the Philadelphia Eagles, a team with which he made two Pro Bowl appearances but which also released him in the spring of 2002. Word is that Trotter was trying to contact some Philadelphia officials this week, most notably coach Andy Reid, to see if there were any residual hard feelings that might preclude the club from reuniting him with coordinator Jim Johnson. Trotter, or course, was tagged as a "franchise" player by the Eagles in 2002, but the team subsequently rescinded that marker, making him a free agent. Trotter signed with Washington, had two good but not spectacular seasons, then was cut this spring for salary cap considerations. Philadelphia returns Mark Simoneau at middle linebacker and, while the spin from the Eagles is that the four-year veteran has looked improved in his second spring in their system, he is definitely coming off a roller coaster '03 season. But Johnson prefers a middle linebacker who can "run downhill" to the ball, and Simoneau might be quicker than Trotter at this point. Trotter remains a solid defender against the run, but past knee problems have reduced his range, for sure. It's a bit surprising that Minnesota, which has projected second-year pro E.J. Henderson into the starting middle linebacker vacancy created by the retirement of Greg Biekert, hasn't considered signing Trotter, at least as an insurance policy. Henderson is talented by has been hounded this spring by a series of offseason problems. He was found guilty on Thursday of drunken driving charges in Maryland and was allegedly involved in a June 6 melee outside a Minneapolis night club.

  • New York Jets officials continue to manifest optimism about the future of getting their own stadium as part of a plan to redevelop a large Westside tract in Manhattan. The club, in fact, has gotten endorsements from prominent politicians and business leaders as it seeks support for the $1.4 billion project. But in writing a negative draft report opposing the project, according to the New York Times, the Regional Plan Association could be throwing up a fairly formidable hurdle. "There is no compelling need to place this facility in a part of the city that should be devoted to high-value, high-density office and residential development," read the report, obtained by the newspaper. The Regional Plan Association is an influential private planning organization and was the first group to publicly criticize the plan which, in addition to the stadium, includes an expanded convention center, apartments, parks, skyscrapers, and a subway extension along the Hudson riverfront. It was followed quickly by the New York Public Interest Group, which almost immediately piggy-backed onto the opposition side. It remains to be seen if opposition by the Regional Plan Association prompts other groups to speak out against the project. To date, there has been very little negative press, but some New York civic groups are said to privately oppose it, while remaining quiet for fear of alienating the administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg. "It's never easy disagreeing with the mayor, and it's even harder when it's the core of what his administration wants to accomplish," said Gene Russianoff of the New York Public Interest Group. "(But) you could dress up the stadium with restaurants, flea markets and a deck to a waterfront park, and it's still a giant, bulky box between the city and the waterfront. There are some serious questions about whether the economic benefits they project will work out."

  • Not that they needed a reason for adding another veteran, but the three-game suspension handed down against Michael Pittman is certainly a convenient and timely excuse for Tampa Bay Bucs coach Jon Gruden and general manager Bruce Allen to sign yet another tailback before camp. On the day the NFL announced its sanctions against Pittman, in fact, Gruden strongly hinted the suspension could prompt the team to bring in another experienced body at the position. Toward that end, Tampa Bay coaches and executives auditioned former New England starter Antowain Smith on Thursday afternoon. Smith is the second veteran back to work out for the team in the last few weeks. ESPN.com has confirmed the Bucs also looked at James Stewart, released by the Detroit Lions earlier this spring, a couple weeks ago. Oddly enough, the Bucs subjected Stewart to a 40-yard dash, a rare request of a veteran player. Knowing that Pittman was almost certain to miss some playing time this season because of his latest incident of domestic abuse, the Bucs signed three unrestricted free agent backs this spring: Charlie Garner, Jamel White and Brandon Bennett. Now that the Pittman suspension is official, look for them to add yet another tailback, with Smith and Stewart probably in the running.

  • Given his repeat offenses, the NFL originally sought to impose a six-game suspension against Pittman, but the sanction was bargained down to three contests. The tradeoff for the reduced suspension was that commissioner Paul Tagliabue fined Pittman an additional two game-checks beyond the three paydays he will forfeit for the suspension. In real-world terms, that means Pittman will earn just $62,283 per week over the 2004 season, as opposed to the $88,235 weekly that he would have made based on his $1.5 million base salary. Final thought on Pittman: One of the nicest and most cooperative guys we've ever met in a locker room or post-game setting. And a guy who doesn't hide in the trainer's room and try to dodge the uncomfortable questions about his past. No one can condone the domestic incidents in which Pittman was involved, but here's hoping he learns to control a problem that has dogged him since college.

  • On the subject of tailbacks, despite a season-ending Achilles injury sustained by Erik Bickerstaff earlier this month, the Dallas Cowboys have demonstrated no urgency yet in reaching for the phone to bring in Stewart or Smith or Dorsey Levens for workouts. And, rest assured, the agents for all three veteran free agents have tried reaching club officials in the wake of Bickerstaff's injury. Bill Parcells isn't one to panic and he knows that, if he feels the need to add a veteran to his very young backfield, somebody will still be available even in mid-July. The Cowboys want to give projected starter Julius Jones, their second-round choice, lots of work. Plus the Dallas staff wants to get a longer look at ReShard Lee, who spent the 2003 season on the Cowboys' practice squad, but who has garnered attention in organized workouts this spring. The former Middle Tennessee State standout apparently has good inside power and toughness and will get a chance in preseason to prove whether he merits a roster spot. And finally, Parcells knows that, in a pinch, he can use fullback Richie Anderson, one of his favorite players, to handle some of the workload at the tailback spot. Anderson typically moves to tailback in one-back sets on third down.

  • Troy Hambrick, the Cowboys' starting tailback last season, acknowledged this week that he had lost his appetite for The Tuna. But word is that Hambrick, who signed a one-year contract with the Oakland Raiders, hasn't been missing many other meals. Raiders officials were a bit miffed that Hambrick, whose playing weight in 2003 was listed as 233 pounds, looked a tad more portly than that. Given the competition he faces as the Raiders seek a replacement for the departed Charlie Garner -- the challengers include Tyrone Wheatley, Justin Fargas and Amos Zereoue, among others -- Hambrick had better drop some of the extra tonnage before camp commences. Hambrick said he planned to return to his home in Florida, and work out with a personal trainer, and vowed there will be less of him to look at by next month. Of his falling-out with "The Tuna," Cowboys coach Bill Parcells, he noted: "It was like being a nun at a nightclub. I didn't feel the energy. I said to my agent, 'You know, after going through a Bill Parcells training camp, I think it might be time to go to a more veteran squad, where they treat the players better.' Training camp with Parcells is rough and ragged."

  • It's less than two full years ago that Chris Redman was the starting quarterback for the Baltimore Ravens. Fewer than 11 months ago, Redman was involved with then-rookie Kyle Boller for the Ravens' starting job. As for right now, well, Redman is unemployed, and it's tough to figure why some team hasn't at least signed the former third-rounder for a camp audition. Redman is, after all, just 26 years old. There are negatives -- his back, a less-than-powerful arm, his need to play in a system that is conducive to his positives -- but the former Louisville star has to be a better alternative than some of the suspects teams are taking to camp. It might be surprising if Redman ever again had an opportunity to compete for a starting job. It will be shocking, though, if his NFL career is altogether finished. The guy deserves at least a training camp cameo.

  • Go figure the odds on this: The St. Louis Rams two weeks ago agreed to contract terms with offensive tackle Jeff Hatch, a former New York Giants third-round draft pick from the University of Pennsylvania, who was waived earlier this spring. But the contract was conditional upon Hatch passing a physical exam and, when St. Louis team doctors got a close-up look at the condition of the young tackle's back, they advised against signing him. It was a bit of a blow to the Rams, who were seeking some depth at tackle, since Kyle Turley is still recovering from offseason back surgery and "franchise" free agent Orlando Pace figures to be absent at the outset of camp. So the Rams trolled the market and signed tackle Ben Noll, an undrafted free agent who played collegiately at -- drum roll, please -- the University of Pennsylvania. Not exactly a football factory there, of course, but good enough for the Rams to have considered a couple of former Quakers. Noll, by the way, is no dummy. A long shot to make the St. Louis roster, he will continue his studies at Penn's Wharton School of Business right up until he reports to camp.

  • There is a very outside chance that the Carolina Panthers could consider signing free agent defensive back Jason Sehorn for camp. The former Giants cornerback, who lined up at safety for the Rams in 2003, played for John Fox when the Panthers coach was the defensive coordinator in New York. Most personnel people feel Sehorn is probably done, but the Panthers could use some veteran leadership in a young and revamped secondary. If the Panthers decide they aren't interested, Sehorn will probably retire.

  • Punts: The foot surgery that Tennessee Titans rookie defensive end Bo Schobel had on Wednesday could sideline him for longer than anticipated. Surgery revealed more damage to the fifth metatarsal bone of his foot than anticipated. The fourth-rounder, who might have contributed immediately as a situational pass rusher, might now need three months of rehabilitation and his rookie year would be a wash-out. . . . There continue to be some whispers that New England linebacker Rosevelt Colvin will open the regular season on the physically unable to perform list. The Pats' highest-profile free agent addition in '03, and a guy who was to have contributed double-digit sacks, Colvin played in just two games before suffering a season-ending hip injury. New England officials will exercise great caution and won't put Colvin back on the field until he is full recovered. . . . The Atlanta Falcons will soon try to press the issue of Ellis Johnson's future with the veteran defensive tackle. Johnson wants an upgraded contract and boycotted all of the offseason activities. The new regime won't let the situation fester up to camp, as the former football organization did. . . . Washington officials deny they have made an offer to Miami for restricted free agent defensive end Adewale Ogunleye, who remains unsigned and in a state of impasse on contract negotiations, but the Redskins are closely monitoring the situation. Owner Dan Snyder and agent Drew Rosenhaus have worked several deals in the past couple years. . . . San Francisco officials continue to be encouraged by the progress that starting quarterback Tim Rattay is making from groin surgery. Rattay remains iffy for the start of camp but his return could come sooner than anticipated. . . . Houston coaches have already decided that both their first-round choices, cornerback Dunta Robinson and linebacker Jason Babin, will enter training camp as starters.

  • The last word: "I listen to that Dirty South crunk -- Lil' Jon, Ludacris and such. When (Joe Gibbs) used to coach, they were probably listening to Kool Moe Dee, or maybe L.L. Cool J." -- Washington Redskins cornerback Fred Smoot on the musical generation gap that might exist between coach Joe Gibbs and some of his players

    Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.