ALAMEDA, Calif. -- Al Davis has always prized speed above almost all other attributes when it comes to the draft.
So when the Oakland Raiders had their choice of wideouts to pick with the seventh selection in the draft on Saturday they went with the fastest, taking Maryland's Darrius Heyward-Bey over other higher-rated or more accomplished players.
What made the selection of Heyward-Bey one of the bigger surprises of the draft was that Michael Crabtree and Jeremy Maclin -- the top-rated receivers by most experts -- were both still available. Those two had higher grades, better numbers and more publicity than Heyward-Bey, but couldn't match him in breakaway speed.
Heyward-Bey was clocked at 4.23 seconds in the 40-yard dash in 2006 at Maryland and had the fastest time of any player at the NFL combine at 4.3 seconds to go with his 6-foot-2 size and 38½-inch vertical leap.
"When you look at the history of the great receivers who have been Oakland Raiders, it's always been about that vertical speed, being able to stretch the field, take that top off the defense," coach Tom Cable said. "This certainly does that for us."
The Raiders had a glaring need to find a receiver to complement quarterback JaMarcus Russell, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2007 draft.
Johnnie Lee Higgins led all of Oakland's wideouts with 22 catches for 366 yards last season, and the team had just 82 receptions in all from the position. Higgins and rookie Chaz Schilens were the starters at the end of last season. Javon Walker is also in the mix as he recovers from an ankle injury that cost him the second half of last season.
"This is a guy that I had targeted a month ago," Cable said. "He's the one guy who's made everyone better around him. We needed the ability to throw the ball over people's head and JaMarcus has obviously shown he can out-throw most everything. This is a guy now who can go run that down and catch it."
Heyward-Bey caught just 13 touchdown passes in three seasons at Maryland, never reaching 800 yards receiving in a season. He had career-lows last season with 42 catches for 609 yards to go with his five TD catches.
Those numbers paled in comparison to what Crabtree and Maclin put up in spread offenses.
Crabtree caught 97 passes for 1,165 yards and 19 touchdowns last season at Texas Tech and was widely expected to be the first receiver selected. But there were questions about his speed and a stress fracture that was discovered in his left foot at the combine. He ended up going 10th to San Francisco, so the Raiders won't have to look far to see how the decision turns out.
Maclin had 102 catches for 1,260 yards and 13 touchdowns last season at Missouri, where he was also a dangerous returner. He went 19th to Philadelphia.
"I don't know why I moved ahead of those guys, but definitely the Raiders saw something in me," Heyward-Bey said. I feel like I had the qualities to be the best receiver in the class. I know people look at the stats and everything, but just playing in the pro-style offense and having the skills and being able to be taught and listen and work hard, I felt like I was definitely at the top."
Cable compared Heyward-Bey to Randy Moss, one of the most dynamic receivers in the game but one who struggled in his two seasons in Oakland. He said he was attracted by Heyward-Bey's experience in a pro-style offense, calling him the best route-runner of the three top receivers and downplaying his inferior college numbers.
"If you put the spread system at this level, it doesn't really exist," Cable said. "Those numbers would be dramatically different. I think the one great comparison that I did that really showed this was the right guy for me, if I put him in that same system, he might have been over 50 touchdowns. He's that talented.
The Raiders also passed up on Eugene Monroe, one of the highest-rated tackles in the draft. Oakland struggled at that position last season but Cable believes that returners Mario Henderson and Cornell Green, as well as free-agent signees Khalif Barnes and Erik Pears will solidify that position.