GREEN BAY – As Pete Carroll sat at the monotonous weigh-in/measurement portion of the NFL Scouting Combine this winter, the Seattle Seahawks’ Super Bowl-champion coach’s mind began to wander.
And as Carroll looked at Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins – the consensus No. 1 wide receiver in the 2014 NFL Draft – being measured, the ever-energetic Carroll’s mind began to race a bit.
“I'm watching Sammy Watkins take the stage as he gets measured today and I think he was [about] 6-1 and 211 pounds,” Carroll said. “OK, what separates that guy? What makes him such a great football player? It's all the other elements. It's not his height, weight, speed. It's all the other stuff that's been part of his makeup, his gifts. And then also the experiences he's had, the coaching he's had, the opportunity to play with great players and a great quarterback going through college. It's all of those things that make guys what they are.
“To think that there's only certain packages and there are only certain standards, you're going to make mistakes that way. You have to take everyone of these guys as individuals and figure them out and see what they have and make an assessment of that."
And the assessment of this year’s class of wide receivers is this: In a draft that some view as the deepest in decades, there may not be a deeper position in the 2014 NFL Draft than receiver.
A year after only three wide receivers were taken in the first round – and the top rookie pass-catcher was third-round pick Keenan Allen, who caught 71 passes for 1,046 yards and eight touchdowns for San Diego as the 76th overall pick – there could be double that number of receivers taken during the first round next Thursday night.
“I think there's a chance six wideouts go in the first round,” NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said during a conference call with reporters Thursday. “[And] we can drop down in the third round and talk about guys. We can talk about the fifth round and drop some names that I think can be some productive NFL players. It's quality at the top and depth throughout.”
That depth comes from an influx of underclassmen, led by Watkins, a true junior who looks like the best wide receiver prospect to come out since Georgia Tech’s Calvin Johnson, who was taken No. 2 overall in 2007 by the Detroit Lions. In seven NFL seasons, the 28-year-old Johnson has been selected to four Pro Bowls, three first-team All-Pro teams and holds the single-season receiving yardage record.
But there’s a cavalcade of talented receivers after Watkins, many of whom merit first- and second-round consideration. Of the top 15 projected wide receivers, only one – Wisconsin’s Jared Abbrederis – is a senior.
“I think that group as a whole, the thing that stands out _it's deep. A lot of good players. Heck, the 15th receiver could be a starter in this league,” St. Louis Rams general manager Les Snead said. “From that group, you get a lot of different flavors, too. You get the large people; and you get the smaller, faster. They're competitive. And there are a lot of underclassmen. It'll be a fun group.”
But not necessarily a group that will have an immediate impact. From last year’s rookie receive class, Allen was the only 1,000-yard performer, while No. 8 overall pick Tavon Austin of St. Louis (40 receptions, 418 yards), No. 27 overall pick DeAndre Hopkins of Clemson (52 receptions, 802 yards) and No. 29 overall pick Cordarrelle Patterson of Minnesota (45 catches, 469 yards) all were productive.
Second-round pick Robert Woods (40 receptions, 587 yards with Buffalo), third-round pick Terrance Williams (44 catches, 736 yards for Dallas) and fourth-round pick Ace Sanders (51 catches, 484 yards with Jacksonville) all caught at least 40 balls. But of the 28 wide receivers drafted, 20 caught fewer than 20 passes last season, and 11 – including Seattle fourth-round pick Chris Harper, who didn’t make it out of training camp and wound up on the Green Bay Packers’ roster – failed to catch a single pass.
“It is a difficult position to come in and play early. I've always said quarterback is the hardest. Receiver is probably second hardest. There are a lot of things that go into it,” said Chargers GM Tom Telesco, who drafted Allen. “You see in college there's a lot more spread offense. They're running a lot more routes. A lot more balls are thrown to them. That may help a little bit. I think it was the people around Keenan that probably helped him a lot.”
Added Texans GM Rick Smith, who drafted Watkins’ Clemson teammate, Hopkins, last year, “DeAndre, he did a nice job for us. We were very pleased with what he did. Personally, the wide receiver position is one of the most difficult to come into the NFL and play early. There’s so many things for a wide receiver to think about and to process and play at the speed that they need to play with. I think he did a nice job with that.”
BEST OF THE BEST
1. Sammy Watkins, Clemson (6-foot-0 3/4, 211 pounds, 4.42 seconds in the 40-yard dash): Caught 101 passes for 1,464 yards and 12 touchdowns last season as a junior. … Delivered a huge game in the Orange Bowl against Ohio State, catching 16 passes for 227 yards and a pair of touchdowns. … Has terrific speed, body control and agility. … Is a natural playmaker who was able to make the jump from high school to college (82 receptions as a true freshman) and could do so again going from college to pro. … Still needs to improve as a route runner but has every attribute an NFL team could want in a receiver.
BEST OF THE REST
2. Mike Evans, Texas A&M (6-4 3/4, 231, 4.51): Caught 69 passes for 1,394 yards and 12 TDs last season as a third-year sophomore. … Prep basketball player who fielded Division I scholarship offers and only played high-school football as a senior, turning down a basketballs scholarship to Texas to play football at A&M. … Has excellent size and long arms that makes up for his lack of top speed. … Must become a better route runner to gain separation from cornerbacks with better speed than he possesses.
3. Brandin Cooks, Oregon State (5-9 3/4, 189, 4.32): Caught 128 passes for 1,730 yards and 16 TDs last season as a junior. … Roughly doubled his production each year, from 31 receptions as a freshman to 67 as a sophomore to last year’s off-the-charts season. … Short, fast, productive receiver who has been durable and productive despite lack of size. … Should be a weapon as a slot receiver immediately.
4. Odell Beckham, LSU (5-11 1/4, 198, 4.40): Caught 59 passes for 1,152 yards and eight TDs last season as a junior. … Had 43 receptions for 713 yards and two TDs as a sophomore and 41 receptions for 475 yards and two TDs as a true freshman. … Has good but not great speed, although shows very good burst/acceleration. … Must improve his route-running and catch the ball more consistently.
5. Marquise Lee, USC (5-11 3/4, 192, 4.46): Caught 57 passes for 791 yards and four TDs last season as a junior, when the Trojans struggled through quarterback problems and he struggled with injuries. …. Had 118 receptions for 1,721 yards and 14 TDs as a sophomore while playing with Matt Barkley, a fourth-round pick by Philadelphia a year ago. … Missed time with leg, knee and shoulder injuries as a junior but looked every bit the part of an NFL No. 1 receiver as a sophomore. … Should be an NFL playmaker if he can stay healthy.
OTHERS TO WATCH
Kelvin Benjamin, Florida State; Allen Robinson, Penn State; Jarvis Landry, LSU; Cody Latimer, Indiana; Davante Adams, Fresno State; Donte Moncrief, Mississippi; Bruce Ellington, South Carolina; Jared Abbrederis, Wisconsin.
“We might not get as many passes as other teams, but the passes that we do get are the critical ones; third-down conversions, that’s when we throw the ball. Once and a while we get into a play-action pass on first down or second down or something like that, but when we decide to throw it, it’s the most important down to convert. We might get overlooked, we might not have as many passes thrown our way, but the ones that do come our way, you have to capitalize on to keep the drive going.” – Abbrederis, on being a productive wide receiver in a traditionally run-oriented offense like Wisconsin’s.
Position analysis: Two years ago, the Packers had Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, James Jones, Randall Cobb and Jarrett Boykin as their top five wide receivers by the end of the season, and their all-time leading receiver, Donald Driver, was their sixth wideout. Even though Driver wasn’t the dynamic player he’d been in his heyday, that spoke to just how ridiculously deep the Packers were – and how remarkably blessed quarterback Aaron Rodgers was – at receiver. Whatever headaches there were about trying to keep that many pass-catchers happy were outweighed by the sheer talent at the position.
Two years later, Driver's happy in retirement, Jennings understandably took more money and joined the rival Minnesota Vikings in free agency, and the Packers didn’t bother to try to re-sign Jones when free agency opened in March – choosing instead to wait to show interest in bringing him back until it was too late and he’d agreed to terms with Oakland. As a result, they're down to Nelson, Cobb, Boykin, Myles White, Kevin Dorsey and the mysterious Chris Harper, whom even die-hards might not know exists on the roster.
There was talk early in the season that Nelson, Cobb James Jones could each break the 1,000-yard threshold, and had Cobb, who missed 10 games with a broken leg, and Jones, who missed two games with a knee injury and played the final few weeks of the season with broken ribs, stayed healthy, they might’ve done it. Boykin, who had such a good offseason and training camp as a rookie free agent in 2012 that he essentially forced the Packers into the unprecedented step of keeping six receivers coming out of camp, came on in Cobb’s absence and caught 49 passes for 681 yards and three touchdowns. With Cobb and Nelson the clear cut top 2 – and both in need of contract extensions as they enter the final year of their respective deals, by the way – the Packers are counting on Boykin to continue to grow. It’s also a safe bet that the team will add at least one receiver
Draft strategy: One thing Ted Thompson has always done as the Packers’ general manager has been to stock the wide receiver position with talent for his quarterbacks. In his nine drafts in Green Bay, Thompson has taken 10 wide receivers. During the time he had Brett Favre as his quarterback (2005 through 2007), Thompson drafted five of them: Texas A&M’s Terrence Murphy (second round, No. 58) in 2005; Western Michigan’s Jennings (second round, No. 52) and TCU’s Corey Rodgers (fourth round, No. 104) in 2006; and San Jose State’s Jones (third round, No. 78) and Virginia Tech’s David Clowney (fifth round, No. 157) in 2007. Since Rodgers ascended to the starting job in 2008, Thompson has taken five more: Kansas State’s Nelson (second round, No. 36) and San Diego State’s Brett Swain (seventh round, No. 217) in 2008; and Kentucky’s Cobb (second round, No. 64 overall) in 2011.
Last year, he took Maryland’s Dorsey (seventh round) and Grand Valley State’s Charles Johnson (seventh round). Both were injured throughout the offseason and camp, but the team kept Johnson on the practice squad (he eventually signed with Cleveland’s 53-man roster, only to have a knee injury discovered upon his physical) and carried Dorsey on the injured reserve list all year. This year, Thompson figures to move on a receiver much earlier than the final round. Given the hits he’s had in the second round – Jennings, Nelson and Cobb were all terrific picks, and Murphy might have been, too, if not for a career-ending neck injury – it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him go that route again.
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