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Receivers carry high risk, often late reward

By ROGER MILLS

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 18, 2001


TAMPA -- There is no simple truth, just this theory: Taking a receiver in the first two rounds of the NFL draft is considered a crapshoot.

You can get Randy Moss or Yatil Green. Jerry Rice or Rae Carruth. You want Keyshawn Johnson? You might get Kevin Dyson.

The point is, entering every draft, most teams feel the decision to take a receiver in the opening rounds is as risky as putting your winning lottery ticket in the care of a 5-year-old.

If it works out, you're laughing all the way to the bank. If not, well. ...

Conventional wisdom says there are enough quality receivers available in the later rounds for teams to be picky early. Unless there's a player ready to make an immediate impact and justify an immediate-impact salary-cap hit, then why bother?

Last year, five receivers were taken in the first round, including FSU star Peter Warrick, who went fourth.

Warrick was most impressive with 51 catches and four touchdowns, but Pittsburgh's Plaxico Burress, Baltimore's Travis Taylor, Kansas City's Sylvester Morris and Jacksonville's R.Jay Soward didn't exactly light up the scoreboard.

"You really can't evaluate a player until he is in his second year," said Jerry Angelo, Bucs director of player personnel. "Let's take some of those guys and say, "The jury is still out.' "

But the Bucs, who signed Johnson to an eight-year, $56-million contract last off-season to dramatically upgrade the receiving corps, have shown little fear in taking receivers in the first two rounds.

In 1997, it was Reidel Anthony with the No. 16 pick. The next year it was Jacquez Green in the second round (34th overall).

"I know some people think it's a risk, but here we've not been afraid to go out on a limb for a guy," Bucs receiver coach Charlie Williams said. "The bottom line is you have to project a guy and see where you think he's going to play. There's no science to it. It's projection. And then you have to go out and develop him, coach him."

However, later picks sometimes have outplayed colleagues. Take for instance the two starters for the 49ers, J.J. Stokes and Terrell Owens. Stokes, once a No. 10 overall pick, has caught 22 touchdowns in six injury-marred seasons. Owens, a third-round pick from Tennessee-Chattanooga, has 43 in five seasons.

And there are other impressive late picks like Green Bay's Antonio Freeman (third round) and Minnesota's Cris Carter (fourth).

One explanation is the difference between a first-round tackle and a fourth-round tackle is dramatic, whereas the difference between a first-round receiver and a fourth-rounder is negligible.

"If you draft a tackle or guard or defensive end high, you can be fairly assured you'll get a pretty good player, and the falloff in the draft will be dramatic," Titans general manager Floyd Reese told the Sporting News. "At receiver, you can't be sure of what you'll get high, and there may not be a dropoff. Your chance of getting a pretty good receiver isn't much different in the fifth round than it is in the first."

Another commonly held theory is that, despite gaudy college numbers, receivers have to mesh well with a certain type of quarterback and learn certain styles of offense. That transition is not as pronounced for, say, a running back or a defensive end.

"I think there's some truth to that," Charlie Williams said. "The challenge, especially for the top guys, is to fit in with the system. Think about this: For the last four years they have been accustomed to one system and one quarterback and now, in a short period of time, they have to learn a new system, and be expected to produce at the same level. Sometimes, they fit. Sometimes, they just don't fit."

Chiefs coach Dick Vermeil, who took Torry Holt in the first round in 1999 and Az-Zahir Akim in the fourth round in 1998, said blazing speed and a 6-foot-plus frame doesn't guarantee a thing.

"There's a lot more to playing receiver than just lining up," Vermeil told the Kansas City Star. "You think it's not that complicated, we can get him to play right off the bat. But the things they see today, the blitz adjustments, it takes a while before you totally trust them under pressure."

On paper, the Bucs have time to groom a new receiver. Entering his second season with the Bucs, Johnson is the primary target and seems to have convinced the coaching staff that getting him the ball, where he likes it best, is a good way to go.

In Green, they have a legitimate deep threat who should be able to stretch defenses. In Anthony and Karl Williams, they have a mix of speed and dependability.

And then there's Frank Murphy. Acquired during the season on waivers, the former running back spent the bulk of the season on the practice squad.

"The thing about Frank is having the opportunities within the system," Charlie Williams said. "He's coming along very well. He is working hard. What you want to see from a guy like that is hunger and he has the hunger in his eyes."

It doesn't mean taking a receiver is beyond the realm of possibility for the Bucs.

This year's group could be one of the best and deepest in years. Michigan's David Terrell, North Carolina State's Koren Robinson, Miami's Sanatana Moss, Clemson's Rod Gardner and Oregon State's Chad Johnson all could go in the first round. Then there are UCLA's Freddie Mitchell, Wisconsin's Chris Chambers and Texas A&M's Robert Ferguson who have turned heads.

Does it mean a quality receiver still will be there in the third round?

"Not necessarily," Angelo said. "Yes, it's a deep pool of receivers. But, if they are all that good, then they all will go in the first or high second round."

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