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WR may as well mean 'wild risk' in NFL Draft

| Monday, April 19, 2010

The recent trade of wide receiver Santonio Holmes turned one of the Steelers' deepest positions into one they may have to address early in this week's NFL Draft.

For the Steelers, there is a considerable amount of risk to drafting a wide receiver in the first round — and not just because the past three wideouts they have taken with their top pick have failed to stick around beyond their first contracts.

Coaches and draft experts agree that wide receiver is one of the toughest positions to evaluate because of the physical and mental demands required.

"It goes deeper than the ability you have," San Francisco 49ers coach Mike Singletary said.

That may be an understatement.

Wide receivers that excelled in college have to adjust to getting off the line of scrimmage against bigger cornerbacks in the NFL. Like a quarterback, they also have to be adept at reading pass coverages, and the ones they see in the NFL are much more complex than the ones they faced in college.

What makes it so difficult for NFL teams to project which wide receivers will be successful at making what is the equivalent of a quantum leap: They can't glean as much from college game tapes of wide receivers as they can from players at other positions.

"There is a scarcity of true press man corners in college football, so you don't get to see the wide receivers getting obstructed at the line of scrimmage against quality opponents in college," NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said. "You start talking about the physicality of getting off the line of scrimmage against good press guys, and then once you get off the line of scrimmage, you've got to adjust on the run based on all these coverages you've never seen in your life. You're doing some guesswork here."

There are plenty of examples of teams not guessing right.

The Detroit Lions didn't help their bumbling reputation by using high first-round picks on wide receivers three consecutive years and missing badly on two of them (Charles Rogers in 2003 and Mike Williams in 2005).

The Ravens, who have a stellar draft record under general manager Ozzie Newcome, have also whiffed on early picks at wide receiver. Travis Taylor, the 10th pick of the 2000 draft, never panned out in Baltimore. Mark Clayton, the 22nd pick of the 2005 draft, has underachieved, which may be why the Ravens traded for Anquan Boldin during the offseason.

As for the Steelers, they haven't made a bad pick in the first round since they took Louisiana Tech wide receiver Troy Edwards 13th overall in 1999.

Edwards caught 61 passes for 714 yards and five touchdowns as a rookie but had just 37 catches combined and no touchdowns in the two subsequent seasons he spent with the Steelers.

One reason mistakes are made when it comes to evaluating wide receivers is that teams become enamored with speed.

The Oakland Raiders took Maryland wide receiver Darius Heyward-Bey with the seventh overall pick last year, even though he never dominated in college. The reason: Heyward-Bey ran a blistering 4.3 in the 40-yard dash at the 2009 NFL Scouting Combine.

Heyward-Bey struggled to make the transition from college to the NFL and caught just nine passes for 124 yards and a touchdown as a rookie.

"A lot of times speed is not really as important as quickness," said former Dallas Cowboys director of player personnel Gil Brandt, who is now an analyst for "A lot of people aren't very good at route running. It's something they have to learn once they get into the league, and it takes a couple of years."

Additional Information:

Brown's take

Despite the need they now have at wide receiver, it would be surprising if the Steelers use their first-round pick (No. 18 overall) at that position. The strength in the receivers class is its depth, and there should be plenty of quality players available in the second and third rounds.

Additional Information:

WR review

Here's a look at some of the receivers the Steelers have drafted since 1998.

Notable hits

• Hines Ward (round 3, 1998) • The Steelers struck gold when they got the player who owns most of their major receiving records.

• Mike Wallace (round 3, 2009) • Wallace led the team in yards per reception (19.4) as a rookie and figures to start in 2010.

Notable misses

• Troy Edwards (round 1, No. 13 overall, 1999) • He never built on a promising rookie season, and the Steelers parted ways with him after 2001.

• Fred Gibson (round 4, 2005) • He never made it out of training camp with the Steelers after struggling to learn the offense.

Good but ...

• Santonio Holmes (round 1, No. 25 overall, 2006) • MVP of Super Bowl XLIII made too many headlines off the field, which is why the Steelers traded him to the Jets.

• Plaxico Burress (round 1, No. 8 overall, 2000) • Burress emerged after a trying rookie campaign but Steelers opted to let him leave as a free agent after 2004 season.

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