Michigan's Braylon Edwards is a headliner among a potentially deep group of receivers in this year's draft class
Fabian Washington may have been the unofficial speed kind of the NFL Scouting Combine in late February and early March. On the other hand, it might have been Hampton's Jerome Mathis. NFL.com's own draft guru, Gil Brandt, compared Mathis favorably with none other than Deion Sanders in terms of pure speed.
These two could eventually settle it on a professional field, if Mathis, a receiver, and Washington, a cornerback, find NFL homes. For now, there's no need to declare a winner, because no prize is at stake. However, given the impressive performances of Mathis and his rookie receiving peers at the Combine, there could be several NFL teams who come out winners in this year's draft.
It would be difficult to match last year's class, of course. Seven receivers went in the first round, meaning practically one of every four picks in the opening stanza was a wideout. Few disappointed. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Michael Clayton, selected 15th overall and fifth among the seven first-round receivers, led the way with a stunning 80 catches for 1,193 yards and seven touchdowns. He could be one of the best young receivers to come into the league in years, but he'll have competition from the likes of Detroit's Roy Williams, Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald and Buffalo's Lee Evans.
Few mock drafts have seven receivers going in the first round in 2005, but the class is still deep. And fast. Especially fast.
Ruston Webster, the Buccaneers' director of college scouting, remembers seeing this year's Combine turn into Speed Week when the wideouts had their turn.
"There were more 4.2s this year than I ever remember," said Webster. "I am not sure whose exactly was the fastest, but it was close."
If you're not up on the lingo, a 4.2 represents the time it takes a player, in seconds, to run the 40-yard dash. A respectable time for a receiver is 4.5 or so. Cross the line in 4.7, and scouts start to worry. Sanders, famously, ran the 40 in something between 4.1 and 4.3 in 1989, depending upon whose lore and whose stopwatch you believe. Brandt thinks Sanders, a cornerback, was about 4.28 while Mathis was around 4.25. The whole thing is less than exact because it involves a group of fallible humans clicking their stopwatches. However, they are not so fallible that the overall point is missed. Sanders was extraordinarily fast, and Hampton and Washington are, too. Webster says there is a ton of speed to go around this year, which means some very intriguing prospects could be snapped up in the middle rounds.
Of course, the two top prospects on both boards are known more for their total package of skills. Michigan's Braylon Edwards and USC's Mike Williams are big, sure-handed receivers with impressive college-level production and enough speed to put the rest of their skills into action. There's a very good chance that they will match last year's draft, in which two receivers (Fitzgerald and Williams) went in the top seven picks.
"They are both big, physical, talented receivers," said Webster. "If there is (a difference between them) it's minute. Both of those guys stand out because of their size and athletic ability. Obviously, Braylon had a great year and Mike wasn't able to play this year. But there isn't much difference."
In this story, it should be noted, we have thoughts from Webster on three receivers: Washington, Edwards and Northern Colorado's Vincent Jackson. This is the product of one fact: Those are the players about whom Webster was asked. His comments, thus, are not motivated by who the Buccaneers are hoping to draft. Still, the Bucs have many needs to fill this year, and with few proven receivers under contract, that position could very well be one of them.
Besides Clayton, the Bucs have drafted three other receivers over the past three years. Marquise Walker, a third-rounder in 2002, didn't pan out but at least paid some dividend when he was traded to Arizona for RB Thomas Jones. WR Aaron Lockett, a seventh-rounder in 2002, was small and fast, but he didn't pan out. Mark Jones, a 7th-rounder last year, was also small and fast and, while he didn't survive the Bucs' final cuts, he did hook on with the New York Giants as a kick-returner.
In another world, Mark Jones might have stuck with the Buccaneers. At least his rookie NFL success is an indication of the Bucs' draft acumen; they traded up in the seventh round to make sure they got a shot at him. It may be that the team is getting better at identifying the type of talent Head Coach Jon Gruden wants at the receiver position, much as they have long been good at plucking out productive cornerbacks for Monte Kiffin's defense in the middle rounds.
"I think we have come light years, offensively," said Webster of the Bucs' draft philosophy. "It's become a lot clearer and I think it continues to get a lot better. I feel like we have a pretty good handle on it. We have had a lot of meetings with the entire coaching staff and you really get a good feel from there. So, it's probably a lot clearer now."
The Bucs would certainly take a mulligan on the Marquise Walker pick if they had a chance, however. That, and the relatively small impact that 2001 first-rounder David Terrell had in Chicago has made some skeptical of high-profile receivers out of the University of Michigan, Edwards' home. Even as one of the teams to come up empty with a Wolverine passcatcher, the Bucs wouldn't shy away from Edwards, according to Webster.
"You have to watch the tape, grade the traits and make your own decisions," he said. "Do your research on the kid, make sure he has what it takes to play for our team, in our situation, and if you feel good about that, then take him. I try not to, when I'm watching guys, other than comparing their abilities, I try not to (factor in) that the last two players (coming from a school) were busts."
Of course, Edwards may be off the board before the Bucs even begin their turn on the clock. And Tampa Bay may be leaning another way with its first-round pick, making the analyses of Edwards and Williams moot. But with 12 picks over the weekend, it would be surprising if at least one of them wasn't spent on a receiver. In the middle rounds that mean a prospect such as Mathis. It could even mean a lesser-known name like Jackson, the Northern Colorado standout who shares some of those coveted size/speed traits with Edwards and Williams.
"Vincent is a little bit of a different cat because he is so big and so fast," said Webster. "He is supremely athletic. He didn't play at as high of a level as say (Mike Williams or Braylon Edwards), but he is a talented guy."
With Clayton and re-signed speed merchant Joey Galloway in the fold, the Bucs don't need a receiver to step right into a starting role, as Clayton surprisingly did in 2004. Moreover, they don't expect a contribution anything like what Clayton put up last year, one of the finest rookie seasons ever for an NFL wideout.
"I don't think there's any pressure, in terms of the guy has to match Michael, because it's going to be tough for any guy we take, fifth pick, first pick, whatever, to match what Michael did this year," said Webster.
Whether it's the fifth overall pick, or a third-rounder or even a seventh-rounder, there should be plenty of talent to go around at the receiver position this year.