Big 12 receivers falling flat at next level

Going into every draft season, there are a few players that everyone universally agrees will be a star at the next level based on what we saw on college football afternoons. These players were simply too dominant at the last level to not translate in the NFL.

Maybe the best case of “can’t miss” that I can remember in the last decade was Michigan State receiver Charles Rogers. He was a true superstar every Saturday for the Spartans in 2001 and 2002, playing in just 24 college games and catching 25 TDs and 2,551 yards. You will not find very many receivers who walk right in to major college football and average a TD and over 100 yards (at over 20 yards a catch) over the course of their entire career. Breaking records and even putting up a 270-yard game, he appeared to be the next star waiting for Sundays.

When the 2003 draft arrived, the hometown Detroit Lions could not wait to take a local kid at No. 2 after Carson Palmer went to the Bengals first overall. The No. 3 pick was Houston’s, and they had Miami Hurricanes receiver Andre Johnson fall into their laps. Since that day, only Reggie Wayne has out-produced Johnson in receiving yards in the entire league. Johnson has been one of the very best of this generation. And Rogers? Well, Rogers was out of the league in less than three years — he was suspended multiple times for drugs and had a work ethic that even the Lions would not tolerate. He has had regular scrapes with the law after football and is another cautionary tale of how bad things can go on draft day if we are not careful. By the way, it was subsequently discovered that he had failed drug tests at Michigan State, too, and Detroit either did not do their homework or did not care.

This history lesson starts us out on a discussion about wide receivers and the fact that two local “can’t miss” players at that position in the last three drafts so far have not set the NFL on fire.

Texas Tech’s Michael Crabtree had moments at the college level in the Big 12 that were amazing. His production was off the charts, even by Rogers’ standards, with 3,127 yards and 41 touchdowns in 26 college games before turning pro. His slide in the draft down to no. 10 in 2009 where San Francisco snapped him up was the news of the day and surely a break they would very much enjoy. And yet, three seasons into his NFL career, he has had very ordinary production. Still looking for his first 900-yard season, Crabtree has not set the world on fire. Surely, his QB situation doesn’t help, but even in a year where the 49ers won many games and were just short of the Super Bowl, Crabtree was a player on the periphery of their game plan to the end.

And Oklahoma State’s Dez Bryant was the apple of Jerry Jones’ eye in the 2010 draft. Many teams had taken him off their draft board altogether and this had allowed Bryant to fall to Dallas at No. 24. His college production was not as impressive as Crabtree’s, mostly due to off field issues with the NCAA. But in his full season of 2008, Bryant put up 19 TDs and 1,480 yards in 13 games for OSU. His ability had many experts saying he was perhaps the best player in the draft, but the baggage made him a risk. Now, two years into his career, he has flashed brilliance, but also proven to be a handful of side issues. His one 100-yard game in his career came with the back-up QB, Jon Kitna, despite playing in one of the more productive offenses in the league. For whatever reason, at this point, most would categorize his production at least a modest disappointment compared to the expectations put on him by his own franchise when they rushed to give him the No. 88 as a sign that he was cut from the Drew Pearson-Michael Irvin cloth.

Crabtree and Bryant had a few things in common. Their Texas ties, the ties to Deion Sanders/Eugene Parker in the build-up to the draft, and the fact that they were the best the Big 12 South had to offer during a prolific passing era. Then, to see that they both had trouble initially exploding with success at the NFL level made some of us wonder about the way the ball is passed in the Big 12, and whether it is truly a great way to prepare for the NFL game. Was there enough “press coverage” in the conference, or were there simply “free releases” for every route? The free releases would not prepare these players for the next level, and when NFL corners would press them at the line, something teams do to Bryant and Crabtree regularly, would that cause their abilities to be somewhat mitigated?

And, can you judge an entire conference with the same standard?

The following list is the entire 13-player list of wide receivers from the Big 12 who have been selected in either the first or second round of the NFL Draft since the year 2000. With the exceptions of Jordy Nelson and Jeremy Maclin, it seems the entire list would either be labeled a complete disappointment or in the case of Bryant and Crabtree, mild disappointments so far on their road:

Year Player School Pick Team Years Yards
2001 Quincy Morgan Kan St #33 Clev 6 2466
2001 Robert Ferguson Tex A&M #41 GB 8 1993
2003 Bethel Johnson Tex A&M #45 NE 4 606
2004 Roy Williams Texas #7 Det 8 5715
2004 Rashaun Woods Ok St #31 SF 1 160
2005 Mark Clayton OU #22 Balt 7 3448
2005 Mark Bradley OU #39 Chi 5 1283
2005 Terence Murphy Tex A&M #58 GB 1 36
2008 Jordy Nelson Kan St #36 GB 4 2531
2008 Limas Sweed Texas #53 Pitt 2 69
2009 Michael Crabtree Tex Tech #10 SF 3 2240
2009 Jeremy Maclin Missouri #19 Phil 3 2585
2010 Dez Bryant Ok St #24 Dal 2 1489

Of course, every story and every player is different. But, if a league now known for slinging the ball all over the yard and having games approach 100 points some days in total, it makes you wonder how an entire conference could not really have one receiver crack the rankings of top NFL receivers over a 12-year period.

Actually, the Big 12 has had a prolific receiver in the NFL over the last half-dozen years. In fact, Wes Welker, with four 1,000-yard seasons to his name has outproduced the entire list above where all 13 of those players have just two 1,000-yard seasons (Roy Williams, 2006 & Jordy Nelson, 2011). But, Welker was undrafted and disregarded leaving college by just about everyone and seen as a special teams-only player.

Upon discovering this data, I had someone suggest to me that Justin Blackmon (OSU) and Kendall Wright (Baylor) will change all of that this year. And that is entirely possible. Both are thought of as first-round talents, and Blackmon has been projected by some as better than Crabtree or Bryant. Time will tell, of course, but they will not be the first two Big 12 receivers to get “can’t miss” rankings before a snap is taken. But, they might be the first two to actually not miss on Sundays in a long time from this conference.

Now, you might say, aren’t there other conferences with a similar track record? Well looking at the Top 25 most productive wide receivers from this era (2003-2011 was the window used), we see that the ACC, Big East, and Big Ten were well represented, with the Pac 10 having a few, and small schools representing a rather large number themselves. But, the SEC just had Hines Ward on this list and the Big 12 just had Wes Welker. The SEC would never claim to have adopted the spread offense, but there have been more than a few wide receivers from that conference who have disappointed at the top level despite running “pro offenses” predominantly through this era.

Also, you might suggest that taking a wide receiver high in the draft is a bad idea because of the bust factor. But, if you decided to never do that, you would have disqualified yourself from 15 of the 25 most productive wide receivers in these drafts as nine were first-rounders and six more went in the second round.

Top 25 WRs (2003-2011) – Where drafted (based on total receiving yards):

Rd 1 9
Rd 2 6
Rd 3 4
Rd 4 2
Rd 5 0
Rd 6 0
Rd 7 3
undrafted 1 (Welker)

So, as you might expect, the best receivers do go in the top few rounds, so if you want a star like Andre Johnson, Calvin Johnson, Reggie Wayne or Larry Fitzgerald, that is where you have to take them. The seventh-rounders, Marques Colston, TJ Houshmandzadeh and Donald Driver do exist, but the odds are quite remote comparatively speaking.

I don’t necessarily have a great theory as to why the Big 12 receivers are having a difficult time translating to the next level. Not every team is running the spread, and it does seem to be a complicated question. But with Blackmon and Wright ready, perhaps the equalizers are on their way.

The combine will reveal more of this story this weekend. But, of course, the only thing that will matter historically will be production on Sundays.