Wide receivers are catching on
Before it snapped Friday morning, Notre Dame wide receiver Golden Tate wore a wristband with an inscription of a favorite personal motto: Don’t be satisfied.
“Don’t be satisfied with just getting invited to the combine,” Tate told reporters at the NFL Scouting Combine. “Don’t be satisfied with just getting drafted. Don’t be satisfied with just playing.”
Don’t worry. The success of last year’s rookie wideouts won’t let Tate or anyone else from the Class of 2010 become complacent.
Wide receiver was once a position where most newbies needed at least one season before being expected to contribute. Not anymore. Fifteen wideouts had at least 30 receptions last season, including NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year Percy Harvin. In comparison, only five receivers topped the 30-catch mark in 2009.
Even early-entry juniors are quickly getting into the mix. All five of the top rookie receivers in 2009 – Harvin, Indianapolis’ Austin Collie, Philadelphia’s Jeremy Maclin, San Francisco’s Michael Crabtree and Hakeem Nicks of the New York Giants – didn’t stay for their senior college seasons.
“This is becoming a league where you need to get the players ready in a hurry,” Kansas City general manager Scott Pioli said. “They are going to have to play early … There have been a number of players that come in and play because somebody has to play. That doesn't always mean that they are good players. It just means someone has to line up.”
There were rookies prematurely thrust into the starting lineup. Oakland’s Darrius Heyward-Bey was the prime example. The first wideout taken at No. 7 overall, Heyward-Bey was clearly overmatched and finished with nine catches in 11 starts.
But there are plenty of others who immediately proved they are ready for the big time. Only nine wide receivers overall had more touchdown catches than Collie’s seven. Crabtree’s contract holdout lingered into the regular season but he still caught 48 passes for 625 yards in 11 games. Nicks (16.8-yard average, six touchdowns) and Pittsburgh’s Mike Wallace (19.4, six TDs) emerged as home run threats.
And then there was Harvin – a multipurpose threat as a receiver, rusher and kickoff returner.
“You always say that a (rookie) running back could have more impact because you can hand that guy the ball,” said Minnesota coach Brad Childress, who fielded the 2007 NFL Rookie of the Year in running back Adrian Peterson. “A guy like Percy, we had a plan to be able to hand him the football as well. He could do so many things. He can take a direct snap. He’s growing as a wide receiver and being an inside slot player."
Harvin and Collie (Brigham Young) benefited from strong relationships with their respective NFL quarterbacks and playing in receiver-friendly college offenses. While spread schemes make it difficult to evaluate college quarterbacks, Washington Redskins coach Mike Shanahan believes they help wideouts develop more quickly. When out of the NFL last season, Shanahan spent time on campus at the University of Florida studying the spread offense where Harvin played.
“Take a look at some of these offensive systems with the quarterback never getting under center and throwing the ball 50 times a game,” Shanahan said. “It really translates into some of these different (NFL) systems. You can put a guy in the slot or at the X (position), make them a one-on-one guy and give them a chance to make a play.”
Just like Collie with Peyton Manning in Indianapolis, Harvin spent extra time developing a bond with Minnesota quarterback Brett Favre. The two became so close that Harvin was able to goad Favre into doing a rendition of “Pants on the Ground” -- an Internet sensation from the current season of American Idol -- after Minnesota won its second-round playoff game against Dallas.
“Here’s another guy Brett took under his wing,” Childress said. “They used to text (message) back and forth. There was just great camaraderie.”
Even in a passing league, the 2010 rookie receivers will be hard-pressed to match the output of last year’s class or the one from 2008 when two wideouts (Denver’s Eddie Royal and Philadelphia’s DeSean Jackson) came close to 1,000-yard seasons. Oklahoma State’s Dez Braynt is the only surefire first-round pick, but he also barely played as a junior after receiving an NCAA suspension. The only other potential first-rounders are Tate and Louisiana State’s Brandon LaFell. Both can help their stock with strong workouts Sunday in combine drills.
“I went back and looked through a seven-year period of receivers who didn’t succeed,” NFL Network analyst Charley Casserley said. “At the end of the day, they weren’t fast enough. They couldn’t separate. If you can’t get open, you can’t be successful.”
And you definitely can’t be satisfied.
Alex Marvez interviewed Mike Shanahan and Brad Childress on Sirius NFL Radio.