NFL Draft 2003 - The Wide Receivers

NFL Draft 2003 - The Wide Receivers

Most of the time, we draftniks in the media will start with the quarterback position when we start putting out our analyses prior to the draft, but I thought I'd begin with the wide receivers instead, for a number of reasons.

NFL Draft 2003 - The Wide Receivers
Rams Nation's Writer Barry Waller

Mainly, I am underemphasizing the running back and quarterback positions as I study the available talent because the Rams are doing the same thing as they prepare for the draft. Sure those positions will be ranked and players will be brought in to workout at Rams Park, but they won't get the scrutiny of some other positions more in line with the holes in the Rams roster that can be filled on draft day.

I am also shedding light on the available receivers early on because there is more statistical and video evidence available on receivers than almost any other position. There will be one or more of the second tier of receivers in this draft who will make big moves up the draft charts after the combine, and private workouts.

Florida State's Javon Walker did just that in 2003 after running a 4.3 Forty-yard dash for the scouts. Even so, there is enough evidence out there to give a fairly clear picture of the talent available that can play on Sundays, and which guys could be the big movers in 2003.

Overview Of The 2003 Receiver Crop
Last year, the draft was touted as a very strong one at the wide receiver position, but in the end, only three wide outs were selected in the first round, with most of the action at the position happening in early round two. Depth at a position can have the effect of sending some first round talents into round two, and even round three, and that's what happened in 2002.

Going into the bowl games, this year's crop of receivers appeared to be a horribly lean harvest devoid of top talent. Added to the prospect of 2004 becoming possibly the best ever available pool of receiver talent, it appeared that there may not be one receiver selected in round one this year. That's almost incomprehensible in the modern pass happy NFL. There were surely still going to be plenty of promising prospects drafted in late April, but no player jumped out at any observer of college talent as had occurred in years past.

After the underclassmen declared their intentions to jump early to the NFL, the landscape concerning available receivers changed dramatically, although a couple NFL ready college receivers stayed in school, and those two Texas superstar Roy Williams and Oklahoma State's Rashaun Woods, will still head an impressive list of big, fast, experienced star receivers next year. 2004 still could end up as the best ever WR crop if a couple of the stud 2003 juniors opt for the draft.

When Michigan State's Charles Rogers and Miami's Andre Johnson declared for the draft, they didn't just shoot to the top of the wide receiver chart. The names of these two talented "freaks" will be among the first five announced on draft day once the selections begin. Rogers is no doubt the best available talent in this draft, though he probably will go second overall, after quarterback and Heisman winner Carson Palmer. Johnson could well go third overall, as Mel Kiper, ESPN's draft expert has indicated, saying what a good fit the impressive athlete would be for Houston.

It's more than just having names that just sound like star football players that makes the only two blue chippers in the 2003 draft so special. Both Rogers, at 6'4, 205lb, and Johnson, who measures 6'3, 220lb, are terrific natural athletes who can fly. Both have run in the 4.4 range in the forty, and it will be interesting to see if either can break the 4.4 mark after gearing up to impress the pro scouts and coaches. There is talk that Rogers has actually run a 4.25 forty at East Lansing, and if he can match that figure in his official workouts, he will be among the fastest receivers ever, and with that 6'4" stature, his future looks very very bright, almost certainly right there in Michigan with the Lions, who hold the second overall pick in the draft.

Having natural talent alone, however, does not a top five pick make. What puts receiver prospects into the elite of the elite is the "triangle numbers" of height, weight, and speed, but also the statistics and resume to back that potential up, and lower the risk on which NFL teams will gamble millions of cap dollars with their top draft pick.

Rogers put together two spectacular campaigns as a Spartan, with 1470 yards and 14 scores in 2001 and 1351 yards and 13 touchdowns last year. That's what you call consistent greatness, and considering Rogers was playing in a very tough conference, with a less than great team, is more evidence to solidify Charles as a sure fire future All-Pro type talent.

The highly recruited Rogers was rated the #1 overall high school prospect by ESPN's recruiting analyst Tom Lemming as a high school senior, and one of the top high school receivers by Superprep and Prepstar, after catching 14 touchdowns for the second straight season at Saginaw (Mich.) High School. In just two seasons, Rogers became the best receiver ever at Michigan State, and is a better pro prospect than ex-Spartan Plaxico Burress, who was drafted 8th overall by the Steelers in 2000.

Some pretty good receivers have come out of Michigan State too, such as former first rounders Gene Washington (Vikings 1967), Andre Rison (Colts 1989), and Kirk Gibson, who chose to play his second best sport, baseball, in 1979 after graduation, and did quite well with that decision.

Not only is Rogers better on the field than Plaxico, who finally started to show why he was taken so high in his third NFL season, he is a man of far better character and work ethic than Burress has been reported to be.

Some are calling Rogers "Randy Moss without the baggage", and they aren't far from wrong. Rogers may not have Moss' deep speed, depending on his workout numbers, but he will make up for that with better routes, better hands and better attitude. Ability wise he is a cross between Moss and Keyshawn Johnson, and one of the very best receivers coming out of college the last decade or more.

Rogers showed he can do everything a wide receiver must do in an NFL style offense against some pretty great corners and safeties in his college career too, guys who became and will become top draft picks. He holds an NCAA regular season record with touchdown catches in 13 straight games.

With no real negatives in size, speed, athleticism, hands, route running, ability to adjust, willingness to block, work ethic, durability, experience, level of competition, medical history, or character, Rogers gets my 9.9 grade, only because no one is a perfect ten, except maybe Jim Brown when he came out of Syracuse. Rogers will get bigger and stronger once he becomes a pro, and only injuries will keep this huge talent out of Canton some day. The only negative mark on Rogers is that he had to sit out a year due to academic problems upon entering college, but he had no apparent problems after getting to Michigan State.

While Johnson is a step below Rogers in size and speed, he is a very solidly built player who reminds you all too much of fellow ex-Hurricane Michael Irvin. It would be no stretch to call Johnson "the playmaker" either, as Irvine was labeled Irvin in Dallas. Johnson had some spectacular games with a Miami team who split two NCAA Championship games in his final two college seasons, and his yards per catch figure of 21.6 in 2002 is proof of his big play abilities.

Many of Johnson's best games came against some of the Hurricanes' toughest foes, such as Florida State, Virginia Tech and Syracuse. In two games against the Orangemen, Johnson totaled 10 catches for 297 yards and three scores, and he also caught 10 passes against Florida State in a pair of Miami victories, for 200 yards and two touchdowns.

With other star offensive threats on that Hurricane offense, Johnson may have gotten less work than some college receivers the last two years, but 19 touchdowns on only about 90 catches is hard to ignore against top college defensive talent. As ESPN's Sean Salisbury, an ex-NFL QB said, describing his impression of Johnson's physique, "I stood next to this guy, and he is a full grown MAN."

My opinion is that Andre will be a top five pick in April, possibly to the Texan at #3, and will be at least as good as another similarly talented Johnson, Keyshawn, and maybe even with better big play potential and scoring ability than that 1996 #1 overall pick. Don't expect the quiet Johnson to be the showman that Keyshawn or Michael Irvin were and are though, because Johnson has let his play do his talking for him. He is the complete opposite of former teammate Jeremy Shockey. Andre has the hands, size, durability, competitiveness, work ethic, and athleticism that Rogers has, plus Andre may even be a bit more physical.

Andre lacks Rogers' route running and experience, however. His forty times will be highly anticipated, as scouts judge how close he is to Rogers in overall athletic abilities, but he won't fall far unless he runs over 4.5. That almost certainly won't happen, not with an athlete who ran track as a college freshman and sophomore in his hometown of Miami, with a personal best of 6.46 in the indoor 55-meter sprint. As a freshman, he ran outdoors and recorded a career best 10.69 hundred-meter time in the Big East championships.

As of now, Johnson rates a terrific grade of 9.5, and he will be a star very soon in the NFL. The combination of Johnson and last year's second rounder, Jabar Gaffney, would certainly give David Carr two great targets to throw to for the next decade. Like Rogers, Johnson will be just barely 22 when training camps open in July.

The second tier of receivers in this year's draft don't rate a first round grade, though one or two may be taken off the board at the very end of the round. The way I see this group, a team spending any number one on them will be taking a big risk with that high a pick.

The top senior receiver is probably Florida's Taylor Jacobs, who wowed the scouts the week of the Senior Bowl, only to badly bruise a thigh and miss the game entirely. Right off the bat, it's easy to get off the bandwagon of any Florida Gator receiver, with so many becoming disappointments after being high draft picks.

Jacobs is a bit bigger and stronger than some of those failed Gators, but I am still troubled by his lack of real physical play and ability to get off the press coverage he will see in the pros. Jacobs had a nice Senior campaign after Gaffney and Reche Caldwell left college in 2002, catching nine touchdown passes, on 71 receptions for 1088 yards. Even so, his average per catch of 15.6 doesn't knock ones socks off, and his supposed 4.4 forty sprinters speed doesn't seem to translate to his play in games.

If you subtract the huge games he had against UAB, with 8-246 yd and 2TD, and Kentucky, where he caught 12-183 with two scores, Jacobs' average per catch drops to a pedestrian 12.7 yards in 2002, and his TD total drops to 4, making him a real underachiever, and a very risky possible #1 pick.

The 6'1 198 pound Jacobs is no small receiver though, and his speed and size, along with his route running skills will probably allow him to develop into a solid starter in the NFL if he can toughen up and strengthen his hands. He reminds the casual observer of Steelers wide out Hines Ward, a guy who took awhile to really blossom in the NFL. Most scouts rate Jacobs as a better prospect than Caldwell, who was drafted in the second round in 2002, but not quite as good as Gaffney, the first pick of round two last year.

My best bet to make a big move after the combine and workouts and get into round one is another Florida State Seminole, Anquan Boldin, who burst onto the scene this season after being moved from quarterback in Tallahassee. Bolden scored a dozen touchdowns as a junior, and though the 6'2 205lb wide out, who had a very similar career to ex-Seminole Javon Walker, could have used another season to solidify a first round grade, he decided to come out early anyway after the horrific injury to Miami RB Willis McGahee.

Boldin could make a move to round one just as Walker did a year ago, and Boldin is a far better prospect in the brains category, being an ex-QB, than Walker, who scored an incredibly low 9 on the Wonderlich test given to college players entering the draft at the scouting combine.

If Bolden runs 4.4 or better, and impresses scouts with his abilities in his workouts, he could instantly find himself mentioned with the top two WR prospects, though he lacks their statistical resume. Teams will also be checking very carefully at the combine to see if Bolden's knee that he hurt in 2001 is completely sound before moving him up their draft board.

A prospect who could carry a first round grade except for extenuating circumstances regarding his medical records is Tennessee's brash bad boy Kelley Washington, a former minor league baseball player who returned to school and put up good numbers his first season in Knoxville, with 1010 yards and five touchdowns.

With Donte Stallworth, his fellow Volunteers wide receiver, leaving school as the Saints top pick in 2002, the 6'2 225lb Washington was expected to be right at the top of the receiver ratings as a draft eligible sophomore. However, a severe neck injury that required season ending surgery ended his season very early on, and crippled his shot at being a high first rounder like Stallworth.

Washington will have to pass all his physical exams with flying colors to stay a prospect that will go in the first day of the draft, and even then teams will back away from his considerable talent rather than risk a boom or bust type selection in the top two rounds. His production in his one full season is good, but not eye popping, and he is already 24 years old, which could also turn teams off a bit, even though a few scouts felt in 2001 he outplayed Stallworth, and even compared favorably to ex-Volunteer and NFL star Carl Pickens.

Of these three second tier players, I feel Bolden has the best chance to be a star in the Pros, though it may take a couple years for him to really make an impact. His ability to throw the ball on the run could also bode well for teams using him for some trick plays as a rookie.

The next group of receivers will be the one that is of most interest to the Rams on draft day 2003. They are the solid second round guys and high third rounders that have the size, speed, and athletic ability to develop into Pro-Bowl receivers, but have some flaw that keeps them from being in that very top echelon at their position. The teams that pick the right out of this large and interesting group of players in this draft can end up with some real steals, just as the Browns did in round two 2002 with Virginia Tech's Andre Davis, who many thought the Rams would take in round one; or like the Cowboys did in snatching ex-Pitt superstar Antonio Bryant in the third round.

The Rams are fortunate that they can pass on the mediocre crop of possible first rounders still on the board when their turn comes on draft day, and fill a receiver need with a real tasty prospect in round two or three, depending how the first 45 picks fall. I am very high on this bunch to produce guys who will have great careers in the NFL, just like so many other small college stars or guys who took different routes to the league have in the past.

Just look at the NFL receiving stars that hail from less than big time NCAA programs. Jerry Rice (Miss. Valley St.), Terrell Owens (Tennessee-Chattanooga), Marty Booker (N.E. Louisiana), Troy Brown (Marshall), Randy Moss (Marshall), Rod Smith (Missouri Southern), Jimmy Smith (Jackson State), Isaac Bruce (Memphis), Joe Horn (Junior College), Don Driver (Alcorn State), Wayne Chrebet (Hofstra), Keenan McCardell (UNLV), Bill Schroeder (Wisconsin-Lacrosse), and James Thrash (Missouri Southern), rose far above their small college beginnings to comprise a who's who of NFL receiving stars.

This 2003 group certainly contains players who have comparable talents to that esteemed bunch of athletes from lesser-known schools, and hopefully the Rams can end up with one or two before the draft ends. There are also some big name college players who lack the ingredients to be surefire first rounders, if teams want to stick to the big schools for new players.

The two biggest names that failed to live up to preseason hype are Florida's Talman Gardner and Penn State's Bryant Johnson, who lack the explosiveness and size of other top rated receivers in this draft. Both players were big underachievers as seniors. Both players are under 6'2, and Johnson, the tallest of the two, reportedly runs only a 4.6 forty, a tenth of a second faster than the 6' tall Gardner. They are two players who really will have to dazzle the scouts at their workouts to stay in round two after unimpressive All-Star performances.

Some of the players who have moved past that previously highly thought of duo are; 6'3, 220 pound Terrell Owens clone Tyler Calico of Middle Tennessee, a guy with whom the Rams and many other teams were very impressed, during All-Star practices; Illinois' 6'1, 180 pound Brandon Lloyd, a very productive and experienced big play receiver who gained 2000 yards and scored 19 times in the last two seasons in Champaign; S.E. Missouri star Willie Ponder, who caught 15 TD passes and gained 1453 yards in 2002; a pair of San Diego State prospects in Kassim Osgood and J.R. Tolver who combined for an incredible 21 touchdowns and over 3300 yards receiving in 2002; and Nevada junior Nate Burlson, a 6' 180 pound star who had a tremendous 2002 campaign with 1629 yards and 12 touchdowns.

I particularly like what I see of Osgood, who proved he could play with the big boys in 2002 against Colorado (14catches-178yd), Arizona St. (10-158 1TD), and UCLA (10-145 1TD). At 6'4 205, Osgood would fulfill the Rams need for a tall receiver, and his production is proof of his big time ability. San Diego State has sent some great receivers to the NFL in the past, such as Az-Zahir Hakim, Isaac Curtis and Darnay Scott, not to mention a guy named Marshall Faulk.

One player who is making a big move in ranking of late is 6'2 180 pound David "Circus" Kirkus, who showed at the Hula Bowl exactly why he was able to shatter NCAA records with 60 touchdowns in two seasons at Grand Valley State, as he scored the first two TDs of that All-Star game; the second on a brilliant leaping catch in the end zone on a long halfback pass. All Kircus must do is run well for the scouts in his private workouts to really solidify a first day selection.

A highly talented small college trio are; 6'1 ½, 200lb Doug Gabriel (Central Florida), 6'2, 190lb speedster Ryan Hoag of tiny Gustavus Adolphus College, who some scouts say may be the fastest receiver in the draft at 4.3 in the forty, and 6'4 215lb Michael Hayes, who starred at Southern U. after transferring from LSU, with 1328 yards and 15 scores in 2001, before a knee injury messed up his final year in Baton Rouge.

Gabriel, who originally signed with U of Miami, dropped a few too many passes in Senior Bowl practices to improve his stock much, and Hayes will have to show he is 100% healed from his injury in his workouts to make a round two or three grade. If he checks out OK, Hayes becomes one of the biggest sleepers in this draft. Hoag is the real super sleeper of this draft, along with Kircus, but Hoag, who started his career at Wake Forest playing on a soccer scholarship, is by far the more athletically gifted of the two and a very fast guy that lots of scouts are taking about.

If size is not an issue for an NFL team looking to add WR depth in this draft, a couple of hugely productive athletes of lesser stature could really fill the bill. Arizona State junior Shaun McDonald ended a tremendous career with an 86 catch, 1412 yard, 13 TD junior year, following a 47-1104-11TD-sophomore campaign.

Only his lack of size at 5'9 172 pounds will keep this Az Hakim clone from being a surefire second round pick. Like Hakim, this guy is big play dynamite, with 4.33 forty speed and jitterbug moves, and whatever team takes this the ex-Sun Devil will have something special, including a top punt return prospect. Look for the Cardinals, in dire need of WR help in this draft, to look hard at keeping the Phoenix native at home for his pro career.

A second diminutive speedster with impressive college stats is Utah's Kevin Curtis, who destroyed all of their records with three dazzling seasons totaling 3889 yards and 38 scores, 19 of them as a sophomore, on just 55 total receptions in 2000. Curtis is only 5'11 and 185 pounds, but like McDonald he also runs in the 4.3 range, and this Tim Dwight clone will probably be a solid pro as a third WR and punt returner.

One factor working against Curtis is that he will be 25 when the NFL season opens. Like Hakim, chances are Curtis and McDonald could really benefit by being drafted by teams that play on turf indoors, where there ability to change directions is accentuated.

Another player who could go from relative obscurity to NFL notice is Western Michigan's Jermaine Lewis, a 6'4, 210lb ex-defensive back who was moved to offense with great success his senior season. If Lewis runs 4.4 or better in workouts, his size and toughness will make him a hot third round commodity or a steal in round four.

Among other better known receivers who had nice college careers, but somewhat lacking in athletic ability, are Notre Dame's 6'1, 215 lb Arnaz Battle a tough guy who's play lives up to his name, Oklahoma's 6', 185 lb Antone Savage, underachieving speedster Kareem Kelly of USC, a 6' 185pounder, and three tall lanky basketball player types; U. Of Illinois Walter Scott, Washington State's Mike Bush, and Missouri's Justin Gage, all in the 6'4 or 6'5 range with great ability to go up and get the football in a crowd, though lacking the sub 4.5 speed to really get high grades.

Other prospects who will probably get drafted on day two of the draft are; Washington State's Jerome Riley, LaShaun Ward of Cal, Arkansas Pine Bluff's Phil Doolin, Arketa Banks of Elon, Clemson's J.J. McKelvey, E. Tenn. State's Cecil Moore, Anton Paige of Texas Tech, and Iowa's C.J. Jones.

There may also be a few ex-QBs who may switch to WR in the NFL, and are decent athletic prospects, but after the Eric Crouch disaster in 2002, let's not even go into that possibility for Mike Martz and the Rams.

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