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2012 NFL Draft: What Do We Really Know About Receiver Prospects?

The Titans and wide receivers have had a rocky relationship in the past decade or so. From the unfortunately injured (Tyrone Calico, Kenny Britt) to the simply underwhelming, (Lavelle Hawkins, Paul Williams) Tennessee never seems to get lucky and strike rich on first round picks or mid-round flyers. By all accounts, the best, most consistent receiver on the team over the last couple of years has been Nate Washington. Now Nate was a legit wide receiver this year, surpassing 1,000 yards and scoring eight touchdowns, but no team will ever win the Super Bowl with him as its' best receiver.

As far as Kenny Britt goes, I'm not hopeless about him coming back strong from his knee injury, but this trend is disturbing, he needs to find a way to get healthy now or the Titans will be looking for a shiny new wide receiver in the first couple of rounds here in the next few seasons. Because we all know Webster and co. secretly read this every day, let's make their job a little easier for when the time comes.

First, we should try to identify the best receivers in the league. I'm going to make a list, in no particular order, of the top ten or so players I deem to be among the best at the position.

  • Calvin Johnson
  • Larry Fitzgerald
  • Andre Johnson
  • Roddy White
  • Greg Jennings
  • Mike Wallace
  • Victor Cruz
  • Marques Colston
  • A.J. Green
  • Hakeem Nicks

If you feel as though I've made some kind of glaring error, please feel free to let me know about it in the comments, but I think that this is a pretty safe list overall. You may notice that Wes Welker is absent. This is because I think his case is basically irrelevant. Wes Welker is not a common occurrence. I am also of the belief that Tom Brady, really any truly elite quarterback for that matter, can make any receiver look good. I feel like while Welker is a valuable player, his only real value comes on one type of play. SuperHorn brought it up earlier in our Kendall Wright thread, but just to re-iterate why I feel Welker offers little to no insight on what to look for in a receiver,

This isn’t sarcastic: Other than Welker, has there been a receiver that’s been successful at the NFL level ever that’s been under 6’ and runs a 40 over 4.6…or even over 4.55.

You bring up Welker. Three things:
1. Welker is an outlier. Undersized guys struggle at the pro level.
2. Welker is a different animal. He plays a different game. His strength is underneath, working in space. He has an uncanny ability to feel coverages, and sit down in zones. He was never a vertical guy in college.

Note, the third point was cut off because it had more to do with Wright, who I don't think will ever be an elite wide receiver, than it did with Welker. Now that we've identified some of the games' best, it's time to see if they have any common, shared characteristics.

Not exactly mind-blowing discoveries here, we all kind of knew that he was more of an underneath guy than over the top, but the part about raw size and speed, two things that are both somehow overlooked and overused at the same time, really kind of intrigued me and I got to thinking about combine numbers and official measurements and what it all meant.

Let's run down the list of our top-flight receivers and check their tangible value as defined by combine numbers and physical attributes. In an ideal receiver, you look for three things in the measurable category to set him apart from his peers: size, speed, and leaping ability. The most perfect combinations of these three result in unstoppable forces of nature like Randy Moss and Calvin Johnson while having even one of these can result in a solid and productive NFL career (Plaxico Burress, Mike Wallace, etc.).

  • Average height: 6'2" (74 inches)
  • Average 40 time: 4.45 seconds
  • Average vertical leap: 39 inches
To be honest, these numbers add up to make one very relatively average NFL player to me. None of them really stand out as mind-blowingly good or impressive. All of these are just a hair better than our own Kenny Britt in just about every single category which seems about right to me. What this says to me is that the conventional wisdom is right, you can't just look at the shorts/t-shirts stuff and have a good idea of what you're working with. How about college production? Well, because not all rosters are created equal and it's not uncommon that playing time and strength of schedule varies among these guys, but for the sake of fun and the argument, (we're not writing gospel here) let's just cherry pick from the most statistically impressive season from each of their college careers.

  • Average # of catches: 68
  • Average # of yards: 1,137
  • Average # of TD's: 11
  • Average YPC: 16.7
So what you're looking at here is a pretty dominant season. It's a better year than A.J. Green ever put up against SEC competition and certainly better than anything Victor Cruz did against any of UMASS's opponents. Overall, these are pretty close to the numbers that Torrey Smith put up last year while at Maryland. I'm sure this means something (more production = good!) though I'm not entirely sure what. Just as with combine numbers and physical attributes, college production does not tell the whole story. The key here is to combine the two. Back to Torrey Smith; he seems to be almost the perfect fit in this mold. His peak in college production is consistent with that of the best in the league and his measurable stack up favorably, outperforming the average in straight-line speed and vertical leap and falling just one inch short of the "ideal" standard we've set for height.

So if we're going with Smith as basically an ideal match, have the Ravens found a superstar in the making? Well, Smith showed flashes of brilliance last year and put up some good rookie year numbers, but I get the sense that how much better he can be depends a lot on Joe Flacco developing into a better QB. In any case, it shows that not only can we not rely on college production and physical measurables as separate entities but we also can't rely on them when they're put together. There is simply too much information to be processed to get an accurate reading on any of these guys, a lot of the time it's got a lot to do with simply catching the football. Another reason that Wes Welker is an outlier; he drops nothing. Since there's really no way to measure hands, we often have to go to the tape on that one, and even then it can be deceiving.

In other news, water is wet, the Pope is Catholic, and grass is green.

Like I said, we're not exactly writing gospel here. What this all boils down to is that you want a receiver who is either tall, fast, or has great leaping ability. This receiver should have a propensity for catching the football. Combine all four of these and you get Calvin Johnson, but in some rare cases, drafting one of these characteristics is enough to work with, especially if the ability to learn another one is there. As for this year, there aren't really many players who fit that nicely into every single category, but Notre Dame's Michael Floyd seems to have the physical ability to make it big in the NFL. Catching 100 passes for 1,157 yards and 9 touchdowns, Floyd measures exactly 6'2", leaps 37 inches, and ran the 40 yard dash in 4.42 seconds.

However, as if to prove that physical measurables are nowhere close to being the be-all-end-all, Floyd has a gaggle of questions waiting to be answered about some questionable behavior patterns, something Titans' fans are all too familiar with. If he gets that settled, watch out NFL, this guy nearly perfectly follows the blueprint of a future star. Maybe. Are all 6'2", 39 inch jumping, 4.45 running, 69 pass catching receivers guaranteed to be NFL studs? Of course not, that would make it all too easy. I have little doubt that there are plenty of guys with similar measurables who have never touched an NFL field. What this all comes down to are the keen eyes of the scouts and coaches who make the NFL possible. So back to the original question, what do we really know about receiver prospects? To be honest, I thought that it would be pretty easy to find consistency among the top players in the league, I was wrong. It turns out we know a lot less than I thought we did.