|Blackmon's talent at WR is as obvious as the two Biletnikoff awards he won while at OK State. (US Presswire)|
In the NFL aerial circus that lights up scoreboards and bloats statistics, the wide receivers are the showmen who perform the astonishing high-wire act that is so intricate it often needs instant replay to verify what really happened.
They must -- often all at once -- run with world-class speed, fend off some defensive bully, keep both tiptoes inside the sideline chalk, cleanly snatch a football traveling at the rate of 60 miles per hour and make sure it doesn't move ever so slightly in their hands or graze the turf. And if they are tumbling out of bounds after all that, they must maintain firm possession until they stop moving, even if they wind up in the third row of seats.
Still, among the myriad of unusual jobs involved in football, wide receivers are basically asked to do what comes most natural to an athlete -- run and catch.
And for those who can do that simple yet complex task the best, there is extraordinary riches and fame.
Former San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Jerry Rice did it the best and has been voted the greatest pro football player ever, at any position. Last month, wide receiver Calvin Johnson signed an NFL record $132 million contract with Detroit and Vincent Jackson went to Tampa Bay for $55.556 million.
|More on NFL Draft|
|NFL coverage on the go|
So teams scrutinize college wide receivers closely, trying to determine who has the skills to survive and thrive in the pros. According to ratings by NFLDraftScout.com, this year's draft features a group of receivers who are average as a group, but measure taller and heavier than usual.
Clearly topping this list are Oklahoma State's talented Justin Blackmon and Notre Dame's Michael Floyd, each of whom comes complete with some off-field issues. Blackmon rates as the No. 5 overall prospect in the draft and as many as five wide receivers could be taken in the first round and nine by the end of the second.
The top dozen wide receivers in this draft average 6-foot-2 and 211 pounds. And as these big pass catchers prepare to move into the NFL, they might be glad to note that their top dozen counterparts in this draft -- the cornerbacks -- average only 5-11, 192. That, and enhanced rules to protect the health of wide receivers, should insure the aerial circus will continue in the NFL.
Here is a closer look at the wide receivers in this year's draft. They are listed with school, height, weight, and projected round of selection (*denotes underclassman):
1. *Justin Blackmon, WR, Oklahoma State, 6-1, 207, 1 After scoring 38 touchdowns in his final 25 games, comparisons to the gifted Dez Bryant, who he replaced at Oklahoma State, are the good and bad news. His ability is as obvious as the two Fred Biletnikoff awards he won as the top college wide receiver. But he must dedicate himself to reach his ample potential in the NFL. Like Bryant (now with Dallas), Blackmon has astonishing instincts, body control and the ability to take charge of a game. Also like Bryant, Blackmon has had some issues off the field, in fact some of them with Bryant. This is a concern for teams considering spending millions of dollars on Blackmon. In college, Blackmon replaced Bryant with a flourish in 2010, catching 111 passes for 1,782 yards -- breaking Larry Fitzgerald's record for sophomores -- and 20 touchdowns. He set an NCAA record with at least 100 yards and one touchdown in all 12 games in a season. Blackmon then added 122 catches, 1,522 yards and 18 touchdowns last season. He was devastating in the big games, grabbing five for 157, two touchdowns in the 2011 Alamo Bowl against Nebraska's Prince Amukamara (now with N.Y. Giants) and then finishing his college career with eight catches, 182 yards and touchdowns of 43, 67 and 17 yards in a 41-38 overtime win over Stanford in the 2012 Fiesta Bowl. Blackmon plays faster than his clock speed and bigger, tougher than his measurements and is especially dangerous after the catch. After not running at the Scouting Combine, Blackmon clocked a 40-yard dash in 4.46 seconds and soared 35 inches in the vertical jump at his pro day. Off-field concerns include a DUI arrest in October, 2010 in Arlington, Texas when, not coincidentally, he went to visit Bryant and see a Cowboys game.
2. Michael Floyd, WR, Notre Dame, 6-3, 220, 1 Floyd's size and prolific on-field performances are tantalizing for NFL teams. He arrived at Notre Dame as one of the most celebrated prep recruits in the nation and validated that with 48 catches for 719 yards as a true freshman. He finished his career with seven school records, including most receptions (271), most yards receiving (3,686) and touchdown catches (37). He also reaffirmed his on-field feats with measureable athleticism at the combine, running 40 yards in 4.47 seconds and leaping 36½ inches in the vertical jump. But there were bad statistics off the field. He was cited for underage consumption of alcohol twice and driving under the influence once and finally was suspended from the team last spring. Although he was allowed back on the team, he lost his role as captain. Despite all that, and a broken clavicle in 2009, Floyd was undoubtedly one of the top receivers in college football the past four seasons. He is an intriguing combination of good quickness, better speed, great size and awesome hands that engulf the football. His size and strength should help him against NFL press coverage and his long arms (32⅞ inches) will be an asset going for the ball. Floyd certainly has the physical ability to star in the NFL if he works hard enough at it on and off the field.
3. Kendall Wright, WR, Baylor, 5-10, 196, 1 As a four-year starter, Wright logged evidence in 50 games that he could scorch college defenses with blink-quick moves and appeared ready to fit into a slot position in the NFL and become a nightmarish matchup for defenses. But in the what-have-you-proven-lately fraternity of NFL scouts, Wright appeared to lose a little luster when his 40-yard time at the combine was announced as only 4.61 seconds. It seemed incongruous compared to game tapes. Some NFL sources told NFLDraftscout.com that Wright's best time at the combine was really 4.49 seconds so they had no concerns. But Wright was upset by the announced time and felt he had to prove something, so at his pro day in March he was timed between 4.41 and 4.46 seconds according to scouts in attendance. That sounds more like the player who holds a share of 10 Baylor career receiving records and set a single-season mark last year with 108 catches for 1,663 yards, 14 touchdown receptions and nine games with more than 100 yards. His career total of 4,004 yards receiving is 1,300 yards more than anyone who preceded him. Wright is a tireless athlete who also played on the Baylor basketball team, squatted more than 550 pounds and reportedly has a vertical jump of 42 inches. He has the natural ability to be a returner but was not showcased there in college. At Pittsburgh High in Texas, Wright was a three-sport sensation as he played quarterback in football, averaged almost 25 points a game in basketball and won the state championship with a meet record triple-jump of 50 feet, 8¾ inches in 2008.
4. *Rueben Randle, LSU, 6-3, 210, 1-2 After catching only 44 passes in his first two years, Randle grabbed attention last season with 53 catches for 917 yards and eight touchdowns. When he announced he was declaring for the NFL draft, scouts knew they needed more input to get a grasp on his abilities. He is obviously big and fast, but LSU had a less-than-stellar passing game, which some assume is a reason Randle wanted to move on. It created one of those situations where data from the combine would help NFL teams feel a little more comfortable, or not. His announced 40-yard time of 4.55 seconds at the combine was marginally comfortable, but he clocked 4.42 seconds at his pro day workout just in case. Randle's exceptional athletic ability has been known for a while back in Bastrop, La., where he played both quarterback and wide receiver as a high school senior -- although only one position at a time. He led Bastrop High to the state semifinals (11-2) in 2008, passing for 2,461 yards and 20 touchdowns, rushing for 683 yards and another dozen scores and catching a few passes too. As a prep junior he played wide receiver and caught 55 passes for 1,058 yards and 11 TDs to help Bastrop win a second consecutive Class 4A state championship.
5. *Stephen Hill, WR, Georgia Tech, 6-4, 206, 2 When Hill declared he was coming out early for the NFL Draft, teams were eager to see him perform at the combine. He dazzled them even more than the general public realized. His announced 40 time was 4.36 seconds, but he was told by NFL scouts his best time was actually 4.28 seconds. He also soared 39½ inches in the vertical jump and was impressive in every drill. This, in turn, sent curious scouts back to look at game tapes. What they saw at Indianapolis combine and in the games is an athlete who always has been special. Hill finished his three-year college career with 49 catches for 1,248 (16th in school history). That average of 25.47 yards per reception would have broken the school record, but he fell one reception short of qualifying. His nine career touchdown receptions rank 14th in Tech history. Last year his 28 catches went for 820 yards, a 29.3-yard average that led the nation. As a senior at Miller Grove High School, Hill was not only an MVP football player but set the Georgia State prep record with a long jump of 25-feet, 8¾ inches, which would have placed ninth at the last Olympics.
6. *Alshon Jeffery, South Carolina, 6-3, 216, 2 At about 230 pounds or more, Jeffery had a decent college career and appeared to have everything necessary to be a good pro receiver except natural speed to separate from defenders. Since last season he tried to improve his speed by losing weight. However, when he showed up at the combine weighing 216 pounds he chose not to work out, although he said he was "better, lighter." He tried to prove it at his late March pro day where he showed some explosion with a 36½-inch vertical jump and a 10-2 broad jump and was timed between 4.4 and 4.5 seconds in 40 yards. But his performance in lateral agility drills was only average and not smooth. Before losing the weight Jeffery was reminiscent of Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Mike Williams, formerly of USC. But after being the 10th player taken in the 2005 draft (Detroit), Williams has been with four teams and is not an outstanding NFL receiver. It is difficult to determine whether Jeffery helped or hurt himself by losing the weight because his functional speed still seems to be average. Like Williams, Jeffery looked great collecting his statistics against out-sized college defenders, including 179 career receptions for 2,894 yards (16.2 per catch) and 22 touchdowns. Coach Steve Spurrier held him out of the opening play against Navy last season for what was described as a violation of team rules.
7. *Chris Givens, Wake Forest, 5-11, 198, 2 Givens came out of high school as an outstanding track star and running back, which was a precursor to the dazzling showmanship he displayed as a receiver, returner and running back at Wake Forest. He also came out of high school with a history of two separate ACL injuries, reflecting a durability concern he brings into the draft. But he still has impressive speed and is strong for his size, as he showed at the Scouting combine with a 40-yard time of 4.35 seconds and 19 bench-press reps at 225 pounds. In his three-year college career, Givens caught 163 passes for 2,473 yards and 21 touchdowns; rushed 45 times for 238 yards and two touchdowns and averaged 19.3 yards on kickoff returns and 12.5 yards on punt returns. He seems to be a candidate for the slot position, where his speed should be a matchup issue for defenses. However, while his speed and ability to get open are not a concern, he is not consistent as a receiver. He sometimes makes difficult catches appear easy, but then drops passes he should catch, as he did in the Music City Bowl. Givens sat out the 2010 opener after violating team rules.
8. *Mohamed Sanu, Rutgers, 6-2, 211, 2-3 Sanu started 37 of his 38 games at Rutgers and finished with 210 catches, 2,263 yards and 12 touchdowns and collected 3,049 yards in total offense. Last season he caught 115 passes for 1,206 yards and seven scores. He was bigger and stronger than almost all defenders he faced in college. So it will be interesting to see if he maintains an advantage, and his strong self-confidence, at the next level where players are both bigger and faster. He verified his lack of elite speed at the combine when his best 40-yard dash was 4.62. His 19 reps with 225 pounds in the bench press is probably more of an indicator of how he plays the game. Sanu is a physically tough player who is unafraid to do anything necessary to catch the ball. After the catch he has moves to elude tacklers, strength to run through others and if that doesn't work he has a jolting stiff arm. Sanu spent his youth shuttling between his parents' native Sierra Leone and New Jersey, where he finally settled in to become high school star at South Brunswick High in Monmouth Junction, N.J.
9. Brian Quick, Appalachian State, 6-4, 220, 2-3 Quick played up to his significant measurements as a big man in a small-school conference. He is one of the most highly rated prospects in Appalachian history. He is the school's all-time leader in receptions (202), receiving yards (3,418) and touchdown catches (31). Last season was his best with 71 catches, 1,096 yards and 11 scores. Despite his last name, Brian is probably faster than quick but is a tremendous target short or deep. He has excellent downfield speed once after he gets into second gear or higher and ran a decent 40-yard dash at the combine (best of 4.50 seconds). Quick also plays even larger than his height thanks to 34¼-inch arms and an 80ₖ-inch wingspan. Add to that a 34-inch vertical jump and Quick has everything it takes to become a quarterback's favorite target, especially in the red zone. He impressed scouts at the Senior Bowl and in the game was a favorite target of Boise State QB Kellen Moore. And, lest we forget a historical moment, Quick was one of only two players on the team last year who were part of the 2007 victory over Michigan.
10. Greg Childs, Arkansas, 6-3, 219, 3 Childs probably has only now recovered from a 2010 right knee injury, but he pushed himself through the 2011 season anyway, catching 21 passes for 240 yards. By the time of the combine he was well enough to run the 40-yard dash in 4.52 seconds and manage a 36½-inch vertical jump. But he considered his March 7 pro day a coming out when he ran 40 yards in 4.41 seconds and had a vertical jump of 41½ inches. "It was just mainly showing everybody that I was healthy again, showing I was 100 percent again," Childs said after the on-campus workout. The injury was to his right patella and required surgery in 2010, otherwise he probably would have been in the 2011 draft. Instead, he struggled through the 2011 season, missing only a little action. Childs is an extraordinary target because of his unusual combination of size, speed, jumping ability, long arms (34⅛-inch) and, finally, huge hands, (10⅛-inch).
11. Marvin Jones, California, 6-2, 199, 3 Jones had an impressive run at Cal, where his 156 catches for 2,270 yards and 13 touchdowns rank him among the top eight in each category for a career. But his stock rose fast after his final regular-season game. First he impressed scouts with eight catches for 88 yards against Texas in the Holiday Bowl. Then he took advantage of a late invitation to the Senior Bowl, where his quickness and route running against top competition was noteworthy. He also displayed surprising strength for his size when it came to fending off press coverage. Finally he put on a memorable show at the combine, where he registered a 40-yard time of 4.46 seconds and 22 reps with 225 pounds on the bench, which explains why he does well hand fighting off the line. During his career, Jones showed a natural ability to catch everything within reach -- short, long and over the middle. He seemed to improve with each of his final 16 games, leading Cal in receiving for 13 of those contests.
12. Nick Toon, Wisconsin, 6-2, 215, 3 As the son of Wisconsin Hall of Famer and New York Jets Pro Bowl wide receiver Al Toon, Nick has always endured the obvious comparison. In that regard, so far, so good. Nick surpassed his father's receiving yardage mark at Wisconsin (2,103 from 1982-85) with 171 catches for 2,447 yards, although his 18 touchdowns are one short of his father's 19. In the 1985 draft, Al Toon was selected tenth overall, ahead of Jerry Rice, but his career was shortened by nine concussions and he retired at 29. Nick is a physical player and excellent route runner, similar to his father. But Nick is expected to wait until the late second or third round to hear his name called. He has had his share of injuries the past two seasons. He missed three games in 2010 (turf toe) and sat out the Ohio State game (thigh). Toon underwent surgery on his left foot twice, including once in midseason last year. At his pro day in early March, Toon performed well with a 40-yard time of 4.43 seconds and a vertical jump of 39 inches.
Frank Cooney is the publisher of NFLDraftScout.com, distributed by The Sports Xchange.