Thomas Dimitroff knows a thing or two about the challenge of finding a wide receiver in the NFL Draft.
Since taking over as the Atlanta Falcons general manager in 2008 after cutting his scouting teeth in New England, Dimitroff inherited Pro Bowl wideout Roddy White and a decent No. 2 in Mike Jenkins, Dimitroff still but spent his first few years searching for more. He took Louisville’s Harry Douglas in the third round in 2008, then Kansas’ Kerry Meier in the fifth round in 2010. Douglas has caught 112 passes in five years and has filled a role as a slot receiver well but hasn’t broken out yet, and Meier never caught a pass for the Falcons.
Finally, in 2011, Dimitroff paid a hefty price to trade up and take Julio Jones with the No. 6 overall pick, and Jones was spectacular. Last season, he caught 79 passes for 1,198 yards and 10 touchdowns – while White was catching 92 balls and tight end Tony Gonzalez was catching 93 – and had an immediate impact as a rookie as well (54 receptions, 959 yards, eight TDs).
To Dimitroff, the challenge in drafting receivers is separating the ones who’ll have an impact at the next level from the ones who are productive in college and look like promising prospects but don’t quite make the grade in the NFL.
“There’s a talented group of receivers every year, in my mind,” Dimitroff said. “I think that group two years ago with Julio Jones and (Cincinnati first-round pick) A.J. Green doesn't come along every year. There are talented receivers every year, but there to have two guys like that, who impact their teams as well as the league. That was very impressive. As far as this (draft) group, you can win with this young group of receivers. (But) you don't have to have a receiver who impacts as an A.J. Green did, or, humbly, how Julio might have.”
Whether or not this draft has that game-breaker remains to be seen, as the top four are all imperfect. West Virginia’s Tavon Austin is blazing fast but undersized, Tennessee’s Cordarrelle Patterson was only a one-year starter at major college level, California’s Keenan Allen caught a lot of passes in college but has limited speed and Tennessee’s Justin Hunter came out as a junior after a torn ACL ended his sophomore year.
“You’re always looking for speed at the receiver position. So that’s a criteria, along with the fact that he has great hands. That’s another part of it,” said Minnesota Vikings coach Leslie Frazier, whose team traded away Percy Harvin but signed ex-Green Bay Packers wide receiver Greg Jennings in free agency. “Being able to get a little yardage after catch, that’s a part of it as well. So there are a lot of things that go into it, more than even what I’m saying.
“We (NFL teams) need an all-encompassing guy, a guy who can run by some people, who can make the hard catch for us if he’s in a contested situation but hopefully also can get us some yards after catch. And he’s a guy who has the smarts to be able to understand game plans from week to week.”
Last year, 33 wide receivers were taken in the draft, including four – Oklahoma State’s Justin Blackmon by Jacksonville, Notre Dame’s Michael Floyd by Arizona, Baylor’s Kendall Wright by Tennessee and Illinois’ A.J. Jenkins by San Francisco – in the first round. The two most productive rookies were Blackmon, who caught 64 passes for 865 yards and five TDs, and Indianapolis’ T.Y. Hilton, a third-round pick from Florida International who caught 50 passes for 861 yards and seven TDs. Cleveland’s Josh Gordon, a supplemental second-round pick from Baylor, caught 50 passes for 805 yards and five TDs.
In addition to those 33 wide receivers, 29 wide receivers were drafted in 2011, 27 in 2010 and 33 in 2009, but of those 122, only two – Green, who went fourth in 2011, and Jones – were viewed as can’t-miss prospects entering the draft. The other big-name pass-catchers over that span who went in the first round – Blackmon, Green, Jones, Maryland’s Darrius Heyward-Bey (No. 7 to Oakland in 2009), Texas Tech’s Michael Crabtree (No. 10 to San Francisco in 2009), Harvin (No. 22 to Minnesota in 2009), North Carolina’s Hakeem Nicks (No. 29 to the New York Giants in 2009) and Rutgers’ Kenny Britt (No. 30 to Tennessee in 2009) all had peccadillos and foibles that left some scouts with doubts about them.
This year, some experts feel Austin is such a prospect.
“He's a phenomenal player. I saw him in high school here at Dunbar in Baltimore, and he was outstanding. He was a man among boys,” ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said. “He's just tremendously electrifying, great quickness. He's great kid, very businesslike in his approach, serious about his business.
“You know, you think about the slot receivers, guys like (Wes) Welker and (Danny) Amendola and Davone Bess, they all went undrafted. This kid is going to be drafted in the top 16. I think the furthest I could see him getting down to is No. 23 to Minnesota. (No.) 16 to St. Louis is where I have him going. … A lot of teams could be in the mix for him, but I think St. Louis will be a good fit at 16. Amendola is now in New England, it'll be a great fit with Bradford there to help him out. You've got another pick at 22, you could address the safety spot there, help out the defense.
“I think Tavon is going to have a heck of a career. I think he's just an electrifying, dynamic player. You could say he's (going to be) overdrafted because this draft doesn't have elite guys in the top 10, but in this NFL, in the era we're in in the NFL, his skill set transitions and translates tremendously well. Now, 20 years ago it might have been a different ballgame. (But) he's a guaranteed first round draft choice and probably no later than pick 16.”
BEST OF THE BEST
1. Tavon Austin, West Virginia (5-foot-8 1/2, 174 pounds, 4.346 seconds in the 40-yard dash): Caught 114 passes for 1,289 yards and 12 touchdowns last season. … Had 101 receptions for 1,186 yards and eight TDs the previous year. … Set the NFL Scouting Combine ablaze with his lightning-fast 40. … Game-changing, all-purpose player in the mold of Percy Harvin whose lack of size would be a bigger concern if he hadn’t shown such durability in college, where he never missed a game.
BEST OF THE REST
2. Cordarrelle Patterson, Tennessee (6-1 7/8, 216, 4.42): Caught 46 passes for 778 yards and five TDs last season as a junior. … Transferred to Tennessee after two seasons at Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College. … Arrived at Tennessee and started all 12 games and led the Southeastern Conference in all-purpose yardage: Rushed 25 times for 308 yards and three TDs; returned 24 kickoffs for a 28.0-yard average, including a 98-yard TD vs. Mississippi State; and returned a punt 81 yards for a TD against Vanderbilt. … Explosive, playmaking receiver who was only a one-year starter at major college level.
3. Keenan Allen, California (6-2, 206, 4.51): Caught 61 passes for 737 yards and six TDs last season as a junior, despite making only nine starts because of a knee injury. … Led conference in punt returns with a 14.1-yard average. … Holds school record for receptions (205) and will turn 21 during draft weekend. … Has long arms, big hands and is effective after the catch.
4. Justin Hunter, Tennessee (6-4, 196, 4.44): Caught 73 passes for 1,083 yards and nine TDs last season as a junior. … Got off to strong start as sophomore in 2011 (17 catches, 314 yards, two TDs) before tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. … Has great height and big-play speed but must add bulk and become a better route runner.
5. Robert Woods, USC (6-2 7/8, 210, 4.54): Caught 76 passes for 846 yards and 11 TDs last season. …. Burst onto scene as a true freshman with 65 receptions for 792 yards and six TDs in 2010, when he also had a 97-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against Minnesota. … Left USC as all-time reception leader with 252. … Has very good football speed and terrific hands but could have durability concerns due to build.
OTHERS TO WATCH
DeAndre Hopkins, Clemson; Terrance Williams, Baylor; Quinton Patton, Louisiana Tech; Chris Harper, Kansas State; Stedman Bailey, West Virginia.
“It was a good path, man. I had to go to junior college and ended up at Tennessee. I wouldn’t change it for nothing. Every place I went, I enjoyed every second of it. There were a lot of times I doubted because I had to leave high school and go all the way to Hutchinson in Kansas. I would call my mom every day and ask her if she still thought I needed to do this and she said, ‘Yeah, it’s been your dream for a long time (to play in the NFL), so just make sure you stick with it. I didn’t expect to be a one-year-and-done (at Tennessee) but we had the coaching change and everything was getting a little crazy, so I wanted to get out of there. – Patterson, on his somewhat circuitous route to the draft.