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.
Position analysis: While still in the discussion as the league's best receiving corps, that call is no longer a slam dunk after the free-agent defection of two-time Pro Bowl receiver Greg Jennings, who signed a five-year, $47.5 million deal with the rival Minnesota Vikings, and the retirement of Donald Driver, who caught only eight passes in limited playing time last year but retired as the franchise's all-time leader in receptions and receiving yardage. But neither of those players contributed last season as they had in the past – Jennings missed eight games with a lower abdominal muscle injury, and Driver was limited to only 153 snaps of playing time – and the cupboard ain't exactly bare.
Given how productive they've each been at their best, Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb and James Jones still make for a pretty impressive 1-2-3 combination if all three can stay healthy. Cobb, in his second NFL season, led the Packers in receiving in 2012 with 80 catches for 954 yards and eight touchdowns in regular-season play; Jones set career highs in receptions (64), yards (784) and touchdowns (an NFL-best 14); and when Nelson was healthy for a full 2011, he caught 68 passes for 1,263 yards and 15 touchdowns. Jarrett Boykin and Jeremy Ross are also intriguing prospects. That said, the offense isn't as explosive when one or more of the key pieces is missing.
Draft strategy: One thing Ted Thompson has always done as the Packers' general manager has been to stock the wide receiver position with talent for his quarterbacks. In his eight drafts in Green Bay, Thompson has taken eight wide receivers. During the time he had Brett Favre as his quarterback (2005 through 2007), Thompson drafted five of them: Texas A&M's Terrence Murphy (second round, No. 58) in 2005; Western Michigan's Jennings (second round, No. 52) and TCU's Corey Rodgers (fourth round, No. 104) in 2006; and San Jose State's Jones (third round, No. 78) and Virginia Tech's David Clowney (fifth round, No. 157) in 2007. Since Aaron Rodgers ascended to the starting job in 2008, Thompson has taken three more: Kansas State's Nelson (second round, No. 36) and San Diego State's Brett Swain (seventh round, No. 217) in 2008; and Kentucky's Cobb (second round, No. 64 overall) in 2011. With Jennings' departure and Driver's retirement, picking a pass-catcher relatively high – say, in the first two days – doesn't seem far-fetched given Thompson's track record.
NEXT: Tight ends.
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on "Green & Gold Today," and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.