Other productive NFL receivers who slipped in recent drafts include Carolina's Steve Smith (third round, 2001), Seattle's Deion Branch (second round, 2002), Arizona's Anquan Boldin (second round, 2003), the N.Y. Jets' Jerricho Cotchery (fourth round, 2004) and New Orleans' Marques Colston (seventh round, 2006). Meanwhile, David Terrell (2001), Ashley Lelie (2002), Charles Rogers (2003) and Reggie Williams (2004) all looked the part as high draft picks coming out of college but haven't come close to matching production for investment.
The bottom line is that evaluating wide receiver talent from the college ranks has become maddening for NFL front offices. In my estimation, there are a couple reasons for this. First off, I would argue that quarterback is the only position with more outside factors to skew collegiate production. Secondly, the ability to "separate" is the most important skill for a wide receiver. Unfortunately, it also can be the trickiest to properly evaluate.
While catching the ball is the ultimate goal, a receiver with great hands is rendered useless if he can't get open. It's not difficult to evaluate a receiver's hands, top-end speed and leaping ability. The challenge when evaluating a wide receiver's separation skills is to sift through those potentially deceptive variables, which include his supporting cast, the offensive system he plays in and the types of defensive coverage and level of competition he faces.
To overcome those roadblocks a scout must first know what he's looking for and then know how to find it. Although there's no exact formula that makes up a receiver's ability to separate, here's a look at some of the key ingredients:
1. Initial burst: This is the easiest of the four to measure. The best way to spot whether a receiver has good initial burst on game tape is to find the instances when he's working against an upper-echelon cornerback in man-to-man coverage. The ones gifted with this physical skill consistently drive the cornerback off the line of scrimmage, forcing him to open his hips earlier than usual. The first 10 yards of a 40-yard dash (aka 10-yard split) can also help to verify what is seen on film. Anything faster than a 1.50 is considered outstanding for a 10-yard split.
Branch and Colston are prime examples of receivers who didn't run elite times in the 40 but exploded out of the gates with quick 10-yard split times. It's worth mentioning that Aundrae Allison (East Carolina), Steve Breaston (Michigan), Mike Mason (Tennessee State), Robert Meachem (Tennessee), Sidney Rice (South Carolina), Laurent Robinson (Illinois State), Ryne Robinson (Miami-OH) and Steve Smith (USC) were the only receivers at this year's combine to clock 1.50 or faster in the 10-yard split.
2. Recognition/instincts: I equate recognition skills and instincts to the difference between "book smarts" and "street smarts." Recognition skills can be learned over time, so long as a receiver has the mental capacity and will to comprehend coverages, tendencies and techniques. As far as instincts are concerned, wide receivers either have them or they don't.
Receivers rarely live up to their draft status as rookies because they are so bogged down trying to absorb more complicated NFL schemes -- both offensively and defensively. Once the X's and O's have been digested, then the receiver with good natural instincts can separate himself from the rest. The truly instinctive receivers have the best feel for finding soft spots in zone coverage and they also find subtle and savvy ways to attack the weaknesses of defensive backs in man-to-man coverage.
3. Change-of-direction skills: NFL scouts will often ask, "Can he shift his weight without gearing down?" Essentially they're looking to find receivers capable of getting in and out of breaks (or cuts) in the least amount of time. As far as combine and pro day workouts are concerned, the best drills to measure change-of-direction skills are the shuttles (20-yard, 60-yard and three-cone).
The example I always use comes from the 2000 draft, when I had the opportunity to work with Florida WRs Travis Taylor and Darrell Jackson during pre-combine training. Taylor overshadowed Jackson in college because he was bigger and faster. But overlooked by most (myself included) was Jackson's far superior body control and short-area quickness, which could be witnessed when the two worked on route-running drills and shuttle testings. As expected, Taylor (Ravens, No. 10 overall) was drafted significantly higher than Jackson (Seahawks, third round). However, in seven seasons since, Jackson has notched 130 more receptions than his former Gators counterpart.
4. Competitiveness: I know, it sounds cheesy. But it can't be ignored. The ultimate intangible is a receiver's competitiveness. A player must also have the mental toughness and stamina to outlast his opponent throughout the course of a four-quarter game. This can be the toughest of the four key ingredients to measure because it often fluctuates -- for better and for worse -- once a receiver makes the leap from college to the pros.
Jerry Rice will forever be the ultimate example of this attribute. A relentless approach to the craft -- both in practice and in games -- allowed Rice to overcome below-average speed throughout his brilliant 20-year career.