Will Packers draft wide receiver?
As National Football League executives examine their draft boards ad nauseam, some will fret about less than stellar prospects in the defensive linemen and at tight end, running back and quarterback.
Then they'll gaze upon the multitude of wide receivers and know, as a comforting default move, it's the year to draft a pass catcher.
“I'm always cautious,” said Rick Reiprish, the New Orleans Saints' director of college scouting. “I could (throw) out a number and say there's 12. With this group, if these guys go to the right teams, there could be a number of good players, because they're all talented.”
In the last five drafts, an average of 12.8 wide receivers went off in the top 100. Teams might wait to draft here because of the sheer numbers, but there could be 15 or more in the first 100 this year.
How far down will teams still be able to secure a capable wide receiver?
“If you do your homework you can find that type of guy in the fourth round,” said Don Gregory, the Carolina Panthers' director of college scouting.
It's not a stretch, according to Senior Bowl executive director and former Cleveland Browns general manager Phil Savage, to think this class could rival the greatest wide receiver drafts in history.
In 1978, the first 14 selections included James Lofton, Wes Chandler and John Jefferson.
In 1988, Michael Irvin, Tim Brown, Sterling Sharpe and Anthony Miller were among the first 15 choices; Brian Blades, Brett Perriman and Willie “Flipper” Anderson arrived within a span of seven selections late in Round 2, and Michael Haynes came along atop the seventh round.
And, in order of their selection, the 1996 contingent counted Keyshawn Johnson, Terry Glenn, Eddie Kennison, Marvin Harrison, Eric Moulds, Amani Toomer, Muhsin Muhammad, Bobby Engram, Terrell Owens and Joe Horn.
“Ten years from now, when we add up the production of this entire class, I would expect the numbers would be very strong,” Savage said. “Are there a couple Hall of Famers in here? Perhaps. They'll certainly get that chance because the ball is in the air.”
The Journal Sentinel polled 17 personnel men with national responsibilities to name their five top wide receivers. A first-place vote was worth five points, a second was worth four and so forth.
Sammy Watkins, with 15 firsts and two seconds, led with 83 points.
He was followed by Mike Evans, 59 points; Odell Beckham, 55 (two firsts); Brandin Cooks, 25; Marqise Lee, 22; Jordan Matthews, three; Kelvin Benjamin, Cody Latimer and Paul Richardson, two; and Davante Adams and Shaq Evans, one.
From a subjective list of the top 14 wide receivers, the only senior is Matthews.
Of the other 13, only Martavis Bryant and Richardson had four years on campus. Everyone else spent the necessary minimum of three years, although Mike Evans and Benjamin redshirted in 2011 and after two seasons renounced their final two seasons of eligibility.
The unwanted ghost in every draft room is the reality that several of these unpolished gems will come a cropper in the NFL.
“This is the scariest position to draft from,” said one scouting veteran. “There's more busts in the top 10 at that position. There's some really good players here, but until they do it I can't say it's a great group.”
Of the 23 wide receivers selected among the top 10 in the last 15 drafts, a total of fourteen, or a stunning 61%, could be categorized as busts or disappointments.
The six busts were David Terrell, Charles Rogers, Reggie Williams, Troy Williamson, Mike Williams and Darrius Heyward-Bey.
The eight disappointments were David Boston, Peter Warrick, Travis Taylor, Koren Robinson, Roy Williams, Braylon Edwards, Ted Ginn Jr. and Justin Blackmon.
Six of the 23 were, are or probably will be among the very elite at the position: Torry Holt, Andre Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald, Calvin Johnson, A.J. Green and Julio Jones. The last five stand at least 6 feet 2 inches.
Plaxico Burress and Michael Crabtree have been very good performers; it's too early to tell about Tavon Austin.
“Part of it is the way the college game is played now,” said Savage. “In a number of systems the player may only run six routes. In the NFL, you're asked to do a lot more.
“In college, there aren't as many sight adjustments and hot reads. The complications of the pressure defense is not there as much as it is in pro football.
“The biggest factor is you're going to get man coverage in your face in the NFL. In college football, you don't get that as much.”
Five of the six top-10 busts entered the NFL as underclassmen, as did five of the eight disappointing players.
One team uncovered a significant correlation in the failure rate for junior wide receivers that had fewer than 36 receptions before their final season.
“Receivers that have two years of very good production have a much higher rate of success,” an executive from that club said. “Guys that catch a lot of balls end up being pretty good players.”
Be warned that Benjamin, with just 30 receptions before his 54-catch sophomore season, and Bryant, with only 19 before a 42-catch junior season, fall in the danger zone for callow wide receivers.
“Bryant is a maybe and I don't major in maybes,” an AFC personnel man said. “Maybe there's some people that like maybes. I'm not a maybe guy.”
Dismissing Benjamin, another scout said: “He's stiff and lazy. Can't separate. Inconsistent catcher. I don't think he has off the field what it takes to be great on field.
“Other than that he'll be fine.”
At tight end, the Journal Sentinel poll asking for the top four prospects was cut and dried. Eric Ebron got the nod from all 17 execs to become the first unanimous choice at the position since Brandon Pettigrew in 2009.
Following Ebron, who had the maximum 68 points, were Austin Seferian-Jenkins, 37; Jace Amaro, 33; Troy Niklas, 16; C.J. Fiedorowicz, 11; Jake Murphy, three; and Arthur Lynch, two.
“Once you get past the first two or three everyone else you just put them in a bag and kind of shake them up,” one scout said. “There's nothing that really stands out. The tough part is all the guys that are talented have off-field issues.”