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Why I hate first round wide receivers

The 1996 draft was one of the more remarkable drafts in NFL history. There were five wide receivers drafted in the first round, and the worst of those was probably Eddie Kennison (only 2 1,000 yard seasons).* Teams have tried to replicate the phenomenal success of the 1996 draft since then, but without comparable results.

To get a better idea of what kind of wideout the Titans might get with the #24 pick, let’s take a look at the WRs drafted within 5 slots of that pick in the next 10 years:

1997-27th Rae Carruth
1998-21st Randy Moss
2000-21st Sylvester Morris
2000-29th R. Jay Soward
2001-25th Freddie Mitchell
2002-19th Ashley Lelie
2002-20th Javon Walker
2004-29th Michael Jenkins
2005-21st Matt Jones
2005-22nd Mark Clayton
2005-27th Roddy White
2006-25th Santonio Holmes

Of those dozen players, four have had 1,000 yards at least one times in a single season: Randy Moss, Javon Walker, Ashley Lelie, Roddy White, and Moss is the only one who’s done it more than twice. Let’s compare that to the list of busts:

Rae Carruth (22 games, 804 career yards, currently in prison)
Sylvester Morris (didn’t play after his rookie season)
R. Jay Soward (see Sylvester Morris)
Freddie Mitchell (17 starts in 4 years, career high 498 yards)
Michael Jenkins (career high 532 yards, lost starting job in 4th season)
Matt Jones (5 starts in 3 years, then cut by drafting team)

That’s half of the WRs drafted 19-29 in the 1997-2006 time frame, and NONE had a single season in their entire career as good as Roydell Williams and Justin Gage did last year. And, when WRs bust out, they really bust out. And, except for Jenkins and perhaps Jones, it’s not like any of those guys were particularly useful for more than a brief period of time.

The bottom line is that 1st round picks are a hugely valuable commodity in the NFL. Perhaps the best way to turn that valuable commodity away into a risky spin of the roulette wheel is to spend that pick on a WR. Except, well, the roulette wheel gives you a pretty good return if you hit. First round WRs, not necessarily so. Perhaps none of Thomas, Sweed, and Jackson will bust. Perhaps all of them will. History tells us that at least one of them will, and that team will have wasted its pick. Titans, please don’t be that team.

*-The 1996 draft is the strongest WR draft in history. Non-first round WRs included Bobby Engram, Muhsin Muhammad, Joe Horn, and Terrell Owens. Normalized to league average, not including 2007, it had 10% more receptions and yards than any other WR class in history. For more information, check out the chapter on them in Pro Football Prospectus 2007.