Wide receiver is a position known for high-profile draft busts such as Charles Rogers, David Terrell and Mike Williams, players picked in the top 10 who never became productive regulars, much less stars.
"It has the highest mortality rate of any position except quarterback, and it's almost as high," says Gil Brandt, former vice president of player personnel for the Dallas Cowboys.
Receivers are of particular interest this year because Baltimore needs a deep threat -- the Ravens have talked to the Arizona Cardinals about trading Anquan Boldin -- to help Joe Flacco reach his potential and because Maryland's Darrius Heyward-Bey is expected to go in the first round.
Both sagas could turn on the physical trait most likely to seduce general managers into bad picks: speed. There are other factors that make receivers difficult to analyze, such as the ability of the quarterback and the difference between the college and professional game.
"We tend to look too kindly on guys who run well and too negatively on guys who don't," ESPN draft expert Mel Kiper Jr. said. "That's where you can't look too much. But it's hard not to."
Of the 37 receivers picked in the first round since 2000, only 10 can be written off as absolute busts, with Rogers (second overall), Terrell (eighth) and Williams (10th) chief among them. About that many, including Larry Fitzgerald (third), Andre Johnson (third) and Reggie Wayne (30th), have became stars. An even bigger group, which includes Ravens wideout Mark Clayton, has offered modest production.
Receivers picked in the top 10 have been 50-50 bets for stardom, and many of the most productive receivers in the league, from Steve Smith and Hines Ward (both third-rounders) to Derrick Mason (fourth-rounder), were picked later in the draft.
This creates the understandable feeling that teams are better off waiting a round or two to pick pass-catchers on draft day. In fact, no receivers were selected in the opening round last year.
NFL Network draft specialist Mike Mayock says receiver is a risky position to draft in the first round but adds that fans and journalists magnify the problem by expecting too much too soon. Most college receivers have not been forced to fight their way off the line of scrimmage or make regular route adjustments on the run.
"Because of the physical issues and the mental issues, it's a very short line of wide receivers who can come out of college at a level where they can catch 50 or 60 balls," Mayock says.
The Ravens have experienced several sides of the receiver conundrum. They picked Travis Taylor 10th overall in 2000, thinking they were getting a big-play threat. Taylor had a few decent seasons but never caught more than 61 passes or scored more than six touchdowns in eight seasons. They drafted Clayton 22nd overall in 2005 and have received production more in line with that slot.
Receiver is a hard position to evaluate, Ravens director of player personnel Eric DeCosta says, but not always for obvious reasons.
"An interesting thing when looking at all wide receiver busts is, how many of those busts had good quarterbacks around them?" DeCosta said. "The thing about wide receivers that makes it unusually difficult is there's a relationship between quarterback and a wide receiver. They work hand in hand."
Allure of Heyward-Bey
Heyward-Bey, who could be a target for the speed-loving Oakland Raiders at No. 7, is exactly the type of unfinished player who makes Mayock and others nervous.
Though personnel men invariably promise they won't be blinded by great 40-yard dash times, Heyward-Bey did himself a favor by running faster than any other prospect at the NFL scouting combine. His combination of size, speed and good attitude has teams intrigued, despite questions about his receiving technique and route-running.
Could the Maryland receiver be the classic case of a player who looks better on draft day than he ever will on an NFL field?
"I kind of like Heyward-Bey," Brandt says. "He's a good player, but six or seven in the draft? If he ran 4.6 or 4.7 in the 40, he would not be picked that high."
Mayock worries about Heyward-Bey's hands, noting that he's hard to evaluate on that front, because not many passes came his way in college.
"If I'm going to draft a receiver in the first round, I want great hands," Mayock says. "Now with the ball already in his hands, he's special."
That comment speaks to the quandary general managers face with receivers. Many prospects show impressive physical gifts. Few have had to do the things that will be expected of them in the NFL.
Brandt, Mayock and many other evaluators feel more comfortable with Texas Tech's Michael Crabtree, who isn't as fast as Heyward-Bey but showed unusually good hands and body control as a hugely productive college star.
Straight-line speed doesn't come into play that often in the NFL. Instead, receivers must make quick, precise moves in tight spaces.
"I think of a guy like Steve Largent, who knew how to run from A to B to C quicker at 4.5, or whatever he ran, than a guy who could run 4.3," Brandt says. "And it was all because he knew how to run routes."
He noted Williams, a bust for the Detroit Lions out of Southern California, as a player who simply wasn't quick enough for the position.'Drive inside of me'
Colts Hall of Famer Raymond Berry was perhaps the ultimate example of a receiver who overcame pedestrian speed with obsessive focus on routes and catching technique. As a longtime coach, Berry watched many more gifted athletes fail to produce. He's still not sure how to spot the ones who will keep improving.
"I came to realize that the greatest gift I had was this tremendous drive inside of me," Berry says. "But that may be impossible to know. You're talking about what kind of motor a guy has inside. It's powerful, but it's invisible."
Berry lists size and reliable hands as more important traits than speed. But even those abilities can be wasted in a player who rests on his laurels.
The drive for constant improvement helps to explain why players such as Mason and Ward surpassed impressive physical specimens such as Terrell and Rogers.
The NFL is so full of great athletes that few prospects can become dominant players without substantial work on technique. Even first-rounders who end up being great require adjustment time. Just look at Jerry Rice, Tim Brown or Fitzgerald if you doubt it.
Can they catch on?
Beyond the bevy of great athletes, the NFL hits a receiver prospect with an array of challenges that defy preparation. There's the complexity of passing offenses, the physical coverage at the line of scrimmage, the greater punishment on routes across the middle.
"The difference between the NFL and college is like the difference between getting a doctorate at MIT and passing a physical education class at Michigan," Brandt says. "As a rookie, there's just no way for you to have seen all the things they will throw at you."
And it's not just about the player, evaluators say. The best pass catcher in the world still needs the right guy to throw him the ball.
"It's hard to be a really great receiver if you don't have the quarterback throwing you the ball," Decosta said. "Because of that dynamic, it's more complicated in terms of evaluating those players."