Boom or Bust?

What happened?

It just seems like yesterday that there was a daily debate about the best receiver in the game: Larry Fitzgerald or Andre Johnson? And while those guys are both still extremely productive, they’re also over the hill by NFL standards.

Calvin Johnson is now unquestionably the best receiver in the game, but apparently he’s old too. He’s 27.

A new era of receivers are being ushered into the league, and they are perhaps some of the best we’ve ever seen. “Physically gifted”, “supremely talented”, and “matchup nightmare” are just several of the superlatives used to describe them. Coming out of college, these highly regarded prospects were surefire first round picks, and 2 of the 3 ended up in the top 10. But it wasn’t always this way; Dez Bryant, AJ Green, and Julio Jones don’t come around very often.

The Curious Case of Carlos Rogers

If you google “Carlos Rogers”, the entire first page is filled with articles and websites devoted to the current 49ers cornerback. And rightfully so, the CB is a former top 10 pick who has carved out a nice career for himself in the National Football League. But what you don’t see is the “other” Carlos Rogers. The 6’3, 220 pound former Lions receiver who actually drew comparisons to Randy Moss coming out of Michigan State. Both players had college jerseys that were green, but that’s where such preposterous comparisons begin and end.

When the Lions selected Rogers 2nd overall in the 2003 NFL draft, they assumed a major character risk. Somehow, the team was able to look past the red flags. He tested positive for marijuana twice in college and was also caught with a masking agent during the routine exams at the NFL scouting combine. Even when he was about to fulfill his lifelong dream, Rogers couldn’t lay off the weed. Nevertheless, it didn’t stop Detroit from making him a very rich man: 6 years, $55 million rich. It was a dream scenario for Rogers, he gets to play in the NFL for boatloads of cash and in the state in which he grew up and went to college. Sounds good to me.

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Five games into his first NFL season, Rogers broke his collarbone during practice. “It was the first major injury of his life and I think it set him back mentally quite a bit” said former Lions GM Matt Millen, the man who drafted the wideout. But hope was not lost, Charles Rogers was going to be the Randy Moss that everyone thought coming into his second year as a pro.  “We wanted him to get bigger and stronger. We showed him exactly how he would be involved in the offense. He had had a taste. There was a very bright light shining in him.” said Millen. But on the third play of the 2004 season, Rogers broke his collarbone again. What happened next was unfathomable. Randy Moss 2.0 (more like 0.2) was so devastated by the injury that he requested to remain away from the team for the remainder of the season. Because nothing can go wrong with that, right?

During his “time off” Rogers once again got hooked on marijuana and Vicodin as well. Needless to say, the league found out about his drug issue and promptly suspended him for the first four games of the 2005 season. Upon his return from suspension, despite the fact that Rogers was deemed healthy, he played only nine games and was declared inactive for four. He caught 14 passes for 197 yards and one touchdown. Before the 2006 season could even begin, the team cut bait with the player who once provided hope for a struggling franchise. Rogers hasn’t played in the NFL since.

Speed Kills

More recently, Darius Heyward-Bey and Ted Ginn jr heard their names called in the top 10 of the draft. Yeah, that was a mistake. Do your homework NFL teams, don’t mortgage your future on a one-trick pony.

Now, that one-trick is pretty effective. As DeSean Jackson and Calvin Johnson have taught us, speed definitely doesn’t hurt in the NFL. Having a player with wheels like Heyward-Bey is great, but having a player with hands like Heyward-Bey is a catastrophe.

How are you supposed to catch this with your hands closed?

How are you supposed to catch the ball with your hands closed?

Heyward-Bey dropped at least 12 percent (about the 20th percentile for starting receivers) of his “catchable” targets in three of his four years in Oakland, according to Pro Football Focus. But Heyward-Bey has been even worse than usual this year with the Colts, dropping over 23 percent of his catchable targets and ranking 90th out of 91 qualifying receivers. The numbers speak for themselves: Bust.

At least Ted Ginn jr has an excuse. He was voted the nations top defensive back coming out of high school and was recruited to play the position at Ohio State. However, coach Jim Tressel converted him to the offensive side of the ball. It worked out well at first, Ginn jr was selected 9th in the 2007 NFL draft because he was a phenomenal athlete. He even turned himself into a sensational kick returner. But when you average 26 catches over your first 6 seasons as a professional football player, the bust label is more than worthy.

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What makes the “Ginn project” even worse are the players drafted behind him. Picked right after were three future Pro Bowlers – 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis (11th overall), Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch (12th) and Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis (14th). Even Dolphins fans knew the pick was a bad one the second it happened. “It is what it is. If I’m a bust, I’m a good bust. I don’t have no bad feelings toward Miami. When I was there, I had nothing but good times” says Ginn jr. Okay buddy, if it makes you feel better, you’re the best bust ever!

The New Era

No, not the hats. I’m talking about the studs that have entered the league since 2010. The lingering question of “if” regarding receivers is long gone. Now it’s more “when” and “what next” that we hear coming from the mouths of experts across the league.

Dez Bryant, like Michael Irvin before him, dawns number 88 as a member of the Cowboys. That’s a high standard to live up to, but a guy with Dez’s talent level can certainly do it. Here are Bryant’s receiving numbers from his first three full seasons in the league:

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The most remarkable thing about those numbers is that they have improved every single year. Look at the chart again; literally every stat is higher than the previous season. This was the problem with youngsters coming out a decade ago. They were forced into action too quickly and as their performance suffered, so did their confidence. Confidence that was never repaired in some cases. This is not a problem for Dez, he has all the confidence in the world, and with more experience, he should continue to get better.

In 2011, the NFL landscape changed forever with two of the most physically gifted receivers to come out of college since Calvin Johnson.

In April of 2011, The Chad Ochocinco era in Cincinnati was officially over and the Bengals desperately needed a receiver to change their losing culture. Enter the 6’4, 207 pound AJ Green. He becomes a walking nightmare for opposing defenses the moment he steps on the field just by his measurables alone. Add in the crisp route running, sensational hands, and unwavering attention to detail and you have the total package. He even made the pro-bowl in his first year in the league, something a rookie receiver hasn’t done since Anquan Boldin in 2003. Do you think it’s a coincidence that the Bengals have made the playoffs each of the first 2 years of Green’s career? And headed for a third consecutive trip? I don’t.

Career Stats:             Seasons played                    Receptions               Yards                     TD’s

AJ Green:                      Almost 3                            240                       3,582                      26

Ted Ginn jr:                   Almost 7                             192                       2,522                      10

Darrius and Ted: Take notes.

Darrius and Ted: take notes.

Just about 20 minutes after Green heard his name called, another SEC standout was about to walk up to the podium. Julio Jones, by all accounts, is a freak of nature. The athleticism he exhibited at the 2011 combine was unreal. A 4.39 40-time and an 11ft 3in broad jump are impressive numbers by themselves, but the fact that he actually had a broken foot during this performance made it all the more incredible. Atlanta traded five draft picks to the Cleveland Browns to move up 21 spots to take the former Alabama product. They were not disappointed.

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Unlike some players coming out of college, Jones is not a “workout warrior” meaning that he actually produces on the field. During the 2011 season, Julio led all rookies in touchdowns with 8, while his 54 catches for 959 yards ranked him second among rookies in yardage and third in receptions. 2012 was even better for Jones as he eclipsed the coveted 1,000/10 (yards/touchdowns) landmark easily. Atlanta found themselves in the playoffs both seasons. In 2013, the star wideout injured his foot and was lost for the year after just 5 weeks. The Falcons’ record as of this article is 3-10.

What it Means

Well, that remains to be seen. Carlos Rogers, Darrius Heyward-Bey, and Ted Ginn jr all had their chances and now their time is up. The trio of Bryant, Green, and Jones are ushering in a new brand of football, and the league is better off because of it. Each of the three “New Era” players  bring something different to the table, yet their own unique set of skills help them thrive in a league that once made it impossible for young receivers to do so. These guys have us all asking the question: What next?