Lee could be draft sleeper for 49ers at WR

Some are wondering why Greg Lee didn't decide to return to the University of Pittsburgh for his senior season of collegiate football. His reasoning makes perfect sense, and he's poised to potentially be one of the steals of the 2006 NFL Draft. Lee is generally regarded as one of the top 20 receiver prospects available in April, and the 49ers will be interested with one of their 10 picks if he slips into the later rounds.

That might not happen for the lean 6-foot-2, 180-pounder, who appears to be gaining interest on draft boards as the April college lottery approaches.

As a freshman at Pittsburgh, Lee saw little playing time. However, Lee watched and learned from Larry Fitzgerald, one of the best college receivers in the land.

"I learned a lot of my skills from Larry as far as using my body and shielding defenders off to catch the ball," Lee said.

Lee capitalized on his limited playing time his freshman year, grabbing 10 catches for 211 yards. He knew the departure of Fitzgerald to the NFL would equate to a special opportunity for him during his sophomore season at Pittsburgh in 2004.

"I knew if I was given the opportunity my sophomore year I could make a lot of plays and get a lot of yards," he said.

And make a lot of plays and get a lot of yards he did.

Lee was among the top receivers in the nation in 2004, compiling 68 catches, 1,297 yards and 10 touchdowns. He helped guide the Panthers to an 8-4 record and Big East title.

Following the 2004 season, high-profile alumni and ex-Miami Dolphins coach Dave Wannstedt took over the Pittsburgh coaching job from the departed Walt Harris. When Wannstedt hired ex-Ravens offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh to run Pittsburgh's offense, Lee knew a change was in store.

"When I heard we were getting him (Cavanaugh) I looked up the stats from his last season in Baltimore and his No. 1 receiver only had 544 yards the entire season. I looked at that and knew it was more of a run-based offense and there was a possibility he would implement that offense here," Lee said.

Lee was right. The Panthers threw 70 fewer times and recorded 712 fewer passing yards than the season before. Inevitably, Lee's numbers suffered a dropoff.

"It was kind of frustrating at the beginning. I was planning on having a better year than my sophomore season and at the beginning of the year we really weren't throwing the ball that much. We weren't winning any games; we lost our first three games," he said.

Despite the Panthers' commitment to the run, Lee had a solid junior season with 49 catches, 962 yards and seven touchdowns. Lee still made his patented big plays and he averaged 19.6 yards per catch, up from 19.1 in 2004.

After the season, Lee made a decision to take his big-play ability to the big stage and declared eligible for the 2006 draft.

"I knew at the beginning of the season (2005) that would be a possibility for me," he said. "At the end of the season, I really took a look at this year's receiving draft class and realized it wasn't as strong as the prior year. Also, personally I was ready to go on and take it to the next level,"

Lee's good size, ability to make tough catches over the middle and big-play ability should make him a steal in the fourth round, where the NFL has projected him to be drafted. He is definitely on San Francisco's radar, but the 49ers probably would consider other prospects ahead of him if they were to select a receiver that high.

But if he lasts much longer, Lee could be brought in to join what is expected to be wide-open competition among several young receivers for a few backup spots on the San Francisco roster.

Additionally, Lee's easy-going demeanor and work ethic could prove to be contagious in an NFL locker room.

"I'm a laid back kind of person, one that you won't have to worry about any off-the-field trouble," Lee said. "I'm a player that plays the game with a passion, really likes to have a lot of fun and I like to generate that kind of energy in other people as well."

In those regards, he'd fit right in with the 49ers.


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