POSITION ANALYSIS: This would have been a much bigger need for the 49ers if not for the free-agent purchase of veterans Isaac Bruce and Bryant Johnson to come as ostensibly the team's new starters for 2008. That doesn't, however, eliminate the potential of taking a difference-maker at wide receiver in the first round or two as the 49ers have two of the top 39 picks. A lot will depend on who falls on draft day and, even this close to the draft, there is a huge disparity of opinion as to whom the top wide receivers will be. Oklahoma's Malcolm Kelly and Limas Sweed of Texas are both rehabbing injuries – never a good pre-draft sign – Michigan State's Devin Thomas has skyrocketed up boards despite just one year as a full-time starter, Mario Manningham of Michigan is trying to clean up his image and Cal's DeSean Jackson, once viewed as a mid first-round selection, has seen his stock dropping steadily behind the bigger, stronger receivers in the Class of 2008. There likely will not be a consensus on draft day, which could mean any of about eight players could be taken in the first round. But, with a lot of depth at the position, it may become a victim of its own largesse – as teams draft in the first round could be convinced one of their targeted receivers will fall to them in the second round. As a result, there could be as many as four or five wide receivers off the board in the first round, or as few as two or three.
THE CREAM OF THE CROP
Malcolm Kelly, Oklahoma, 6-2, 223: Third-year junior…Became a starter midway through his freshman season and started 31 of his final 34 collegiate games…As a full-time starter his final two seasons, he caught 111 passes for 1,814 yards and 19 touchdowns…Had surgery to repair a torn meniscus following his sophomore season and missed the Combine due to a quadriceps injury…Has very long arms to go with his size and can cause a lot of problems on fades and in the red zone…Plucks passes with his hands and rarely lets passes get into his body…Aggressive receiver who fights for jump balls and has the strength to come down with the ball more times than not…Has great size and the potential to get even bigger…Very strong and willing blocker…A raw prospect in terms of running NFL routes and will need time to become a complete receiver…Is sometimes moody and loses concentration if he's not always in the game plan…Will get slowed at the line by physical corners…Isn't known as a player who spends extra time watching film or trying to refine his game, instead getting by on his pure athletic talent…Showed up about 10 pounds over his listed weight at the Combine and it wasn't from adding bulk in the weight room…Didn't work out at the Combine due to injury.
Projection: A big player with good leaping ability, strong hands and the potential to get bigger, he will remind some scouts of a Terrell Owens/Andre Johnson type of physical receiver with the speed to make big plays, despite a poor running at his personal pro day. His injuries have to be a concern, but he is one of the safest bets to succeed at wide receiver in the NFL if you combine talent and experience and don't put too much weight on the injury issues.
Devin Thomas, Michigan State, 6-2, 210: Fourth-year junior who spent one year at Coffeyville (Kan.) Community College…A one-year starter at MSU who caught 79 passes for 1,260 yards and eight touchdowns after posting meager 6-90-1 numbers as a redshirt sophomore…Led the Big Ten in receiving yards in 2007 and set the conference record for kickoff return yardage, returning 39 kicks for 1,135 yards…Ideal combination of size and speed…Strong upper body and strong, big hands that pull the ball away from defenders on contested passes…Makes very good adjustments to poorly-thrown passes…Has strength to get past jams at the line and the speed to get almost immediate separation when he does…Very dangerous after the catch with the combination of speed and field awareness to take proper angles to maximize yardage…Used a lot on reverses, he had 27 carries for 186 yards in 2007…Is very raw in terms of tangible big-time experience and may need a lot of time to catch up…Was used almost exclusively on short slant routes that rarely required him to run a lot of complicated double-move deep routes that are the bread-and-butter of the NFL…Rounds off a lot of his routes and isn't always decisive on making cuts when he is asked to improvise and find a seam in the defense…Ran a 4.40 40 at the Combine with 16 reps of 225 pounds, a 33-inch vertical jump and a 10-6 broad jump.
Projection: Thomas is going to be one of the handful of players to watch throughout the early stages of his career. He screams boom-or-bust in our opinion. He has the rare combination of size, strength and speed to be a Pro Bowler for years to come, but whoever takes him is likely drafting him to be an immediate starter. Many receivers with limited college experience have imploded under such situations. A lot of teams will likely have him rated as the top receiver in the draft because of his physical gifts, but he could turn out to be an expensive project if he doesn't catch on quickly to the scheme of his new team.
THE NEXT LEVEL
Limas Sweed, Texas, 6-4, 214: – Fifth-year senior…Started 11 games as a redshirt freshman and all 32 games he played his final three seasons…Finished his career with 124 receptions for 1,915 yards and 20 touchdowns in 43 games (39 of those being starts)…As a junior, he broke the school record held by Roy Williams by catching TD passes in seven straight games…Tried to play through a wrist injury in 2007, but re-injured it during the season and was limited to playing just six games…He re-injured the wrist again during Senior Bowl week and was limited at the Combine as a result…Ideal size to create mismatches…Adjusts to bad passes and out-leaps defenders to come down with most deep contested passes…A long-stride runner who can get downfield quickly with an economy of movement…Will take the big hit over the middle and not cough up the ball…Hard worker and leads by example on the field and in practice…Has worked hard to improve his game…Not blazing fast and needs time to get to full speed…Doesn't have a lot of shiftiness in the open field and doesn't usually leave defenders behind when crossing over the middle…Doesn't catch all his passes with his hands and has some drops as a result…Production has never been exceptional – averaged less than three catches a game for his career and averaged about 45 yards a game…Durability has to be a concern to some teams…Ran a 4.50 40 at the Combine with a 37½ inch vertical jump and a 10-8 broad jump.
Projection: Teams will have very different opinions of Sweed because of his recent injury history and lack of overall production. He has all the physical tools to develop into a great wide receiver, but was never a legitimate go-to threat at Texas and those types of receivers rarely become the type of No. 1 receivers in the NFL that first-round draft picks are expected to deliver. If you look at film of Sweed when he was healthy as a junior, however, you get the feeling he might be an exception to the rule.
Mario Manningham, Michigan, 5-11½, 183: Third-year junior…Started nine of 10 games as a junior (missing three games after surgery to repair a partially torn right meniscus and MCL…In the 22 games he played in his final two years at Michigan, he caught 110 passes for 1,877 yards and 21 TDs…His senior season numbers (72-1,174-12) were second only to former draft lottery pick Braylon Edwards of the Browns in school history…Was a finalist for the 2007 Biletnikoff Award, given to college football's top receiver…An excellent route runner who plays stronger than his measurables…Excellent adjustment skills and body control to shield off defenders and make the highlight-film catch…A good-hands receivers who prevents the ball from getting into his body too often…Solid route runner who has learned some of the tricks of the trade already to sucker defensive backs into buying his fakes…Hard to cover man-to-man…At his best when the game is on the line and made some incredible catches for the Wolverines last year…Very thin and some will question his ability to withstand the physical beating a lot of bigger corners will give him…Has developed a reputation of being something of a diva and a player who gives his all on the field during games, but not on the practice field…Doesn't do an adequate job of blocking and often seems to just get in the way of defenders instead of trying to ride them off plays…Ran a surprising 4.38 40 at his Pro Day, a big improvement over his Combine time, with 17 reps of 225 pounds, a 35-inch vertical jump and a 9-8 broad jump. PROJECTION: Manningham improved his draft stock a lot during his Pro Day workout, when he showed much better timed speed than at the Combine. While a bit skinny by NFL standards, he has the ability to add some muscle and has a legitimate chance to be a No. 1 receiver wherever he happens to land. At the Combine, he admitted to failing drug tests for marijuana, which could greatly affect where some teams will consider taking him. Only if he can convince a team that his drug use is a thing of the past will he remain a first-round selection.
Andre Caldwell, Florida, 6-0¼, 205: Fifth-year senior who was granted a medical redshirt with a broken right leg three games into the 2005 season…The brother of NFL wide receiver Reche Caldwell…A full-time starter in the games he played the last two seasons, he caught 113 passes for 1,338 yards and 13 touchdowns in that span…His 185 receptions for his career set a school record…Competed on the track team in the spring of 2007 and won the 100-meter Southeastern Conference title with a time of 10.74 seconds…Has good size and extremely long arms that make him look even bigger when the ball arrives…Makes acrobatic catches on poorly thrown balls…Used a lot on end-arounds, he scored one TD rushing in each his final four seasons and had 33 rushing attempts over the last two years…Solid route runner who rarely rounds off his patterns and gives defenders a chance to make up lost ground…Has good explosion after the catch…Doesn't naturally pluck the ball and will get passes knocked away from his body…While he has excellent speed, he doesn't put on many moves after he catches a pass…Somewhat thin and will take a lot of big hits that have some questioning his potential long-term durability…Doesn't have much value as a blocker…Only played one full season during his college career without missing time due to injuries…Was one of the Florida players involved the Dee Webb gun incident in 2006…Ran a 4.37 40 at the Combine (second-best among wide receivers) with 18 reps, a 36½-inch vertical jump and a 10-4 broad jump.
Projection: Caldwell has a lot of things going for him and made himself a lot of money during Senior Bowl week, showing off his skills during the practice sessions and scoring the game-winning touchdown in the game. His ability as a return man is also a plus, but his injury history and the inconsistent performance of Gators wide receivers in the NFL could combine to drop him into the second round.
Early Doucet, LSU, 6-0¼, 211: Fourth-year senior…One of the most decorated wide receivers as a high school senior, he was named to both the Parade and USA Today All-America teams…Didn't become a full-time starter until his senior year, but missed four games with a groin injury, finishing his career playing in 47 games and making 23 starts…In four years, he caught 160 passes for 1,943 yards and 20 touchdowns…Had his most productive season as a junior, catching 59 passes for 772 yards and eight touchdowns…Led the Tigers in receptions (57) despite missing four games last year…Has good size and upper-body strength…Plucks the ball with his hands consistently…Not afraid to take on safeties across the middle in the deep zone…Works hard on his blocking…Veteran leader who helped propel the offense in the first post-Jamarcus Russell season…Doesn't have long arms to create mismatches…Doesn't have great deep speed and was one of the slowest receivers at the Combine…Doesn't make many people miss downfield and doesn't have a second gear to separate…Barely averaged nine yards per reception as a senior…Will get stood up against pressure cornerbacks at the line…Played in a system that didn't count on him to be a go-to guy…Ran a dismal 4.59 40 at the Combine (third-worst among WRs) with a 34½-inch vertical jump and a 9-6 broad jump.
Projection: Has the size and route-running ability to be a solid pro receiver, but strikes too many people as a player destined to be a No. 2 guy. With teams looking for players with home run ability, they won't find it with Doucet. He could be a steal if he slips deep into the second round, but likely doesn't have the breakout ability to be a legitimate No. 1 receiver in the NFL, which will drop him behind those with more upside potential.
DeSean Jackson, California, 5-10, 167 Third-year junior…Highly touted out of high school as a Parade All-American and the MVP of the U.S. Army All-American Bowl high school all-star game…In three years, he caught 162 passes for 2,423 yards and 22 touchdowns…An electrifying return man, he was named First-Team All-America as a punt returner as a sophomore and set the Pac-10 record for career punt return TDs with six…Has unbelievable burst in a short area, making him look at times like he is playing at a different speed than everyone else…Very good on deep passes and doesn't lose speed locating the ball in flight…Dangerous on slants and is adept as picking his way through traffic…Reaches top speed in just a couple of strides…Has the ability to stop on a dime and make cuts to avoid tacklers and gain additional yardage…Very small for the NFL, and those concerns will be enough to have some teams drop him considerably on their boards…Has an injury history with shoulder, hand and thigh injuries, raising some red flags on his potential durability…Viewed by some as being arrogant and very full of himself – a trait a lot of cocky receivers in college never seem to lose…Ran a position-best 4.35 40 at the Combine with a 34½-inch vertical jump and a 10-2 broad jump.
Projection: A team trying to find Devin Hester-like lightning in a bottle in the punt return game immediately may find him hard to pass up. He could be an ideal dual threat for a team like the Titans in the first round, who need both a wide receiver and a return man to give them what Pac Man Jones did prior to his suspension. Jackson is capable of making huge plays, but there are probably as many big concerns about his potential long-term durability as almost any other wide receiver in the draft. He could be a Steve Smith or Santana Moss type big-play performer or a high-priced special teams player that never makes a consistent impact with the offense. That's a steep price to pay in the first round, which could well drop him into the second round before a team deems he's worth selecting.
THE BEST OF THE REST
Jordy Nelson, Kansas State, 6-2¾, 218: Fifth-year senior…A high school quarterback and track star who won Kansas state titles in the 100 meters, 200 meters, 400 meters and long jump, with his 100-meter time (10.63 seconds) and his 200-meter time (21.64) setting new state records…Recruited to play defensive back, he didn't move to wide receiver until after his redshirt freshman season…Injured his left PCL as a junior and his numbers suffered as a result…Blew up as a senior as a First-Team All-Big 12 selection, catching 122 passes for 1,606 yards and 11 touchdowns – the reception and yardage totals good enough for second-best in the NCAA last year…Never takes a play off and was on the field for almost every down as a senior…Ideal size and good upper body strength…Fearless coming across the middle and makes a lot of tough catches in traffic…Picks up a lot of yards after the catch on slant passes…Team leader…Doesn't have good on-field speed and can't stretch a defense with the threat of the home run catch-and-run…Was used in an offense that didn't vary its throws very much and he has limited experience running the types of routes he will be asked to at the next level…Doesn't do a consistent job in run support…Gets jammed at the line because he doesn't consistently use his hands well…Ran a 4.52 40 at the Combine with a 30-inch vertical jump and a 10-2 broad jump.
Projection: Nelson burst on the scene last year and has one of the best characters of any player coming into the league. He projects to be a solid possession receiver, but those types of players don't get taken with premium picks, so he will fall well into (if not out of) the second round.
James Hardy, Indiana, 6-5½, 214: Fourth-year junior who redshirted his first year at IU, but played in 23 games on the Hoosiers basketball team…A three-year starter who made starts in 32 of his 33 collegiate games played…During his career, he caught 191 passes for 2,740 yards and a school-record 36 touchdowns…Never scored less than 10 touchdowns in any of his three seasons….As a junior, he set personal highs with 79 receptions for 1,125 yards and 16 TDs…In the spring of 2006, he was charged with domestic battery and interfering with the reporting of a crime when he was charged with attacking his girlfriend and their infant son (charges were later dropped when he agreed to enter a pre-trial diversion program)…He was suspended for two games in 2006 for reasons not connected to the battery arrest…Extremely tall and has very long arms to create mismatches all over the field, but much more so in the red zone…Has good upper strength and good hand placement to work through jams at the line…Can catch poorly thrown passes and make the highlight-film type of receptions…Has a good vertical jump to go with his impressive size and wins almost every jump ball battle by catching the ball at its highest point…Is a long-strider who has sneaky speed once he gets moving in the open field…Isn't as physical with corners as he should be on a consistent basis…Takes a long time to get up to full speed and doesn't have the type of speed that will consistently leave defenders in his wake…Streaky receiver who will drop some routine passes…Comes off to some scouts as a bit arrogant and full of himself…Needs to work on his route running – will round off his routes instead of making sharp cuts, which allows defenders to make up lost ground…Ran a 4.50 40 at the Combine with 18 reps of 225 pounds, a 37-inch vertical jump and a 10-5 broad jump.
Projection: Hardy is a rarity in the college game – a player with incredible size and the strength to grow into a poor man's version of Larry Fitzgerald of the Cardinals. He has improved each year and, with some sound coaching at the next level, could blossom into a legitimate No. 1 receiver. His lack of top-end speed and his off-field history may get some teams to shy away, but he could immediately become one of the game's top red zone threats because of his size, strong hands and leaping ability. If all he does is score touchdowns, a lot of teams would be willing to live with that.
Donnie Avery, Houston, 5-11¼, 194: Fifth-year senior…A four-year starter who made starts in 44 of the 50 games in which he played in college…Saw his numbers improve each year and had a breakout season in 2007, catching 91 passes for 1,456 yards and seven touchdowns…Has some experience returning kickoffs…Has very good on-field speed and eats up the cushion cornerbacks give him quickly…Has good hands and will pluck the ball away from his body…Has quick-twitch moves at the snap to elude jams and can create a lot of separation quickly…Can hit top speed in just a couple of strides…A team leader…His durability is unquestioned…Doesn't have good upper- or lower-body strength and gets tackled too easily…Top CBs are able to muscle him around…He doesn't time his leaps as well as he should or could…At times, he will look for the home run and jitterbug his feet rather than attacking forward to gain as many yards as possible on a given play…Needs to improve his blocking in run support considerably…Did not have a great week at the Senior Bowl when asked to run precise routes…Didn't jump at the Combine, but ran a 4.46 40 and did 15 reps.
Projection: A hard-working player who became a team leader, he has speed to make big plays, but must add some bulk to be an effective every-down wide receiver. He could be an ideal speed receiver that could complement a top veteran wide receiver in the mold of Alvin Harper when he starred opposite Michael Irvin with the Cowboys. His lack of size and bulk will probably drop him into the second or third round, but he is far from being viewed as a long-term project. He could make an impact quickly.
Eddie Royal, Virginia Tech, 5-9½, 186: Fourth-year senior…Started 44 of the 52 college games he played…In four years, he caught 119 passes for 1,778 yards and 12 touchdowns…Diagnosed with an ailment called compartment syndrome in April 2005 – a disorder in which a leg muscle becomes too big for "the sheath surrounding it," which required surgery but didn't cost him any playing time…A physical receiver with extraordinarily good upper-body strength (see Combine note below)…Will fight for the ball over the middle and is fearless even though he knows he's going to take a big hit…Extremely fast and agile…Has a lot of experience returning both kicks and punts…Good, decisive cutting ability…Gets separation quickly in the open field…Leader on the field with the proverbial "non-stop motor"…His size is a huge liability, because he has worked his way up to his current size by being a weight-room rat and there is little opportunity for him to get much bigger…Never used as a go-to guy – his career high for catches in a season was 33, with high water marks of 497 yards and four touchdowns in individual seasons…Doesn't play through injuries, yanked himself from practice at the draft-vital Senior Bowl, adding to his reputation of shutting down when he has even minor injuries…Gets jammed at the line too often because it is difficult for him to keep big, physical corners from getting into his body in press coverage…Durability wasn't an issue in college, but his lack of size will scare some teams off…Ran a 4.45 40 at the Combine with a position-best 24 reps of 225 pounds (six more than any other wide receiver that lifted) with a 36-inch vertical jump and a 10-4 broad jump.
Projection: If Royal was three inches taller and 15 pounds heavier, he'd be a first-round pick. But, with his lack of size and consistent production in a crowded receiver corps at Virginia Tech, Royal will be a player who slips into the middle rounds. But his ability to serve as a speedy slot receiver and his value in the return game could get someone to jump in the second round, but more likely he'll fall into the third.
Harry Douglas, Louisville, 5-11½, 178: Fourth-year senior…Two-year starter who caught 141 passes for 2,424 yards and 13 touchdowns in that span…A very good receiver who rarely drops passes…Plays with a chip on his shoulder and shows no fear going over the middle…Gets sight on the ball very quickly and makes textbook adjustments to poorly-thrown balls…Has shown the toughness to play through injuries, missing only two games due to injury in four years…Has a good burst in the open field on slant patterns…Has not been asked to run a lot of the double-move routes he'll be required to learn in the NFL…Has very short arms and small hands that will be a problem if he has a quarterback at the next level that really fires passes…Is very small and will struggle playing against bigger CBs that will be able to direct him off the line of scrimmage…Is a willing blocker, but gets tossed aside too often…Doesn't have great speed or upper body strength and takes too much time to get off the snap and release from a defender…Ran a 4.52 40 at the Combine with 11 reps (tied for worst among WRs that opted to lift) with a 31½-inch vertical jump and a 9-11 broad jump.
Projection: A player who technically is NFL-ready because of the pro-style offense run by the Cardinals, his size and lack of initial burst will allow defenders to completely take him out of some plays in multi-receiver sets. While that doesn't necessarily render him useless, it isn't a good sign when grading wide receivers. He has some return experience, but it is very limited. He could be a player that has a long career if he can stay healthy – not a given due to his size – but will likely always be a second or third receiver at best. For that reason, he might still be on the board late in the third or into the fourth round, unless someone sees something in him they really like.
OTHERS TO WATCH
Earl Bennett, Vanderbilt, 5-11¾, 208
Lavell Hawkins, California, 5-11½, 185
Dexter Jackson, Appalachia State, 5-9¾, 184
Josh Morgan, Virginia Tech, 6-0¼, 219
Jerome Simpson, Coastal Carolina, 6-2, 198
2008 NFL draft/positional analysis: WR
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