The debate will probably continue until Tampa Bay makes its first-round selection on April 28 — should they or shouldn't they take Calvin Johnson.
The Georgia Tech wide receiver is, without question, the draft's No. 1 ranked player. Johnson will make some NFL team quite happy in 2007. If Johnson falls into the Buccaneers' laps at No. 4 they most certainly must take him, right? Well, Scout.com's resident personnel guru, Tom Marino, believes Johnson should go No. 1.
"He'll (Johnson) make anyone drafted ahead of him look like Sam Bowie," Marino told me Wednesday. "He's so rare. This kid has the chance to be a Canton guy."
This from a guy that's scouted NFL talent for 30 years or so.
Well, that's one point of view. Another is that the Bucs already have enough wide receivers — Joey Galloway, Michael Clayton, Ike Hilliard and Maurice Stovall among them — and that Johnson doesn't fill a pressing need, as, say Clemson DE Gaines Adams would on the defensive line.
If the Bucs do select Johnson, the expectations on his performance — and the Bucs' offense — might go through the roof. But what can the Bucs realistically expect from Johnson in 2007?
That's what BucsBlitz.com set out to find out.
First let's assume a few things. First, Johnson would likely become an immediate contributor, perhaps starter, in Jon Gruden's offense, much the way RB Cadillac Williams did in 2005. Second, Johnson would likely be the No. 2 option behind Joey Galloway. Third, at 6-foot-5 and 235 pounds, he has more physical tools than any receiver on the Bucs roster and would likely become their No. 1 end zone target.
Now, based on that, Johnson should have a pretty good season, right? Perhaps Top 5 among rookie receivers? That's likely, barring injury. So there are some things you should know about rookie wide receivers during the past five years before we go any further:
If you're looking for an impact receiver, take him on the first day of the draft.
BucsBlitz.com looked at the Top 5 rookie receivers, by yardage, each of the last five years and found that all but four of them were drafted on the first day. The exceptions? Saints WR Marques Colston (a seventh-rounder in 2006), Eagles WR Hank Baskett (an undrafted free agent in 2006), Denver WR Brandon Marshall (fourth round in 2006) and Chicago's Justin Gage (fifth round in 2003). Nearly half of those Top 5 receiving leaders were first-rounders, including the Bucs' Michael Clayton in 2004.
Don't expect a 1,000-yard season. Those are pretty special.
In the past five years, just three rookie wide receivers have caught more than 1,000 yards in passes — Colston (1,038 yards in 2006), Clayton (1,193 yards in 2004) and the Cardinals' Anquan Boldin (1,377 yards in 2003). Colston — who is now the No. 1 receiver in New Orleans — bears scrutiny in 2007. Both Clayton and Boldin saw dropoffs after their rookie years. Clayton played just 10 games in an injury-riddled 2005 that saw him catch 32 passes for 372 yards. Boldin also had injury issues in 2004 and his numbers were shaved in half (56 catches, 623 yards). Boldin bounced back. Clayton hasn't (and that's one of the reasons the Bucs are considering Johnson).
Consider the receiver's worth in the red zone.
Reception and yardage totals vary widely among rookies from year to year. But 11 of the 25 rookie receiving leaders the past five years netted at least five touchdown receptions. That ranges from players like Colston, Clayton and Boldin, who had monster seasons, to Cincinnati's Chris Henry, who caught six touchdown passes as a third-rounder in 2005. Carolina's Keary Colbert (5 touchdowns in 2004) and Jacksonville's Matt Jones (5 touchdowns in 2005) each had an impact their rookie years without catching a great deal of passes (Henry caught 31, Colbert 47 and Jones 36).
Using a team's situation in April isn't a precursor to production.
How else can one explain the big seasons of Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald (58 catches, 780 yards, 8 touchdowns) in Arizona each of their rookie seasons? The Cards stunk, but those receivers had great seasons anyway. Clayton was to be nothing more than a No. 2 option in Tampa Bay before Joey Galloway's injury. But he emerged as a top-flight pass catcher that year. No one expected Colston to siphon catches from Joe Horn last season. Houston's Andre Johnson blew up his rookie season (69 catches, 976 yards, 4 touchdowns) despite no help.
Knowing all this, the average numbers for the Top 5 rookie receivers the past five years might surprise you — 45.3 catches, 659 yards, 4.4 touchdowns. Those are pedestrian numbers given the rookie receivers that get the attention such as Colston, Clayton and Boldin.
So where might Johnson fit in?
Take a look at the receiver situation in Tampa Bay as of now. It's Galloway and Clayton, followed by Hilliard and Stovall. Throw in tight end Alex Smith and running back Michael Pittman and it's a serviceable group. Last year the unit suffered with two quarterback changes, including a rookie, and the impact was noticeable. Certainly, Johnson's worth to this offense will be directly tied to whoever is throwing the football. It's my opinion that Jeff Garcia will be the opening-day starter. That would bode well for Johnson, as Garcia is a steady quarterback who can throw the short and intermediate passes that would allow Johnson to overpower defensive backs in the slot. If it's Chris Simms, and Simms resembles his 2005 self, then Johnson has the opportunity to stretch defenses and use his tremendous vertical leap to reach up and grab the ball.
"The main problem is who's going to get the ball to him," Marino said.
Clayton is the enigma of the group. After his monster rookie season his production has dropped drastically. He was injured most of 2005, so some slack was cut. But last year Clayton was generally healthy until his injury against Pittsburgh and only produced similar numbers to 2005 (33 catches, 356 yards, 1 touchdown). More to the point, Clayton still didn't look like himself. To me, it was more about confidence than about his body. The body language he had 2004, the confident swagger, wasn't there.
It boils down to one point — can Clayton be counted on to be the No. 2 receiver the Bucs need? Based on the past three years, the answer is no. Even if you forgive the production because of the injuries, you then have to deal with the injuries. If Clayton can't be the No. 2, then it falls to Hilliard (getting too old) or Stovall (too unproven).
Based on his talent and promise, Johnson could be an upgrade over everyone on the roster but Galloway. He's bigger and faster than Clayton, doesn't have the injury history (hasn't missed a game in college) and can physically do things no receiver in this draft can. Johnson can work in the slot or on the outside because most NFL corners can't match his size. Plus, he'll make just about everyone on the offense better, according to Marino.
"This guy here is a rare player," Marino said. "This guy won't come around next year. The top receiver next year won't be able to compete with this guy. More than half of the corners in this league are under 5-10 ½. You're asking them to give up seven inches and he can out jump them all. He's going to make other guys better, especially the guy in the slot and the tight end. He'll make them a lot of money."
In a worst-case scenario, either Galloway or Clayton get hurt, or Clayton continues to disappoint. In that case, Johnson can slip in and possibly provide a Clayton-type 2004. In a best-case scenario, Galloway is healthy, Clayton finally begins to resemble his 2004 self and Johnson can share No. 2 duties and provide the passing game with a huge boost. Imagine the problems a healthy and productive Galloway, Clayton and Johnson could give opposing defenses, and how that could benefit Simms, Garcia or even RB Cadillac Williams.
The Bucs must think in both arenas — best-case and worst-case — and draft accordingly. Certainly, Johnson is a difficult selection for a team that has a plethora of needs on the defensive side. But New Orleans faced similar circumstances last draft. They had a bevy of defensive needs and were probably set to go defense until the No. 1 talent in the draft — Reggie Bush — fell to them. That worked out all right.
Oh, and my prediction for Johnson should he become a Buc? He'll be productive, no doubt. Given his talent, I think his numbers will be above the rookie average. But with Galloway, Clayton and the other weapons in this offense, plus the fluid quarterback situation, I don't think he'll approach Clayton's monster year, in a best-case scenario. A 55-catch, 800-yard, 7-touchdown season isn't out of the question. Those numbers go up if the Bucs' version of the West Coast offense finally meets its potential.
The following are the statistics used in this article, the Top 5 rookie receivers (by yardage) each of the last five years:
2006 (receptions, yards, TDs), where drafted
Marques Colston, 70-1038-8, Seventh round (252)
Santonio Holmes, 49-824-2, First round (25)
Greg Jennings, 45-632-3, Second round (52)
Hank Baskett, 22-464-2, Undrafted free agent
Brandon Marshall, 20-309-2, Fourth round (119)
Reggie Brown, 43-571-4, Second round (35)
Braylon Edwards, 32-512-3, First round (3)
Mark Clayton, 44-471-2, First round (22)
Matt Jones, 36-432-5, First round (21)
Chris Henry, 31-422-6, Third round (83)
Michael Clayton, 80-1193-7, First round (15)
Lee Evans, 48-843-9, First round (13)
Roy Williams, 54-817-8, First round (7)
Larry Fitzgerald, 58-780-8, First round (3)
Keary Colbert, 47-754-5, Second round (62)
Anquan Boldin, 101-1377-8, Second round (54)
Andre Johnson, 69-976-4, First round (3)
Nate Burleson, 29-455-2, Third round (71)
Bryant Johnson, 35-438-1, First round (17)
Justin Gage, 17-338-2, Fifth round (143)
Antonio Bryant, 44-733-6, Second round (63)
Donte Stallworth, 42-594-8, First round (13)
Ashley Lelie, 35-525-2, First round (19)
Josh Reed, 37-509-2, Second round (36)
Deion Branch, 43-489-2, Second round (65)
Note: Branch and Antwaan Randle El had virtually the same numbers in 2002, but Branch was used in the sampling.