Pasquarelli: Rookies Finding Their Way

Len Pasquarelli continues his look around the league. This time it's the rookie wideouts and coaches on the hot seat.

   Neither their performances to date, nor their respective projections for the season, are the stuff of record-breaking rookie campaigns. Still, the play of first-year wide receivers A.J. Green of Cincinnati and Atlanta's Julio Jones probably merits more than the modicum of attention each first-rounder has received so far.

   The guys are good. And it's more than just their numbers that say so.

   "They're two grown-up players," assessed Seattle free safety Earl Thomas, part of a Seahawks' secondary that was dominated by Jones in an Oct. 2 defeat, and which will face Green on Oct. 30. "They're not like rookies."

   Don't try telling that to Green and Jones.

   "Those guys covering you," Green said,  "they don't care where you're from, what round you were taken in. You're just a number."

   Still, through six games, Green, the fourth overall player selected six months ago, leads NFL rookie wide receivers in catches (29), receiving yards (453), and touchdowns by reception (four). The sixth player chosen overall, after the Falcons traded up to grab him, Jones missed last week's game with a hamstring injury, and might not be able to return for Sunday's game at Detroit. But in five games, he has registered 25 receptions and 358 yards, although he has yet to score his first NFL touchdown, and made a difference in the potential of the Atlanta passing game.

   His statistics include 11 receptions for 127 against the Seahawks, a game in which Jones was "targeted" on 17 of Matt Ryan's 42 attempts.

   The third wide receiver chosen in this year's first round, Jonathan Baldwin of Kansas City, has yet to appear in a game. His struggles might be more typical of the ordeals often suffered by rookie wideouts. But that should not detract at all from what Green and Jones have done so far.

   Fact is, it might make their performances all the more remarkable.

   Green has been anything but, well, green. For a guy with the most common surname in the country, Jones has been uncommonly good.

green
Oct 2, 2011; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green (18) catches a pass before the game against the Buffalo Bills at Paul Brown Stadium. (Frank Victores-US PRESSWIRE)


   If the numbers the pair has posted might seem modest to some observers, consider that wide receivers, particularly those chosen in the first round, historically have had a difficult time making the transition to the pro game.

   Especially with the manner in which the game has evolved, with the offensive stats in passing going off the charts so far this season, one might expect more immediate return from the rookie wide receivers. Particularly the first-rounders. But not many franchises realize instant impact from rookie wideouts.

   "Guys just don't jump right into the league and make a big splash," acknowledged Falcons wide receiver Roddy White, who led the NFL in receptions a year ago (115), and who has four straight 1,000-yard campaigns and a 93.8-catch average in the previous four seasons, but who rung up only 29 receptions as a first-round rookie in 2005. "You spend a lot of time trying to stay above water."

   In truth, things generally go swimmingly for first-round receivers once they get past the one-year apprenticeship. But the maiden voyage is usually a trying one. Many of the first-round wide receivers make a quantum leap between the end of the debut season and the beginning of their second year, but the initiation period can really be a difficult battle.

   Said eighth-year veteran Michael Clayton of the New York Giants, who had 80 catches for 1,193 yards and seven touchdowns as a rookie first-rounder with Tampa Bay in 2004: "Forget what people tell you. It's hard, man, even for a first-round guy. The game anymore is so much more than just catching footballs. It takes a while to get used to all the stuff."

   Which makes the early-season accomplishments of Green and Jones perhaps even all the more admirable.

   In fact, Green's 29 receptions are already more than five of the 21 first-round wide receivers selected in the 2006-2010 drafts managed in their entire rookie seasons; the 453 yards he has in his first six outings are more than nine of the 21 posted for a season, and the four scores are more than 15 members of the group. Jones has a pair of 100-yard games and three games with five or more catches.

   Both rookies are on pace to have more than 70 receptions and 1,000 yards, and that would be a rarity. Clayton is the last rookie wide receiver to register 1,000 yards as a rookie wide receiver.

   Jones, for whom the Falcons sent a king's ransom to Cleveland to move up in the first round in April, recently suggested that the "(sophistication) of the passing games in college now" makes a difference. But neither Jones nor Green, at Alabama and Georgia, respectively, played in wide-open, "spread" offenses that regularly featured three receivers. Their college teams weren't famous for throwing the ball all over the field. There's no doubt, though, both are prospering at the NFL level, and at a position that has a relatively high "bust rate" for first-rounders.

J. Jones
Sep 11, 2011;  Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones (11) makes a catch over Chicago Bears defensive back Charles Tillman (33) and defensive back Brandon Meriweather (31)  (Mike DiNovo-US PRESSWIRE)
   "Everything is harder," Green said. "I mean, you don't get any free releases, the corners are always trying to get their hands on you, it's a fight all the way. Maybe the easiest part is catching the football. Getting to where you can catch it . . . that's hard. You have to learn the ropes."

   And that makes it hard to put up big numbers.

   Given that wide receivers chosen below the first round often have just as much early success -- in the past five seasons, four players not selected in the opening round either led or tied for the lead in rookie receptions -- one might suggest that clubs are not as eager to invest first-round picks at the position. But in the past 20 drafts, only four did not include at least three first-round wide receivers.

   Last season's top rookie receiver, Tampa Bay's Mike Williams, was a fourth-round pick. In 2009, fourth-rounder Austin Collie on Indianapolis tied for the NFL lead in receptions by a rookie. Eddie Royal of Denver, a second-round pick, was the rookie receptions leader in '08. New Orleans' Marques Colton led the league in both catches and receiving yards in 2006, and is the last rookie wideout with 1,000 yards in his first season, and he was a seventh-round pick.

   But people keep taking wide receivers in the first round, projecting them as impact players. The average for first-round wide receivers since 1992 is 3.6.

   "Even with the bad (first-year) numbers," said one longtime NFC wide receivers coach, "it's still treated like a premium position, I guess."

   Despite the emphasis on passing, the position hasn't realized a bump in the numbers over the past several seasons. The 55 wide receivers chosen in the first round 1990-2004 averaged 7.6 starts, 34.2 catches, 472.0 yards, and 3.1 touchdowns as rookies. From 2005-2010, the statistics vary significantly for the 21 first-round picks: 6.7 starts, 37.0 receptions, 523.2 yards, 2.8 scores.

   Of the 76 wide receivers chosen in the first round 1990-2010, just 10 finished their rookie seasons with 60 or more catches. Only 17 had at least 750 yards, and 14 had more than five touchdowns.

   At a so-called "skill position" where one might expect immediate results, given the increase in passing at the college level and the notion that rookie wide receivers would enter the league much better prepared, that hasn't been the case. Since '90, 31 backs have rushed for 1,000 yards as rookies. Over the same period, only six rookie wide receivers had enjoyed 1,000-yard years.

   "It's a culture shock," said Indianapolis Reggie Wayne, a 2001 first-round choice who has been to five Pro Bowl games, and whose resume includes seven 1,000-yard seasons and three years with 100 or more catches, but who had only 27 catches and no touchdowns as a rookie. "You come in thinking, 'OK, how tough can it be?' And halfway through your rookie season, it's more like, 'When is this going to get any easier, man?' It takes a while."

   Apparently, not for Jones and Green.

COACHING CONCERNS

Encores:
Not counting Dallas and Minnesota, which retained their interim coaches from the end of the 2010 season (Jason Garrett and Leslie Frazier, respectively), there were six franchises with head coach vacancies in the offseason, just a tick less than the average for the past 20 years. There could be as many after this season, and there are a number of guys already on the hot seat. What there may not be, though, is the usual volume of potential replacements. One owner who could make a change, and who has spent some time the past couple weeks taking a cursory look at some presumptive future head coaches, told The Sports Xchange this week that the usual pool of candidates from currently successful franchises isn't deep. "I mean, take a look at the really good teams and give me a name," said the owner. "The best team in the league is Green Bay, and their most recognizable (assistant) is (defensive coordinator Dom) Capers.  He's had two (head coaching) jobs already and, while they were difficult situations, no doubt, he was fired from both of them. Can you bring him in and tell your fans, 'Well, the third time's the charm?' I don't know." The owner noted that, excluding current college coaches, the likely candidates for jobs after this season may fall into two categories: some assistants who may be lesser-known to fans and high-profile former NFL coaches who are working right now in other capacities.
 
No changes?:

Despite the success of the aforementioned interim head coaches in 2010 -- although neither Garrett nor Frazier is doing very well right now -- we detailed many times over the past year the historic futility of franchises that make in-season coaching switches. And the same owner cited above opined that there may not be any in-season changes this year. Miami has already had its bye week, and while defensive coordinator Mike Nolan could take over the Dolphins, the owner surmised that Stephen Ross will wait until the offseason, and take his lumps, with Tony Sparano. Jacksonville doesn't have its bye until Nov. 6, but there really is no favorite among the assistants if Wayne Weaver decided to dump Jack Del Rio.
 
Philly cheese:

One of the current coaches most under fire, not surprisingly, is Andy Reid of the Philadelphia Eagles. Reid has been a lightning rod in Philly for the past several seasons, and the "Dream Team" moniker popularized by quarterback Vince Young, and the Eagles' failure to live up to the handle, has made Reid an easy target. But when it comes to being able to sell quarterbacks, and apparently at the optimum time, it seems Reid knows what he's doing. He peddled an overpriced Donovan McNabb to the Redskins in 2010, he lasted one season in Washington, and has now been benched in Minnesota. At age 34, McNabb has suggested he wants to continue playing beyond this season, but there is real doubt as to whether the six-time Pro Bowl performer will ever be a starter again. This summer, Reid sent backup Kevin Kolb to Arizona, and so far, he's been a disappointment. Even before those two deals, Reid shipped A.J. Feeley to Miami in 2004, and the guy has been nothing more than a journeyman. Reid's critics may be justified, but it's hard to argue with his eye for dumping quarterbacks at the right time, and for a seemingly inflated price.


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