Wilson: A statistical examination

We all know that Santonio Holmes looked good during his first professional minicamp, but how good will he be in 2006? Blogger Ryan Wilson investigates.

Since commissioner Paul Tagliabue stepped to the podium way back on April 29 to inform us that the Steelers had selected wide receiver Santonio Holmes with their first-round pick, I haven't heard one Steelers' fan bemoan the selection. Nary a dissenter. That's pretty remarkable when you think about it. I guess this is what happens when your team wins the Super Bowl, re-signs almost all essential personnel, and has very few holes on the depth chart.

Last weekend, Pittsburgh wrapped up their minicamp and all reports on not only Holmes, but third-round wideout Willie Reid, were very encouraging. Like I mentioned Tuesday, that's what you expect to hear in May when guys are running around in shorts and tee shirts.

But looking ahead to the 2006 season, what are some realistic expectations for these two guys? As it stands, Hines Ward and Cedrick Wilson are the starters, and Nate Washington is penciled in as the slot receiver. While immediate contributions from the rookies would be welcome, that's more a luxury than a need at this point for the Steelers. In a perfect world, Holmes' NFL career would pick up right where his college career left off, but more often than not, wide receivers struggle early as professionals and don't usually have a "Hey, that guy's playing like a first-round draft pick!" type season until year three or so.

Honestly, I have no idea how Holmes' and Reid's season will unfold, but we can look to the past to get a general sense of what might happen in the future. Since 1970, the Steelers have drafted 60 wide receivers (at least by my count) and for your viewing pleasure I've thrown together some tables reflecting how these players have done.

Before going on, a couple of disclaimers: First, I'm only looking at players drafted by the Steelers, not guys acquired via free agency or trade. Second, this isn't some fancy pants analysis; it's just a look at how the average wideout performed based on experience and where they were drafted; I didn't account for quarterback, offensive philosophy, team record, or what your best friend's sister's boyfriend's brother's girlfriend heard from this guy who knows this kid who's going with a girl who saw Santonio pass-out at 31 Flavors last night. We're talking ballpark here – just a quick and dirty look at how the 2006 season might shape up based on prior performances by guys in similar situations.

With that in mind, here's how Steelers-drafted wide receivers have fared based on their time in the league (YR1, YR2 … etc.) and draft status (RD1, RD2 … etc.):

               RD1   RD2   RD3   RD4
YR1 (Rec)       30    20    10    10
    (Rec Yds)  446   310   168   174
    (Rec TDs)    3     2     1     1

YR2 (Rec) 42 35 24 8 (Rec Yds) 660 421 306 138 (Rec TDs) 6 2 2 1

YR3 (Rec) 41 35 36 7 (Rec Yds) 688 508 450 82 (Rec TDs) 3 2 2 1

YR4 (Rec) 39 22 56 32 (Rec Yds) 549 430 709 605 (Rec TDs) 3 4 5 4

So what does this all mean? Well, if Holmes and Reid are exactly average Steelers draft picks, we can expect them to put up 2006 numbers that might look like this:
          Rec    RecYds    RecTDs
Holmes     30       446      3
Reid       10       168      1
Yeah, not great and not awful ... just, um, average. But if we're being realistic, this would be a respectable start to Holmes' career. And since Reid was drafted as a return threat first and a pass-catching threat second, any offense he provides as a rookie is gravy. Whatever the final regular season stats look like, it's important to remember that it often takes some time for guys to make the transition from college to the NFL.

For some perspective, consider this: In the last three seasons only two rookie first-rounders have finished in the top-30 in the league in receiving yards: Michael Clayton in 2004 and Andre Johnson in 2003. (Anquan Boldin finished third in the NFL in 2003, but he was a second-round pick.) During that time 16 wideouts were drafted in the first round.

If you're a Steelers fan you're also well aware that how a first-round rookie wide receiver starts his career certainly isn't indicative of how the rest of it will play out. Since 1970, here are how all the Steelers' first-round wideouts managed as rookies:

                Rec    RecYds    RecTDs
P. Burress('00)  23       273      0
T. Edwards('99)  61       714      5
C. Johnson('94)  38       577      3
L. Lipps('84)    45       860      9
L. Swann('74)    11       208      2
F. Lewis('71)     3        44      0
Just in case you needed reminding, Edwards and Swann are two prime examples of the "It's not where you start, it's where you finish" cliché we should all be repeating to ourselves this summer and into training camp. I know I'd be pretty psyched if Holmes busted out 61-714-5 numbers in 2006 and I would probably quit my job to join the campaign for his Rookie of the Year candidacy.

Conversely, I would be just as bummed if he posted an 11-208-2. I wouldn't call Holmes a bust with those numbers – not publicly anyway – but I'm sure I'd be thinking it (at least subconsciously before quietly yelling at myself for being an unreasonable idiot). But that's the problem with being a fan: we're very impatient, and expect to see immediate returns on our investment even though for most of us that investment consists of the six-pack we down during the game while we throw things around the living room. Making things worse, of course, is that we'd readily trade a Troy Edwards rookie season for a Lynn Swann career, and then curse our luck when Edwards revealed himself to be … well, Troy Edwards for the rest of his playing days.

You want more proof that first-round picks take time to develop? Here's what John Clayton wrote just yesterday:

High expectations drove … Plaxico Burress from the [team] that drafted [him]… He had a 1,008-yard season in 2001 and a 1,325-yard season in 2002. Good numbers. Still, the Steelers' No. 1 receiver was Hines Ward, a tough, physical leader who has carried the Steelers to the Super Bowl. Unless you're the St. Louis Rams, it's hard to have two No. 1 receivers, so someone has to be No. 2, and that was Burress.

Because of that, Burress wasn't offered a contract following the 2004 season and he left for New York where he helped the Giants and Eli Manning make the playoffs.

So what have we learned? First, don't ever hire a fan to be an NFL general manager – only bad things can happen (see my Edwards/Swann comment above … and the Detroit Lions). Second, on average, first-year receivers don't put up great numbers, but we already knew that. (Still, it bears repeating.). Third, and more important, first-year performances do not a career make. That's something we also probably know, but conveniently choose to forget when a rookie has a gallingly bad game, or does something goofy like inexplicably spike-the-ball fumbles. Lucky for Holmes and Reid, Plax set the bar pretty low with that performance.

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