Clutch Receivers: Third and Long

Which receivers have established themselves as the top "go-to" guys in the NFL during the first half of the year? And which ones are falling well short of expectations?'s Ed Thompson fills you in.

It's third-and-long. Your team needs eight yards or more to move the chains.

Every week, NFL quarterbacks walk up behind the center knowing that if they can connect with their clutch receiver -- that go-to guy who rarely lets them down -- they can keep a drive alive rather than head back to the sidelines while the punter trots onto the field.

Surprisingly, that go-to guy isn't always the team's leading receiver. He's a player who has developed a reputation as a "possession" receiver with his quarterback.

At the midpoint of the NFL season, two veterans have distinguished themselves in this category: Cleveland's Joe Jurevicius and Denver's Brandon Stokley.

With 124 games of NFL experience, Joe Jurevicius isn't the kind of guy who gets rattled in clutch situations. So he's exactly the kind of receiver that Browns quarterback Derek Anderson needed to lean on since Anderson entered the 2007 season with just three career starts under his belt. Jurevicius hasn't disappointed, catching eight out of nine chances for an average gain of 13.9 yards.

Just like Broncos wide receiver Brandon Stokley, Jurevicius has been able to reach the first-down marker a league-best 66.7 percent of the time in third-and-long situations. Stokely, a nine-year veteran, is working with second-year quarterback Jay Cutler in Denver.  He's caught seven of his nine clutch chances for an average of 16.0 yards per catch.

What's truly amazing about Stokley's performance is that last year he suffered three separate leg injuries. In mid-August during training camp, he suffered a high ankle sprain When he finally returned to action in Week 2 of the regular season, he aggravated the ankle and didn't return until Week 5. In that game, he injured his knee, forcing him out until Week 13. The very next week, he ruptured his Achilles' tendon and landed on the injured reserve list.

With just four game appearances and eight catches in 2007, Stokley's future as wide receiver in the NFL was seriously in doubt when the Colts reluctantly released him earlier this year. The Broncos took a chance that he could stay healthy, and so far it's paid off in a big way for Denver.

Top Targets

Nine receivers around the league have been called upon more often than Jurevicius and Stokley in these clutch situations. Out of those nine, just two have managed to convert first downs for their clubs at least fifty percent of the time: San Diego's Antonio Gates and Tampa Bay's Ike Hilliard.

The Chargers' tight end has a second-best 90.9 percent completion rate on third-and-long, catching 10 out of 11 passes. And his 63.6 percent first-down conversion rate is third-best in the NFL.

Hilliard, who's working with savvy veteran Jeff Garcia this year in Tampa Bay, has caught eight out of 10 chances, converting exactly 50 percent of them into a new set of downs for the Buccaneers.

Coming up short

Some of the top targeted players are catching the ball in these clutch situations, but they aren't getting the yards needed for a new set of downs.

Baltimore's Derrick Mason has shown nerves of steel, catching 11 of 12 balls thrown to him for a 91.7 percent completion rate. But he's coming up short of the first-down marker 58.3 percent of the time.

Bengals wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh has had more chances than any receiver in the NFL with 13 passes thrown his way. But he's only caught eight of those balls, and he's failed to get a first down 61.5 percent of the time despite an average gain of 15.3 yards per catch.

The Jets' Laveranues Coles and Kansas City rookie Dwayne Bowe have both come up short on 40 percent of their catches despite being targeted 10 times a piece. Coles had made seven clutch catches while Bowe has secured six.

Must be a misprint

Larry Fitzgerald battles Ike Taylor
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

It's a bit hard to fathom, but the Cardinals' Larry Fitzgerald has the worst conversion rate on third-and-long chances out of any of the receivers with at least eight targets so far. He's had 11 passes thrown his direction, but he's managed to catch just five for an average gain of 8 yards. As a result, his team had to send in the punter 91.9 percent of the time the quarterback threw the ball to him.

Despite the tremendously bad year that the St. Louis Rams are experiencing, it's still surprising to find a receiver of the caliber of Torry Holt amongst the receivers who aren't coming through in the clutch. He's caught just four of 10 passes in third-and-long situations, converting just 20 percent for first downs with an average catch of just 10 yards.

It's a good thing that Antonio Gates has established himself as the go-to guy in San Diego, because newly acquired wide receiver Chris Chambers isn't going to steal that mantle from him in the near future. After six games in Miami and one with the Chargers, Chambers has only caught three of 12 third-and-long passes, reaching the first-down marker just 25 percent of the time.

How about Cincinnati's other talented wide receiver, Chad Johnson? Out of eight chances so far, he's only converted at a rate of 37.5 percent.

Indianapolis' Reggie Wayne is leading the Colts in practically every receiving category while pulling in passes from Peyton Manning. But on third-and-long, Wayne has caught just three of nine passes thrown in his direction, converting just 22.2 percent of his chances into first downs.

Dallas' Terrell Owens is making good on just a third of his opportunities while catching just five out of nine balls in these crucial game moments. And while Giants tight end Jeremy Shockey has caught six of his eight chances, he's only converted 37.5 percent for first downs.

Keep an eye on

As the second half of the season unfolds, here are some receivers who are doing well enough that they should see more clutch opportunities the rest of the way:

Kellen WinslowIf it wasn't for Jurevicius, he'd be the go-to guy in Cleveland on third-and-long. He's caught five balls so far in the clutch for an average gain of 18.6 yards and a 50 percent conversion rate.

Jeff King: Carolina's tight end is showing he can hold onto the ball under pressure, catching seven of nine so far. He just needs to boost his 9.1 yards per catch average to improve his 44.4 percent first-down conversion rate.

Jerricho Cotchery: With a change at the quarterback position underway in New York, it'll be interesting to see if Kellen Clemens relies on Cotchery more even more frequently than Chad Pennington did in the clutch. Like King, Cotchery's been terrific at catching the ball, snaring seven out of nine passes. He just hasn't gotten the yardage, converting just 37.5 percent of his chances into first downs with a 9.3 yards per catch average.

Ed Thompson's player interviews and NFL features are published across the network and are syndicated through You can contact him by email through this link.

Statistics referenced in this article are provided by STATS, LLC. Copyright 2007 by STATS, LLC. Any use or distribution of such Licensed Materials without the express written consent of STATS is strictly prohibited. 

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