The biggest gamble in the 2009 draft

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Apr 09, 2009



By Kerry J. Byrne
Cold, Hard Football Facts Sunshine State publicist
 
Every pick in the NFL draft is a high-priced gamble.
 
At the end of the day, we really have no idea how a player's going to perform in the NFL, no matter how high that player sits in Mel Kiper's notoriously inaccurate mock draft. He could be the No. 2 overall pick and proverbial can't-miss-kid that does (Tony Mandarich or Ryan Leaf). Or he could be the No. 199 pick of an afterthought who turns into bona fide first-ballot Hall of Famer (Bart Starr or Tom Brady)
 
But some gambles are greater than others. And there's one gamble in the 2009 draft that should cause more sweaty palms than any other when teams get ready to roll the dice this month: Florida junior Percy Harvin, who opted out of his final year with the defending national champs to enter the NFL draft.
 
He's a spectacular talent and may be the best athlete and best football player in the draft this year. But the orange-and-blue uniform that he played in last year has turned up a lot of snake eyes on the craps table of the NFL draft.
 
Harvin is listed as a wide receiver. But he was really used at Florida as a dual-threat ball-carrier and pass-catcher, in the classic mold of a Bobby Mitchell or Lenny Moore from the days when the NFL valued diversification over specialization.
 
Harvin was second on the team in rushing (behind the unbelievably talented quarterback Tim Tebow), with 659 yards and 10 TDs on just 70 carries – a spectacular 9.4 yards per attempt. He also led Florida in receptions (40) and was second in receiving yards (644), adding seven more TDs through the air.
 
He was even used at the quarterback position, taking shotgun snaps from center in the spread formation that Florida has largely popularized (though he did not attempt any passes). 
 
Paired with Tebow, Harvin gave the national champion Gators a virtually unstoppable offensive combo. Even in their one loss to Ole Miss last year, Florida put 30 points on the board.
 
Bottom line: Harvin is an incredible talent and, even though just a junior, is a likely first-round draft pick.
 
His talent is unquestioned. But we've seen this story before out of Florida. And this story, as you'll see below, makes Harvin the highest-stakes gamble in the draft this year.
 
Florida football has been around since 1904. But it really exploded onto the national scene with the arrival of head coach Steve Spurrier in 1990, who gave the program its signature high-flying brand of offensive football. Florida's reputation as an offensive powerhouse has only grown over the past four seasons under Urban Meyer, a period during which the Gators have won two national titles and turned Tebow into one of the great folk heroes in college football history.
 
The spectacular offensive production during the Spurrier-Meyer years (and even the Ron Zook years in between) have made Florida receivers among the most coveted commodities in the NFL draft over the past 18 years. Harvin is the latest in a long, long line.
 
In fact, since the first draft that included Spurrier's Gator in 1991, NFL teams have snapped up 16 Florida receivers. (To put that into perspective, USC, known for its bevy of spectacular running backs through the years, has had 16 ball carriers taken in the NFL draft since 1975.)
 
This list of Florida wideouts includes three first rounders and 12 players selected in the first three rounds.
 
But here's the problem with Florida wide receivers: almost every single one of those 16 draft picks has failed to live up to expectations. Many have failed miserably.
 
Here are the career numbers for the 16 Florida wide receivers selected by NFL teams in the Spurrier-Zook-Meyer drafts (1991 to present).
 
FLORIDA WR DRAFT PICKS SINCE 1991 (NFL career stats)
Player
Year
Round
Rec.
Yards
TD
Andre Caldwell
2008
3
11
78
0
Dallas Baker
2007
7
1
6
0
Chad Jackson
2006
2
14
171
3
Taylor Jacobs
2003
2
37
384
2
Jabar Gaffney
2002
2
256
3068
15
Reche Caldwell
2002
2
152
1851
11
Travis Taylor
2000
1 (10)
312
4017
22
Darrell Jackson
2000
3
499
7132
51
Travis McGriff
1999
3
5
88
1
Jacquez Green
1998
2
162
2331
7
Ike Hilliard
1997
1 (7)
546
6397
35
Reidel Anthony
1997
1 (16)
144
1846
16
Chris Doering
1996
6
42
476
3
Jack Jackson
1995
4
4
39
0
Willie Jackson
1994
4
284
3641
24
Ernie Mills
1991
3
196
2934
20
 
***
 
The only player among the 16 who's clearly lived up to or exceeded expectations has been Darrell Jackson, a third-round pick by Seattle in 2000 who played sparingly last year with the Broncos. He's hauled in passes worth 7,132 passes and 51 TDs – the highest marks by any Florida receiver in the NFL since Wes Chandler (a first-round pick in 1978) burned up pro football defenses in the late 1970s and 1980s (559 catches, 8,966 yards, 56 TDs).
 
Ike Hilliard certainly had a respectable career. His 546 catches put him among the Top 80 in all of NFL history. And at 33 years old and still fairly productive last year with Tampa, the free agent should be able to contribute somewhere over the next couple of years. But he's scored just 35 TDs in a 12-year career and has never reached a Pro Bowl.
 
The Giants certainly had much higher hopes for Hilliard when they made him the 7th overall pick in the 1997 draft.
 
In fact, Hilliard and his Gators teammate Reidel Anthony stand as the poster children for the futility of Florida wideouts in the NFL.
 
The spectacular college receivers led the 1996 Gators to the school's first national title and were largely responsible for the fact that Florida quarterback Danny Wuerffel won the Heisman Trophy that season.
 
The 1996 Gators were virtually unstoppable on offense, averaging 46.6 PPG, led by the explosive Anthony and Hilliard. They combined for 119 catches, 2,193 yards and 28 TDs that season.
 
The NFL was so smitten by these two Florida receivers that both were snapped up within the first 16 picks of the 1997 draft.
 
To say they crashed and burned in the NFL would overstate the case. But there's no doubt that they both failed to live up to the expectations they had forged for themselves as leaders of arguably college football's most spectacular offense of the 1990s.
 
Those 1996 Gators were so talented that two of their back-up receivers were also high draft picks: Jacquez Green was taken in the second round of the 1998 draft. Travis McGriff was grabbed in the third round of the 1999 draft. Neither made much of a dent in the NFL, as the chart above indicates.
 
More recent drafts have been just as bad. New England grabbed athletically gifted Florida wide receiver Chad Jackson in the second round of the 2006 draft, the most recent in a growing list of bad picks by the Patriots. You need only four letters to describe Jackson's career: B-U-S-T.
 
Florida receiver Andre Caldwell was grabbed in the third round of last year's draft by the Bengals. He showed signs of life late in the season after recovering from a nagging foot injury. He may yet to prove to be a big-time NFL receiver. But his inauspicious start is typical of Florida wide receivers. Andre's older brother Reche, meanwhile, was a second-round pick in the 2002 draft. He scored just 11 TDs in a six-year career with three different teams.
 
Florida has prodced big-time NFL players at other positions over the past two decades, mostly only defense (Jevon Kearse, Alex Brown, Lito Sheppard). 
 
But the long, long list of busts and underachievers out of the same school at the same position reeks of a systemic problem. To put it another way: Florida receivers are simply not as good as they seem when they're burning up SEC defenses. Florida receivers are consistently paired with top college quarterbacks, for example. They also play on teams filled by blue-chip performers at virtually every other position year after year. This cozy situations certainly help their production.
 
But perhaps the dual-threat Harvin is better than all of them. Maybe he turns into what teams expected when they devoted high picks to Ike Hilliard, Reidel Anthony or Travis Taylor.
 
We don't know what will happen when a team decides to roll the dice on Harvin later this month. But we do know this: Florida wideouts in the NFL are one of the biggest gambles in sports.
 

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