I'm normally a big fan of Len Pasquarelli's work, but this piece on the risks involved in drafting a wide receiver with the #1 pick just isn't very well thought out. Len's makes a couple arguments, all of which can be dismissed with a "and the alternatives are...?" response:
1. Mike Furrey was an undrafted free agent and finished second in the NFL in catches last year.
Yes, and you can make the same arguments about quarterbacks. Peyton Manning led the NFL in passer rating, but #2 was Damon Huard, who was undrafted when he came out of Washington. The #5 quarterback in terms of passer rating was Tony Romo, who was also undrafted coming out of college. If the Raiders take Jamarcus Russell over Calvin Johnson because good wide receivers can be found later in the Draft, then they are making a huge mistake. In other words, they are just being the Raiders.
One other point: why focus on the number of catches as the measure of a receiver's merit? Do we evaluate running backs on their number of carries? A system like that run by Mike Martz can ring up huge reception totals for its wide receivers, regardless of whether those receivers are actually good. Wouldn't it be better to look at, say, Pro Bowl berths? DraftHistory.com did the heavy lifting for us by analyzing the 2005 Pro Bowl rosters and lo and behold, of the eight Pro Bowl wide receivers that year, four were first round picks, two were second round picks, one was a third round pick, and one was an undrafted free agent. The interesting conclusion from that article, by the way, is that teams should spend their first round picks on running backs and offensive tackles. Defensive tackles and cornerbacks also look like solid bets.
2. Lots of wide receivers drafted in the first rounds between 1997 and 2003 flamed out.
This argument is meaningless without comparing wide receivers to other positions. Again, since the unstated implication from Pasquarelli's piece is that the Raiders should take Jamarcus Russell instead of Calvin Johnson with the #1 pick, let's look at first round quarterbacks over the same time frame:
2003 - Carson Palmer, Byron Leftwich, Kyle Boller, Rex Grossman
2002 - David Carr, Joey Harrington, Patrick Ramsey
2001 - Michael Vick
2000 - Chad Pennington
1999 - Tim Couch, Donovan McNabb, Akili Smith, Daunte Culpepper, Cade McNown
1998 - Peyton Manning, Ryan Leaf
1997 - Jim Druckenmiller
It would be pretty fair to conclude that more than half of the quarterbacks on that list have never been or will never be productive starters in the NFL. Druckenmiller, Leaf, Couch, Smith, and McNown are confirmed busts. Carr, Harrington, Ramsey, Boller, and Grossman are either en route to being busts or at least have bust potential.
3. Only two receivers have been taken with the #1 pick and neither of them are going to the Hall of Fame.
Wow, a sample size of two! We can make TONS of legitimate inferences from that!
4. "Because of the rules changes that have opened up the passing game and turned ordinary receivers into players capable of snagging 60 balls per season, it's not necessary to have Hall of Fame-caliber players at the position."
So if the rules favor the receivers, doesn't that make a superlative receiver even more important because defensive backs can do relatively little to stop them?
Incidentally, I have a theory on why wide receivers sometimes flake out in the NFL when they play the position that should be the simplest to evaluate for scouts. (OK, I cribbed the theory from a 2002 Slate.com article.) The position tends to collect the biggest head cases, players with flashy athleticism and a desire to be isolated into one-on-one encounters where teamwork is unnecessary. Thus, wide receivers are more likely to flame out in the NFL than players at any other position because they are the most likely players to go nuts once they are lavished with money and attention. This is my theory as to why Charles Rogers, for example, was an NFL bust despite physical skills and a college pedigree that seemed to guarantee NFL success. Anyway, coming back to Calvin Johnson for a moment, CJ is universally described as terrific individual, so the normal skepticism that NFL types have about top wide receivers do not apply.