Draft is loaded with wide receivers

INDIANAPOLIS -- Collective sighs could be heard throughout the Indianapolis Convention Center when word got out that USC receiver Mike Williams would likely be applying for the NFL draft. Scouts were wondering how another potential top-10 draft choice could rate in an already receiver-rich draft.

Perhaps the most interesting reaction came from Williams' receiving peers. This wasn't Maurice Clarett, who flashed only during his freshman season and spent his sophomore year in a personal pre-law seminar on overturning NFL draft eligibility rules.

"The guy is an awesome athlete," said receiver Michael Clayton of LSU. "He deserves everything that he gets. If he happens to do that, I'm all for it. Everybody is out here to prove to the world that they can compete in the NFL. Basically it all boils down to an opportunity to play, not really worried about where you go or when you get there. A lot of guys are out here to separate themselves from that."

"That would just make this draft more interesting, because Mike is probably 6-10 and he's a strong, athletic guy," Texas receiver Roy Williams said. "He's another playmaker and he can do everything. He's a first rounder."

In fact, Mike Williams could knock Roy Williams and Reggie Williams of Washington out of the Top 10. Cornerbacks describe Williams as a beast to cover. He's big, strong and powerful. Some thought is being given to the idea he could be better than Larry Fitzgerald of Pitt, who should go no lower than second or third in the draft.

"It's a toss up," Roy Williams said. "It'd give you guys something to
talk about."

Everyone at the combine has been talking about the receivers, and why not? Big, strong, powerful receivers have been dominating college football for the past couple of years. It would only be fitting if Mike Williams comes out because then NFL teams can settle the debate about who has been the best receiver in college. Fitzgerald earned the honor last year and he slipped through the Clarett technicality to turn pro. Mike Williams didn't put in his application in January, opting to stay at USC, but the new window of opportunity has him rethinking the decision.

"This is a very deep receiver draft and very talented at the top of the round, too, obviously, in the first round," Falcons general manager Rich McKay said. "That's where I see the strength."

And part of that strength is due to Clarett. While it looked like the NFL was going to let Fitzgerald into the upcoming draft regardless of the outcome of the Clarett case, the judge's ruling left no doubt that Fitzgerald would be in the draft and has opened the window for Mike Williams to follow.

"When this happened, the initial thought was, boy, this could be a large number, there could be a bunch of underclassmen that will enter, a large number meaning a dozen," McKay said. "I remember on a conference call we were on, it was said maybe there would be a dozen players. I think as we move further along, we've become at least a little more comfortable that number will be a lot less, and we all want it to be a lot less, so we'll see. If the number were zero, I'd be happy, but whatever that number is, we'll deal with it.

"With the Clarett situation, we've got to hope as a league that it's a one-year issue that we change the 2004 draft rules as we have to let these players apply and hopefully, by '05, an appeal has taken place and we can get back and have our eligibility rule in place."

Now that a judge has ruled, general managers can't be lawyers. They judge players for talent. Williams is talented. If he turns pro, scouts will scramble to get their scouting reports. For receivers, the NFL has changed. Receiver is no longer a finesse position. This draft could have seven to eight wide receivers considered first-round picks, and they are all big and strong and fast.

Most of the receivers at the top of this draft are 6-foot or taller and most are in the 210 to 220 range. Roy Williams is 6-2, 212. Reggie Williams is 6-4, 230. Fitzgerald came to Indy weighing 225 pounds. The list goes on and on, and all believe they will run 4.45 or better at their individual workouts. These are possession receivers with speed.

"That's all thanks to Randy Moss and Terrell Owens," Roy Williams said. "They're the kind of guys that people really want on their teams -- the playmakers who can get the yards after the catch."

No receiver was a bigger fan of the game than Fitzgerald. His father is a sports editor at a Minneapolis newspaper and he covered the Vikings. Since his early teens, Larry Fitzgerald watched the Vikings receivers while he prepared himself to join the league one day. He worked at camp between the ages of 13 and 17 and was around Moss and Cris Carter. Jokingly, he said he was sizing up the guys in the league he would eventually go against.

At 14, he was doing pass-catching drills in front of the JUGS machine and he was doing so well catching the ball that coaches called receivers over to watch so that they could learn.

"I was like 14, and it felt real good to see people that you look up to, showing you respect for something they do," Fitzgerald said. "So that gave me a lot of confidence."

Fitzgerald credits a lot of his receiving success to incredible hand-to-eye coordination. He was blessed with 20-15 vision that was once measured at 20-10.

"When I run a route and the ball is in the air, it's like everything just slows down," Fitzgerald said. "I can't hear the crowd. I see the defender but my main focus is on that ball. Everything just slows down and as soon as I catch it, it speeds back up again. That's kind of what happens. I can't really explain it."

All of the receivers in this draft are making scouts slow down. It could also slow down the money demands of many of the top free agent receivers because good receivers will be available throughout the first day of the draft.

And the addition of Mike Williams would only make this rich position get richer.

John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.