Fewer first-round gambles expected this year

With the seventh overall selection in last year's draft, the Minnesota Vikings chose South Carolina wide receiver Troy Williamson, a player they paid $11.34 million in bonuses and first-year base salary. Williamson produced 24 catches, 372 yards and two touchdowns.

Twenty-eight picks later, with the third slot in the second round, the Philadelphia Eagles took University of Georgia wide receiver Reggie Brown. How did his rookie statistics compare to those of Williamson? Well, he caught 19 more passes, had 199 more receiving yards, and twice as many touchdown catches.

Oh, yeah, Brown cost the Eagles $9 million less in rookie pay than Williamson banked from the Vikings.

Now, that, folks, represents freakanomics, NFL-style, at least when it comes to rookie wide receivers. And it also represents the latest reminder that, with first-year pass catchers, occasionally you get more than what you paid for. But most times, history has demonstrated, you get a lot less, particularly when it comes to first-round selections at the position.

"It hasn't exactly been much of a 'return on investment' position," said one NFC general manager whose team has, for the most part, managed to ignore the annual siren song that tempts franchises into investing on first-round wide receivers. "But every year, it seems, teams fall into the trap. There aren't many years where there haven't been, like, four, five, six wide receivers in the first round. And most of them simply do not produce as rookies. You wonder if teams even look at the numbers."

The first-year numbers from the six wide receivers chosen in the first round of the 2005 draft are thus: An average of 5.5 starts, 32.3 receptions, 430.5 yards and 2.7 touchdowns. Only one first-round wide receiver, Mark Clayton of the Baltimore Ravens, had more than 40 receptions. Just two others, Jacksonville's Matt Jones and Braylon Edwards of Cleveland, had more than 30 catches. In fairness, it should be pointed out that Edwards, the third overall choice in the 2005 draft, missed six games because of a torn right anterior cruciate ligament.

Such devastating injuries, however, are just one component of what has made drafting wide receivers in the first round a risky proposition.

The good news is that, given the lack of quality in this year's wide receiver class, the first-round gambles at the position should be relatively few and possibly altogether eliminated. Even better news for long suffering Detroit Lions fans: Team president Matt Millen, who has chosen first-round wide receivers in each of the last three drafts, will not extend the streak to four.

Most teams rate only two wide receivers, Santonio Holmes of Ohio State and Florida's Chad Jackson, as viable first-round prospects. A few clubs include mighty mite Sinorice Moss of Miami as a potential pick near the bottom of the first round. A few other franchises even think Jackson, rated as neck-and-neck with Holmes on many draft boards, could slide precipitously.

Always a daunting task, projecting wide receivers in this year's draft will be a challenging chore, scouts agree. The trick will be in determining which prospects best dovetail with a team's offensive system, and in deciding the right round in which to choose those players.

The dearth of top-shelf wide receivers this year should mean that more teams delay taking a player at the position until later in the draft, perhaps a sound strategy. Of the 14 rookie wide receivers who had 15 or more catches in 2005, six were chosen in the third round or later. One of the most effective rookies, Chris Henry of Cincinnati, was a third-round selection. Seventh-round choice LeRon McCoy of Arizona, had 18 receptions, just a half-dozen fewer than Williamson.

"In most years, people say the number of [first-round] wide receivers will go down, but this looks to be the year it really happens," said Carolina Panthers coach John Fox. "The top-end talent just isn't there this year at the position."

Not since 1992, when the lone wideout selected in the first round was Desmond Howard by Washington, have there been fewer than three first-round wide receivers. In the last 10 drafts, for instance, there have been an average of 4.5 first-round wide receivers. Since 1994, when the NFL reduced the draft to seven rounds, the average has been 4.3.

But there is virtually no way, short of several personnel directors' completely losing their senses, those first-round averages for wide receivers will be even remotely approximated this year.

Said Baltimore general manager Ozzie Newsome: "You'll still see overall numbers at the position through seven rounds, because there are always a lot of wide receivers on draft boards, and a lot get chosen. But the first round isn't going to be like it's been recently."

Holmes is arguably the most accomplished prospect at the position, a deep burner with terrific athleticism, but scouts worry about his size and propensity for drops. Jackson electrified scouts at the combine and has posted superb individual workouts, but the draft road is littered with Gators wide receivers who failed to live up to their billing. Moss is the brother of Redskins star Santana Moss, shares the same breathtaking quickness, but is just 5-foot-8 and playing a position where the profile has skewed toward bigger players.

While there doesn't figure to be the usual quota of first-round wide receivers, the rest of the first day will have the normal complement, and should include solid second- and third-round prospects such as Greg Jennings (Western Michigan), Demetrius Williams (Oregon), Maurice Stovall (Notre Dame), Derek Hagan (Arizona State), Brandon Williams (Central Florida) and Travis Wilson (Oklahoma), among others.

If history is any indicator, some of those players will perform better as rookies than the wide receivers who will be chosen in the fist round.

"It's just a difficult position to come into as a rookie and make a big impact," said Minnesota first-year head coach Brad Childress. "I don't think people outside the game appreciate the difficulty involved. I mean, you can talk about the speed of the game, and how different it is, but there are a lot of other things that contribute to the problems players have at the position. It's a very steep learning curve, and it takes some guys a year or two to overcome it. It's a very short list of guys who come in and make an immediate difference at the position."

A very short list, indeed, especially in terms of first-rounders.

Since 1990, there have been 60 wide receivers chosen in the first round and only four of them -- Joey Galloway (1995), Terry Glenn (1996), Randy Moss (1998) and Michael Clayton (2004) -- registered 1,000 yards as rookies. The only other wide receiver since 1990 to be chosen in any round and to post 1,000 yards in his debut campaign was Anquan Boldin in 2003. That's five wide receivers, out of the 546 selected since 1990, to have 1,000-yard rookie seasons.

The number of 1,000-yard rookie wideouts since 1970, the year of the NFL-AFL merger, is a mere nine. And that's counting 117 first-round wideouts and 1,421 total prospects chosen at the position. The average rookie production for first-round wide receivers since 1990 is just 7.4 starts, 34.5 catches, 474.5 yards and 3.1 touchdowns.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click hereInsider.