The Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots recently finished a game of cat and mouse over restricted free-agent receiver Emmanuel Sanders.
Basically, the Steelers gambled by offering Sanders a lower tender, allowing the Patriots to offer a third-round pick for him. With an offer sheet of a one-year deal for $2.5 million, the cash-strapped Steelers decided to match on Sunday, retaining Sanders for the season.
Had the Steelers used a higher tender in the first place (price of $2 million), a team would have needed to use a second-round pick as collateral, which was unlikely to happen. In the end, the Steelers cost themselves $500,000 this season.
While some are surprised with the outcome, the whole standoff speaks to where these teams stand on wide receiver evaluations.
New England has all but given up drafting its own wide receivers. Why not use a third-round pick to get someone with proven talent like Sanders? It sure beats past third-round failures like Brandon Tate (83rd overall in 2009) and Taylor Price (90th overall in 2010).
Meanwhile, Pittsburgh has been very successful at getting a wide receiver later in the draft. Sanders himself was a third-round pick (82nd overall in 2010). Antonio Brown was a sixth-round pick (195th overall) from that same draft. Mike Wallace was the 84th pick in the 2009 draft, and the franchise’s leading receiver, Hines Ward, was the 92nd pick in the 1998 draft.
Both teams needed a competent receiver, but rather than try their hand at the lottery that is the draft, the Steelers said no to a third-round pick so they could keep Sanders.
But what can a team really expect from a wide receiver it used a third-round pick to acquire? We have a pretty good idea that players like Ward and Wallace are the best-case scenario, but do New England failures like Price and Tate represent the other end of the spectrum, or are they the norm?
Data for Third-Round Wide Receivers (1967-2012)
Unlike some of the more difficult draft analysis, this is a chance to compare players from the same position with statistics we are accustomed to using (receptions, yards and touchdowns).
All third-round wide receivers drafted since 1967 (the first year of the common draft) were analyzed.
However, getting a proper data set is harder than it sounds. Using the official NFL site and Pro-Football-Reference.com, some discrepancies had to be accounted for as well as the players who changed positions or played multiple positions.
Walter Wilson and Don Bass played both tight end and wide receiver in the NFL, though their drafting teams list them as wide receivers in the draft history.
Corey Harris had the most interesting career. He was drafted 77th overall by the Houston Oilers in 1992 after playing both wide receiver and running back at Vanderbilt. He moved on to the Packers where he stayed at receiver before the Seahawks converted him to cornerback in 1995. He finished his career as a safety, but only his stats as a wide receiver (1992-94) were used.
With that said, a total of 176 wide receivers have been drafted in the third round since 1967. All statistics are for the regular season only, updated through 2012. Keep in mind, active players are obviously still likely to add to their numbers.
The average third-round wide receiver plays 56.7 games or about 3.5 seasons in today’s NFL. He catches a little over 120 catches for about 1,720 yards and 11 touchdowns on average. He averages 20.7 yards per game.
This is basically the career output of the forgettable Charles Wilson.
However, these are much better numbers than those of Taylor Price (five receptions for 80 yards) and Brandon Tate (37 receptions for 643 yards and four touchdowns). New England just made two lousy picks.
But it is clearly hard to find a great receiver in the third round. This table looks at the best in career approximate value (AV):
The average AV is 14.9 for these third-round receivers. That is not high at all, though historically, the third-round AV is just around 16.
A total of 13 third-round receivers made a Pro Bowl in their careers. Only four of the 176 players ever became All-Pro wide receivers: Terrell Owens, Steve Smith (Carolina), Antonio Freeman and Nat Moore.
The best wide receivers definitely shape up as Owens, Ward and Smith. They are the only three to gain at least 10,000 receiving yards. Other high-quality players include Moore, John Taylor, Freeman, Ed McCaffrey, Tony Hill, Ricky Proehl and Laveranues Coles.
Mike Wallace is quickly climbing up this list, so that is a nod to the Steelers’ drafting. Eric Decker has a chance at some big years with Peyton Manning in Denver. T.Y. Hilton just had a very impressive rookie season for the Colts. He was the 92nd pick in the 2012 draft.
If Carolina fans are worried about 2010 pick Brandon LaFell, take note that his 40 yards per game rank 22nd out of 176.
A total of 10 players average at least 50 yards per game. Here is that list of the top 10 leaders in career receiving yards per game:
A total of 21 third-round wide receivers (11.9 percent) had at least one 1,000-yard season in their career.
Nine third-round wide receivers have played a significant part on a Super Bowl-winning team. Remember Mario Manningham’s catch in Super Bowl XLVI? He was the 95th pick in 2008. Remember Jerrel Jernigan? No? The Giants made him the 83rd pick in the 2011 draft. So far, he has three catches for 22 yards.
That’s the gist of the third round. There are definite success stories, but there are many more stories of disappointment and unfulfilled potential.
Only seven players never played in an NFL game. The most notable was Eric Crouch, who was winner of the 2001 Heisman Trophy. An interesting pick by the St. Louis Rams in 2002, the college quarterback never played after suffering a leg injury.
Twice as many receivers (14) failed to make a catch in the NFL, as some of the third-round picks are used as return specialists. That hasn’t stopped Jacoby Jones (73rd overall in 2007) from making an impact.
Jones was a draft pick of the Houston Texans. Interestingly enough, the Baltimore Ravens took a similar player in Yamon Figurs with the 74th pick—or the pick directly after Jones went off the board.
Figurs did return a punt and a kickoff for touchdowns in his rookie year, but he only caught five passes in his brief NFL career. Let’s just say Baltimore got more of what they bargained for with Jones years later: a return specialist and a big-play receiver.
Milestones like 200 receptions and 1,600 receiving yards were used earlier with the thought that a third-round pick would play four seasons for a team. Realistic expectations should be for that player to be a top-four receiver on the team, so that would be averages of 50 receptions and 400 yards per season.
That doesn’t look like setting the bar very high, but historically, a small percentage of third-round receivers hit those marks in their entire careers. Remember, we do have several young, active players who are counting against those numbers now, but a few will be exceeding them in the future (keywords: a few).
The Steelers hope Emmanuel Sanders (94 receptions for 1,290 yards and five touchdowns) is one of those productive third-round wide receivers. He should open the season as the No. 2 receiving option on the team behind Brown. A big year could earn him a long-term deal in Pittsburgh.
When you look at the data, it is easy to see why New England had the interest in him, especially given their recent evaluations of mid-round receivers.
It is also easy to see why Pittsburgh wanted to keep Sanders. Losing him after losing Wallace likely would have forced a plunge into the dangerous waters of the draft. Even in a deep draft class, that could yield another disaster like Limas Sweed. The Steelers cannot press their luck with another third-round steal.
Third-round picks are not known for being busts, because the round carries a lower level of expectations. But there is value to be found.
The good receivers who fall to the third round usually carry a flaw. They are considered to be too slow (Ward) or too small (Smith). They did not play at a big school (Owens). Their game was too one-dimensional (Wallace). There may be an injury history or off-field issues (recall the troubled Chris Henry) scaring teams away.
If the flaw was not there, then obviously, they would be first- or second-round picks. But for the teams willing to dig deep enough, they may be able to snatch a real steal in the third round.
Scott Kacsmar writes for Cold, Hard Football Facts, NBC Sports and Colts Authority, and contributes data to Pro-Football-Reference.com and NFL Network. You can visit his blog for a complete writing archive and can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.
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