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NFL Combine: Will 2009's Season Help Improve Draft Stock of Rookie Receivers?

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NFL Combine: Will 2009's Season Help Improve Draft Stock of Rookie Receivers?
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Certain positions are equated with "instant" results.

Running backs, for example, usually have fairly short evolution time frames. Trench guys on either side of the ball may take time to refine, but can frequently step into key roles as rookies.

Other positions are generally thought of as taking some time for development.

Cornerbacks and quarterbacks are the most frequent cases of this, taking two or three years to start really making good on potential.

Traditionally, wide receivers tend to lean closer to the later set of positions.  Unless a need is dire, they are given smaller roles in order to learn the NFL pace of football and to improve their rapport with a team’s quarterback.

In 2009, however, top-flight wide receivers broke onto the scene in major roles right away.  Fifteen rookie wideouts topped the 30-catch mark last season; whereas, only five accomplished that number the year prior.

The Offensive Rookie of the Year award, an honor dominated historically by running backs and recently split between quarterbacks and running backs, was given to just the seventh receiver in 42 years in Percy Harvin.

Like Harvin, Michael Crabtree, Jeremy Maclin, Austin Collie, and Hakeem Nicks all shortcut the development process not only by achieving success as rookies, but also by entering the draft as early-entry juniors.  Many of these players benefit from the same systems that can hurt quarterback prospects—the high-octane spread offense.

Not all touted rookies were instant successes, however. Oakland's seventh overall pick, Darius Heyward-Bey, put up only nine catches in 11 starts. 

Ultimately, those players were more the exception than the norm, as more first year receivers found themselves as major contributors more than in any other year.

What does this mean for 2010? 

There aren’t as many receivers considered true first round talents. 

Dez Bryant (despite not participating in any combine drills) and Golden Tate should easily find themselves off the board in round one, but the talent slips to mostly second round names after that.

The success of 2009’s wide-receiving cash crop could serve to bump players like Brandon LaFell and Arrelious Benn into the later stages of the opening round better than any combine results could.

Benn had the more impressive combine, with 20 reps in the bench press and a solid (for his size) 4.48 40-yard dash time. 

LaFell failed to help his case with a very modest 4.59 40-yard dash time. But he may become a major target for a high drafting team in the second round, or one of the late first-round teams in need of a wideout (Baltimore Ravens, New York Jets).

Multi-tool players like Percy Harvin might also pave the way for athletic draft risers like Jacoby Ford (4.27 in the 40) and Emmanuel Sanders (6.60 three-cone drill). They could be picked up earlier than projected by teams looking to get dividends in both the passing and return games. 

The confluence of formerly mid-round risers like Ford and well-projected players losing some stock with modest combines (LaFell, USC wideout Damian Williams) should equate to a huge second-round boom when the draft rolls around.

Look to see many of these players cracking starting lineups and/or earning serious reps in 2010, as the NFL’s pass-happy offense continues to put young pass catchers to work early and often.

Will one of these players take home another Offensive Rookie of the Year honor? 

With no real top 10-type running backs and a suspect quarterback crop, it is a real possibility.  At the very least, expect to see far more candidates coming from the position than in years past.

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