Darrius Heyward-Bey was a huge reach and colossal mistake as the No. 7 pick in last year's NFL Draft. Everyone but Al Davis knew it at the time.
DHB has always been a better physical specimen than football player and his production has never matched his talent level. I'm not going to suggest that he's a superstar in waiting. At the same time, I've done a couple dynasty startup drafts in the past month and I'm wondering if his value has slid to the point where he might actually be a good buy low candidate.
I just got him as WR72 (including rookies) in a 14 team PPR startup. He went at WR77 in my other draft. I'll be the first to acknowledge that Heyward-Bey looked dreadful in his rookie year, but isn't it a bit premature to bury his career after one terrible season?
I'm a Bay Area guy. I watched DHB play in the preseason. I watched him play in the regular season. He never showed me any glimmers of potential. On the other hand, that's not entirely unexpected from a rookie WR. Lots of great WRs didn't even see the field in their rookie seasons.
Here are Heyward-Bey's rookie stats: 9 catches, 124 yards
Pretty ugly. These numbers don't offer much hope...or do they? Here are rookie stats for some other now-prominent WRs:
Robert Meachem: 0 catches, 0 yards
Miles Austin: 0 catches, 0 yards
Santana Moss: 2 catches, 40 yards
Donald Driver: 3 catches, 31 yards
Vincent Jackson: 3 catches, 59 yards
Pierre Garcon: 4 catches, 23 yards
Jerricho Cotchery: 6 catches, 60 yards
Steve Smith (NYG): 8 catches, 63 yards
Steve Smith (CAR): 10 catches, 154 yards
Derrick Mason: 14 catches, 186 yards
TJ Houshmandzadeh: 22 catches, 228 yards
Hines Ward: 15 catches, 246 yards
Brandon Marshall: 20 catches, 309 yards
Plaxico Burress: 22 catches, 273 yards
Roddy White: 29 catches, 446 yards
Heyward-Bey had a better rookie season than Miles Austin, Santana Moss, Donald Driver, and Vincent Jackson. That's a pretty stunning truth, but of course it's not that simple.
Many of the players on the above list were low-profile prospects when they entered the league, meaning they weren't handed the opportunities that a first-round pick typically receives.
Austin was undrafted. Driver and TJ Houshmandzadeh were seventh-round picks. Pierre Garcon was a sixth-round pick. Derrick Mason, Jerricho Cotchery, and Brandon Marshall were fourth-round picks. Hines Ward and Steve Smith (CAR) were third-round picks. Chad Ochocinco, Vincent Jackson, and Steve Smith (NYG) were second-round picks.
By and large, these players weren't expected to be contributors on opening day. Many of them had to battle just to make their team's roster as rookies. It shouldn't be a big surprise that they were slow to impact because their respective coaching staffs had no impetus to force them into action before they were ready to play.
But what about the first-round wide receivers on my list?
Robert Meachem, Santana Moss, Plaxico Burress, and Roddy White all had poor rookie years. All of them were considered busts at one point in time. All of them turned it around.
Why did these guys start so slowly? Meachem and Moss struggled with injuries, but both were healthy enough to play at least a little bit. Moss averaged fewer than 10 yards per game in his rookie year and Meachem didn't record a single catch.
Burress played 12 games and averaged 23 yards per game. He was ineffective, he dropped too many passes, and everyone thought he was a huge bust. White fared substantially better than this trio with a respectable 446 yards as a rookie, but his production and results still had fans crying bust early in his career.
None of this proves that Heyward-Bey is likely to become a productive pro player, but the numbers suggest that it's entirely possible for a wideout to emerge as a superstar after humble beginnings. Are we being too quick to write off DHB? Is there any explanation for his poor rookie performance? I think there might be.
The first thing working against Heyward-Bey is something we'll call "The JaMarcus Factor." The Raiders were a terrible football team in 2009. The majority of their passes were thrown by JaMarcus Russell, arguably one of the worst starting quarterbacks in the history of the NFL.
Russelll completed less than 50 percent of his passes, averaged 5.2 yards per attempt, and threw just three touchdowns against 11 interceptions.
Oakland's leading receiver was tight end Zach Miller. He had just 805 yards, which is a paltry total compared to the top pass catcher on most NFL teams.
My point here? Oakland's passing game was putrid. Some of the blame probably falls on Heyward-Bey, but I think everyone can agree that his supporting cast didn't put him in position to succeed (as opposed to Percy Harvin in Minnesota or Jeremy Maclin in Philadelphia).
And was it really reasonable to expect a good rookie year from Heyward-Bey in the first place? Even before the Raiders drafted him, DHB was described as a raw project who needed lots of refinement.
In this regard he's similar to Brandon Marshall, Chad Ochocinco, Vincent Jackson, and Robert Meachem. All of them were considered compelling physical specimens who lacked the polish to make an instant impact.
It wasn't a terrible surprise to see them slow out of the gate. No one called Vincent Jackson or Chad Ochocinco a bust after their rookie years.
Yet everyone has already given up on Heyward-Bey.
DHB was a top-10 draft pick. To make matters worse, he was picked ahead of more polished talents like Michael Crabtree, Percy Harvin, and Hakeem Nicks. As a result, his rookie performance tends to be evaluated in relation to that of his peers.
That's unfortunate because all of the other first-round rookie receivers selected last year had excellent seasons. If we take a step back and realize that DHB was really a late first-/early second-round project who was picked a round too high because one delusional team owner fell in love with his speed, I think his rookie season performance looks more palatable.
While we hope that every rookie will make an immediate impact, we don't panic when second-round project types like Devin Thomas, Vincent Jackson, and Chad Ochocinco fail to become instant stars. In that context, DHB's performance is much more acceptable.
Heyward-Bey had a terrible rookie year, but it's premature to close the book on his NFL career. His situation was terrible last season and unrealistic expectations magnified his poor performance because he was viewed as a high first-round pick when in reality he was a project who had very little hope of making an instant impact even before the Raiders took him.
He's not without talent. In highlight reels like this one you can see glimmers of speed and playmaking ability.
My main concern (aside from the fact that he looked horrible as a rookie) is that Heyward-Bey never dominated in college whereas guys like Santana Moss, Vincent Jackson, and Plaxico Burress were immensely productive at the NCAA level.
It's possible that Heyward-Bey simply doesn't have the football skills to ever become a quality NFL player. Time may justify the current level of skepticism, but his story isn't over yet.
If we view him as a project receiver who was doomed to fail as a rookie because of his toxic situation and his lack of polish, we should be much more forgiving of his early struggles.