Is QB Russell or WR Johnson a better bet? Print
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Thursday, 26 April 2007 10:54
NFL Headline News

 After a season's worth of painful Sundays, the Oakland Raiders now have to deal with agonizing decisions.
At least their current problem is one 31 other teams would like to have.
Coming into this weekend's NFL draft, Oakland is faced with a question, the answer of which will have a rippling effect throughout the league for years to come: Take a potential franchise quarterback with one of the strongest arms in the game, or select a wide receiver whose unprecedented raw physical skills have him tabbed the best player available.
One thing is certain: either LSU's JaMarcus Russell or Georgia Tech's Calvin Johnson would sure look nice in silver and black.
Since losing the Super Bowl four seasons ago, Al Davis' once-proud franchise has not had a winning season since, losing at least 11 games every year - including a league worst 2-14 mark in 2006. That performance "earned" the club the top pick Saturday and gave the team a prime opportunity to upgrade an offense that managed 168 points last season, the fewest in the league since Cleveland scored 161 in 2000.
So which way should it go? Looking back at a decade of drafts starting with 1994 - the first year the NFL shortened them to the current seven-round format - a little analysis may provide an answer.
First, a general look at the rate of success of high draft picks. How do we define success? As a Pro Bowl appearance within the first four years in the league. That amount of time should be enough for a player, even in a hard-to-learn position like quarterback, ample time to develop into the star he is supposed to be.
Out of all first-rounders taken from 1994-2003, 26.6 percent were named to the Pro Bowl within four years. That figure plummets to 8.8 percent among second-rounders. Put another way, the chances of a first-round pick becoming an All-Pro are more than triple those of a second-round pick.
Only 5.3 percent of third-round selections made the Pro Bowl within four years, and players chosen in the fourth round or later have an infinitesimal 1.8 percent chance of making it to Hawaii in February. That's not to say many of these players don't make their team and contribute, but hoping for them to become superstars is the equivalent of panning for gold.
Such an analysis doesn't help the Raiders much, however. Breaking the numbers down by position would be more useful for them.
Conventional wisdom says drafting a receiver early is risky, and statistics back that up. Among wideouts, only 23.1 percent of first-rounders reach the Pro Bowl in their first four seasons, easily the lowest rate among offensive skill positions. Granted, none of those players have had the attributes of Johnson, but the flip side of that low rate is that the odds of drafting a star wide receiver later are relatively high.
In the second and third rounds, 10.7 percent of wideouts blossomed into All-Pros, and, from the fourth round on, 3.0 percent became Pro Bowlers - nearly double the rate across all positions. While it's still unlikely a receiver taken on the second day will develop into a Joe Horn (5th round) or Marques Colston (7th round), stardom is certainly more realistic than at positions such as quarterback.
Of the 95 quarterbacks drafted in the second round or later from 1994-2003, only five reached the Pro Bowl in their first four years. That's a one-in-19 shot, or 5.3 percent. Conversely, seven out of 21 first-round signal-callers (33.3 percent) selected over that same span became Pro Bowlers.
The Detroit Lions are the poster children for the perils involved in drafting a wideout high in the draft, and, ironically enough, if Oakland takes Russell, Johnson will fall to them at the No. 2 pick. Matt Millen used a top 10 pick on a receiver in three straight drafts, taking Charles Rogers, Roy Williams and Mike Williams, respectively, from 2003-2005.
So far, only Roy Williams, who had 82 receptions for 1,310 yards a season ago, has made a significant impact in the league, and Detroit has finished with double-digit losses for six straight seasons. Then again, the Lions also took Joey Harrington with the third pick in 2002, and he was released four years later after a mediocre stint in Motown.
This year's receiving crop appears to resemble the one from the 1996 draft. That year, the top-rated player on the board was another tall wideout named Johnson - Keyshawn - and, like this year, the position had depth. Five receivers were selected in the first round, followed by six more in the second.
The New York Jets took Johnson with the top pick in '96, and he proved to be a worthy selection with more than 10,000 receiving yards over his 11 seasons. But a look down that year's draft board shows the Jets could have waited and still gotten a stud receiver. The second (Muhsin Muhammad), third (Terrell Owens) and even fifth (Horn) rounds yielded wideouts who have made multiple Pro Bowls and remain productive starters more than a decade later.
That draft may have been deeper than usual at receiver, but the numbers show the pattern is no fluke. Receivers drafted outside the first round are more likely to blossom than players at other positions.
To make a decision based on history alone is folly. No one can predict with complete certainty which players will pan out, and a variety of factors go into an ultimate draft-day decision. But history has shown that if the Raiders do go with Russell, there will likely be more players like Owens still available for snatching later than there will be players like Tom Brady (6th round, 2000) - especially considering they have the first pick in every round.
So, as talented as Johnson may be, the time Oakland has been using deciding between him and Russell would probably be better spent getting Randy Moss and Jerry Porter to buy into Lane Kiffin's new system.


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