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Updated: April 22nd, 2013 11:10pm
Pelissero: Finding an impact rookie at receiver is a coin flip at best

Pelissero: Finding an impact rookie at receiver is a coin flip at best

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by Tom Pelissero
1500ESPN.com

The Minnesota Vikings paid more than they wanted for Greg Jennings, but it's not like they had a choice. Not entering a season that means so much for the future of Christian Ponder.

They knew they couldn't go into the season with Jerome Simpson as their No. 1 receiver. And they knew the magnitude of the gamble that comes with trying to draft that No. 1 receiver and play him immediately, especially with a young quarterback trying to find himself under center.

General manager Rick Spielman acknowledged as much at the NFL scouting combine in February, pointing out that "if you look at it historically, it takes some time sometimes for those rookie receivers as they come in, and you've got to look at the success rate of that as well."

Those numbers are staggering, and they speak to the complications of learning to run NFL routes while also adjusting to a new quarterback and scheme at increased game speed.

Since 1991, NFL teams have used 83 first-round draft picks on receivers. Only 21 of them (25.3%) caught at least 50 passes as rookies. Another 27 of those receivers (32.5%) finished their rookie seasons with even 32 catches -- two a game, which isn't exactly impactful.

The numbers are even lower in the second round, where 88 receivers have been taken since '91. Only 10 of those receivers (11.4%) caught at least 50 passes as rookies and 21 more (23.9%) caught at least 32.

In other words, more than half the receivers selected in the first two rounds of the past 22 drafts (92 of 171, 53.8%) finished with 31 catches or fewer in Year 1 -- providing little to no immediate impact.

"It's the second and third years where a guy takes off," one NFC personnel man said. "That's not good for Ponder. They're fortunate that they got Jennings."

Even Jennings didn't get to 50 catches as a rookie in Green Bay, finishing with 45 catches for 632 yards in 105 targets as a second-round pick (52nd overall) out of Western Michigan in 2006.

Neither did Calvin Johnson (48 catches in 2007), Michael Crabtree (48 in '09), Hakeem Nicks (47 in '09), Dez Bryant (45 in '10), Jordy Nelson (33 in '08), Sidney Rice (31 in '07), Roddy White (29 in '05), Chad Johnson (28 in '01), Reggie Wayne (27 in '01), Plaxico Burress (22 in '00), Demaryius Thomas (22 in '10), Herman Moore (11 in '91), Vincent Jackson (three in '05), Santana Moss (two in '01) or Ike Hilliard (two in '97) -- all first- or second-round picks who went on to productive careers.

There are always going to be instant success stories, such as Cincinnati's A.J. Green or Atlanta's Julio Jones, who combined for 119 catches, 2,016 yards and 15 touchdowns in 2011. Last year, Jacksonville's Justin Blackmon and Tennessee's Kendall Wright finished with 64 catches each.

But a look at the rest of last year's receiver class shows how perilous it can be to expect too much from a rookie. The other seven receivers drafted in the first two rounds averaged just 20.3 catches, 277.9 yards and 2.1 touchdowns.

Giving the veteran Jennings $17.8 million in guarantees on a five-year, $45 million contract -- well beyond the $7 million a year they originally thought would be enough -- was the only move to make if they wanted to give Ponder a proper chance to succeed in his make-or-break third season.

"You've got to do everything you can to surround him now," the personnel man said. "Even if you draft a guy in the first round and he doesn't perform -- well, is that because of Ponder or is that because the receiver wasn't ready?"

Moreover, 11 of the 21 first-round picks since 1991 who did record at least 50 receptions as rookies were top-10 picks.

Two of the others were Randy Moss (69 for 1,313 yards and 17 touchdowns in 1998) and Percy Harvin (60-790-6 in 2009), who were selected Nos. 21 and 22 overall, respectively. But the numbers and the makeup of this draft class suggest the odds aren't in the Vikings' favor to catch lightning again at Nos. 23 or 25 this year.

West Virginia slot man Tavon Austin is the only receiver scouts are willing to lay money on to go in the first round. The others projected as possibilities -- Tennessee's Cordarrelle Patterson and Justin Hunter, Cal's Keenan Allen, Clemson's DeAndre Hopkins and Southern Cal's Robert Woods -- all have enough flaws on and/or off the field they could slide.

That might make the Vikings more willing to fill two of their defensive needs early, see how the board falls and try to get value from whatever receiver might be left on the board in Round 2.

No question, the Vikings need more receiver talent. Simpson, re-signed to another one-year deal, doesn't look to be a long-term solution. The only other receiver on the roster who's had any NFL production, Jarius Wright, is still learning as a situational No. 4 receiver at this stage.

Jennings isn't the pure vertical threat the Vikings want. But signing him did provide the reliable, quarterback-friendly receiver Ponder needs atop the depth chart -- saving the Vikings from trying to wedge a rookie into that role before recent history suggests he's likely to be ready.

Tom Pelissero is Senior Editor and columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He hosts from 6 to 8 p.m. weeknights and co-hosts from 10 a.m. to noon Sundays on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Tom | @TomPelissero | Tom Pelissero
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