The top of this year’s wide receiver draft class is intriguing, if nothing else.
Flawed might be a better description, at least according to some draft experts.
Before this week, most of the concerns about the elite wideouts involved on-the-field issues:
No one doubts Tavon Austin’s play-making ability. But is the diminutive West Virginia standout durable enough to become a top-10 pick and a team’s No. 1 receiver for the foreseeable future?
Size isn’t a problem for Rock Hill Northwestern product Cordarrelle Patterson, who is 6-foot-2 and 216 pounds. But Patterson played only one season of major college football, and scouts question whether Patterson’s five-month stint at Tennessee has sufficiently prepared him as a route-runner and a player who can read NFL defenses and master offensive schemes.
A couple of highly rated receivers had to deal with off-the-field distractions last week.
ESPN reported that Cal’s Keenan Allen, who grew up in Greensboro, had a drug test red-flagged at the scouting combine in February. But ESPN later back-tracked on the story when Allen’s agent provided documentation showing league officials asked Allen to have his ankle re-examined, not to undergo a second drug test.
In another alleged incident from the combine, ESPN also reported that Clemson’s DeAndre Hopkins was one of two players whose hotel room was trashed in Indianapolis. Hopkins, considered a second-round prospect, tweeted that he had checked out of the room before the damage occurred.
The Panthers, who might be searching for Steve Smith’s eventual successor, have taken a close look at several of the top receiving prospects. They had private workouts with Austin and Patterson, and attended Allen’s pro day, which was held at a Greensboro training facility owned by Panthers receivers coach Ricky Proehl.
A decade ago, Tavon Austin likely would have been selected in the third or fourth round of the NFL draft.
Seldom does a playmaker who stands just 5-foot-8 make it in the NFL, thus teams wouldn’t invest too high of a pick on him.
Flash forward to the NFL of today where diminutive receivers like Wes Welker, Percy Harvin and Danny Amendola are the bulk of their respective team’s receiving game and Austin has become a sure-fire first-round selection.
“You think about where he can be in the NFL, he’s got great potential to be an electrifying performer the way today’s NFL is,” ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said in a recent conference call.
“Now he’s a top 16 pick because today’s NFL allows him to be successful. I think he could go 16 to St. Louis and be a real good pick for (quarterback Sam) Bradford and company and give some juice to that offense.”
Kiper said he could see Austin going to the Panthers at No. 14.
Austin caught 114 balls for 1,289 receiving yards. Counting his punt and kick return yards along with rushes, he accounted for 2,910 total yards for the Mountaineers last season.
His height can be considered both a detriment to his game as well as a boost in his draft status. Austin is projected to play slot receiver, a position that made Welker the New England Patriots’ Tom Brady’s top target for six seasons before going to the Broncos this offseason.
Austin could land in St. Louis to fill the void left by Amendola, who was often compared to Welker for both production and size.
“A lot of teams are looking for a guy who can do multiple things on the football field,” Austin said at the NFL combine. “I think I’m that guy.
“I’ve been a little guy my whole life. I’m a little guy, but I play big.”
Though rarely does it hurt a top prospect, Austin’s Wonderlic test score was leaked this past week, and he reportedly scored a 7 on the test.
The test measures a player’s ability to think, learn and solve problems quickly. But Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman, speaking generally about the test, said it’s more of an indicator than anything else.
"If you have concerns about a guy’s learning, bring him in. (He) spends four hours with the coaches, they put him on the board, and you can make a better indication … an indicator of sorts.
"It’s just part of the process. You’re not going to draft a guy based on the Wonderlic test score or you’d be taking everybody out of the Ivy League. You’re not going to do it. It’s just part of the process."
The agent for Cordarrelle Patterson says the former Rock Hill Northwestern and Tennessee receiver doesn’t have any bad habits.
Patterson didn’t play major college football long enough to develop many habits at all.
The team that drafts Patterson will do so with the belief that it can take Patterson’s immense physical gifts and mold them into a finished NFL product. Patterson, who spent last fall at Tennessee after two seasons at junior college, readily admits he is not a polished receiver.
But Patterson says he’ll be a willing student.
“I know there’s a lot of things I haven’t learned yet. I’m ready to learn that and go on to the next level,” Patterson told the Observer. “I was just so much an athlete (in college). I know this is my job now.”
There are frequent fliers who have had longer layovers than Patterson’s one-semester stint at Tennessee. After breaking more than a dozen records at Hutchinson (Kans.) Community College, Patterson arrived in Knoxville last summer and could not have fit in better if he’d been wearing a coonskin cap.
In his first game in bright orange, Patterson burned N.C. State cornerback David Amerson on a 41-yard touchdown pass. He added a 67-yard touchdown run later in the first quarter.
Patterson became the first college player in four years to score touchdowns four different ways.
Then he was gone, declaring for the draft before either the outgoing or incoming Tennessee coaching staffs could finish shaping him.
“Is he raw? Sure, he’s raw. But I don’t think there’s been a coach that’s complained about his ability to learn football,” said Joby Branion, Patterson’s Chapel Hill-based agent.
“He got there just before the season started. And for him to have done what he’s done, given the extraordinarily limited exposure he’s had, tells you a lot about the kid.”
Patterson set a school record with 1,858 all-purpose yards last fall, and his emergence filled the void left when receiver Da’Rick Rogers transferred to Tennessee Tech. Patterson squeezed a lot into his lone semester at Rocky Top.
“I didn’t have much time. I was only there for a couple months, and had to learn the offense real quick,” he said. “I know my route-running is not where it needs to be. But I know it can get better. That’s easy. That’s something you can fix.”
Patterson flew through the 40-yard dash at the combine in 4.42 seconds. But Patterson’s stock has dropped in the two months since Indianapolis – at least among draft analysts, who have become increasingly skeptical of Patterson’s ability to transition to the NFL.
Mike Mayock of the NFL Network said last week Patterson could slip out of the top 20, while ESPN’s Mel Kiper continues to describe him as raw.
“I don’t think he can help you necessarily as much as his talent indicates as a rookie,” Kiper said during an April 10 conference call with reporters.
Patterson, who worked out for the Panthers last month, has become immune to the criticism.
“I hear that almost every day. Of course I’m tired of that,” he said. “But people are going to say what they want to say. At the end of the day it’s what I believe.”
Keenan Allen didn’t run at the combine because of a knee injury.
Allen ran at his pro day in Greensboro this month, although he wasn’t particularly fast.
But Allen, who broke DeSean Jackson’s freshman receiving records at Cal, says he’s fast enough.
“I know people have been doubting me on my speed, but I don’t feel like I’m a slow guy,” Allen said in February at the combine. “I feel like I’m pretty fast, but I definitely put some effort into it.”
Allen did little to silence the doubters when he needed 4.71 seconds to get the 40-yard dash at his pro day.
J.T. Johnson, Allen’s agent, said Allen’s left knee injury, which did not require surgery, hurt his explosiveness.
But Allen, who is 6-foot-2 and 206 pounds, has always been known more for his size and strength than his speed. Not surprisingly, the two receivers he models his game after are Detroit’s Calvin Johnson and San Francisco’s Anquan Boldin, who out-muscled defensive backs all the way to a Super Bowl ring last season with Baltimore.
“His physicalness, going up and making catches you don’t think he’s going to come down with,” Allen said of Boldin. “(Joe) Flacco just throws it up there sometimes, and he always makes incredible catches, including the Super Bowl. So that’s what I like about him.”
Besides his sturdy frame, scouts like Allen’s sure hands. He ranked in the top 10 nationally in 2011 when he caught 98 passes for 1,343 receiving yards from his half-brother, Cal quarterback Zach Maynard.
Maynard was a big reason why Allen, a Parade and USA Today All-American at Northern Guilford, went across the country for college. Maynard said he was used at multiple receiving spots with the Bears.
“I played a lot in the slot. Third down, second down, I get in there with the linebacker and they’d get a mismatch,” he said. “So, they did that a lot. I’m definitely comfortable in the slot.”
Allen got pulled into the pre-draft rumor cycle last week when ESPN reported that his drug test from the combine had been red-flagged because of an excessive amount of water in his system.
ESPN later back-tracked on the story after Johnson provided documentation showing Allen had been asked to return to Indianapolis for a follow-up exam on his right ankle, not for another drug test. Allen had surgery to repair ligaments in his right ankle a year ago, according to Johnson.
Johnson, who provided the same document to the Observer, said he spoke with several teams and is confident the report will not affect Allen’s draft status.
“I just hate that bad information (got out) there and the public is judging based on false information,” Johnson said.
Allen’s speed likely will have a bigger impact of whether he is drafted in the first round or falls to the second. ESPN’s Mel Kiper had projected Allen as a second-rounder, and dropped him a few spots after his pro day.
But Johnson said Allen is fast when it counts.
“Some people play faster than they could run a straight-line 40,” Johnson said. “If you look at his tape, he’s fast enough to play this game.”