2009 NFL Draft: Top Wide Receivers (Crabtree/Nicks)

Total Pro Sports – Every year the NFL draft is loaded with great college athletes. By the time draft weekend has passed, each class is marked and remembered for its strengths, weaknesses, and surprises.

Who could forget 1983, when five quarterbacks were taken in the first round, three of which have since been immortalized in Canton? Last year five running backs were selected in the first round, while six offensive tackles went off the board in round one.

In 2009, the wide receiver position stands out as one of the many notable strengths of what will be remembered as one of the deepest and richest talent pools in draft history. Anywhere from four to six wide receivers will be taken in the first round on April 26th, each bringing a different dynamic to the team that drafts him.

Let’s examine the top two of those six potential first rounders and look closer at the skills that put them at the top of the class.

(Note: College statistics are misleading, if used as a focal point of the evaluation process. They are dependent on too many variables that the players in question do not control. Statistics relate to opportunities, supporting cast, and level of competition. For those reasons, we will evaluate the traits that lead to productivity IN THE NFL rather than discuss inflated college statistics caused by athletic mismatches NOT FOUND IN THE NFL.)

1. Michael Crabtree

The consensus number one receiver on the board is such due to a unique combination of size, speed, strength, route-running, hands, and pride—yes, pride.

Size: At over 6’1”, 215 lbs, Crabtree doesn’t have ideal size to be a number one receiver in the NFL, but is close. His other skills easily make his size an advantage, even at the next level.

Speed: His speed is still a big question mark, since he was unable to run at the combine. Watching his game tape, I think he’s somewhere between 4.47 and 4.52. Again, he doesn’t possess ideal speed, but enough considering his other abilities.

Strength: Brute strength is not the right description, but effective use of leverage is what often allows Crabtree to separate from tight man coverage and catch balls other receivers lose to defenders. Once he has the ball, he uses an effective stiff-arm and is tough for a corner to bring down one on one.

Hands: Crabtree has very strong hands, and is able to fight for and hold on to the ball in traffic. He has excellent body control and balance. His hand-eye coordination and concentration is impeccable, as he rarely drops passes, even when his vision is somewhat obscured.

Route Running: If there is a weakness in Crabtree’s game, this would have to be it. That being said, almost every receiver that comes out of college needs work on route-running. Playing in three to five wide sets almost every down against primarily zone coverage, Crabtree was not asked to be precise on most plays. Against man (which was rare), he maintained excellent speed out of his breaks, using his quickness, leverage, and body control to separate easily from defenders. One training camp will make him an elite route runner in the NFL.

Intangibles: The thing that impresses me most about Crabtree and what separates him from any other receiver in this class is his ultra-competitive nature—PRIDE. He is simply obsessed with winning and being the very best receiver on the planet. Most guys want to win and want to succeed, sure, but Crabtree is a detail-oriented perfectionist that will never be satisfied. He plays with supreme confidence, but with a chip on his shoulder that will drive him to be up at 4:00AM to study film, or will demand that he drive to the training facility on his day off to catch 200 balls. That intensity is what will make him a great pro, and keep him great for a long time.

Grade: Top 5 pick. He will not slide past the Raiders at number seven overall, but should go in the top five.

2. Hakeem Nicks

Nicks is probably even more ready to succeed from day one than Crabtree will be. He has the most consistent hands in the draft, and is the most polished route runner.

Size: At 6’1”, 210, his dimensions are very comparable to Crabtree. Nicks doesn’t quite have the upper body strength that Crabtree does, but has a stronger lower body, and is even tougher to bring down one on one.

Speed: Nicks ran a 4.49 forty yard dash time, which is in line with Crabtree’s projected time. He is not going to beat coverage deep with his speed—very few do. He is very quick off the ball, and will use his quickness to get separation.

Strength: Lower body strength provides him awesome balance and power, making for a formidable ball carrier for corners and safeties to tackle. It’s rare to describe a receiver as one that runs with power but that is the case here—ala Steve Smith. He will need to develop a little more upper body strength and learn to use his hands better in press coverage at the next level. Without great speed he will be pressed in the NFL.

Hands: Nicks has 10.5 inch hands, which is impressive in itself, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he could pop a football by squeezing it. He rarely drops the ball and, when he occasionally does, it’s because he’s looking to make a play before he secures it. He will make the tough catches look easy, and he’ll do it consistently.

Route Running: Nicks is probably the best route-runner I’ve seen come out of college since Marvin Harrison in 1996. He is quick out of his breaks and reads zone coverage very well for a college player. He helps his quarterback by coming back to the ball, and leaves a large window near the sidelines for the quarterback to hit.

Intangibles: Hakeem Nicks’ best attribute is his football intelligence and attention to detail. He will be best in a single back system where he will see a lot of zone coverage. A system like that could make him an All-Pro, allowing him to simply read coverage and find the holes, which is the strength of his game. He has the football smarts to excel in even the most complex offenses and is the most NFL ready receiver in this draft.

Grade: Top 20 pick. I have Nicks rated higher than most, for the reasons I’ve outlined, but he will not slide past Indianapolis at 27. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Colts trade up a few spots to make sure that they get him. He is perfect for their offense, and they must replace Marvin Harrison.

Check back with TPS soon for Part II, examining my third and fourth ranked receivers in the 2009 NFL Draft.

To be continued…

Tags: 2009, college football, football, Hakeem Nicks, Michael Crabtree, NCAA, NFL, nfl draft,