NFL Combine reveals several receivers who fill Bears’ needs
BY MARK POTASH Twitter: @MarkPotash February 27, 2012 1:20PM
Georgia Tech receiver Stephen Hill makes a catch as he runs a drill at the NFL football scouting combine in Indianapolis, Sunday, Feb. 26, 2012. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
Updated: February 27, 2012 5:19PM
While Bears general manager Phil Emery and his scouts are diligently and painstakingly evaluating the wide receivers for this year’s draft, it’s Jay Cutler’s succinct, simplified analysis that should be their guide: ‘‘Anyone over 6-2 at this point is going to look good.’’
Cutler might not know just how right-on he is. While drafting wide receivers in the first round has been a dicey proposition overall for NFL teams, the risk factor diminishes significantly when you have a quality quarterback already in place.
It’s been that way for years. Six wide receivers were drafted in the first round in 2005. It’s probably not a coincidence that the last one, Roddy White (27th overall), mostly with Matt Ryan at quarterback, has been the most productive — ahead of Braylon Edwards (third), Troy Williamson (seventh), Mike Williams (10th), Matt Jones (21st) and Mark Clayton (22nd).
It happens all the time. It can’t be a coincidence that Hakeem Nicks (29th in 2009) has been more productive than Darrius Heyward-Bey (seventh) or Michael Crabtree (10th). Heyward-Bey ran a 4.30 40 at the Combine — tied for the third-fastest time for a wide receiver in the 12 years since the NFL posted 40 times. Nicks ran an unimpressive 4.63. But Nicks is flourishing with Eli Manning at quarterback. Heyward-Bey has had JaMarcus Russell, Bruce Gradkowski, Charlie Frye, Jason Campbell, Kyle Boller and Carson Palmer as his quarterbacks.
And especially on a team crying for a productive ‘‘go-to’’ wide receiver like the Bears are. The point is, after making an unusually steep investment in Cutler, the Bears have a golden opportunity for a major upgrade that could impact their entire team by giving him what he needs more than anything besides pass protection. If they refuse to overpay for apparent free agent Vincent Jackson, they’re next-best option is the 19th pick of the first round of the NFL draft.
The opportunity there only became enhanced Sunday at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis. Not that Michael Floyd’s impressive 4.46 in the 40 changed his prospectus as an NFL wide receiver. That’s a silly part of the evaluation process. As NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said Sunday, ‘‘I get tired of saying that fast guys run fast.’’
Where the Combine makes a difference is when it gives previously overlooked or under considered athletes like Georgia Tech wide receiver Stephen Hill a chance to prove they deserve a better look. The 6-4 215-pound Hill, projected as a third- or fourth-round pick when he renounced his final year of eligibility for the draft, invited scrutiny that could move him much higher after posting the top 40 time among wide receivers (4.36) with a 40-plus vertical.
‘‘Stephen Hill killed it,’’ Mayock said. ‘‘I had a bunch of scouts tell me before the combine this kid might blow the roof off of it, and he did.
No doubt that NFL teams will take another look at Hill’s sketchy college resume. Playing in a triple-option offense at Georgia Tech, Hill had only 49 receptions in three years, but for 1,248 yards, nine touchdowns and a 25.5 average per catch. He had 28 receptions for 820 yards (29.3 yards per catch) and five touchdowns as a junior in 2011.
‘‘The tough thing with Stephen Hill is coming out of that option offense, he’s hard to evaluate. We went through this with Demaryius Thomas. But he ran officially I think a 4.36. He [broad] jumped 11-feet-1 . His vertical … was out of the gym — it might have been 41 [inches].
‘‘But the point is his acceleration, his burst, his quickness and even more important to me. OK, now you’ve shown me you’re an athletic track star. When he got on the field and caught the football, he didn’t double-catch balls. He made hands catches out in front of him.
‘‘He’s a hard guy to figure out, just like Demaryius Thomas was because you don’t see real routes. All you see are verticals and crosses and play-action and jump balls. From a football perspective, every team in the league now has a lot of homework to do. He’s kind of pushed himself [to] the forefront of this wide receiver [class].’’
Demaryius Thomas, who also had relatively modest statistics in Paul Johnson’s offense at Georgia Tech, but still was drafted 22nd overall by the Denver Broncos in 2010.
Thomas, who who ran a 4.38 in the 40 during his draft evaluation, struggled with injuries as an NFL rookie and was back in an option offense with Tim Tebow in 2011. But he did have four receptions for 204 yards in the Broncos’ playoff upset of the Pittsburgh Steelers in January, including the game-winning 80-yard touchdown catch that was more run than catch. If he can do that with Tebow, there’s no telling what Hill can do with Cutler — right?
It’s always tricky to figure out what the Combine performance means. Hill and Floyd ran faster than expected, but others did not.
‘‘Floyd had as good a day as just about anybody out there,’’ Mayock said. ‘‘The guy I was most surprised with as far as his 40 on the downside was Kendall Wright [of Baylor]. On tape … I thought he was DeSean Jackson, just a notch below him from a speed perspective. To see him run 4.6, I was stunned.
‘‘Kendall Wright ran slow. Reuben Randle [of LSU] … didn’t run what I expected him to. I think you’re going to see a bunch of teams kind of re-shuffling the deck a little bit at the wide receiver position to make sure they understand what a guy’s real football speed, not manufactured track speed.’’
Most mock drafts have the Bears taking Floyd at No. 19, but the Chargers could get him at No. 18 if they lose Jackson. Regardless, the Bears should have plenty of options if they want a wide receiver in the first round. Floyd is 6-3. Hill is 6-4. Randle is 6-3. South Carolina’s Alshon Jeffery is 6-3. In fact, with Cutler they have more options than most.