NOW THAT LARRY FITZGERALD officially isn't coming, what can the Eagles do about getting a difference-making, No. 1 wideout? Isn't the April draft the most likely place now?
(In case you haven't been keeping up, Fitzgerald has been unofficially not coming at least since last month's NFL Scouting Combine, when the Arizona Cardinals said they weren't going to trade him, even if he didn't agree to restructure his contract. Yesterday, Fitzgerald finally agreed to restructure his deal, getting a $15 million signing bonus that can now be amortized. The 4-year, $40 million restructuring apparently drops Fitzgerald's 2008 cap number by nearly $9 million, giving the Cardinals room to field an actual team. This news had to be a crushing blow to the main discussion board on the Eagles' Web site, which contained a longstanding Fitzgerald-to-the-Eagles thread that was 272 pages long as of yesterday afternoon.)
So, again, Larry Fitzgerald, officially not coming. Now what?
Detroit has said Roy Williams isn't coming, either. And unlike the Cards, who had a reason to want to trade Fitzgerald, the Lions have no strong reason to want to trade Williams. Lions general manager Matt Millen, asked last week about persistent rumors of a Williams trade to the Eagles, told the Detroit News, "I'll listen to an offer for anybody,'' but added, "in the end, we want Roy Williams.''
The Bengals have insisted they won't trade disruptive wideout Chad Johnson, though Johnson has been agitating for a move. (And the less frantic fan might ask, "Do we really want Chad Johnson? Haven't we been down that bumpy, axle-breaking road before?'')
When you're talking about trades, it's impossible to say nothing is out there - we don't know, for example, that the Eagles couldn't package disgruntled corner Lito Sheppard with something and pry Lee Evans from Buffalo, or Marques Colston from New Orleans. But there is no reason to think that will happen.
The Birds still seem likely to trade Sheppard. It isn't clear they'll get a difference-making wideout in the deal.
They certainly could get a wideout with potential, picking 19th overall in the draft - DeSean Jackson, from California, Limas Sweed, from Texas, Oklahoma's Malcolm Kelly, LSU's Early Doucet, Michigan State's Devin Thomas and Indiana's James Hardy all seem likely to be drafted somewhere from the middle of the first round to the end of the second. But none of those is a surefire star, and even if one turns out to be great, that's a longshot approach to obtaining a difference-maker for 2008, which could be quarterback Donovan McNabb's last go-round with the Eagles.
First, rookie receivers rarely are true difference-makers, in any offense. Calvin Johnson, the phenom from Georgia Tech who went second overall last April, to Detroit? He caught 48 passes as a rookie for 756 yards. Great talent, no question. But it's a big adjustment for a rookie. The defenses are different, and the offenses are different. The second WR taken last year, Tedd Ginn Jr., ninth overall to Miami, caught all of 34 passes for 420 yards. There was a breakout rookie - Kansas City's Dwyane Bowe caught 70 passes for 995 yards after being drafted 23rd overall. But four slots later, the Saints took wideout Robert Meachem, who needed June knee surgery. Even though he recovered, Meachem never made it onto the field.
In fact, if you look at first-round rookie wideouts over the past 5 years, Bowe has the best numbers. Even the sainted Fitzgerald caught a solid but ungaspworthy 58 passes for 780 yards in 2004, his first season. By comparison, in 2007 the Birds' Reggie Brown, object of many fans' ire, caught 61 passes for exactly 780 yards. Of course, Brown was in his third season, the season when many experts feel wideouts finally come of age (which was why so many fans found his totals disappointing). They had in mind something more like what Atlanta's Roddy White did - White, drafted 27th overall in 2005, caught a total of 59 passes his first two seasons, 83 for 1,202 yards last season. It's one thing to expect stardom from a third-year guy, something else to expect it from a rookie.
Then there is the fact that we're talking about the Eagles here, the team that last went for a wideout first in 2001 and ended up with Freddie Mitchell, the team that has a hard time integrating rookies into its schemes. Remember, in Brian Westbrook's 2002 rookie season, he carried the ball all of 46 times.
There's another significant downside to looking for a No. 1 wideout in the first round - the NFL has seen quite a few high-profile busts at that position in recent years. Remember Troy Williamson, seventh overall to Minnesota in 2005? Or Mike Williams, taken three slots later that year by Detroit? The guys who drafted them are hoping you don't.
NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said this week that he thinks all the potential 2008 first-round wideouts have significant issues, that the Eagles would be gambling far less by taking, say, a corner or an offensive tackle at 19. Mayock notes that Jackson turned out to be 5-10, 169 when he was measured and weighed at the combine, and he has a reputation for not liking the weight room. Sweed rehabbed a wrist injury, reinjured the wrist during the season, then hurt it again during Senior Bowl practice in January. NFL teams have to be concerned about that. Kelly, Mayock notes, didn't run at the combine and doesn't get much separation on tape. "Everything he catches is contested,'' Mayock said.
Thomas impressed at the combine, but was a bit of a 1-year wonder at Michigan State - he barely got on the field before 2007, then decided to declare for the draft as a junior-eligible. Doucet might not be a true No. 1 - more of a slot guy, perhaps. He hasn't run for scouts yet. Hardy might come closest to being what the Eagles need - at 6-5 1/2, 217 pounds, and 4.5 in the 40, he has stirred comparisons with Plaxico Burress - but he might very well be there in the second round.
In fact, it's very possible the Birds could get a No. 1 wideout after the first round. In the last three drafts, the wideout with the best rookie numbers - 70 catches, 1,038 yards - is Colston, the guy New Orleans finally got around to taking in the seventh round in 2006, 252nd overall. *