Lions' Johnson an exception to the rule

Calvin Johnson (Jeff Hanisch, US Presswire)

As more NFL teams organically produce wide receivers, Calvin Johnson is among a select few receivers who are a rarity.

In the always interesting and ever changing world of NFL wide receivers, the prodigal Randy Moss is trying to get back into the league, New England pass catchers are attempting to get over their uncharacteristic Super Bowl XLVI drops, Roddy White wants to get across his point about commissioner Roger Goodell being overpaid, Hines Ward is trying not to get bounced out of Pittsburgh, the Detroit Lions will soon get down to contract extension negotiations with Calvin Johnson, and a legion of unrestricted veterans is anxious to get onto the open market, where free agent riches await.

What few of the league's pass-catchers don't seem to get, though, is that the position has been somewhat devalued the past several years.

That de-emphasis of sorts is a function of many components: Among them, the decreasing valuation of receiving statistics in an increasingly pass-skewed league; the continuing ability to replace departing pass catchers and the enhanced sophistication and play-making skills of young players at wideout; the basic cost-versus-reward tradeoff that has been magnified by the exponentially larger but divergent numbers in terms of both salary and production; and the diva element that seems to be inherent to the position.

Wide receiver hasn't yet evolved into a fungible spot to fill. At least not with guys like Calvin Johnson or Andre Johnson or Larry Fitzgerald or Greg Jennings around. It's hardly to the point where wide receivers are dime-a-dozen performers.

At the same time, however, the amount of turnover at wide receiver has been virtually unmatched over the past five years. And there is a growing chorus of league general managers and personnel men that doesn't covet wide receivers as it once did, because the recent history of the NFL has demonstrated that pass-catchers can be replaced. And can be had rather cheaply, as well.

Witness, Victor Cruz, the onetime undrafted free agent who salsa-ed his way into the Pro Bowl this past season.

All of which might not be great news for Moss, the peripatetic rolling stone who essentially wore out his welcome in three different league precincts in 2010, then temporarily retired after no one wanted him when he caught all of 28 passes in 16 games two years ago (82 wide receivers had more receptions), and then suddenly announced this week that he wants to return in 2012 from his one-year hiatus.

You know, kind of like Terrell Owens wanted a deal last year.

Former Indianapolis president and general manager Bill Polian opined this week that Moss -- a player whose route-running repertoire was not all that extensive even in his halcyon days and consisted mostly of sprinting up the boundary and carefully avoiding the middle of the field -- looked like a guy who had lost some speed during his most recent tour of the league. Compared to some of the talent evaluators to whom The Sports Xchange spoke this week, Polian might appear diplomatic.

"Maybe somebody will take a look," said one NFC general manager whose offense is in crying need of an accomplished wide receiver, but who won't remotely consider checking out Moss' remnant skills. "But, trust me, it won't be us."

Said an NFC personnel director: "You don't kick the tires, do you, when you already know that the tire is flat?"

Ouch.

Because the college game has followed the NFL lead in putting the ball in the air, more accomplished wide receivers are being produced on campuses, and not all of them are first-round draft choices. Pittsburgh general manager Kevin Colbert said that the Steelers didn't consciously attempt to remake their wideout corps a few years ago. But since the 2009 draft, Pittsburgh has added Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown, and Emmanuel Sanders in their drafts, the trio that has dubbed itself as "Young Money," and none were selected higher than the third round.

The emergence of the three -- Wallace and Brown each rung up over 1,000 yards in 2011 -- has helped push Ward toward the door.

There's no doubt that elite wide receivers are attractive in the first round. Heck, there have been 36 first-round wideouts taken in the first round of the last 10 drafts, and seven of those years featured at least three top-round wideouts, and four had five or more. But the other stanzas, even the late rounds, have produced pass-catchers who can put up 50 or more receptions, move the chains, and keep the NFL's aerial games moving.

It's hard to argue that the premier wide receivers, such as Calvin Johnson or Fitzgerald, are special players. But there are other wide receivers who fit well into certain systems, and who can still make offenses click. There are systems, too, that are conducive to wide receiver success. Let's say Marques Colston, who averaged 94.2 receptions over the past five years, exits New Orleans as an unrestricted free agent this spring. As good as Colston is, the bet here is that the Sean Payton-Drew Brees offense will still post big numbers in 2012.

That's not to diminish the importance of Colston, merely to emphasize that wide receivers can be had.

Ever the salesman, agent Joel Segal contended this week that three NFL franchises have already indicated an interest in Moss. Of course, huckster Drew Rosenhaus claimed last year that some team would add Owens after he recovered from his knee surgery and staged a workout attended by zero NFL representatives. In case anyone missed it, Owens is playing indoor football. And not even in the arena-league majors.

Given the transient nature of a position that has included more than two dozen veteran trades in the last three offseasons, and where it seems teams are able to unearth plenty of fresh faces to catch the ball, Moss could find the market thin. One could argue convincingly that, in his heyday, Moss was an unparalleled playmaker. But it was 2008, an eternity ago in NFL time, when Moss snagged 23 touchdown passes from Tom Brady, and his skills have doubtless eroded.

Moss is 35 years old now and, his resume aside, he faces long odds. Not just to return to the league but to even get a contract.

When none of the three wide receivers who were finalists for the Hall of Fame gained induction again this year, Canton wannabe and current ESPN analyst Cris Carter suggested that the position wasn't appreciated enough anymore. That's probably not the reason that Carter, Tim Brown and Andre Reed once again failed the Hall of Fame selection committee's scrutiny. But there is some truth to the notion that is has become increasingly difficult to accurately assess the bloated metrics of the position in a pass-oriented league.

Before 1990, there was one wide receiver in league history, Washington's Art Monk in 1984, who registered 100 or more catches in a season. In the 22 seasons since, there has been at least one wide receiver who cracked the century mark in 20 of the campaigns. In 11 of the 22 seasons, there were three or more wide receivers with 100 catches, and seven seasons produced four or more.

In the past 10 years, when the passing game has really exploded, there has been an average of 16.7 wide receivers with 75 or more receptions, 19.1 with 1,000 yards or more, 6.9 with at least 10 touchdowns.

Unless Moss can convince some team that he is still special, that he has eluded Father Time and is ready to resume his likely Hall of Fame career, he probably will have a tough time getting into a training camp.

In the game of "get" being played by NFL wide receivers, it may be time for Moss to get real.

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