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The Biggest Steals in NFL Draft History: Wide Receivers

Steve SilvermanFeatured ColumnistJanuary 15, 2014

The Biggest Steals in NFL Draft History: Wide Receivers

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    Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

    Wide receivers have often been portrayed as the NFL's version of operatic divas.

    Jerry Rice is the greatest receiver of all-time and he was all about hard work, consistency, constantly improving his skill set and making big plays at key moments. However, he had a lot of diva in him.

    He would not take the field unless his look was perfect. He would set out his uniform, his receiving gloves  and his shoes ahead of time. He would then study his look in the mirror and he wouldn't go out to face the public until he saw that everything was just right.

    While diva may be the popular perception of big-name wide receivers, that's not our concern. In this piece, we look at the biggest steals at the position in the history of the NFL.

Donald Driver

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    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    Drafted: Seventh round, 1999 draft (213th pick)

    Career: 1999-2012

    Teams: Green Bay Packers

    Key Stat: Had six consecutive seasons with 1,000 receiving yards or more from 2004-09.

    Overview: Donald Driver was not an overly impressive prospect prior to the 1999 NFL draft. At 6'0" and 188 pounds, Driver was of average size. He was fast, but he did not the kind of speed that intimidated opposing defensive backs.

    As a college player, he did not compete against major college stars during his career at Alcorn State.

    The Green Bay Packers decided to spend a late-round draft pick on him, and they got a sensational return on his investment. Driver didn't do much in his first three years in the NFL, but he became a major contributor in 2002, when he caught 70 passes for 1,064 yards and nine touchdowns.

    During that season, Driver showed the ability to run crisp patterns and catch nearly everything he could touch. He became one of Brett Favre's most dependable receivers, and he later fulfilled the same result for Aaron Rodgers.

    Driver made plays when the game was on the line, and he did it with little fanfare.

Marques Colston

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    Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    Drafted: Seventh round, 2006 draft (252nd pick)

    Career: 2006-

    Teams: New Orleans Saints

    Key Stat: Caught 83 passes for 1,154 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2012.

    Overview: The New Orleans Saints were not alone when it came to Marques Colston. He was barely on their radar prior to the 2006 draft. He had played his college football at Hofstra, and since the level of competition he faced was ordinary at best, few scouts took him seriously.

    But the Saints were intrigued by his size and reach. At 6'4" and 225 pounds, he could get to quite a few passes that many receivers couldn't reach. He also had a significant advantage over smaller defensive backs.

    That's why the Saints used a seventh-round pick on Colston. He opened eyes immediately and caught 70 passes in his rookie year. He has produced consistently for the Saints, and he's one of the main reasons their offense has been so tough for opposing defenses to figure out in the last eight seasons.

T.J. Houshmandzadeh

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    Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    Drafted: Seventh round, 2001 draft (204th pick)

    Career: 2001-11

    Teams: Cincinnati Bengals (2001-08); Seattle Seahawks (2009); Baltimore Ravens (2010), Oakland Raiders (2011).

    Key Stat: Caught 112 passes for 1,143 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2007.

    Overview: Houshmandzadeh was a complementary receiver at Oregon State during his college career, as he played second fiddle to an explosive speedster in Chad Johnson (later known as Chad OchoCinco).

    While Houshmandzadeh rarely made the headlines, he was a tough-minded, sure-handed receiver who just wanted a chance to play in the NFL. The Bengals gave him that opportunity, and he made the most of it.

    Houshmandzadeh did all the dirty work the Bengals asked of him. He was a superior blocker and he put everything he had into that thankless task. He ran crisp patterns and he had excellent hands. No, he did not have world-class speed, but he was tough, dependable and willing to sell out to make a play every time he stepped onto the field.

Roy Green

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    Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

    Drafted: Fourth round, 1979 draft (99th pick)

    Career: 1979-92

    Teams: St. Louis Cardinals (1979-87); Phoenix Cardinals (1988-90); Philadelphia Eagles (1991-92)

    Key Stat: Caught 78 passes for 1,227 yards and 14 TDs in 1983

    Overview: The St. Louis Cardinals were not a one-man team from 1979 through 1987, but there were times when it seemed like they were.

    That's because Roy Green could do it all on the football field, and old-school coaches like Bud Wilkinson and Jim Hanifan weren't afraid to exploit every one of his talents. 

    Green was the last NFL player to play regularly on offense and defense. The NFL had long done away with two-platoon football, but Green was so quick and instinctive that the Cardinals felt they could use him as a defensive back without any drop off on the offensive end. For several seasons, they were right.

    Green was a gamebreaking wideout when he was at his peak. He had dominating speed and quickness and he excelled at gaining yards after the catch. A true steal for a franchise that did not make the right decision in the draft very often.

John Taylor

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    Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

    Drafted: Third round, 1986 draft (76th pick)

    Career: 1987-1995

    Teams: San Francisco 49ers

    Key Stat: Caught 60 passes for 1,077 yards and 10 TDs in 1989

    Overview: There was little that John Taylor couldn't do on the football field for the 49ers. He was one of their most accomplished players during their heyday, but he rarely got the headlines.

    When you play opposite Jerry Rice, the quarterback is Joe Montana and the head coach is Bill Walsh, it is going to be difficult for Taylor to get noticed. However, Taylor was a magnificent player who had the speed to break long plays, the toughness to make the catch over the middle and the willingness to block effectively.

    Taylor helped Rice reach his peak as a wide receiver. On many teams, the top wideout will always draw double-coverage. Opponents could not afford to leave Taylor with single coverage on every play or he would burn them badly. 

    On another team, Taylor would have been the star among stars. However, he was more than happy to play on a 49ers team that won three Super Bowls during his time with the franchise.

Rod Smith

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    Brian Bahr/Getty Images

    Drafted: Undrafted free agent

    Career: 1995-2006

    Teams: Denver Broncos

    Key Stat: Caught 113 passes for 1,343 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2001

    Overview: Few scouts gave Rod Smith a thought during his college career. He may have dominated at Missouri Southern, but the level of competition was not considered to be high enough to be worthy of draft consideration.

    The New England Patriots gave him a free-agent tryout and quickly cut him, but the Denver Broncos liked what they saw. He quickly became one of John Elway's favorite receivers. Smith had average size at 6'0" and 200 pounds, but he was fast once he had the football in his hands. 

    He did not have dynamic stopwatch speed when running the 40, but he was a gamebreaker on the field.

    In addition to his physical skills, Smith was simply a tough-minded football player who blocked hard for running backs and his fellow receivers. When the Broncos needed a game-breaking play, they often looked to Smith and he almost always came through.

Cliff Branch

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    George Rose/Getty Images

    Drafted: Fourth round, 1972 draft (98th pick)

    Career: 1972-85

    Teams: Oakland-Los Angeles Raiders

    Key Stat: Caught 60 passes for 1,092 yards and 13 touchdowns in 1974

    Overview: Cliff Branch gave the Oakland Raiders an element of speed that few receivers could match. Branch was not only explosively fast, he excelled at setting up opposing defensive backs and getting them to lean one direction and then leave them flat-footed with a blazing move.

    But there was more to Branch's game than just speed. He was not a big man at 5'11" and 170 pounds, but he could put his body between the defensive back and the ball, make the catch, take the hit and then spin out and make a big play. 

    While Branch is not in the Hall of Fame, he has reached the semifinal level in the voting procedures twice, and many of the shrine's gatekeepers think he deserves to get in. He was a dynamic playmaker during the Raiders glory years.

     

Derrick Mason

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    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    Drafted: Fourth round, 1997 draft (98th pick)

    Career: 1997-2011

    Teams: Tennessee Titans (1997-2004); Baltimore Ravens (2005-10); New York Jets (2011); Houston Texans (2011)

    Key Stat: Caught 73 passes for 1,128 yards and nine touchdowns in 2001

    Overview: Derrick Mason was a mainstay for the Tennessee Titans throughout the majority of his career. The former Michigan State Spartan was a consistent producer because he had dependable hands and he knew how to get open.

    However, Mason was not content to just serve as a receiver. He was a big contributor on special teams and proved to be a solid return man. He scored a touchdown on an 80-yard kickoff return against the Jacksonville Jaguars in the 1999 AFC Championship game.

    Mason was a consistent producer as he had 1,000 receiving yards or more in eight-of-nine seasons between 2001-09.

Don Maynard

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    Drafted: Ninth round, 1957 draft (109th pick)

    Career: 1958, 1960-73

    Teams: New York Giants (1958); New York Titans-Jets (1960-72); St. Louis Cardinals (1973)

    Key Stat: Caught 68 passes for 1,214 yards and 14 touchdowns in 1965

    Overview: Don Maynard was dismissed by the Giants shortly after he was drafted by them, and it seemed his career would have been at an end if the American Football League had not come around.

    Maynard played for the New York Titans, who would change their name and become the Jets. Maynard, a speedster with great hands and moves, quickly established himself as one of the best receivers in that offensive-minded league. 

    Maynard became Joe Namath's most dependable receiver, and he had two TD receptions in the 1968 AFL Championship game victory over the Oakland Raiders. That triumph earned the Jets a spot in Super Bowl III, where they beat the Baltimore Colts in what many consider to be the most significant upset in pro football history.

Wes Welker

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    Drafted: Undrafted free agent

    Career: 2004-

    Teams: Miami Dolphins (2004); San Diego Chargers (2004); Miami Dolphins (2005-06); New England Patriots (2007-12); Denver Broncos (2013-)

    Key Stat: Caught 122 passes for 1,569 yards and nine touchdowns in 2011

    Overview: Despite a productive college career at Texas Tech, the diminutive Welker went undrafted.

    Scouts and general managers were turned off by his 5'9", 190-pound frame and lack of game-breaking speed. However, all Welker needed was an opportunity.

    He may not be the fastest wideout, but he runs well. His routes are precise and he knows how to get away from tight coverage.

    More than anything, Welker has superb hands and can make the difficult catch in the clutch. He caught 111 passes or more in five of six seasons between 2007 and 2012.

    He is a major headache for opposing defensive coordinators who need to stop him or even slow him down. He is one of the greatest steals—at any position—in NFL history.

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