Careen At Two, Jabar?

May 29, 2003
Careen At Two, Jabar?
by Keith Weiland

Jabar Gaffney may only be 22 years old, but his career is already at a crossroads. One path leads the Texans’ inaugural second round pick to build on his steady performance as a rookie and become David Carr’s primary target this fall. The other will take him to relative obscurity if he fails to do the things necessary to develop into a quality NFL receiver.

The Texans, whether intentionally or otherwise, sent a message to Gaffney when they selected Andre Johnson with the third overall pick in the 2003 draft. Without saying a word, Gaffney has learned the Texans don’t expect him to be their primary target on passing downs.

Gaffney had better distinguish himself early as the team’s go-to receiver in 2003, or he’ll soon step aside for Johnson. With Corey Bradford also in the fold, Gaffney needs to establish his playmaking ability now, not later.

It’s not that Gaffney didn’t put up respectable rookie numbers. As the fourth wide receiver selected in the 2002 draft, he held his own in an expansion offense, totaling 41 receptions and 483 yards. Both totals ranked third among all NFL rookies.

And as a rookie wideout, shouldn’t he be cut some slack? Aside from recent examples Randy Moss in 1998 and Terry Glenn in 1996, first year receivers, particularly those who left college early, struggle when they hit the pros. To have expected more production from Gaffney last season would have been akin to digging in your kid’s sandbox hoping to find oil.

“I’ve always been the go-to guy my whole life, and I didn’t come here to be the second receiver,” Gaffney said to the Chronicle last November.

There are a few things that he’ll need to address if Gaffney wants to take the next step in his development this fall.

Gaffney needs to mature his game, particularly his blocking and route running. His blocks lacked effort (not that dragging Fernando Bryant up and down the field for 60 minutes is easy) and they did little to help the team’s anemic rushing offense.

Gaffney’s routes weren’t bad, but they also weren’t crisp. In college, he could afford to be less precise and squat in the seams of a zone defense. Defensive backs in the NFL are too quick to let him get away with it now.

Gaffney’s 11.8 average yards per catch was also indicative of a lack of breakaway speed. He had several key drops that were more of a result of concentration lapses than his overly-publicized 7.5″ hands. To be a go-to receiver, Gaffney needs to demonstrate more of a penchant for making the tough grab between the hashes, then let his instincts take over to make a run after the catch.

So year two in the NFL will be an important one for Gaffney to show what direction his career is headed. A look into two case studies might offer a glimpse into the paths that lay before him.

The first belongs to Seattle’s starlet, Koren Robinson. Robinson, like Gaffney, passed up two seasons of college eligibility to enter the NFL draft. Both were also burdened with minor questions regarding his character. (Recall that Gaffney once stole cash and a gold watch from a locker room, while Robinson, known for missing meetings at N.C. State, was arrested this past February for failing to disperse outside a nightclub.)

Both have similar height and weight, and Robinson only runs the forty 0.1 seconds faster than Gaffney. Robinson was the second receiver selected in 2001 and posted similar rookie stats to Gaffney’s. Robinson’s 39 receptions and 536 yards placed him third and fourth, respectively, among other rookies.

In his second season, Robinson showed he could assume the top responsibilities, notching 78 catches for 1,240 yards. Two things contributed to Robinson’s sharp increase in production last year, not the least of which was learning how to utilize his speed to turn short receptions into big gains. Robinson added more than two yards to his per catch average in 2002.

“It’s something that every team stresses, trying to get extra yards after the catch,” said Seahawks’ receivers coach Nolan Cromwell. “But the thing I stress more is, let’s make sure we catch the ball first, and then their athletic ability just takes over from there.”

On-field maturation also contributed toward his progress in 2002. Robinson dedicated himself in the offseason to show his team that he had more discipline in his route running.

“The more you get the ball thrown your way, the more comfortable you can feel,” Robinson said.

And receivers get more touches when they earn the trust of their quarterbacks. As a result, Robinson is one of the most promising young receivers in the league.

The second case study is that of Reidel Anthony, who like Gaffney, was a product of Florida’s prolific offense. As the third wideout taken in 1997, Anthony’s rookie season in Tampa was almost as productive as Gaffney’s, with 35 receptions and 448 yards.

But Anthony failed to take the same leap that Robinson later took. While respectable, his 51 catches for 708 yards in 1998 proved to be his career highs. Anthony was unable to find the kind of respect in coverage that college defensive backs once gave him, and he failed to adjust despite his talent.

“Reidel couldn’t handle the blocking or going over the middle of the field that we asked of him,” Tampa General Manager Rich McKay later said of Anthony.

Sound familiar? Surely it does (and don’t call me Shirley), but I’m nowhere near ready to give up on Gaffney as the next failed Gator wideout in the NFL.

“Defensive backs and secondary schemes are very difficult for (rookie receivers) to adjust to,” Texans receivers coach Kippy Brown said in defense of Gaffney. “I think it was just an adjustment for him, getting used to preparing the way you have to prepare in the NFL and going against better people than he’s gone against in the past. So, you have to work a little harder and make sure that your technique is right.”

Watching the Texans select Johnson with the third overall pick, however, is enough to make me wonder if the team really has the full confidence in Gaffney to do just that, but Brown sounded upbeat last November.

“The guy is practicing hard and doing things right. He wants to be a good player, so it’s just a matter of him staying on course. He’ll be fine.”

Since it is likely Johnson will also need at least a season to acclimate to the NFL game, year two might be Gaffney’s his last best chance to blaze the trail as Carr’s first go-to target, just as Robinson did a year ago in Seattle.

If he doesn’t, Gaffney will fade down the road, struggling with Corey Bradford for playing time and following Anthony in a long line of Florida receivers who failed to differentiate themselves in the NFL.

Looks like Keith Weiland picked the wrong week to stop sniffing glue.