Just as the NFL draft makes gods out of kids, those gods can be gilded, plated and filled with flaws.
The Oakland Raiders selected Maryland wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey with the seventh overall pick of the 2009 NFL Draft. Not to suggest mock drafts or prognosticators in that space are all-knowing, but no one saw Heyward-Bey - a rare blend of size (6-foot-2, 210 pounds) and speed (4.3 40-yard dash) as a top 10 pick.
Except Al Davis, of course. Davis allegedly walked into the Raiders' draft room and moved Heyward-Bey to the top of the team's board, not exactly keeping with the work his scouts had put into making the pick. With one swift move of his hand, he slopped on a coat of faux gold over a raw piece of tin.
Was that Heyward-Bey's fault? He couldn't have had many people objectively tell him he was a more pro-ready receiver than either Texas Tech's Michael Crabtree or Missouri's Jeremy Maclin. While all three of them were a bit raw in retrospect, but Maclin and Crabtree dwarfed Heyward-Bey's production in college, and while neither ran as fast as Heyward-Bey, both were considered fast receivers.
ESPN drat analysts Mel Kiper and Todd McShay both had Oakland taking Maclin at No. 7 overall (Kiper had Crabtree going at six to Cincinnati and McShay had him going eight to Jacksonville), and Heyward-Bey landing in Chicago with the 18th pick.
Those 11 picks mean the world.
In the previous CBA, rookie contracts weren't capped. Heyward-Bey reportedly received a 5-year, $38.25 million contract with $23.5 million guaranteed. That's more guaranteed money than the Steelers gave Antonio Brown on his extension in 2012. The seventh overall pick in this year's draft, Mike Evans of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, is expected to land a $14.6 million deal over four years, with a signing bonus of $8.9 million.
And it won't take Evans long to pass Heyward-Bey's rookie production. He had nine catches for 124 yards and a touchdown his entire rookie season - good receivers get that in one game. Heyward-Bey struggled with hamstring issues early in training camp which may have affected his ability to see more time.
It didn't affect the criticism of Davis for the pick, that showered down on him like beer from the Black Hole. An actual scouting report filed on Heyward-Bey before the 2009 draft:
Bit of a one trick pony at this time. Might be the draft's most dangerous vertical threat, but offers little else. Long-legged and struggles to generate consistent separation out of his cuts. Not as consistently effective on jump balls as he should be, considering his natural size advantage. Too often double-clutches the ball. Questionable toughness running across the middle. Lacks strength and consistent effort as a downfield blocker.
It makes you wonder what they said about lower round picks.
The next time Heyward-Bey reaches 1,000 yards in a season will be the first time. He didn't do it in three years in college (despite being at that point second on the school's all-time yardage list) and hasn't cracked it yet as a pro - although he hit 975 off 64 catches in 2011.
Just as glaring as Heyward-Bey's stats are the Hall of Shame candidates that started at quarterback for the Raiders in the time he was there - JaMarcus Russell, Bruce Gradkowski, Charlie Frye, Jason Campbell, Carson Palmer and Terrelle Pryor.
Matt Leinart, Kyle Boller and J.P. Losman also saw time in those four years he was with the Raiders. The amazing part of that list is there are two first overall picks and six of the nine were first round selections. Heyward-Bey was released by the Raiders in 2013 and scooped up by the Colts, who paid him an incentive-laden $3 million one-year deal. Perhaps, even after five years in the NFL, that kind of contract was a bit more in line with his relatively raw skill set. He ended up riding the pine for the Colts over the late portions of the season, including the playoffs, after catching just 29 passes on 64 targets - among the lowest ratio in the league for players with 60 or more targets.
The Steelers signed Heyward-Bey to a one-year deal this offseason, presumably because, with everything else stripped down and the past forgotten, he can still run. This team wanted speed, and this is a guy who, at one point, had a faster recorded 100-meter dash than Steelers rookie speedster Dri Archer (DHB was clocked at 10.44, Archer at 10.49).
Perhaps he still carries that one-trick pony label with him - although it's probably more accurate to say he's a one-half-trick pony. But the expectations can't be with him anymore. He's not going to make $23 million over the next five years. He's not even certain to catch 23 more passes in his next five years. However, he was placed in a position to fail from the start, having been selected considerably higher than he should have been, even considering his potential.
He's battling potential again in Pittsburgh, jockeying for snaps with 2013 sixth round pick Justin Brown and undrafted free agent from 2012 Derrick Moye. Archer may figure into the team's decision as far as how many receivers to keep.
Heyward-Bey may never shed the label of being Davis's gold leaf-plated pick from 2009, but looking over his career, his stats would look fairly nice if he was a mid-round selection. Since the Steelers are paying him around that amount in terms of his contract, maybe expectations will finally meet production for Heyward-Bey.