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This is the first of an eight-part series previewing the NFL Draft May 8-10. Today’s installment: wide receivers.

By Jay Skurski // News Sports Reporter

Wide receivers are not known to grow on trees. But it’s easy to see how you could think that this year. “It’s the best wide receiver draft I’ve seen in years,” said NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock.

A whopping 42 receiver prospects have draftable grades, according to CBS Sports. If all of them were to hear their names called next month, it would set a record. Since the NFL went to a seven-round draft in 1994, a high of 35 receivers were drafted in both 2007 and 2008.

Last season, 27 receivers were selected, including nine underclassmen. That last number is almost certain to go up this year. In the CBS rankings, 14 of the top 18 receivers in the 2014 class are leaving school early. That adds another layer to the difficulty of scouting a position that traditionally does not see big contributions from rookies. Since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, there have been only 12 wide receivers who posted 1,000-yard seasons as rookies.

“It is a difficult position to come in and play early,” said San Diego Chargers General Manager Tom Telesco, a St. Francis High School graduate. “I’ve always said quarterback is the hardest. Receiver is probably second hardest.”

But with so many receivers carrying first-round grades this year, their time to pick up the NFL game may be stunted.

“There isn’t any question those guys have got to come in and play. Are they ready to play? You can’t push them out there unless they’re ready to contribute,” New York Giants coach Tom Coughlin said. “They’re going to make errors, but hopefully those errors are eliminated as you go along and they become more professional and more thorough in how they play.”

The consensus top-ranked receiver is Clemson junior Sammy Watkins. He’s been a star for the Tigers since the minute he stepped on campus. As a freshman in 2011, he became just the fourth true freshman to be selected as a first-team All-American, joining Herschel Walker, Marshall Faulk and Adrian Peterson.

Watkins, 6-foot-1 and 211 pounds, owns or shares 23 Clemson records, including receptions (240), receiving yards (3,391) and touchdowns (27) – despite leaving school a year early.

“Watkins is a special player, and I usually don’t get too excited about wide receivers in the top 10, but this kid is different,” Mayock said. “He’s physically explosive. He’s got great hands. He’s got good size. He’s got very good speed and what I really, really liked about this kid is he’s got toughness.

“He’ll physically beat press coverage. He high-points the ball. He’s got a little attitude about him. He blocks people. You can see him getting [ticked] off during games and going after corners and safeties and linebackers. So he’s got an attitude like he wants to be the best player there is, and when you combine that with his physical ability, I think it’s awesome.”

Watkins will most likely not be available when the Bills’ turn comes up at No. 9 overall in the first round May 8 at Radio City Music Hall. The same might be true of Texas A&M’s Mike Evans.

The 6-5, 231-pounder left A&M after his redshirt sophomore season. He started 26 games in two seasons with the Aggies and had at least four catches in 25 of those games, combining with quarterback Johnny Manziel to become one of college football’s most productive duos.

“The one thing he has to learn is he has to become a better route runner, because of his quarterback and the style of play at Texas A&M, most of his catches were verticals, back-shoulder fades and wide receiver screens,” Mayock said. “At the next level, that’s great, and it can get him production early, but he’s going to have to learn how to run routes. I think that’s part of any young wide receiver, but specifically for a kid that has not learned a whole lot because he has not played a lot.”

After acquiring Buffalo native Mike Williams in a trade with Tampa Bay this offseason, the Bills do not have to draft a wide receiver with the ninth overall pick. But if Evans or Watkins is on the board, they may be too tempting to pass up.

Given Williams’ off-field concerns, as well as his contract status, he’s likely on a one-year “prove it” deal. Veteran Stevie Johnson’s salary was also not commensurate to his production in 2013, so his long-term future is similarly cloudy.

Bills coach Doug Marrone talked about the team’s depth at receiver at the NFL Scouting Combine in February, before Williams was acquired.

“We expect them to grow and develop,” he said, referring to second-year veterans Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin. “That’s an important part of what we’re trying to accomplish with all of our players. We look for them to develop along with T.J. Graham.

“We have Stevie Johnson coming back. We have some good young receivers that were injured last year and are coming back on the roster. … We’re excited to bring Rob Moore in to develop that group and work with them. We feel we have to do a better job in putting them in better position where they can get the ball more.”

Watkins and Evans could be joined by as many as four other receivers in the first round. LSU’s Odell Beckham Jr. and Oregon State’s Brandin Cooks have been two of the fastest-rising prospects in the pre-draft process, while Southern California’s Marqise Lee and Florida State’s Kelvin Benjamin may also be gone on the first night.

If the Bills pass on receiver at No. 9, there should be some good prospects available at No. 41 overall in the second round.

Players like Vanderbilt’s Jordan Matthews, Indiana’s Cody Latimer, Fresno State’s Davante Adams and Penn State’s Allen Robinson all might be considered first-round talents in a different year without as many talented players in front of them.

Robinson led the Big Ten in receiving yards the last two seasons, while Matthews has the height teams are looking for at 6-3 and made 206 catches over the last two seasons in the SEC.

LSU’s Jarvis Landry suffered a hamstring injury at the scouting combine, and subsequently did not have a strong pro day, but he is another receiver who is likely to go in the second or third round. He had 77 catches for 1,193 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2013.

Wisconsin’s Jared Abbrederis is a likely third-round pick.

A partial list of day three candidates include Rutgers’ Brandon Coleman, Oregon’s Josh Huff, Pitt’s Devin Street, Alabama’s Kevin Norwood, UCLA’s Shaq Evans and Tulane’s Ryan Grant.

The University at Buffalo’s Alex Neutz is likely to get a shot with a team as an undrafted free agent.

The Bills have hosted Latimer and Beckham so far on pre-draft visits.

Next: Tight ends

email: jskurski@buffnews.com