Go to a K-Mart in Santa Rosa, California to sign autographs for the "City of Hope" charity event and you may end up giving a lengthy interview to a Bay area reporter. That's what happened to Cliff Branch, anyway. The three-time Super Bowl champion and former Raider wide receiver opened up on many topics. The topic that most tickled my fancy was his take on the current set of wide receivers in Oakland.
Branch said, "[Jacoby Ford] has a bright future; he is well ahead of [Darrius] Heyward-Bey."
Timeout -- he said what?
Ford is basically still a rookie with only a few starts under his belt. DHB has had two years to get acclimated to life in the NFL. What say you now that you are equipped with this knowledge, Mr. Branch?
"So there," he finished.
You can't really argue with him either. Perhaps the biggest differences between the two players are attitude and confidence. Plus it helps that Jacoby's hands aren't made of stone.
Ford seems to be light years ahead of DHB in terms of NFL mental readiness – attitude and confidence, etc. And that was a big knock on him coming out of college – was he mentally ready for the NFL? As it turns out, he apparently is.
"[Ford] is a playmaker," Branch went on to say. "He makes big plays. They were probably just counting on him to be a return guy. They put him in at wide receiver, and he made plays. He also became very consistent."
Branch also said that this is a make or break year for DHB. "This year is going to be a big year for Heyward-Bey; he has to show his stuff."
He also added, "My pick was Jeremy Maclin." Branch indicated that he would've taken Maclin over both DHB and San Francisco wide receiver Michael Crabtree. So far, based on the early stage of their respective careers, Cliff Branch knows his wide receivers.
And he is spot on when he says it's proving time for Darrius Heyward-Bey. If he doesn't step up and have a big year in 2011, then he will start confirming the skepticism that says he is a bust. In order to get out of the doghouse, DHB is going to have to have a very productive season. In the third year of his mega-contract, the Raiders will be looking for him to at least double his career numbers in 2011. There is only so much room for patience in the NFL.
Branch cited the unmentionable as a prime example of NFL patience: "He was the quickest #1 pick to ever be released. His preparation, he wasn't prepared. Being a #1 draft choice, he should have been watching film. He didn't put in enough effort."
Though DHB has been given credit for being a hard worker, the results on the field thus far leave a lot to be desired. But many people chimed the same bells with regards to Darren McFadden after 2009 and just look how his make or break year turned out. Instead of crying for his release or trade, Raider fans wouldn't want to imagine their team without him in 2011.
I know you want me to, but I just can't go out on that limb right now. I cannot say that DHB will have a break out year. Even if it would make me look incredibly brilliant if he did. The main reason why I won't is not because I think he's a bust, but rather my belief that more than just one talented receiver stands in his way. I would also put Louis Murphy and Chaz Schilens ahead of DHB.
Talented downfield blocker, extraordinarily fast, but soft hands is not how you would describe Heyward-Bey. And let me tell you, as a writer, having to write his name all the time is annoying. Therefore I declare it is necessary that he take the next step in his career. Or at least a few baby steps.
The jump from 2009 to 2010 was 17 catches for 242 yards; if we tack those numbers onto his 2010 total that would give him 43 catches for 608 yards. He would also increase his rushing attempts by two, running the ball six times for 67 yards and a fumble. He's been pretty consistent with his one touchdown per year, but I'll be generous and give him two receiving touchdowns.
I'll leave you with this word of advice though, Darrius -- Cliff Branch is watching you and he knows his wide receivers. You better give this guy a call this offseason and see if you can hook yourself to the belt loop of his pants for a while. Perhaps then you can be a playmaker with a bright future. Exactly what Al Davis has been looking for all these years – another Cliff Branch.