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Boyd next in line of Pitt receivers to NFL

2002: Antonio Bryant Second Round 63rd overall Cowboys
2004: Fitzgerald drafted First Round 3rd overall Cardinals
2011:   Jonathan Baldwin First Round 26th overall Chiefs
2014:  Devin Street Fifth Round 146th overall Cowboys
2016:  Tyler Boyd ?

Round 1 of the NFL draft kicks off Thursday night. Though Pitt’s Tyler Boyd likely won’t have his name called then, he’s a good bet to hear it Friday night during Round 2 or 3. When Boyd does eventually stroll up to the NFL podium, he’ll be walking in familiar footsteps the latest in a growing line of former Pitt Panther wide receivers to do so.

Over the decades, Pitt football has more or less stayed the same. The Panthers have prided themselves on carrying a blue-collar mentality and playing smash mouth football. Despite implementing offenses more conducive to producing star running backs, Pitt has found a way to consistently find and develop NFL talent at the wide receiver position.

Boyd’s imminent selection will mark the fifth Panthers receiver taken in the NFL draft since 2002. That number probably should have been six, too. Receiver Greg Lee entered the draft early in 2005 following a junior season where he led the Big East in receiving yards and touchdowns. Lee proceeded to go undrafted. Had he taken some sage advice and returned for another season, he most certainly would’ve been drafted.

It’s not like Pitt has been passing through all mid-round fodder either. Of the players selected, two were first-round picks, Fitzgerald going third overall and Baldwin 26th. A third, Bryant, was taken in the second round, and now Boyd is likely to be nabbed in the second or third rounds. For only a handful of athletes, that’s an impressive amount of premium draft capital being spent on Pitt pass catchers.

How have these former Panthers fared on the next level? It’s been a mixed bag, but in aggregate the results have been promising, especially at the top.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock the past two decades, chances are you’ve witnessed the NFL brilliance of Fitzgerald. After a record-setting career at Pitt, he’s more than lived up to the hype of being the third overall draft choice in 2004. Fitz is a surefire hall of famer, having amassed 1,018 receptions, 13,336 receiving yards and 98 touchdowns thus far in his career. Fitzgerald has been to nine Pro-Bowls in his 12 seasons, including a ridiculous seven years in a row from 2007 to 2013.

His 98 career touchdowns are third among active players, and he led the NFL in receptions with 103 in only his second year. Another 1,000-yard season would ascend him to eighth on the all-time receiving yards list. Even more astonishing, he sits only 2,598 yards behind Terrell Owens for the second-most receiving yards in league history. If Fitz puts up even respectable numbers playing three to four more seasons, he could be hanging his cleats up trailing only Jerry Rice as the NFL’s second most prolific receiver of all time.

Saying the other first-round draft pick, Baldwin, hasn’t fared quite as well as Fitzgerald could be the understatement of the century. Baldwin was a physical specimen, standing 6 foot 4 inches and 225 pounds, while running the 40-yard dash in the 4.4 second range. His blend of prototypical NFL size and playmaking ability oozed next-level potential. Unfortunately, his extremely brief career was marred by off-field character issues and questions about his work ethic. Baldwin washed out of the league after only three seasons.

Chosen two years ago by the Dallas Cowboys, Street has yet to see much real opportunity. During two campaigns with the Cowboys, Street has been targeted on only 20 pass attempts total. It’s too early to tell where he will end up, but if his current lack of usage is any indication, his mark in the NFL may be made on special teams not hauling in passes.

The elder statesman of the group is Bryant. He was drafted in 2002, also by the Cowboys. His stay in the NFL was lengthy if not spectacular. He played for seven seasons on four different teams the Cowboys, Browns, 49ers and Buccaneers. Bryant accumulated 372 receptions for 5,685 yards and 30 touchdowns over his career. His best season was in 2008 while with the Buccaneers notching 83 catches for 1,248 yards and seven touchdowns.

Boyd is an extremely talented player with pedigree. He was heavily recruited coming out of Clariton High School, but never in even the most optimistic Pitt fans wildest dreams could they have imagined how well his career unfolded. Boyd leaves Pitt the school’s all-time leader both yards and receptions, compiling 254 catches and 3,361 yards.

So where will Boyd measure up among the group? My most reasonable expectation is that Boyd’s career will end up somewhere above Antonio Bryant’s, but below Larry Fitzgerald’s. Having watched nearly every snap of Boyd’s career, I pegged him as an NFL talent almost immediately. He’s got impeccable hands and is an excellent route runner. From day one, he popped off the screen with his mature play. Boyd is electric in the open field, useful in the return game and tougher than people give him credit for. Ultimately, I could see him as a high-end number two to low-end number one receiver who finds a niche in the league and a solid five- to 10-year career.

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