Veteran receivers experiencing expiration of status

Apparently there is a statute of limitations on draft status.

This offseason has helped disprove a perception that first-round picks are provided unlimited opportunities to play up to their glowing draft scouting reports in the NFL. Or at least underline that potential, it seems, really does carry a shelf life.

For many onetime former first-round wide receivers, the expiration date appears to be nearing.

Try asking any of the five onetime first-round wide receivers who, only five weeks before summer practices commence around the league, are still looking to latch on to a training camp invitation, if they believe it.

There remain nearly two dozen "vested" (four seasons or more of seniority) wide receivers from among the original pool of unrestricted free agents, or players who were released and thus classified technically as "street" free agents now, and these are probably desperate times for all of them.

Lamented the prominent agent for one of the former first-rounders: "I can't give my guy away right now. I've been trying to call in favors, trying to get somebody to give him a chance, and nothing. Not even for a one-year minimum (contract)."

The remnant group includes guys like Patrick Crayton, who has 25 career touchdowns despite never being much more than a No. 3 receiver; Mark Clayton, whose resume includes 25 starts; and 11-year veteran T.J. Houshmandzadeh, who has registered 92 starts, six seasons of 70-plus receptions, and 627 catches for his 11-year career.

But there are onetime first-round choices, too, like Plaxico Burress (2000), Michael Clayton (2004), Braylon Edwards (2005), Bryant Johnson (2003) and Roy Williams (2004). And they can't get a nibble, no matter their collective portfolios.

Sure, the Miami Dolphins signed Chad Ochocinco last week, but that was a bit of an aberration. The rebuilding Dolphins sorely need receivers, and Ochocinco, despite his decline, could be among the team's top three pass-catchers. Before Ochocinco's deal in Miami, however, the nine previous veteran wide receivers who had signed were guys whose backgrounds were known mostly to family members and friends. It's a tad arbitrary, but it had been nearly a month since a wide receiver of notable consequence had been signed.

As is typically the case, wide receiver was one of the more popular positions in the draft. The position, by design, gets younger. Older players get phased out, and it gets tougher for the older players, no matter their credentials, to land jobs. This season could see the forced ending of some once-promising wide receiver careers.

The case of Burress -- he spent the 2009 and 2010 seasons away from the league and banished to a prison as punishment for shooting himself in the leg -- is especially curious. The 10-year veteran returned to the field with the New York Jets in 2011, started in 13 of 16 appearances, and demonstrated that he can still be one of the most productive "red zone" receivers in the league. But when it comes to solid job offers, well, those are crickets you hear in the background.

Seven of Burress' eight touchdown catches last season -- only nine wide receivers in the league had more -- came from inside the 20-yard line. Of his 63 career scores in 10 seasons, 33 are of the "red zone" variety. In what some would hail as an age of specialization, the 34-year-old Burress has a demonstrated proficiency for filling at least one role better than just about anyone in recent history.

But the same skill that has made Burress successful -- using his long and angular body and superior strength to uncover in close quarters -- may be part of what has kept him unemployed so far. Just rating rosters on skill-level alone, is Burress likely better than, say, the No. 5 wide receiver on the depth charts of pretty much every franchise in the league? No doubt. But many players, certainly fans, lose sight of this reality: A fifth wide receiver isn't necessarily paid to catch passes, but rather to run down under punts and kickoffs, and none of the five former first-round wideouts still trolling for contracts has ever succeeded big-time on special teams cover units.

"You can't make 'em understand the concept (of roster synergy)," said an NFL general manager who has been contacted by agents for several free agent wideouts, over the weekend. "The agent will say, like, 'Well, he'd be in your top five, right?' Yeah, from a pure pass-catching standpoint, he probably would be. But how many teams put five wide receivers on the field at a time? There are slots to fill and most of these (wideouts) can't fill the wide receiver spots."

It might be a comedown, especially given the ego of the position, but it's true.