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12

Catching On

by DJ Boyer on Feb. 12, 2014

The wide receiver position is being utilized now more than ever in the NFL. Teams are throwing the ball so much that quarterbacks passing for 4,000 yards in a season is common. Even a handful are topping 5,000, when before a few years ago, Dan Marino was the only quarterback to accomplish that feat.  Big physical receivers that are fast are becoming common and now wide receivers that can block or play in a spread offense are a hot commodity.

 

The Top Prospects:

 

Sammy Watkins was one of the top freshman at any position much less wide receiver during the 2011 season. As a sophomore Watkins disappointed as his numbers declined as he battled a few nagging injuries and bouts of inconsistency. Heading into his junior campaign, we proclaimed this would be a boom or bust season. Watkins boomed and broke all kinds of Clemson records and now sits atop the wide receiver class as the top prospect, where he should be the first receiver off the board and a top 10 overall selection. Watkins caught 101 passes for 1,464 yards and offers value as a return man, similar to Cordarrelle Patterson last season.  Watkins has all the tools you'd want, as he shows the ability to get open and cause separation as well as make defenders miss after the catch. Watkins has enough speed to be a deep threat as he was the only player in the NCAA to have a pair of 90+ yards touchdown catches last season. Watkins is big enough to be an effective blocker and showed he could do so at Clemson despite not being an aspect of his game that was utilized often.

 

Marqise Lee was the consensus top wide receiver going into the season and declined entering the draft last season, as he was eligible as a redshirt sophomore.  Lee struggled with various injuries as a junior and finished about 1,000 yards shy of his totals as a sophomore when he won the Biletnikoff Award as the top wide receiver in the nation. In addition to the injuries, he had an unsettled situation at quarterback where it took ¾ of the season before Cody Kessler established himself as the true quarterback for USC. Lee should still be a first round selection however he is no longer viewed as a top 10 prospect overall. Lee is one of the most explosive receivers off the line when healthy. His workouts and performance at the Combine will go a long way in determining where he falls on Draft Day.

 

Mike Evans is a player who was aided by having the amazing Johnny Manziel as his quarterback…or was it the other way around? Manziel made a number of plays to receivers other than Mike Evans but when you watch the film you can see there are numerous occasions when Manziel when in trouble just puts the ball out there and lets the 6’4” prospect go up and get it. Evans will benefit not only from his elite size but the fact that he may be the best wide receiver in the air. Evans times his jumps so well and uses his body as an effective shield against defenders putting himself in the best position to make a big play. Evans has solid hands but has shown he can sometimes be a bit lazy as he lets the ball come into his stomach or chest instead of extending for the ball and simply catching it with his hands. Evans could sneak into the top 10 due to his size and if he has an impressive workout with speed below 4.5 his stock should skyrocket even more.

 

Kelvin Benjamin, as a redshirt sophomore, is not as seasoned as the other top prospects at the wide receiver position, but he is capitalizing on his immense size and his 18.7 yards per catch during the season, including the game and national title winner for Florida State in the BCS Championship Game. Benjamin looks more like a tight end standing over 6’5” and he topped the 1,000 yard mark on only 54 catches while finding the end zone 15 times. There were moments during the season where Benjamin looked absent from the offense or uninvolved but others where it seemed like he just put the team on his shoulders and willed them to victory. He will be a gamble and a player that will need some time to develop but he is a safe gamble and at 23 maturity should not be as a much of a question mark as with many other underclassmen. Benjamin should land somewhere in the 15-25 range overall on draft day.

 

Allen Robinson is a player that is not that well known outside of Penn State in football circles despite being the first player in over 30 years to lead the Big Ten in receptions and yards in back-to-back seasons. Robinson’s feat is more impressive when you take into account that his conference leading numbers this year came with a true freshman quarterback, Christian Hackenburg throwing him in the football.  Robinson stands over 6’2” and has deceptive straight-line speed. He may not be as polished or as explosive as some of the prospects ahead of him but he should go near the tail end of round 1 and likely to a team contending for a shot at the Super Bowl. Robinson could be a compliment to a team with an established #1 receiver and could challenge to be the NFL Rookie of the Year for 2014.

 

Second Tier:

 

Jordan Matthews ended his collegiate career at Vanderbilt as the SEC’s all-time leader in receptions with 107 as a senior and posting 201 over his final two years of eligibility.  Matthews is a solid 6’2” and 210 pounds with a frame and body that should hold up to the rigors of the NFL quite nicely. Matthews lacks top end speed or elite separation skills but he has very large hands and uses them not just for catching the football but as an effective blocker that would thrive on a team that utilizes running the football out of a spread formation. Matthews is physical at the line of scrimmage and will not shy away from contact when opposing corners try to jam him at the line. Matthews could slip into the second round but his production in the premier conference in college football will make his workout and combine numbers not quite as important as the players around him.

 

Bradin Cooks is the winner of the Biletnikoff Award for 2013 given to the top wide receiver in college football. Cooks started the season as a 5th rounder and someone who would likely not declare for the draft and return to school for his senior season. After leading the nation in receiving yards and catches at 128 he declared and now could find himself in the 1st or, more likely, 2nd round.  Cooks only stands 5’10” but is likely seen as the premier slot receiver in this draft and he can help any team in the return game. Cooks could post a sub 4.4 40 time but it’s his speed in and out of breaks and when changing directions that make him an elite prospect. Cooks is a threat to score every time he touches the ball, but durability with a smaller frame will be questioned at the next level.

 

Paul Richardson is another wide receiver leaving school early and size is an issue. Richardson stands 6’1” yet only weighs in at 170 pounds and he will have to add about 10-15 pounds to his frame to make coaches a bit more comfortable with him at the next level. Richardson will have show that he can add muscle by not sacrificing his speed and big-play ability. Richardson has one of the most impressive stats for a side receiver with his 21 career touchdowns covering 841 yards, or 40.1 yards per touchdown.  Richardson has battled some knee and foot issues during his career but his big play potential will have scouts and teams drooling as he likely winds up being selected in rounds 2-3.

 

Odell Beckham Jr. is the most electrifying of the pair of LSU underclassmen wide receivers available and his versatility could push him into the first round on draft day. Beckham was 2nd in the nation in All-Purpose yardage as he accounted for nearly 1,200 as a receiver and close to another 1,000 on kickoff and punt returns. Beckham will likely fall in the sub-4.4 40-time, an aspect that seems a little overrated in the drafting process, but anyone who does will get looked at closely. Despite being under 5'11” and 200 pounds, Beckham doesn't leave himself exposed for big hits and protects the football well in the open field.

 

Jarvis Landry may be the better receiver when comparing himself with teammate Odell Beckham Jr. He is certainly a more polished route runner and shows better technique overall. Landry is an interesting hybrid type in that he can run smooth routes and serve as a slot receiver who can move the sticks on 3rd down. He has the speed to be a consistent downfield threat. Landry will need to adjust to the physical rigors of the NFL since he can be disrupted at the line with more pressing cornerbacks. He is a clutch receiver that has a nose for the end zone and the first down marker. Landry looks like a sure 3rd rounder and he will have to show scouts he was not just benefiting from having a home run threat like Beckham playing on the opposite side of the field and demanding more coverage and attention.

 

Davante Adams has great size and was the beneficiary of playing with a great quarterback (Derek Carr), in a system where the quarterback was rarely under center, looking to throw at every opportune moment. Adams led the nation in nearly every conceivable receiving category but his lack of top-end speed and questions surrounding him being just a “system” player will hurt his status a bit.  At 6'2” Adams shows great body control and a fluid running motion, which allowed him to get open at will at Fresno State. His large hands allowed him to pluck balls out of midair where Derek Carr put him in a great position time and time again to make plays. Adams looks like a 2-3 round type of player but he could be a wide receiver that falls a bit, unless he has a big Pro Day, whereupon he may want to have someone other than Derek Carr throw him the ball.

 

 

Lurking:

 

Donte Moncrief needs to be commended for the consistency he has shown since stepping foot on the Mississippi campus. He led the Rebels in receiving yards in all three seasons at Mississippi and showed the ability to make big plays in the clutch at a school not known for having a high flying offensive attack. Moncrief doesn't have the top end straight line speed but he gets in and out of breaks. He cuts well while constantly putting himself in a good position to make a play or coming back to the ball when he needs to.  The fact that Moncrief posted some big games and caught touchdowns in the SEC, against teams like Auburn, LSU, Missouri who have a number of players that will be playing at the next level, bodes well for him since his statistics of under 1000 yards won't match up well against his peers.

 

Robert Herron played at a smaller school in Wyoming and only ranked 10th in his conference in receiving yards. Yet Herron will most likely be off the board by the 3rd round because he looks to be the fastest wide receiver in this draft and his big play ability is off the charts. His Senior Bowl performance was up and down but he did show promise and glimpses that he has the ability to make big plays. Herron is small in stature and he tends to round off routes and be a little lackadaisical when not involved in the play. Yet in a game where speed and big play ability is now at a premium, look for Herron to attract a lot of attention. He will probably post one of the fastest times at the combine, not just for a wide receiver but overall at any position.

 

Jared Abbrederis is another player that looks like he will be selected in the 3-4 round range. Abbrederis is a player that doesn't seem to excel in any particular area, he just makes plays and seems mistake-free. Abbrederis will add value as a return man, more than likely as a punt returner, since he shows patience and correctly seems to guess where his blockers will be strongest. He does not show elite separation but is very good in the air and could wind up being a solid red zone target in this league for many years. Playing at a run-first school like Wisconsin limits his numbers when compared with other receivers but scouts are well aware that Abbrederis made the most of his limited opportunities.

 

Mike Davis is a streaky receiver that will go in the middle rounds but there is a lot of upside to his game. Davis made some big plays and key contributions to a disappointing passing attack that lacked consistency all season and throughout much of his career at Texas. He started off this season on fire and cooled considerable only having 2 games with more than five catches from October on. Davis is an above average red zone threat that plays bigger than his 6'0” frame would indicate. He does not show the speed in and out of breaks and his hands are a little inconsistent, but he has tremendous straight line speed and shows the ability to be a devastating blocker.

 

Brandon Coleman might be the hardest guy to figure out in this entire draft class.  He saw his sophomore numbers of 718 yards and 10 touchdowns dip to 538 yards and 4 touchdowns. The question here is how much of the decline had to do with Coleman and how much to do with the disappointment of the Rutgers offense and the inconsistent play of quarterback Gary Nova. Coleman started this season as our #3 wide receiver behind Marqise Lee and Sammy Watkins and a 1st rounder, yet now we have him towards the end of the 4th. Yet Coleman has tremendous leaping ability with his 6'5” frame that make him a sure thing in the red zone. He has as much natural ability as any receiver in this draft class and while the team taking him will be rolling the dice, if he pans out and responds to his coaching he could be the true steal of the class at any position.

 

L’Damien Washington spent this past season as a starter for the first time in his career so he doesn't have a large track record to fall back on. What Washington has is size (6'4”) and 4.4 speed. Washington may benefit from a year on a practice squad or bench, or helping out a team primarily on special teams for a season or two while he develops the finer points of football and hones his game. If there is a “safe” bet for a player in the later rounds with a ton of potential then Washington could be the home run guy a team is looking for. Washington will need to get a bit stronger in his upper body and work on his positioning and shielding defenders away from the football. Washington has the intangibles you cannot coach and he has seen an improvement in his numbers virtually every season.

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There are different schools of philosophy out there when it comes to drafting wide receivers.  There are teams thinking receivers are a dime a dozen and they can be drafted in nearly every round, and there are other teams who feel the dropoff between elite receivers and good receivers is too great. Regardless of your school of thought it is hard to argue that the wide receiver position is being utilized more and more in today's game of football, so you better load up on those weapons.