More About Wide Receivers

The 2020 WR class is as good as advertised. There are 13 players at the top worthy of 1st or 2nd round grades. At least a dozen more who could be contributors to NFL teams eventually. I covered Jerry Jeudy, CeeDee Lamb and Henry Ruggs III here.

Today, I want to dig a bit deeper into the next ten players on my board, which I’ll break down into two tiers. I’ll include some capsule comments about several other receivers as well. 

There’s not much separating the next four WR on my list, but the highest upside athlete, IMO, is Baylor’s Denzel Mims. Speed, size and catch radius in abundance, but far more than just a traits prospect. He wasn’t asked to run a diverse route tree in college, but he was well coached. Most of his production came on vertical routes and slants, which took advantage of his excellent ball tracking skills and ability to run away from people after the catch. He’s a rugged, physical player who takes a lot of pride in his blocking. Any doubts about his ability to defeat press coverage were erased when he thoroughly dominated one-on-one’s at the Senior Bowl. In 16 snaps, he had 14 catches and five touchdowns with zero drops. He led all receivers in win rate, catches and TD’s. He was arguably the most impressive player at any position in Mobile. 

Mims continued his stellar off season with a elite Combine performance. His measurables and testing numbers were strikingly similar to Julio Jones in a number of areas. Both are 6’3″ with nearly 34″ arms and big hands. Mims clocked a 4.38 and Jones ran a 4.39. Julio bested Mims 131″ broad jump by four inches and his 16 reps by one. They both had 38.5″ verticals and each blazed an unholy 6.66 three cone. Mims isn’t perfect. Drops probably kept him from coming out as a junior and he still let too many balls hit the ground this year. He will exhibit otherworldly body control hauling in a low percentage bomb and then start running before he secures a simple slant pattern. Drops may be somewhat baked into his game, but they’re not a major issue. His drop rate wasn’t that much higher than Jeudy’s this year. 

Justin Jefferson is highly regarded overall, but he’s being overscouted and undervalued in some circles. He took all but five snaps from the slot last year and that has pigeonholed him as a slot only guy in the minds of some people. They completely overlook that he took over 80% of his snaps outside in 2018. His numbers that season as a true sophomore were fine and this was before Joe Brady got to town and unlocked Joe Burrow’s potential.

Jefferson’s 4.43 Combine and other testing make me very confident the 6’1″, 202 pounder can win outside on Sundays. I even saw people nitpicking his elite production on contested catches, saying that Burrow fit the ball into such tight windows that these weren’t always tough grabs. There is some truth to this and Jefferson isn’t going to outmuscle people consistently, but he doesn’t have to because his technique is that refined. Obviously, Burrow isn’t a machine, even if he was the most accurate college QB I’ve ever seen last year by a fair margin. I remember one vertical route, Burrow underthrew him slightly. Jefferson slowed his route just enough to get his body into the beaten defender, but he never tipped that the ball was close. As the ball arrived, he extended for the catch (on a ball that originally appeared underthrown) and shielded the defender from the catch point. Subtle veteran receiver moves that really weren’t even that noticeable until you watched the replay. But there are many NFL vets who couldn’t do it as smoothly. I agree with teams wanting to use high picks on X and Z receivers, since slot guys can be found anywhere in the draft, but even if Jefferson is primarily a slot receiver in the pros, he’s got the potential to be a star. 

Tee Higgins seems to be getting overlooked a little bit for a guy who has made so many big catches in nationally televised games. I think it’s possible we’ll see YouTube videos with titles like “All the WR picked ahead of Tee Higgins in 2020” in a few years. Size, speed, great hands, ridiculous catch radius, durability, extensive experience against top competition. This dude checks a ton of boxes. He skipped the Combine after consecutive 15 game seasons to focus on his pro day. Unlike some players, I don’t think he really needed a confirmation of his considerable athletic traits.  I don’t need to see Tee Higgins run the 40 to know he’s got exceptional long speed and great suddenness for such a big man. His speed and leaping ability have been on display every Saturday for the last two years. It’s really hard to find many negatives. I don’t see playing with Trevor Lawrence as a reason to doubt him. He earned the trust of Lawrence and Dabo Swinney on big downs is my takeaway there. 

The Combine isn’t really about the elite performers, although they garner most of the headlines. The Combine is mostly about meeting certain thresholds of performance. Of course, there are different standards for different athletes. The 4.59 that 188 pound, stubby-armed Aaron Fuller ran is going to kill him, while the 4.61 the spider-like 6’4″ Isaiah Hodgins posted might be good enough to get him drafted.   

Getting under 4.5 is a big deal for any receiver and going over 4.6 is going to knock you down the board without exception. Forty-five wide receivers ran the 40 in Indy. 23 clocked 4.5 or less. 35 were under 4.6. Ten were 4.6 and over. Most of the guys over 4.6 and fair number of the dudes under 4.6 won’t get drafted. Higgins wasn’t the only quality WR who didn’t run in Indy. At least half a dozen WR’s who didn’t work out will be drafted, pro days or not. Now, 34 WR’s total were drafted in 2018 and also in the fabled 2014 class, so it will be interesting to see if 35-40 come off the board this year. Seems possible. Either way, the WR UDFA class will be tantalizing. 

I’m probably higher than most people on Brandon Aiyuk. I think he has first round WR traits, especially once he has the football in his hands. Dynamic, twitchy, electric, pick a hyperbolic superlative. He’s as good after the catch as anybody in this draft, which is saying a lot this year. Aiyuk will be a game changing return man from day one and his growth potential as a receiver is immense. People point out that Aiyuk did much of his damage on screens and short passes and wasn’t targeted deep very often. This is because his quarterback was a dual threat true freshman who was the most inaccurate passer in the Pac-12. Herm Edwards, rather wisely, stressed ball security, so low percentage passes downfield were scarce as water in the beautiful Sonoran desert. Aiyuk did make the most of his deep balls, though, as he did with his screens. At a hair under six foot and 205 pounds, he’s built solid and he’s tougher to bring down than many speedsters. As a bonus, his hands measured 9.75″ and he’s got a pterodactyl wingspan with 33.5″ arms. I’ll admit there’s some projection necessary with Aiyuk and his floor is lower than some of the top WR prospects, but the upside is spectacular and he will contribute instantly as a return man. 

Aiyuk is a good example of why scouting wide receivers is tricky and taking into account their individual situations is so important. More than other position, WR’s are dependent on quarterback play and offensive scheme, among other factors. Aiyuk’s not the only wideout in this class who was held back by factors beyond his control.

This next tier of six players are close in value, but are rather dissimilar in body type and playing style. I’ll begin with the two who are most alike. Before I started looking deeper into KJ Hamler, I was predisposed not to like him as a day two player. A 178 pound WR who drops a lot of passes? Why do that when there are all these more complete players at his position this year? After watching his tape, I was thinking 46 isn’t too high. Hamler is, quite simply, the scariest player in this draft. Hamler didn’t run or drill in Indy. He did put up 15 reps, which was quite respectable for a guy his size. 9 3/8″ hands and 30.75″ arms were better than expected for the 5’9″ Hamler and he sports a well defined, muscular physique.

Like Mims, lack of a 40 time just doesn’t seem like a big deal. Elite acceleration shows up on tape over and over. Nobody gets off the line quicker and he always seems to have an extra gear he can easily access. Thus, he separates better than anyone in this class not named Jeudy or Lamb. It’s not all physical attributes, either. He’s well disciplined on his routes, which is a force multiplier given his explosion. Making cuts at ankle breaking speed is a routine part of the skill set. Slot only in the pros, but who cares? Of more concern, though, is the drops. 16 drops the last two years and last season was particularly egregious with a dozen catchable passes hitting the turf. If all this sounds off putting, put on his tape.  I know there are flaws in this profile, but I believe Hamler will continue to embarrass defenders in entertaining ways every week. 

Jalen Reagor is Bronco Legacy, but he’s a very different athlete from his father Montae. You’re know you’re fast as hell when you run a 4.47 and everybody is disappointed, yourself included. But that was Jalen’s time in Indy and he won’t get a chance to beat it. It looks like Reagor was trying to maximize his Combine profile by coming in @ 206 pounds, after playing his whole career at closer to a buck-ninety. This was bad advice, as many were expecting a time closer to 4.3, but it doesn’t diminish him as a prospect. His 42″ vertical and 11-6 broad jump certified him as a special athlete. I have seen his toughness and physicality questioned, but the tape shows a guy who springs above defenders to high point jump balls over and over. My only real complaint with Reagor is he sometimes spends too much time trying to juke the guy in front of him out of his jock and he gets overtaken by pursuing defenders. 

Like many prospects in Indy, Reagor’s 20-yard shuttle time was weirdly out of line with the rest of his testing. I’m not sure what happened there, but it happened to so many players you have to kind of throw out the bad times in the shuttle for everyone. The late start to accommodate prime time viewers was not popular with players or teams. We’ll see if ratings take precedence again next year.

Jalen’s “slow” 40 time shows the tightrope some prospects walk as they try to fit the molds NFL teams have in mind for their players. Reagor sometimes shows a lack of vision in the open field, but makes up for it with the elite movement skills. Big time weapon as a return man, but he only returned 23 punts and 13 kickoffs @ TCU. Reagor has experience against press coverage and would be a nice fit in Denver. A brutal quarterback situation really held him back. 

Everybody here is at least somewhat familiar with Laviska Shenault Jr. I have to admit, I find it somewhat hard to rank him this year. He has been injured a lot and his playing style invites contact. 44 broken tackles the last two years lead the nation. Beastly on contested catches. In a class full of guys who dominate in YAC, only Viska is truly built like a running back and he runs like one, too. The core injury he aggravated at the Combine (which later required surgery) can be viewed in different ways. Some people thought it was dumb to run because he was going to post a lower time than he would when healthy. I thought he showed a lot of balls and he answered the bell with that pedestrian 4.58, IMO. Everybody knows he’s sub 4.5 if healthy.

I had to laugh a little during his 40. As further handicaps, he didn’t tie down his hair and had his dreadlocks (a tribute to his late father who died in front of a 10 year old Laviska) flying everywhere. He also passed on the form fitting, sleeveless shirts his fellow prospects chose and ran in a t-shirt that looked two sizes too big. He looked like quite a commotion out there. I love Viska as a player and a person and if he only averages 12 games a season, they’ll be 12 exciting games. 

Probably no WR prospect was affected worse by the shutdown of society than Tyler Johnson. Despite two straight outstanding seasons where he consistently made big plays at big moments for the Golden Gophers, the NFL wasn’t that impressed. They snubbed him @ the Senior Bowl and Johnson committed to the East-West Shrine Bowl instead. Then he pulled out, not due to injury, and said he wanted to concentrate on the Combine instead. When the Combine rolled around, he was again healthy, but announced that he wasn’t going to work out. He said he wanted to be his absolute best on his pro day on March 25th. And now he’s pretty well screwed. There’s no way NFL teams will publicly criticize him for his approach to the post season, but this didn’t help him. Especially since there are legitimate questions about his speed. It could even make some teams question his competitiveness, which is unarguably his greatest attribute. 

Johnson primarily played the slot in Minnesota and he projects there as a pro. Polished and shifty off the LOS. Advanced feel for leverage as a route runner. Very tough and well muscled throughout his frame. Bumping him on his route doesn’t deter him and corners who try are just playing his game. He faced quality Big Ten cornerbacks and consistently imposed his will, despite being a step below athletically. It is a valid question if he’ll be able to bully players at the next level. The only other flaw is a 10% drop rate for his college career, but he did improve on that number in 2019. Johnson is a hardnosed player who could be a draft day steal if his unconventional off season drops him down the board.

IMO, Chase Claypool projects best as a move tight end in the NFL, but I’ll talk about him here. This tight end class is weak at the top and it lacks depth. I’m not sure there’s a tight end I would take in round two, let alone round one. 6’4″, 238 pounds, 32.5″ arms, nearly 10″ hands. 4.42 in the 40, with a 40.5″ vertical and 10-6 broad jump. These numbers really pop off the page. He avoided the COD drills and his tape reveals he probably wouldn’t have been great. Claypool is very athletic, but the speed is more of the straight line variety. His wins came underneath where his size was simply too much to overcome, or deep where he could ramp up and stack corners downfield. In the intermediate range, where NFL X and Z receivers do most of their damage, he wasn’t shifty enough to separate consistently. 238 pound wideouts were never that common, but they’re especially rare in today’s NFL. Claypool is also a plus blocker for a wide receiver and he likes that element of the game. I think a switch to tight end would be quick and seamless.

Michael Pittman Jr. has NFL bloodlines. Michael Pittman Sr. was a blue collar, all purpose back from Fresno State, who enjoyed a very successful NFL career, highlighted by 124 rushing yards in Super Bowl XXXVII. Michael Jr. posted good testing numbers across the board in Indy and even put up a good score in the dreaded 20-yard shuttle. He projects as a big bodied possession receiver in the NFL. He might have the best hands in the class, with just five drops in 176 catchable passes for his career. Just like his dad, Pittman is an extremely physical player who shrugs off contact and likes to impose his will as a blocker. The speed is a bit straight line, but the rest of the 223 pound Pittman’s athletic profile is solid and he has the kind of attitude coaches will like. Including Pittman in tier three instead of the mass of players below was a tough decision, but he made the cut.

There are still plenty of quality wideouts left in this draft once you get past this Lucky 13. Many of them will be primarily slot receivers in the NFL, due to lack of length, strength or suddenness. A few of them are X or Z guys with a well defined weakness or two, typically too skinny.

As long as he’s not badly deficient in any other area, the most important attribute for a receiver in today’s game is separation. If the first thing scouts praise in a WR prospect’s skill set is his ability to win contested catches, caveat emptor. It’s usually a nice way of saying, “here’s a limited athlete who can’t separate from defenders.” If you can’t beat guys downfield, you better be amazing at several other things. Otherwise, you really shouldn’t be drafted until day three, if at all, because NFL cornerbacks will neutralize you pretty easily.

A few more notable wide receivers. Not in order of preference. If we’re picking our first wideout from this group, we probably waited too long. 

Devin Duvernay took all but seven snaps from the slot last year and that’s his future in the NFL. Pretty rocked up @ 5’10”, 200 pounds, Duvernay blasts through arm tackles. He has very good hands. Just five drops on 180 catchable passes in his career @ Texas. A whopping 42 of his 105 catches last season were screen passes and he was productive with them. He still managed to corral a dozen deep balls and his 4.39 speed will make him a threat at all three levels in the pros. I really like Duvernay and would be happy if we drafted him. He might have also been good enough to be included in tier three above, but I had to make the cut somewhere and it was with you, wasn’t it, Devin?

KJ Hill is another pure slot receiver. Overachiever. Almost all the snaps in his record breaking (201 receptions) career as a Buckeye came from the slot. He is a very elusive route runner underneath and his hands are excellent. Strong, compact build and more tackle breaking power than you would expect. Minuscule catch radius, though. 

Donovan Peoples-Jones is a former 5 star recruit who never produced big numbers for his hometown Wolverines. Obviously, having Shea Patterson as your quarterback is a significant hardship. It’s still disappointing that DPJ couldn’t make some things happen on his own. He tested really well. 6’2″, 212 with some of the longest arms and biggest hands in the class. He also showed elite explosion with a 44.5″ vertical and an 11-07 broad jump, both in the 99th percentile. 

Van Jefferson is the son of former ninth round pick, Shawn Jefferson, who had a solid 13 year NFL career and is currently a receivers coach for the Jets. Van is one of the toughest types of prospects to scout because he really doesn’t have any standout physical traits or any glaring weaknesses. He’s average size and he seems to have pretty average physical tools as well. No Combine numbers and the Ole Miss transfer never put up big numbers as a Gator or a Rebel. He is well schooled in route running, which you expect from the son of a receivers coach. 

Bryan Edwards is a big rugged four year starter who did not test at the Combine due to a broken foot. Physicality is his calling card. He is really put together and he broke his share of tackles for the Gamecocks. Lack of speed and ability to separate is a major issue. Non factor as a deep threat, hauling in just four of 17 deep balls in 2019. Maybe a big slot role awaits him in the NFL.

I described Isaiah Hodgins as spider-like earlier and it’s a good description. Long and wiry with extremely long arms and large sticky hands. The athletic profile is more promising than some people expected heading into Indy. The 4.61 he ran was as good as you could have hoped and the rest of his testing was better than average, except for just nine reps, but those 33 1/8″ arms didn’t help him there. Elite body control and nearly 10″ hands enabled him to drop just three out of 179 catchable balls in his career. Spent most of his time outside @ Oregon State, but it’s hard to picture him winning from there much at the next level. Not a YAC guy at all, but he could be very useful on third downs with those ultra dependable hands.

Boise State’s John Hightower is a twitched up JUCO kid. He is a legit deep threat who is a blur off the LOS. He has quickness to go with the long speed and nearly 10″ hands. His biggest flaw is a very slight frame. Level of competition is a concern. He could turn out to be a major steal if the depth of this class and his lack of size push him into day three.  

Rhode Island’s Isiah Coulter is another slender deep threat. Acceleration is smooth and sudden. Only one productive season against lower level competition. Not a natural hands catcher and catch radius is negatively impacted.

Quez Watkins can flat out fly. His 4.35 was second to Henry Ruggs III @ the Combine. His COD drills were disappointing, especially since he only carries 185 pounds @ six feet even. Could contribute in a role where he isn’t asked to do too much. Win rate downfield, 13/34, wasn’t impressive considering he could run by most of the corners in Conference USA with ease.   

Gabriel Davis was the deep threat for UCF the last two years. He’s not sudden, but he’s a big dude who can get downfield if he has time to ramp up, which he got frequently in college. His 41 deep opportunities led the nation and his 16 deep catches ranked tied for fourth. The speed is straight line. Not much wiggle before or after the catch. When he wasn’t running go routes or deep posts, he was running slants. Not much else in that bag of tricks at the moment.

Antonio Gandy-Golden is a big dude. 6’4″, 233 pounds and he used those attributes to punish the inferior cornerbacks on Liberty’s schedule. He did overcome his tendency to shrink against better competition this season, though. His numbers in Indy were a mixed bag, but his COD reps were very poor. He was high usage @ Liberty, especially deep. He was targeted deep 37 times in 13 games. He might not get targeted deep 37 times in his NFL career. Another guy who might have to transition from outside receiver to big slot in the NFL. 

Quartney Davis is another one of those guys with a fairly nondescript athletic profile. Texas A&M ran a balanced offense that didn’t throw the ball downfield a lot. Davis pulled down just one of his eight deep balls all season and only five in 2018 when he took most of his snaps outside. Day three depth player, IMO. 

Jauan Jennings has some really fun film. His 30 broken tackles were best in class and he frequently collected several on the same run. Contact balance that would be elite in a running back and is almost unheard of in a wide receiver. The numbers @ Indy were absolutely hideous. I’m guessing some people reading this could run the 40 in under 4.72, or at least they could have when they were 23. Even worse, Jennings had a 29″ vertical. That’s not even 2.5 feet. Still, I would take a flyer if he fell far enough. He played his best against SEC opponents and his YAC ability is elite. 

Collin Johnson is a high cut long strider, who has been pretty consistent the last three years, even in an injury plagued senior season. Relatively short arms and small hands for his size, but his 6’6″ frame provides a huge target. Smart and physical, but a lack of suddenness makes separating harder for him. Not much YAC or many broken tackles last season. Bulk of his production came at the intermediate range.

Quintez Cephus ran a 4.73 @ Indy, which means his days of playing outside are probably over. Thick and strong, he was the Badgers leading receiver last year and Big Ten corners are no joke. His transition to the NFL still figures to be difficult. 

James Proche has been amazingly productive in his career, racking up 301 catches for the Mustangs, including 204 the last two years. Only nine drops in all that time and probably twice that many circus catches. The athletic profile is poor, though. Never did much in opportunities against Power 5 teams.  

Virginia’s Joe Reed is possibly the most frustrating WR in his class. 6 feet and 224 pounds, Reed also possesses an exciting athletic profile featuring plenty of speed, strength and explosion. Reed has returned five kickoffs for touchdowns over the last three years. The massive flaw is that his physical traits don’t translate as a route runner. Tasked with a simple route tree, he still disappointed. Despite the marvelous physical tools, he was only a factor in the short game and his production on deep balls was abysmal. ACC cornerbacks read him like a book. 

I’m sure I missed somebody, but 30 player reviews for one position is enough for me. I’m equally sure some players I missed, or essentially dismissed, will wind up having solid pro careers. Just so many variables to consider, especially at this position, and prospect development is often a less than linear process.