NEPD Editor: Oliver Thomas
January is a month of divergence for the NFL. Eight teams are left in the Super Bowl hunt; 24 others have cleared out lockers and dispersed for the offseason. But before long, all 32 will be back in the same lane, preparing for the 2014 NFL draft.
It’s a process of personnel evaluation from now through May. There will be all-star games, combines and pro days to gauge a player’s value in the same setting as their peers. Yet in actuality, 90 percent of their value has already been determined.
It’s been determined by the game film and the eyes viewing it.
Now big boards and positional rankings must be taken with a grain of salt. It ultimately comes down to preference, need, and fit.
One area where that rings especially true is at wide receiver.
Over the last three drafts, 90 receivers have been selected by NFL teams – including the Cleveland Browns’ compensatory pick of Josh Gordon in 2012. Of those 90, 36 were chosen within the first three rounds, netting an average of 12 annually.
That trend is expected to continue this spring.
This year’s class of predominantly junior wideouts is considered or “top-heavy” or “deep,” depending on who you talk to. Although, it may be best described as “wide open.” There is size, there is athleticism, there is speed, there is fundamental skill, there is potential – it’s contingent upon which traits a particular team or eye is looking for.
And with that at the forefront, here is one eye’s view on the top dozen receiving prospects – including one playing tonight in the BCS Championship game.
1. Sammy Watkins, Junior, Clemson – 6’1″, 205 Pounds
A fast, aggressive and strong open-field threat with the footwork and field awareness to maneuver the sideline on in, Sammy Watkins runs with purpose and unheralded power. Those attributes explain, at least in part, his penchant for turning short passes from quarterback Tajh Boyd into big gains. And while it’s important not to oversell a player comparison, he’s provides glimpses of Percy Harvin-like utilization with Cordarrelle Patterson-like athleticism. There is reason to believe he will be a No. 1.
2. Mike Evans, Redshirt Sophomore, Texas A&M – 6’5″, 225 Pounds
A big, physical target who makes 50-50 plays without necessarily shedding coverage, Mike Evans knows how to shield and box out at the catch point. As he tucks the ball away, his leg drive and power can generate yards through tackles. And with quarterback trust – something he secured with Johnny Manziel – he can be a second-level security blanket and red-zone nightmare in the right offense. Even with some stiffness in his running, the former standout basketball player has displayed the commanding hands and upper body to out-muscle cornerbacks post-release. He has some Vincent Jackson and Alshon Jeffery to his game.
3. Marqise Lee, Junior, Southern California – 6’0″, 195 Pounds
USC’s Marqise Lee has average height and a thin frame, but he’s been a smooth, gliding, agile play-maker for the Trojans. Even with an injury-hampered, underwhelming 2013 – similar to teammate Robert Woods’ 2012 – Lee still managed to be a game-breaker. He’s tough, he sees the field well, and he runs his routes with tremendous control. He has had issues with drops in the past; however, his build, as well as the way in which he excels is similar to that of Jeremy Maclin. Lee may no longer be at the top of the receiving board, but it would be an oversight to count him out as a first-round talent.
4. Odell Beckham Jr., Junior, Louisiana State – 5’11″, 193 Pounds
Son of a former LSU running back and an LSU track star, Odell Beckham Jr. is a compact, elusive player built to impact that game in multiple facets. He stands out as a receiver and returner with DeSean Jackson-esque flashes, but he has 15 pounds on the Philadelphia Eagle. That sturdiness is visible when he’s fighting for the football and breaking off the line. Yet as a pass-catcher, you’d like to see him use his hands more than body, and it remains to be seen whether he’ll be best suited for a slot or flanker role.
5. Allen Robinson, Junior, Penn State – 6’3″, 210 Pounds
Allen Robinson is a wiry, combative route-runner with good length, strong hands and shift to extend back to the ball or amass yards via ground. He was a rock for current Houston Texans head coach Bill O’Brien and the Penn State offense this season. He can play inside and reel in screens and slants for yards after catch; he can play outside and use his height to bend back to the ball. It may be high praise for a receiver who plays smaller than he looks, but Robinson’s offensive use and style shape him in an Antonio Brown mold.
6. Jordan Matthews, Senior, Vanderbilt – 6’3″, 205 Pounds
Often overlooked, Vanderbilt’s Jordan Matthews has an ideal “X” receiver build but is not restricted to that spot. In addition to the aesthetics, Matthews runs routes with fluidity and command of his positioning. The senior possesses strong hands and has some stylistic toe-tapping similarities to former Cal Bears Keenan Allen and Marvin Jones. His strides can cover ground after the catch, too. And while he may not light up the combine tests at Lucas Oil Stadium, he’s one of the most polished receivers in this class. He could be great value on Day 2.
7. Kelvin Benjamin, Redshirt Sophomore, Florida State - 6’5″, 235 Pounds
Soon-to-be 23-year-old Kelvin Benjamin is only a redshirt sophomore. He doesn’t look like one; he looks like former Seminole Greg Carr but with far superior quickness. A big-bodied receiver who can threaten over the middle and vertically, Benjamin has uncommon speed for his size. He showcases great length in space and has the wingspan to secure jump balls, suggesting he could be more than a possession receiver. Now he may not have the most complete hands or footwork and he’s still putting it all together, but the way in which Benjamin uses his body and overpowers smaller corners reveals some Dwayne Bowe. Nonetheless, Benjamin is three inches taller and will be contrasted with the Aggies’ touted Mike Evans.
8. Brandin Cooks, Junior, Oregon State – 5’10″, 186 Pounds
Without the benefit of size, Oregon State’s Brandin Cooks makes big plays with home-run speed, quick twitch, decisive change of direction and determined pursuit. There’s something to be said for maintaining balance through cuts, taking precise route angles, as well as seeing the field ahead. Those are aspects of Cooks’ game that he shares with T.Y. Hilton, only he bounces around more than the Indianapolis Colt. Cooks projects as a slot receiver and will struggle to out-leap larger and stronger defenders, but he is a creative ball-carrier who can be a highlight in the return game, on the reverse, in the underneath or deep downfield.
9. Paul Richardson, Redshirt Junior, Colorado – 6’1″, 172 Pounds
Colorado’s Paul Richardson has a notably skinny build for his height. With that skinny build, though, he is quick through breaks and can test a defense’s safe coverage as his speed is often revered. Richardson can turn the corner on a wheel route and lose his man in the flat – a testament to his lateral agility and steady pattern-running. Yet while his athleticism allows him to separate and compete ball, he would benefit from some added strength for durability, blocking and push off the snap. In terms of build, burst and role, Richardson carries some Johnny Knox qualities in his arsenal.
10. Jarvis Landry, Junior, Louisiana State – 6’0″, 195 Pounds
Jarvis Landry proved to be a trusted receiver for LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger over the last two years. And while he doesn’t have the same explosive skillset as his teammate Odell Beckham Jr., his coordination, glove-sized hands and improbable catches make him one of the most pro-ready receiving prospects. Helping out on special teams and as a blocker, Landry’s little nua make a difference. He’s not real rangy or rapid, and he is more a “Z” or inside receiver. But he is technically sound. Landry plays with the effectiveness and dependability a player like Donald Driver once exhibited.
11. Davante Adams, Redshirt Sophomore, Fresno State – 6’2″, 216 Pounds
A rugged receiver with impressive physical measurables and hands, secondaries must account for Davante Adams along the sideline and in the back of the end zone. He doesn’t carry blazing speed and was not required to diversify his route tree much for QB Derek Carr and the Bulldogs passing game. Furthermore, he’s a young talent with significant development still ahead of him, and he has met some defensive back constraint in the Western Athletic Conference. But despite his deficiencies, there lies towering upside with the strong-armed receiver. Adams was ultra-productive this season, and has some like-minded features of Michael Crabtree coming out of Texas Tech’s air-raid offense.
12. Brandon Coleman, Redshirt Junior, Rutgers – 6’5″, 220 Pounds
A long, imposing receiver with impressive build-up speed and a wide radius to catch the football, Brandon Coleman’s physical ceiling figures to be raised at the NFL combine. He is far from a finished product – as a long-strider and often body-catcher – yet if he makes improvements in those areas, he could bloom into a Malcom Floyd-type mismatch with time. Much like Floyd some eight years ago, Coleman is still learning how to use his frame to eclipse coverage. He will be drafted not for what he has been, but for what he could be.
Honorable Mentions: Washington’s Kasen Williams, Wisconsin’s Jared Abbrederis, Wyoming’s Robert Herron, Ole Miss’ Donte Moncrief and Missouri’s L’Damian Washington.