As we move on from Tier Ten, who were free agents that were well worth a look, we'll move on to players who will almost certainly get attention for the draft. Before I describe the Tier Nine players, I'll rehash what I'm looking for, which will largely be players to fill in the "split end" role in the Vikings' offense:
The split end will also be the player generally asked to operate the "constraint plays," which will be screens to stretch the defense horizontally and deep routes to stretch it vertically, so speed is good. Like I said above, however, it's not a controlling factor. Getting open and providing opportunities to move the ball are more critical parts of the offense.
Beyond that, the Vikings need receivers specifically to emphasize Ponder's strength and hide his weaknesses. That means receivers who can capitalize on extended plays by finding open spaces, receivers who know how to hit their breaks with correct timing and secure the ball in traffic to take advantage of what Ponder can do.
To cover his weaknesses, the best fits at receiver will have a wide catch radius to compensate for poor ball placement and a good ability to generate yards after the catch in order to consistently move the chains.
One could argue that the short, possession-style receiving game is a product of Ponder's arm strength or simply not having receiver talent, but Musgrave used similar playbooks with the Jaguars and Panthers in his tenures with both of those franchises. Those teams had Muhsin Muhammad, Jimmy Smith (perhaps the most underrated receiver in history) and Donald Hayes. It's wasn't just a question of receiver or quarterback (he had Byron Leftwich, Steve Beuerlein and David Garrard) ability-Musgrave simply likes to run shorter routes. If you don't believe that, Wobschall says the same.
Finally, evaluating Christian Ponder is a top priority. If the receiver is not ready to contribute right away, then there's not much they can do to help the front office evaluate Christian Ponder. It will be difficult to find a receiver who can do that. In the past ten years, the top 64 picks have produced 14 receivers who have had over 800 yards from scrimmage in their rookie year (out of 79 who played in games). Of those, only four chosen between pick 23 and 52 produced 800 yards (out of 36 who played games). This doesn't include those who haven't made an impact in games, like A.J. Jenkins.
So, finding one who can adapt to the NFL game immediately is a priority. I cannot emphasize the rarity of this trait and the importance of this point. You can find potential in any draft—since 1999, there has been at least one receiver who has recorded a 40-time of 4.35 or less and there is talk every year of raw "upside". Naturally, this board changes in big ways if the principles of immediate fit and instant impact are removed.
Before I describe the "type" of player you find in Tier Nine, remember that I'm using the Vikings as a guide. So I'll be giving a "round grade" for a player in a world where the only team that matters is the Minnesota Vikings. That is, if every team was in the exact same situation as the Vikings, then the players I'm tiering would ideally fall into their respective rounds. I fully expect two of the three players I list in Tier Nine to be drafted, but for the purposes of the Vikings, I'm categorizing them as "priority free agents". Later on, you'll see players graded as a "Round Two target," when you would normally find them in the first or third round of the draft. That is simply to emphasize the point that if every team were like the Vikings, that is where these players would fall.
46. Marlon Brown
47. Brandon Kaufman
48. Rodney Smith
49. Darryl Stonum
50. Terrell Sinkfield
51. Antavious Wilson
52. Jaron Brown
53. Denard Robinson
54. Sam McGuffie
55. Michael Smith
56. Rashad Ross
57. Taylor Stockemer
58. Reggie Dunn
59. Lanear Sampson
60. Ace Sanders
61. Justin Brown
62. La'Rod King
63. Drew Terrell
46. Marlon Brown—Georgia, 6'4" 213 pounds (Projected Round: FA, Athleticism Score: NA)
Brown is a bit of a throwback. At 6'4" and 213 pounds, he seems to measure out as a prototypical split end, but played almost exclusively in the slot. While today's NFL has focused on using quickness and shiftiness to create separation and make plays in the slot, slot receivers in the past could very well have been big men who knew how to take on linebackers in the run game and outrange them as pass-catchers, much like a tight end.
The NFL still has those players in people like Marques Colston and David Nelson, who have done a fairly good job of taking advantage of the trend by going up against poor cover linebackers and smaller nickel backs.
I mention all of this because Brown might have limited value for the Vikings despite having a skill set that may be lacking on the team. There are only so many slot receivers you can put on the field before it becomes obvious that you need an outside threat. Nevertheless, Brown could be transitioned outside, so long as he gains experience and knowledge of a larger route tree.
He's very quick for a person of his size and cuts well in general, although he rounds off routes on occasion. On more complex routes, he runs tighter. Nevertheless, he'll often find himself wasting some steps at the top of the route, which will help give it away. For the most part, though, he seems to deceive defensive backs well enough and get them to commit, although his better skill is to read the defense and adjust appropriately. He knows how to find holes in zone coverage, and that's helpful.
Generally speaking, he seems to attack the ball and takes advantage of his positioning, although it would be better if he high-pointed the ball. He catches contested balls well and has some good hands, although is also subject to concentration drops. He has a good catch radius and knows how and when to extend his arms.
Brown generates some of his YAC from elusiveness, but most of it comes from on-field strength. He drives well, lowers his pads and also has a pretty good stiff arm. He doesn't get a lot of YAC, but he does know how to get tough yardage.
Two injuries his senior year (hamstring, then later ACL) keep him down in Tier Nine, as I wouldn't feel comfortable using a draft pick on someone who without his injury history would likely be a fifth-round pick. It doesn't help that the Vikings have no use for a somewhat limited slot receiver, and converting him to split end would take some time, especially because he seems to have virtually no experience against press coverage.
47. Brandon Kaufman—Eastern Washington, 6'5" 216 pounds (Projected Round: FA, Athleticism Score: 3.5)
Brandon Kaufman looks great. At 6'5" and 216 pounds with long arms and extraordinary production (he caught 93 balls for 1850 yards at Eastern Washington), it's hard to deny that he's been productive and that he looks every bit the part of a game-changing receiver, but Kaufman lacks a lot of fundamental skills that he'd need in order to perform at the next level.
He has fine straight-line speed (seems to play a little faster than his 4.6 40-time), but he doesn't really vary his speed or do much else to make his route-running stand out. He can get up to his top speed quickly and should have good burst, but he can't translate that into solid change-of-direction skills. He's slow coming out of cuts and can't really break at the stem.
His lateral agility is wanting, although he steps back well in order to make defenders miss. Still, he doesn't generate a ton of yards after the catch and most of it comes by running with power (which he has in no short supply). That sort of toughness comes through when he holds on to the ball after contact, although he doesn't really go over the middle all too often.
He might literally have only run vertical routes at EWU.
It's why I wouldn't draft him despite his impressive physical measurements. He knows enough to win the positioning battle and sitting in zones, and he was absurdly productive in the FCS (ranking second overall in yards per game and first overall in total receiving yards), but he's more raw than I initially thought. His catch radius is not surprisingly very large, but it's not as large as you would hope with his frame—he doesn't attack the ball as well as someone that tall should and lets the ball get to his body way too often.
Because Kaufman has been playing football for years—I think perhaps since middle school—I would not treat his rawness as untapped potential. But he's a big body that might always be guaranteed to contribute a reception or two when he's on the field. So, he's a priority free agent.
48. Rodney Smith—Florida State, 6'5" 225 pounds, (Projected Round: 6, Athleticism Score: 5.7)
It's easier for me to list the problems I have with Rodney Smith than describe why he'll make an impact, but at a fundamental level, he will contribute on a field, just not very much at all. He's like Kaufman in the respect that his matchup/size advantage will get a few receptions thrown his way, but you can't really expect him to consistently make a difference.
He has much more athleticism than Kaufman (these comparisons will keep coming), but in a world where athleticism has more currency—college football—Smith never exceeded 550 receiving yards in a year. Against the better defensive teams (NC State, Florida, etc.) his production has been even more underwhelming, struggling to get even more than two receptions against strong defensive play.
While Smith displays a basic ability to hit his landmarks, find soft zones in holes, and good positioning, he falls short in a lot of areas. Not only does he drop easy catches fairly often, he shows no ability to beat press coverage, no ability to generate YAC (no elusiveness and poor leverage when powering past tacklers)
The Seminole has all of the tools to be an incredible receiver and none of the ability, it seems. He doesn't break to the ball well, and doesn't work back to the quarterback when he needs to. While he can generally get some separation on intermediate routes, his inability to beat tight coverage is a huge problem. He doesn't sink his hips, set up his breaks or manipulate cornerbacks. Neither does he block well or have solid technique.
Rodney Smith is unique in the draft for his sheer physical talent and range (he should have a better catch radius than he does), but his numbers in shorts don't match his numbers in the box score.
I know, three players was a lame update. The next tier will have more, I promise.