We've hit the bottom of the draft as we move our way up the wide receiver tiers. As always, I'll start off again with a recap of my criteria:
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.
Again, my "round grade" for a player is dependent not upon where the Vikings should draft this player, but upon where the player would be drafted if every team in the NFL was in the exact same situation as the Vikings. Everyone in this tier has a seventh-round grade by this measure, and I would advocate taking any of them in the seventh round of the actual draft.
37. Mark Harrison
38. Dan Buckner
39. Marcus Davis
40. Martel Moore
41. Ryan Spadola
43. Nicholas Edwards
44. Zach Rogers
45. Marlon Brown
46. Brandon Kaufman
47. Rodney Smith
48. Darryl Stonum
49. Terrell Sinkfield
50. Antavious Wilson
51. Jaron Brown
52. Denard Robinson
53. Sam McGuffie
54. Michael Smith
55. Rashad Ross
56. Taylor Stockemer
57. Reggie Dunn
58. Lanear Sampson
59. Ace Sanders
60. Justin Brown
61. La'Rod King
62. Drew Terrell
37. Mark Harrison-Rutgers, 6'3" 231 pounds (Projected Round: FA, Athleticism Score: 6.4)
Mark Harrison is another height/weight/speed prospect who has to brush up on technical skills before he can make an impact, but his technique work is all relatively easy to correct, as opposed to full of embedded bad habits. Harrison already has the more difficult skills down—he has good instincts against contact, an intelligence to read the field and make remarkably good adjustments in the air.
Harrison is big and hard to push around. With 231 pounds on him, running a 4.37 40-yard dash is extremely impressive. His short shuttle time was less than impressive, but he's shown excellent change-of-direction on the field, so I'm not too worried. With a good vertical and broad jump, it's fairly clear that Harrison is explosive. His 17 bench reps are frosting on the cake.
Despite a decline in production at Rutgers, Harrison is clearly a stud. He's improved his technical capability every year, but his numbers haven't followed suit.
I like Harrison's catch radius, ability to maintain possession through contact and alright hands. I've seen a few passes clatter off of his hands, but it's not a big problem. He's already set to be a deep threat and can produce yards.
His route-running could use work, but only insofar as he tips off his routes to defensive backs, usually with a shoulder lean. Otherwise, he's relatively precise, knows how to generate burst at the cut, wins the positioning battle (usually but not always) and he works back to the quarterback. He high-points the ball and attacks it early in order to win the ball before a DB can respond.
Harrison's release could use work, but he physically punches out well. He doesn't have a move to create separation early, although he'll often find himself separating well on deep and short routes. He has good YAC from breaking tackles (and he breaks them well) although doesn't have the short area quickness to quite be characterized as "elusive". Despite good vision, I wouldn't call him a screen target even as a split end.
38. Dan Buckner—Arizona, 6'4" 214 pounds (Projected Round: FA, Athleticism Score: N/A)
Buckner will best be known for a regrettable incident when he was at Texas, when he was arrested and charged with criminal trespassing and resisting arrest. Choosing to transfer to Arizona, Buckner sat out a year before playing in Tuscan. While the burglary incident is extremely worrisome, Buckner has yet to run afoul of the law once more and is considered an excellent leader on the field and in the film room. Coaches don't often lie to scouts about players and he seems to have matured.
Nevertheless, it's wise to exercise caution. Buckner never had the year people were predicting for him, and so will likely go undrafted despite a number of natural skills that should propel him to Day 3.
Mike Loyko says Buckner is "one of the most underrated and least talked about wide receiver prospects in the country," although I'm not so sure that's the case. While I think Buckner doesn't garner as much attention as he should, he really is limited in his scope and value.
More than a height/weight/speed prospect, Buckner flashes technical skill that other 6'4" receivers do not. His frame is excellent for pushing defenders around, and he already knows how to box them out during the catch process. He can win catches in tight coverage thanks to his strength and is particularly excellent at tracking the ball and reacting to it in the air; sometimes making excellent catches without very much time to find the ball.
This sort of concentration and coordination would bode well for him, but he does let passes clatter off his hands from time to time. Still, once he has the ball in his hands, he does a good job generating yards after the catch and will generally make a few defenders miss when he can set himself (which sometimes takes more time than it should).
But he has his problems, too. Aside from hands that are just a little better than average, he plays at one speed and can't create acceleration (and therefore separation) at the stem of the route. He doesn't sink his hips to create that burst and also will round out a number of routes as well. When on his game, he can run more precise and crisp routes, but if he feels hurried, he'll take shortcuts. It's particularly worrisome that defensive backs an push him off his routes and he needs to run with power.
He's worth a look, but he needs to do a better job beating jams at the line before he can become a real split end. Given that his top-end acceleration is fairly low, he would also be constrained in his ability as a flanker, too. Unless he can improve in big ways, he will continue to fight for a spot on the roster.
39. Marcus Davis—Virginia Tech, 6'3" 233 pounds (Projected Round: 7, Athleticism Score: 6.0)
Marcus Davis is a rich man's Rodney Smith in this draft, largely because his physical attributes far outweigh his technical capability. He and Harrison are above Smith not just because they have more technical capability, but they have a higher ceiling because they do not have ingrained bad habits that are difficult to break. "Ceiling" and "potential" are not just defined by athleticism, but by whether or not their flaws are correctable.
Body-catching is a difficult flaw to correct, but concentration drops are not. Players like Jake Reed are exceptions, where they can become hands-catchers after they had spent the early part of their career trapping the football against their body unnecessarily. For the most part it's difficult.
Smith's errors are very difficult to correct and limit his ceiling. Davis and Harrison have far fewer bad habits. Deceiving cornerbacks is much more learnable than in-air adjustments and body control. Extending arms at the right moment is relatively easy to coach, but field vision is not. You get the idea.
Davis' consistency is his biggest problem, and the reason that Corey Fuller is the better Va Tech receiver. His timing is off, he has a limited route tree, and wastes steps on the release and at the break. He's a somewhat poor run blocker and rarely executes routes with a high level of body control (sinking hips, dipping the right shoulders, concealing his intentions, etc).
On the other hand, Davis has an excellent catch radius, and can consistently catch balls away from his body and with extension. He's very strong, and breaks a number of tackles with great drive in his legs. He wins contested balls with his arm strength and superior positioning, and can use that arms strength to generate a proper release. He punches out well and has excellent footwork to beat jams at the line.
I like Davis' burst out of cuts and his ability to create separation either with excellent hand work or by varying speed in routes. He has plus size, good speed and could turn into an NFL deep threat in time. If he can fix his consistency problem, he'll be a regular contributor on any team.
40. Martel Moore—NIU, 6'0" 188 pounds (Projected Round: FA, Athleticism Score: 2.5)
Northern Illinois had a pair of excellent receivers and it was difficult to distinguish them based on fit and capability. The other, Perez Ashford, is much more talented but doesn't really fit what the Vikings will need.
Moore, on the other hand, is more of a split end. In the two games I watched—a game against Toledo and one against Florida State in the Orange Bowl—I saw good burst off the line, although I didn't see a ton of play against press coverage. He has work to do with the hands against jams, but his footwork has been good enough to get free. His route-running is a bit rough, but effective. I don't think he's precise, but he hits his landmarks well enough. He needs to generate more burst out of his cuts (something he can get when he learns to sink his hips).
Otherwise, he'll attack the football well, sit in zones, set up defenders with head fakes, and stay efficient at the stem of the route. He's extremely aware of field position, knowing where the sticks are and how to keep the catch inbounds.
His game against Florida State wasn't impressive from a box score perspective—4 receptions for 29 yards—but he drew two pass interference plays (one on Xaiver Rhodes) for additional yardage as well. He gave Rhodes some fits in the game, although he clearly isn't at the level he needs to be yet to compete with a player like Rhodes (and therefore consistently produce in the NFL).
One of the reasons he has extraordinary upside despite a low athleticism score (an average 40-time, good 3-cone and bad short-shuttle) is because he has some of the best body control in the entire draft class. He has a very quick reaction time to the ball, knows where to catch and how to extend his hands in order to avoid too much DB interference, and has excellent balance. He knows how to keep his feet inbounds on sideline catches and displays excellent coordination.
Moore's ceiling is probably a "reliable starter" instead of a superstar, who has a good chance to produce 6-8 touchdowns a year. His floor is probably higher than most people think, but there's a reason he only produced 1000 yards against weak competition. What will limit him is his average athleticism, limited burst, poor ball-handling and somewhat less-than-reliable hands.
He won't burn people deep consistently, despite the fact that he can trick defensive backs, and that's largely because he mostly has build-up speed, and his build-up isn't particularly impressive. While he's quick and can create separation on deep routes, his imprecision in route-running will affect timing as well. Nevertheless, Moore is worth a seventh-round pickup, much more than the injury worries, small slot receivers and athletic wonders in tiers 9, 10 and 11.
41. Ryan Spadola—Lehigh, 6'1" 204 (Projected Round: FA, Athleticism Score: 4.9)
Ryan Spadola stood out to me because of his reportedly good performances in the Texas vs. Nation practices, where the rosters included Michael Smith, Uzoma Nwachukwu, Justin Brown, Martel Moore, Taylor Stockemer, Lanear Sampson, T.J. Moe, La'Rod King, Kenbrell Thompkins and Marcus Sales. Standing out among this crowd is impressive, and certainly caught my attention.
With 903 yards from scrimmage despite missing two games (due to mono, playing three others while weakened), Spadola has put together quite the season in the Patriot League, where he has consistently outshone the competition.
Spadola has surprised evaluators with his athleticism, although how much of that is racial bias or build bias I do not know. He's played everywhere on the field for Lehigh, although again projects as a slot receiver by most evaluators. I'm not so sure he's necessarily a slot player as he has done well outside (against relatively mediocre competition) so at least deserves a shot. He ran a 4.40 40-yard dash and also posted a great 3-cone time of 6.72, 5th fastest among receivers.
Against corners ranging from 5'10" to 6'1", the Lehigh grad was able to consistently reel in catches near the sideline and up the seam. Some of his catches were of the highlight-reel quality, but many of them were also from sound, technical play. He's explosive with his quick cuts and has some talent at DB deception, although he could also easily improve here. He hits his assignments and knows how to get to his depth, too.
He also is fairly experienced and talented at reading defenses and adjusting his option routes accordingly, a rare talent for someone at his level of play. He may be able to adjust to the requirements of an NFL offense faster than many highly touted FBS prospects because of this. He finds the holes in a defense and works them until the QB gets to them or the window closes. This might be his best quality, although he should be celebrated for his toughness as well, willing to take hits and hold on to the ball in order to advance the chains.
Spadola largely lands in this tier because I haven't seen him play against high-level competition. He did very well against FBS corners at the Texas vs. Nation game, although the CB list is singularly less impressive than the WR list (I wouldn't be surprised if the best corner there was FCS player Dax Swanson). If he had played at this level against top-tier competition, Spadola would easily be in the conversation for a second-round pick.
42. Perez Ashford—NIU, 5'11" 182 pounds (Projected Round: FA, Athleticism Score: 2.6)
Several times I moved Ashford further away from Moore just so I didn't have two NIU receivers to close to each other, but that would have been just as bad as having two receivers from the same school next to each other just because I saw them at the same time.
Ashford might end up with the better career than Moore despite having produced fewer yards in every year. He's more technically capable in routes, with precision in his footwork leading to the break, good positioning and great timing. He does round off his routes too often, but otherwise manages his routes well. At the break, he has good burst out of his cuts. He knows how to get on top of defenders or create separation when playing with depth.
For a 5'11" receiver, Ashford displays an excellent catch radius. He has good hands—better than Moore, for sure—and a different set of skills than his counterpart on the team. Without the incredible presence of mind and fluidity of Moore, Ashford may still end up with more physical and technical talent.
Ashford's tape in 2012 wouldn't be the best guide of his ability, given that he played almost all of it with a nagging ankle injury, so I looked at a game or two in 2011. The Godaddy.com bowl the year before shows Ashford dissecting the Arkansas State defense (one with third-round draft pick Demario Davis), which ranked 16th in the country in yards per pass attempt allowed (ahead of Florida, Notre Dame and Michigan), for 80 yards, 8 receptions and a touchdown.
Between 2012 and 2011, Ashford displayed a capacity to read the field, find holes in coverage, make fearless and acrobatic catches, cut quickly and explosively, work back to and attack the ball (his best and most underrated skill) and consistently create separation deep or in intermediate routes. Like Moore, he has great awareness and knows exactly what he needs to do in order to gain that first down or stay in bounds. He wins tough catches and holds on to the ball well despite contact.
He doesn't have the balance of Moore, but he does have agility and a different type of YAC capability, largely due to his elusiveness. His ability to track the ball is better and he can make a number of catches with his back to the ball. He's also a good ballcarrier with an intuition for keeping it high and tight, to the appropriate sideline.
Unfortunately, like Jarius Wright, he'll project to play a position he didn't play in college. While he mostly played on the outside (and he did well against press coverage), he'll largely be asked to play inside because of his agility and size. He has both sets of route packages largely down, with good play on curl routes and nice YAC.
There might also be a reason he consistently underproduces other receivers on the roster, despite what look to be superior qualitative skills. A nagging ankle injury is reason to dismiss his 2012 statistics (343 yards), but also a reason to be wary of him in general.
43. Nicholas Edwards—Eastern Washington, 6'3" 204 pounds (Projected Round: FA, Athleticism Score: 6.9)
Nicholas Edwards was the "other" receiver at Eastern Washington, who is likely not as talented as Brandon Kaufman overall but is a better fit. Entering the year, Edwards was expected to be the better receiver of the two, but natural development from Kaufman along with a switch at quarterback (from Bo Levi Mitchell to a two-QB system featuring Kyle Padron and Vernon Adams) and new offense set Edwards significantly behind. More than anything else, however, a knee injury in September before the season began left him behind the entire year.
Going from 1250 receiving yards to 436 receiving yards must be disheartening, but it's not like his talent evaporated. Kaufman's appearance was surprising, to say the least (373 yards to FCS leading 1850 yards).
His greatest talent might be his ability to track the ball, adjust to it and save poorly thrown passes. Unfortunately, he will not maintain this level of concentration throughout the catch and will lose the ball when hit before he tightens up his grip on the ball. Nevertheless, he makes tough catches look easy and has been in all sorts of positions when reeling in the ball, including with his back to the line of scrimmage.
That's not to say Edwards isn't tough—he is. He played through a knee injury and consistently takes hits both before and after the catch while staying upright and delivering his own blows. He's been inconsistent generally speaking as a catcher, but he will make difficult catches and has a very wide catch radius. He has a lot of balance, and a vertical of 40 inches (and a height of 6'3") makes it very likely he can compete in the air on a deep ball or fade route.
As a runner, he's very elusive, but his nimbleness after the catch doesn't show up in his route running, where he'll play a little stiff. His patterns are smart and crisp and created a lot of separation in 2011. His 3-cone and shuttle times (6.90 and 4.10, respectively) are evidence of this, difficult at his height. In addition, a broad jump of 129 inches proves he has the explosion necessary to create separation if he learns to sink his hips in route. He knows how to box out defenders and create exclusive real estate by which to catch the ball, giving him the ability to create larger passing windows for his quarterback.
What's most shocking is that if he harnesses his after catch quickness as a route runner, he could turn out to be a big slot target in the NFL, which will hide deficiencies as a player without an extraordinary sense of the sideline and first-read (you never want your first read to be the guy who drops the ball consistently). He may want to improve his release off the snap and ability to beat press coverage before he adopts a role as a true split end, but if he does that, he might be set despite not having a lot of long speed (although he runs faster than his timed 4.60 40-yard dash would imply).
If Edwards had displayed more consistency and better hands, he'd be a lock for a draft pick. As it is, his decline, injury and school will relegate him to fighting for a spot as an undrafted free agent.
44. Zach Rogers—Tennessee, 6'0" 182 pounds, (Projected Round: 7-FA, Athleticism Score: 3.1)
The lesser known of the three Tennessee receivers declaring for the draft, Rogers may have felt a little jilted by getting jumped on the depth chart after the top Juco prospect in the country joined Tennessee, given that he had a lock on the number two spot when Da'Rick Rogers left due to suspension.
Rogers has therefore played in the slot on 11 packages and only occasionally on the outside during receiver rotation. He has somewhat limited route-running skills and doesn't really have the strength to play outside, so may be limited to playing to playing a possession/slot role.
The elder statesman of the Tennessee offense, Rogers would probably make an "All Intangibles" team. Not only is he known for being an excellent student, he tutored other Tennessee players in their classes. On the practice field, he's been consistently praised not just for his effort, but ability and willingness to play as a coach for other receivers. He has a veteran's presence at just 22 years old.
That experience has translated into subtle shoulder fakes and route deception that manipulate DBs off their game. Rogers can vary his speed in routes to force DBs to overcommit and he finds separation against nickel and dime backs. He knows how to get separation, hit his route depth markers and break at the right moment. He's tightened up his footwork in his time at Tennessee, but he doesn't have burst out of his cuts. Nevertheless his intelligence and experience has been useful, and he's had a number of touchdown or sidelines catches with excellent awareness fo the field and the ball.
Predictably, his experience also means Rogers is much better at reading defenses than most of the rest of the class, and will come into the NFL with an advantage. His disadvantages, naturally, will outweigh those advantages and push him to the bottom of the draft, and there are solid reasons for that.
Rogers is lauded for his consistency, excellent hands (I did see one drop in the four games I tracked—against South Carolina) and ability to move the chains. He extends his arms, catches with his hands and rarely finds a need to trap the ball against his body. He knows how to hold on to the ball in the face of contact and willingly takes abuse over the middle. His ability to attack the ball and grab it at its highest point is an excellent skill of his that allows him to win the positioning battle, but he has a limited catch radius because he doesn't have another gear by which he bursts to the ball.
In fact, his athleticism is overall limited—he's quick, but he doesn't have a lot of straight-line speed. While his 4.46 40-yard dash might speak to his potential to be a deep threat, but he doesn't honestly display the kind of field speed that would make him a consistent deep threat in the NFL (although he does burn NC State for 87 yards on two catches).
Tennessee would occasionally play him as a tight end, although his blocking was a bit subpar for that. He doesn't have the size or frame to develop into a good blocker, although he does seem willing. His technique on blocks is fine, but he won't continue to overpower defensive backs in the NFL. Sometimes he misses his assignments and those defenders will be able to make plays.
Despite the fact that he has good YAC in college, it's mostly because receivers have played off of him. He has neither the elusiveness to avoid tackles nor the leg/stiff arm strength to power past would be tacklers. I don't like how far from his body he carries the ball, and may be susceptible to forced fumbles in the NFL, too—although this is easily correctable.
But in all serious, if what he hangs his hat on is "that he's one of the best players to have on the practice field," there's clearly limited upside. On the other hand, it's not that bad a feather to have in one's cap.
Hopefully this makes up for the shorter tier nine list I subjected you to all the other day.