We're moving up 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 sixth-round grade by this measure. Some of them are projected to be free agents, so I would take them in the seventh round. Some of them have fifth round grades, and I would wait until the sixth round to pick them.
If you want to read about any of the rankings, please click on the tier title to learn more about a specific receiver you might be interested in reading about.
31. Darius Johnson
32. Chad Bumphis
34. Conner Vernon
35. Cobi Hamilton
36. Erik Highsmith
37. Josh Boyce
38. Mark Harrison
39. Dan Buckner
40. Marcus Davis
41. Martel Moore
42. Ryan Spadola
43. Perez Ashford
44. Nicholas Edwards
45. Zach Rogers
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
31. Darius Johnson—SMU, 5'9", 179 pounds (Projected Round: FA, Athleticism Score: 1.4-2.1)
Darius Johnson will obviously be limited in the NFL by his height and weight, but he is a very intelligent player. He knows exactly how to manipulate coverages to create space and will use it to his afvantage. A very smart player on the field, Johnson knows what the offense needs and how he can best deliver. Not only does he option into and out of routes well against coverage, he knows when he needs to sit in a zone and when he needs to move to create space.
Like most prospects being discussed at his height, Johnson is quick and elusive. He's very good at generating YAC by making people miss and is a threat to run a short pass deep. This quickness shows up in his route-running as well, where he can create separation at the stem of the route
His best assets are his hands. With the ability to reel in catches with a surprising catch radius, Johnson is extremely underrated in his ability to reel in catches further away from his body. He makes a good deal of tough catches and he can make some highlight plays.
Unfortunately, his catch radius is only large relative to his size. He doesn't have an extraordinary amount of long speed, and won't likely find himself open deep. He also has a lot of problems running pass patterns despite his agility and deception. He can't release against jams and will get moved off his routes and won't always hit his depth markers and rounds off a number of his routes (negating the purpose of all his deception).
He might end up being a better kick returner than on-field receiver, but he certainly is worth a look. An extremely tough player that can take contact, Johnson could easily become a poor man's Wes Welker were he to master just a few routes.
32. Chad Bumphis—Mississippi State, 5'10" 196 pounds (Projected Round: FA Athleticism Score: 4.4)
Chad Bumphis grabbed national attention with an exciting Senior Bowl game, although his limited play value outside drops him in these rankings. What isolates Bumphis from the rest of this tier is his smart route-running and ability to use his read on defenses to create space for himself. He manipulates defensive backs with subtle head fakes or shoulder movements to get separation instead of quickness, which he has in abundance, but wastes with inefficient route movement.
After the catch, however, he's elusive and has lateral movement skills. He's also tough and maintains possession after contact, while making sure to fall forward for extra yards. While the Mississippi State Bulldog doesn't quite waste steps in his routes, he rounds off a lot of them and his ability to use agility to create separation is really limited by that. He also tends to cradle the catch into his body
Bumphis falls lower than you might expect not because of pedigree but because of concerns with fit and character. I'm not that concerned about the character problems—he was charged with disorderly conduct and public drunkenness last year, but there is clear contestation on the facts of the case. It seems as if he's more a victim of circumstance who was in the wrong place at the wrong time (and evidently not drinking at all). At any rate, it's an isolated incident.
He's also limited by size, experience and route knowledge to the slot. He would be a fine slot receiver for any team despite his average athleticism, but the fact that he has a lot to learn to play a position redundant for the Vikings. He's also a very poor blocker, not because of effort but capability. Improving his leg drive and technical capability would help, but is obviously not a focus for him entering his first year of the NFL.
33. Conner Vernon—Duke, 6'0" 196 pounds, (Projected Round: 5-6, Athleticism Score: 2.5)
Vernon did extremely well in the ACC, being the first player to post four seasons with 50+ catches and 700+ yards, and caught a pass in every game he's played for Duke. As the all-time ACC receptions and yardage leader, Vernon already has quite the accolades to go with his name.
Vernon is a tough player whose willing to make difficult catches over the middle, Vernon is more readily described as "reliable" rather than "dynamic". The Blue Devil is extremely willing to block and will consistently attempt to win with strength. Unfortunately, he doesn't play with a lot of technique as a blocking receiver and will get beaten fairly often,
His best quality is his ability to adjust to the ball in the air, bring his hands up late and maintain focus throughout the process of the catch. He hits his route markers on time and has a good understanding of how to create space. Vernon knows enough to catch the ball away from his body and maintains possession despite heavy hits.
As a precise route runner that doesn't waste steps when breaking. Vernon has a good grasp of the field and does well enough reading defenses. Having run every route from every position on the field, he also has an understanding of the responsibilities of each receiver. Given that, he does a good job finding areas of the field left open by zone coverage and how to gain leverage against man coverage, although this is something he could continue to improve.
Unlike many other prospects at his size who played in a less competitive conference, Vernon probably won't be limited to the slot for his career, given his ability to beat press coverage with strength. He will, unfortunately, be constrained by his physical capability. He'll need to rely more on savvy than athleticism to beat a cornerback deep and doesn't have extraordinary top-line speed.
He can block well and does a decent job running after the catch, although he'll find it harder to power through people in the NFL than he found in the ACC. Overall, his limitations will limit his value for the Vikings, but he's a hardnosed receiver that can do well in a possession role.
34. Cobi Hamilton-Arkansas, 6'2" 212 pounds, (Projected Round: 4, Athleticism Score: 0.9)
Hamilton is the receiver who I might consider the most overrated by the draftnik community, even though he only has a fourth round grade. He's billed as a deep threat with a lot of potential as a split end in most systems, but his 4.5 40 and terrible 10-split (1.63 seconds, the second lowest at the combine) disappointed those who were looking for a speed demon. In fact, his overall athleticism score is extremely disappointing, with a terrible broad jump (8'11"), anemic vertical (29.5") and sluggish shuttle time (4.31) outlining a lack of explosion that could only be made up with technical skill and reliability.
This wouldn't be a problem, except he has terrible mechanics as a receiver.
Hamilton's most glaring problem is his constant drops. Against minimal contact or when simply open, Hamilton consistently dropped passes from Tyler Wilson. In fact, Hamilton may have had one of the higher drop rates in the NCAA.
That's not to say Hamilton doesn't have positive qualities. Ending with 1335 yards deserves draft consideration, but the top receivers in FBS history have had mixed results in the NFL—Trevor Insley and Troy Edwards hold single season records, and the top ten also include Jordan White (7th round draft pick in 2011), Greg Salas, Alex Van Dyke and J.R. Tolver. Production isn't everything, but it demands some respect. Given that Hamilton was Wilson's only target, the 1335 yards are even less impressive.
He achieved this through an ability to read and react to defensive coverage and make excellent adjustments to the ball in the air. Unfortunately, as a body catcher who consistently drops the passes he's thrown, these possession-style qualities are limited. More than that, Hamilton will flash a different set of skills at different times, but cannot string them together. More often than not, he can't trick a defensive back, but sometimes he can. He doesn't usually beat press coverage, but sometimes he does. He generally rounds off his routes, but on occasion they'll be crisp.
These might point to potential, but more likely speak to his inability to improve over time; Hamilton didn't really increase his technical capability all that much in his time at Arkansas. He won't get separation on base plays (getting a lot of his deep yardage on play action), he won't win accelerating out of breaks and he has poor acceleration.
He also has a surprisingly limited route tree, generally only running crosses, slants and go routes. He doesn't work back towards the quarterback, attack the ball in the air or catch the ball at its highest point. He gets pushed off his routes and doesn't consistently beat press coverage. He has decent height, decent speed and subpar technical talent. To me, that's 7th round/UDFA talent, but his production far outpaces most people around the bottom of this list, so I'll give him some benefit of the doubt and give him a draftable grade. He will likely be a great 4th receiver who will win against dime backs or safeties on pass-heavy sets, like Riley Cooper (but with vastly different skill sets).
35. Erik Highsmith—North Carolina, 6'1" 190 pounds, (Projected Round: 7-FA, Athleticism Score: 3.2)
Before discussing Highsmith's capabilities as a receiver, I want to take a moment to highlight the fact that he plagiarized an 11-year-old for a college assignment. Hopefully, that's not all you need to know about him, but I wouldn't mind if that's all you did know.
Highsmith has shown significantly more athleticism on the field than his pro day numbers imply, and he hasn't even begun to use it. Right now, he plays more of a possession role, but he has deep threat capability should he develop properly—a track star that still has the ability to generate suddenness if he improves his release technique and sinks his hips at the break while learning to plant. Given that he runs precise routes, he's avoided some of the bad habits that those without a lot of burst capability at the break have given themselves over to, and many of his routes look the same. He still has a lot of improvement here with what his hips and shoulders do, but he's been good at this over time.
The Tar Heel has a lot of good habits that leave room for improvement, including a wide catch radius with extended arms and a natural tendency to catch with his hands rather than his body. Without a high drop rate, Highsmith is a very reliable target. He also adjusts very well to the ball in the air and tracks it well, a process he completes by focusing on the ball to secure the catch before turning upfield. With that, he regularly outpositions defenders and attacks the ball.
Highsmith is also reliable for good YAC with some elusiveness but a lot of powers; you seem him dragging would-be tacklers for quite some yardage from time to time.
There are a lot of problems, too. He doesn't have a lot of experience with press coverage, and is poor against it when given the opportunity. Despite his decent strength, he doesn't usually win the fight for contested balls and needs to do more when coming back to the ball to ensure that he is the only one with relevant real estate to catch the ball. While he reads zone defenses well, it's difficult for him to create real separation against man coverage until he can create a better burst.
He's an able player who was lauded for his work ethic until the plagiarism scandal broke. He improves consistently and takes care not to form bad habits. He may be limited physically, but could use improvements in technique to cover up for it. He may be talented enough to see the field early on in his career, but he won't have a real impact for some time. For the Vikings, he has the ability to line up most anywhere, but would be most effective at flanker until he learns how to beat press coverage.
36. Josh Boyce—TCU, 6'0" 203 pounds (Projected Round: 5, Athleticism Score: 5.2)
Josh Boyce would be a higher rank were his combine performance not interrupted by a fractured foot. I think he'll end up on an NFL field taking significant snaps, but he won't be able to do it quickly enough for the Vikings to use his additional weapons to let them evaluate the offense and Christian Ponder. He's probably a good long term investment. Assuming he takes significant snaps, his production score would earn him a spot in the upper tier of receivers.
Boyce is an incredibly strong receiver who is also relatively light on his feet. He's good at the release freeing himself from receivers and he punishes defenders for trying to jam him. He has a quick run up and is a smart route-runner who is both precise and explosive at the break. He knows his option routes and can read defenses with enough savvy to use them effectively.
As a ball-catcher, he knows to catch with his hands and burst towards the ball, giving him a positioning advantage. He tends to win 50/50 battles because of his strength, although he could do a little more to create a passing window for his quarterbacks. He highpoints the ball and has consistent body control, which he uses to help his QB out on poor passes, although he has concentration drops he needs to cut down on. He also needs to secure the ball at the catch, because it will get knocked out with contact.
Still, once he turns upfield, he is tough to tackle; the ball stays in his hands once it's secured and he runs upfield with a good ability to either use a stiff arm or leg drive to continue past contact. He also is elusive after the catch, and can use lateral cuts to avoid defenders altogether.
He's limited by his height; while he will likely be a good deep threat in the future, his height limits his opportunities on the sideline outside. Given that he doesn't have great field awareness or solid sense of where the boundaries are, and will more likely have to cut inside than out in order to make an impact—a dicey proposition if he doesn't find a way to keep the ball after contact.
But given Boyce's release and deceptive speed make him an intriguing prospect as a vertical threat, and wouldn't simply be limited to that route, given that he was asked to run every route in the tree at TCU (and did it well). He'll round out his routes because he likes keeping his speed and he needs to work on footwork at the stem in order to cut more effectively. Given that he's only OK at deception, rounding out his routes will kill his ability to make an impact. He either needs to improve his subtlety or his route-running before he's a reliable target (ideally both).
I also really like watching him blocking; he's one of the better receivers in the draft at blocking, having the weight, strength, technique, vision and dedication to keep the alleys clear of defensive backs.
I also have an addendum to a previous tier, which is to include Nicholas Edwards, WR at Eastern Washington. I'll update the big board articles to reflect that. It was my mistake not to include him earlier; he was ranked incorrectly on my spreadsheet, and I've adjusted everything in response to the correction.
44. 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.
There you go. As we approach the draft, I'll publish these rankings more frequently as we approach the draft, with a final ranking by which you can judge the wide receivers.