We'll finish up Day 3 of the rankings today and I'll ramp up my posting schedule for the wide receiver tiers well soon enough. Once again, an explanation of my rankings to kick us off:
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.
I anticipate at this point I'll begin to really rub some people raw with my rankings because I continuously downplay athletic capability. Not only do I think "rare" athletic talent is in fact fairly common in the NFL (239 people ran a sub 4.4 40 between 1999 and 2013 at the NFL combine, and countless more were faster at pro days), but technical skill is far more rare. There are a lot of receivers who can run precise routes, and a lot of receivers who can manipulate defensive backs, but every receiver who smoothly combines all parts of the technical aspects of the game has gone on to do excellent things, so long as they meet a baseline athletic requirement. On the other hands, there are athletic "freaks" on half the practice squads in the country.
I'll let Jerry Rice explain a little more about the technical detail that goes into being a receiver, which might underscore the importance of precision and fluidity. Being able to string together technical capability is an undervalued skill that is incredibly difficult to accomplish and equally critical to NFL success. Rice to ESPN magazine:
Those inches come with preparation. I can sit down on a Saturday night and know certain predicaments I'll face on Sunday. Before it happens, I know how a DB will respond to specific routes and how we'll be able to take advantage. It's all in my head before I step on the field. I visualize it. I can't tell you how many times I've caught a pass or scored a touchdown and thought, That's exactly how I knew it would happen.
There was a play against San Diego, a TD pass on a corner-post route, that is a perfect example. (It proved to be the decisive score in the Raiders AFC West-clinching 13-6 win.) It's a route that only works if you stare the safety (in this case, the Chargers Rogers Beckett) straight up and down, fake to the corner and go to the post. But it's not that easy. You can't give it away with your eyes or your feet. You have to look straight ahead. You've got to pick the perfect time to make the move toward the corner. I hit it right, just the way I'd run it every day in practice. I'd watched Beckett in films, and I had a good idea how he would react. When it happened, it was perfect. I came out of the break and the ball was there. In the locker room after the game, Al Davis shook my hand and said, "That was an easy one." I answered, "Nothing's easy in this game."
It's repetition and preparation. The corner-post is a route I've done over and over in practice, and in the game you do it the exact same way. That's the key: In the heat of battle, you have to respond under pressure with the same precision. You can't rush just because it's a big situation. You have to be calm or you'll lose those inches you need to make the play successful.
You cannot cheat it. You cannot fake to the corner early because you'll show it too soon and the guy's going to get a break on you. You can't cut it too late or the safety won't buy it. He'll see where the play's going before it gets there. Either way, it's a couple of inches between success and failure.
Everything I do is about feel based on preparation. You run it until you have it down and then you run it the same way in the game. I don't think, "I'm going to fake after such-and-such number of yards, then I'm going to cut after three more steps." You can't be mechanical. It's like there's a clock ticking in my head. It's been ticking for a long time now, but it still works.
If Rich Gannon and I are working a route on the outside, that clock lets me know when to come out of the route, when he's going to throw and when I need to turn. It's experience and execution. I rely on that clock to give me the inches I need out there. Think about it: How often does a receiver come out of a route and catch the ball on his fingertips? If he turns too soon or too late it's an incompletion or an interception. The defense is looking for those inches too. They're trying to predict what you're going to do.
These are folks that should earn a fifth-round grade in a world where every team is like the Vikings in need and capability. Some of these players will be available in the seventh round, and I think that will be great value.
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.
26. Alec Lemon
27. Emory Blake
28. DeVonte Christopher
29. Darrin Moore
30. Keenan Davis
31. Darius Johnson
32. Chad Bumphis
33. Conner Vernon
34. Cobi Hamilton
35. Erik Highsmith
36. Josh Boyce
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
25. Javone Lawson—Louisiana Lafayette, 6'0" 185 pounds (Projected Round: FA, Athleticism Score: -0.1)
Contrary to what I just said about technique, I'm still hesitant to put Javone Lawson this high almost entirely because of his poor athleticism. Regardless, he's probably my biggest "sleeper" as many websites do not even list him or list him far below this. CBS has him as the 97th ranked receiver, while ESPN lists him 59th. He's unlisted at NEPatriotsDraft, DraftCountdown (which lists 75 receivers) and Optimum Scouting (which has 87 receivers). I have him 25th.
The only analyst I've seen that gives Lawson the credit I think he deserves is Matt Waldman, who listed him 22nd overall in his Rookie Scouting Portfolio.
I have yet to see Lawson commit to a bad habit and he has a lot of the technical game down despite some truly frightening measurables (4.68 40-yard dash, 4.47 short shuttle, 7.38 3-cone time, 113 inch broad jump). His tweeted pro day time was 4.5, but that only excuses one of many poor results. Instead, what stands out more are his great instincts and techniques.
Lawson only ended up with 611 receiving yards in his final year, but he did crest 1000 yards the year before. Lawson is skilled at making difficult catches and has very few drops to his name. Not only does he reel in a ball from a very wide catch radius, he maintains focus on it to keep it through contact. Generally speaking, people with his low burst scores do not win difficult catches, nor do they have a great catch radius, but Lawson definitely does.
When in a pattern, Lawson has the ability to set up defenders with a head fake, a shoulder fake, a double move or even foot fakes. He makes every route look the same, and it's deadly. He knows how to position himself as he attacks the ball so that he has exclusive real estate. I like his movement in and out of cuts, where he can maintain speed without rounding off his routes too much, although there's some work to be done here.
Above all else, he strings all of the technical movements a receiver needs to make in order to be successful. He can beat press coverage with technique, although I wouldn't be surprised to see him get pushed around at the NFL level. His YAC looks good in college, but he's not really elusive; he just has good vision.
I might be the only one who is so high on Lawson, which is a good sign that I could be wrong and you'll never hear his name again. But from what I see, Lawson has NFL talent and will see the field sooner rather than later.
26. Alec Lemon—Syracuse, 6'1" 202 pounds (Projected Round: 6-7, Athleticism Score: 2.2)
Lemon received some buzz as a sleeper for some time before it died down in the weeks leading up to the combine. Given that he had a talent like Nassib throwing to him, it's not hard to imagine why he was getting some notice.
Lemon isn't extraordinarily impressive, however. He has some solid technical skills as a receiver—he knows how to get depth and set up defensive backs—but he still needs to generate more separation at the break. I like his ability to win the positioning battle against good cornerbacks, but without a drive to attack the ball or work back to the quarterback, he has some limited value.
He does a good job, however, with his hands. He goes through the process of the catch smoothly. Given that he always seems to catch the ball and has a good ability to make the first person miss, Lemon definitely has value. His in-air adjustments and concentration on the ball is among the best in the class.
Generally speaking Lemon seems better as a route-runner underneath or against intermediate zones than he is a deep receiver. Lemon isn't an amazing athlete, but he's smart and knows how to improve. I see him limited to a flanker role, because he can't beat press coverage right now.
He runs sharp routes, but without explosive capability at the break or when releasing from the line, his capability is going to be limited. He knows how to take a hit and can generate yards after the catch either by getting around traffic or attempting to drive through it.
He's a sound blocker and will likely end up a fine contributor in the NFL, but without a significant highlight reel.
27. Emory Blake—Auburn, 6'1" 189 pounds (Projected Round: FA, Athleticism Score: 4.6)
Emory Blake has had an excellent offseason, and I'm fairly surprised that he's been given an "FA" grade by CBS. Having been the star of Senior Bowl practices and one of the few Auburn players of note, Blake has been largely ignored by media talent evaluators.
What he showed at the Senior Bowl matched his subjective talent at Auburn. He took hard cuts and ran efficient routes there, while showing the presence of mind to properly evaluate and attack zones. He constantly works to find open spaces in zones and sit in the holes to make it easy for the quarterback.
Perhaps Blake's biggest knock is that he's slow and isn't very explosive. While his combine time of 4.62 isn't damning, it's not great. He also looks a bit slower on film. Because of this, he might be limited to a flanker or even slot role. Luckily he has a lot of talent to make up for it.
Blake plays intelligently and knows where he needs to be to avoid coverage. His ability to read defenses helped the Auburn offense out immensely, despite only putting up 789 yards. He knows how to bait defensive backs and create space for himself with deception, using a variety of head fakes and body language tells.
He tends to run his routes at one speed, which will hurt his ability to punish closing defenders. Nevertheless, he has a good ability to create yards after the catch with his average agility and great vision. Blake has solid hands and could play in a possession role, but he needs to secure the ball against contact better. Everything else he does as the ball flies towards him is good—he tracks the ball well in the air, he adjusts his body to box out defenders, he extends his arms, catches the ball with his hands and away from his body, etc. But because he won't play outside as a split end, he will take a few hits when going over the middle. He makes some amazing catches, though.
His final knock may be his poor strength. He's a very willing blocker, but he's been beat because of sheer strength far too many times. He also struggles getting off the line against press coverage and will get thrown around in his routes. Nevertheless, Blake is a good player that can make some great catches.
28. DeVonte Christopher—Utah, 6'1" 192 pounds (Projected Round: 7-FA, Athleticism Score: N/A)
DeVonte Christopher is a much better receiver than his 2012 statistics indicate (22 catches for 301 yards), but extremely poor quarterback play plagued him. What's most interesting is that Christopher is a former quarterback who has adapted to wide out with surprising natural ability and technical skill.
Unfortunately, his performance at the Texas vs. Nation practices will downgrade his value. He will likely not be drafted, although this would probably be a mistake. Christopher knows exactly how to exploit horizontally and vertically stretched zones and already can execute complex option routes.
He has natural hands-catching capabilities, but has a lot to learn here. He dropped quite a few passes, and needs to transition from catching with his palms to catching with his fingertips. Christopher dropped a number of passes during Texas vs. Nation practices, but didn't drop too many at Utah.
Christopher doesn't waste steps throughout his route and can box out receivers. But he still has a lot of focus issues to work on. While he has a number of complicated mechanics down, none of them come naturally yet. In the offseason, he looked like he needed to force good habits through, and lost some confidence in routes over the middle both in practices and in the Texas vs. Nation all-star game. His drops were largely related to focus, but he did look more comfortable catching the ball closer to his body.
Christopher is still working on stringing all of his moves together, but already has shown remarkable progress. He can easily track the ball in the air and has an instinctive understanding of adjustments and positioning, both to keep the ball inbounds and to beat the defender to the ball.
There are reports that he has been lazy in practice, but he seems to have all the marks of a strong worker who has put a lot of effort into improving. Given that Christopher has above average speed, good burst and solid route-running, he should get a look, but might not.find himself drafted.
29. Darrin Moore—Texas Tech, 6'4" 216 pounds (Projected Round: FA, Athleticism Score: 3.8)
Darrin Moore and Cam Newton won a Juco national championship in 2011 at Blinn College, although he wasn't the leasing receiver for Newton (Grant Merritt, who just finished his senior year at Sam Houston State, was the leading pass-catcher).
Moore has improved a lot in his time at Texas Tech and fully understands how to use his size to his advantage. He will be an ideal split end, but has to learn how to keep press coverage off at the line of scrimmage, both by improving his hand technique and leveraging his weight more, although he will simply run through defensive backs at times (and effectively).
After the catch, he has some ability, although most of it comes from strength and not very much from elusiveness. Some of his YAC comes from having decent running vision. His strength displays itself across the field, as Moore plays very physically throughout, including some mean blocks as a run blocker. When he punches out with his stiff arm or merely keeps a CB at play, he's unforgiving.
Generally speaking, despite playing with an ability to stay in-route without deviation, he needs to make sure his cuts are sharper so that he can more persistently get open. He mostly has experience come back or curl routes. Moore is great working intermediate patterns, but may not hit his landmarks deep. He's a player who rounds off his corners but still would provide false signals to the defense. If he learns to drop his weight, he may still find his way onto an NFL field.
He catches well and away from his body, all while reeling it in fairly effectively. He's not going to consistently make amazing catches or even win the 50/50 balls in tight coverage, but he holds on to the ball and bullies through defenders.
With all of that, he may end up becoming a favorite red zone target because of his size and in-air adjustments. Later on, his role should expand.
30. Keenan Davis—Iowa, 6'1" 215 pounds (Projected Round: FA, Athleticism Score: N/A)
I suspect Keenan Davis is a bit of a favorite around here, and there's good reason. Like Blake, Davis is one of the more intelligent players on the field, and uses this to his advantage in create space for himself and awareness. It's a quality I would call "field intelligence" which is not just the ability to read defenses and react, but to understand where the sticks are, how to attack which coverages and knowing what certain defenders fall for.
Davis looks accomplished as a receiver, and he does a very good job catching the ball, by which I mean he extends his arms, catches away from his body and has a wide catch radius. I like his ability to catch a little bit better than Blake's, actually, and has an even better ability to reel in balls thrown away from his position. He also knows how to set himself to the ball and box out the defender so that they don't have an angle on it.
When he secures the ball, he also does a good job generating yards after the catch, both as a result of elusiveness and strength.
The problem with Davis is that he's a very rough and limited route-runner. He does not do a very good job setting up his defenders and is fairly obvious about what he'll do. He rounds off his routes a bit, and definitely does not accelerate out of cuts well. It's not so much that he plays at one speed, rather he plays without the ability to accelerate in-route.
Without a ton of speed and an inability to consistently generate separation at the release, he's limited and doesn't have quite the upside of other possession receivers. He's only able to contribute as a flanker, but with good development (learning to plant correctly with his outside foot and sink his hips, for example) and he'll be a consistent backup in the league.
Sorry for the delay. As you know, things can sometimes catch up to you, and these things for me had to intersect with the draft season.