We're finally rounding out the top of the wide receiver market for the draft, and we can learn a lot from the players who are breaking the middle rounds. As always, I start with a recap of my most important criteria when ranking receivers. As we near the top of the draft, this criteria is very important. If your goal is different—long term value instead of short-term impact is the biggest difference—then your mileage will vary.
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.
To lead this article off, I'll include a conversation between Matt Waldman, a contributor to Football Outsiders and incredible talent evaluator, and Dan Shonka from Ourlads. Shonka has 16 years of experience as an NFL Scout for National Scouting Service, the Philadelphia Eagles, the Washington Redskins and the Kansas City Chiefs. He has, all told, 39 years of football experience as a player, recruiter, coach and scout. Here, they talk about the most important traits a receiver needs to succeed in the NFL:
Waldman: You definitely have to think and process fast. I was just writing about receivers the other day and how many fine players early in their careers had drops as pros when they demonstrated good hands in college. A lot of that I attributed that to learning the system, new techniques, and that they aren't processing things fast enough, which is distracting them from making plays that were once second nature to them.
They're clouded with too many things to think about. Antonio Brown this year compared to last year and his decisiveness on the field is a great example. His skills are emerging on the field because he's not longer thinking so hard about which route option he has to run or how he gets off a jam. He's working in a more intuitive fashion.
Shonka: You're exactly right. This is the thing that kills good football players. That's what I was referring to about smarts. When you put a great athlete in a complex system he's not a great athlete any more. He gets slower.
It's not that the game slows down because you're so much more experienced. What happens is that your brain isn't reading and reacting as quickly when you're inexperienced at the pro level. Take a pro-caliber linebacker for instance. He's not thinking about stepping with his right foot as a take off and then using his left arm to shed and get underneath pads and do all that.
He just did it naturally. If he's thinking about doing all those other things he's no longer that great player. You might as take that son of a gun in the fourth round instead of the first one.
Waldman: I always think of it as fluidity or having an on field IQ. It all connects to the idea that the faster you can process without thinking consciously about it the more you can maximize your skills on the field. The more you have to think about it, the slower you get no matter how athletic you are.
. . .
Shonka: I will say that most of the time if the guy doesn't have really good hands in college it carries over in the NFL. But they can improve their hands by knowing their assignments and making it second nature to get off the line and catch the ball. They can get a Jugs machine and work on it and improve their hands and velocity.
Also, route running. One of the worst route runners in the league last year that came out in the last 2-3 years is Golden Tate. He was awful at Notre Dame. You wonder if he was ever coached at running routes. He was awful.
There are receivers that do come out with good techniques as route runners. They know how to set up a defensive back. I think that's one thing that can really be improved. You can really make great improvement on.
The wide receivers in Tier Four I would normally give a mid-to-low third-round grade, but in this class will be pushed further down into the fourth and fifth rounds
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.
16. Marquise Goodwin
17. Chris Harper
18. Corey Fuller
19. Tavarres King
20. T.J. Moe
21. Uzoma Nwachukwu
22. Jasper Collins
23. Aaron Mellette
24. Charles Johnson
25. Javone Lawson
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
42. Perez Ashford
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
16. Marquise Goodwin—Texas, 5'9" 183 pounds (Projected Round: 3, Athleticism Score: 9.1-10.5)
It shouldn't be surprising that an Olympic athlete ends up with possibly the highest athleticism score in the class, but his numbers are eye popping, considering his low weight (there are bonuses given to athletes carrying more weight). When put in other contexts, however, it is a little less impressive. His high score likely means he'll see the field, but his production score is much more mediocre. All this means is that Goodwin's low weight and short stature will limit him in the NFL.
Goodwin has a lot of positive attributes that you don't see in track players. He can shorten his steps to run tighter routes and break at the stem than most runners-turned-players. He catches the ball with his hands extended away from his body and can even make difficult catches. He has good in-air adjustments to the football and knows how to attack the ball.
Unsurprisingly, however, Goodwin relies on his athleticism in order to generate separation but faces technical problems getting away from defensive backs. That athleticism won't be enough in the NFL. He doesn't understand how to create space for himself in the receiving game and wastes a lot of steps in his routes, particularly at the break. He'll lose balance when cutting and tip off routes.
Still, he's very rough. He does a fairly bad job releasing off the line. He doesn't attack the defensive back downhill, nor does he hide his intentions. This forces him to lose leverage, and he doesn't have the footwork or the hand technique to compensate for it. He's very bad against the press and has a lot to improve in his technique, or he'll be a nonentity in the NFL with the occasional highlight.
He also doesn't consistently box out defenders or get good positioning on the ball, either. He can't create separation in any phase of the pattern, but when he does get leverage he's impossible to catch up to.
Goodwin figures to easily get yards after the catch, but he doesn't have a ton of balance against tacklers. He has agility in spades and can move in space, but doesn't maintain himself against NFL contact. This is also an issue against jams, but shows up in his ability to create yards. This is a difficult problem to correct.
This translates into poor blocking as well. Goodwin doesn't play with a lot of power, even though he has relatively good technique when playing up against defenders. He has limited upside here and won't consistently hold his block.
He'll also be deadly once he gets these skills down, so there's no reason to consider him undraftable. He simply isn't ready right now. Otherwise, he'll be a threat in the mold of DeSean Jackson or Mike Wallace, a short receiver moonlighting as a deep threat because he can consistently get behind defenses. Unlike a lot of track and field stars, he has football skills and runs with the same speed in pads. His upside is more limited than you might think, given the sheer amount of bad habits, but he does have big-play capability.
17. Chris Harper—Kansas State, 6'1" 229 pounds (Projected Round: 4-5, Athleticism Score: 5.5)
Harper is a big guy, and hard to move around. It's the first thing anyone picks up on him when watching, and it's definitely his biggest attribute. It's not that he's tall (although he does have long, 33" arms), simply that he's solidly built and very strong (his on-field play and 20 bench press reps attests to that). Given the research I've done that found that upper body strength was surprisingly predictive of on-field performance, it's not something that we should dismiss lightly.
The Kansas State prospect is basically a running back playing receiver. He originally played quarterback at Oregon (leading a fantastic comeback drive against Purdue in relief of injured starter Justin Roper) and is the only person in Oregon history to score touchdowns as a passer, runner and receiver.
The transfer to Kansas State did well for him, and now he's being discussed as one of the top 30 prospects at his position. He's an extremely quarterback friendly receiver, who did his best to make the job easy for Collin Klein. He's a smart route-runner that hits his landmarks and has a large catch radius, although that's not why he's so useful to have on the field. He always creates unique real estate for his QB to throw the ball to and makes it harder for defensive backs to fight for the pass.
Not only does he work back to the quarterback and attack the football, he high-points the ball and finds a way to do it without giving away when the ball is arriving. He fights well for the ball, tracks it well and has excellent coordination in the air. Combined with his size and strength, he can win the battle in the air. He's a natural hands-catcher that rarely drops the ball, he dominated the Senior Bowl and Bowl practices with his ball skills.
Harper's calling card is his route-running. Optimum Scouting (In this case, Alex Brown) calls Harper "polished enough to start immediately" and it shows. While he isn't explosive enough to generate separation by mere fact of breaking at the stem of the route, he's smart enough to set up his defenders and find ways to create separation in other ways. Other than closing defensive backs out with smart positioning, he can deceive opposing athletes with smart head fakes and subtle footwork. He gets out of press coverage well and simply wins the leverage game against opposing corners.
If there's one thing that holds Harper back significantly is his elusiveness. It's not that he's generally a lumbering ball-carrier, but that he doesn't have the smoothness to turn after the catch and remain in-stride. If running a slant or led on a post route, he'll be OK. But with stiff hips, he can turn around and make defenders miss. Still, his athleticism shouldn't be undersold. To make up for his average 40-time (4.55), he ran a 6.89 3-cone and jumped 35.5 inches.
18. Tavarres King—Georgia, 6'0" 189 pounds (Projected Round: 3-4, Athleticism Score: 4.5)
King's greatest knock is his athleticism and speed. In fact, it's one of his only knocks. It's not an extraordinarily accurate one, as he shows lateral agility and good acceleration, but it is true that he doesn't have the deep speed to be the type of NFL threat downfield that you see in other receivers. Nevertheless, he has a lot of talent that translates into an otherwise perfect split end.
Scouts will generally use the word "fluid" when describing King's running, and that's a pretty good characterization. King has a well put together set of skills that he can combine smoothly to create separation and run routes. He knows how to hit his routes and break at the right point without rounding off his pattern. Like any top-level route-runner, he knows exactly how to weave a tale for defensive backs and manipulate them into breaking for the wrong route or playing a step behind.
He still has work to do here, not the least of which is to make sure he consistently sinks his hips and work towards the line of scrimmage. Nevertheless, he has the good spatial sense to figure out the weak spots in coverage as well as defend the ball from the opposing player.
King can be relatively elusive—more than most people give him credit for—but he's not an all-world make-you-miss guy. His nimbleness is definitely an asset, however, and he can generate some good yardage after the catch. It's not great, however, he doesn't have enough functional strength to continuously break tackles.
The biggest issue with his offensive fit is movement against press coverage. It's not bad, but neither is it great. In both blocking and beating tight coverage, he needs to get his hands up and make moves. Without a swim move or a rip move to bet press coverage, he can be moved around and off-route. Still, more often than not he can make the play and is an effective receiver.
King would rate much higher were it not for an extraordinarily high drop rate of 8.7% as per the STATS, Inc stats tweeted out by @JPStats. Comparing this to the STATS, Inc information provided by the Washington Post. It seems as if league average is around five percent, and the top third in drop rate for receivers average around nine percent., which makes King's drop rate all the more prescient.
19. Corey Fuller—Virginia Tech, 6'2" 204 pounds (Projected Round: 5-6, Athleticism Score: 4.0)
Marcus Davis seems to be the more exciting prospect from Virginia Tech, but Fuller has been the more productive and skilled receiver. While he doesn't have Davis' measureables, the former track star (running a very fast 4.43 40) offers his own impressive frame and has all the tools to be a great receiver in the NFL
His speed translates into functional field speed, and he can become a deep threat in many NFL offenses. He has all the physical talents you want in a route-runner, too. Not only can he burst off the line, he has acceleration out of cuts to generate space—he sinks his hips and plants his feet correctly in order to maximize burst. He finds himself consistently open on deep routes, and is smart enough with his hands to maintain separation.
What makes him excellent as a split end is his excellent catch radius and solid sideline awareness. With fantastic in-air adjustments, he seems fit to make the difficult catches one needs of an offense in dire need of a multidimensional vertical threat. He can locate the ball quickly and make catches with little lead time while maintaining his stride.
Unfortunately, without a lot of experience in press coverage or a fully demonstrated knowledge of a complete route tree, he may be limited for some time in the NFL. What I saw against press coverage was fine, although Optimum Scouting was less than impressed. Beyond that, he needs to learn more about the geometry of the game and find ways to keep defensive backs away from the ball during the process of the catch.
I like his ability to read defenses and take advantage of what he sees, but he still makes mistakes here and will take more time to make a big impact. As it is, he can take roles instantly as a slot receiver who should create headaches for opposing defenses, and expand to other roles as he takes time to develop. Despite lacking the technical skills of other players in this tier, he has enough to find the field on Sundays with the athletic capability you want to see with your star receivers.
20. T.J. Moe—Missouri, 6'0" 204 pounds, (Projected Round: 7-FA, Athleticism Score: 5.4)
T.J. Moe might be better known for his extremely slow 40-time at the combine (4.74 seconds), but he's a great athlete. Not only did he improve his time at Missouri's pro day (4.60 seconds), but he was incredible in the other drills. A dazzling 3.96 short shuttle was followed quickly by the fastest 3-cone time at the combine (6.53 seconds), which would be the third fastest time of any player in the NFL today. 26 bench reps and a 36 inch vertical leap pairs well with a fairly explosive broad jump (120 inches) to create an explosive player who could surprise.
With excellent hands and nimble feet, Moe projects as a slot receiver in the NFL. Even outside, however, Moe has won a number of routes against good cornerbacks, showing an ability to reel in tough catches on deep routes against cornerbacks at the Texas vs. Nation game.
He runs crisp routes without many mistakes and knows how to drop his weight to generate additional force when cutting and plays his patterns well. While he's not skilled at manipulating defenses off of his routes, he still finds himself open with savvy play against zones and intelligent positioning against tight coverage. Not only is he aware of the sidelines, he can work the field to create as much space as possible for his quarterback.
Moe is also a solid catcher who catches with his hands and can naturally maintain possession through contact. He reacts well to a thrown pass and does a good job creating exclusive access to the football when fighting for it, showing an ability to win contested catches more often than not. Combined with his knack for finding space underneath, Moe should contribute quickly.
He does need to make sure that he adjusts his body a bit better when fighting for the ball in order to maintain balance and create advantages against competing defenders, but he does a good job of helping out his quarterback.
More than anything else, scouts want to describe Moe as "tough" and that's certainly correct. He blocks with ferocity (though could improve his technique) and runs through contact. He seems to relish hits, although he doesn't have the balance or power to consistently win when generating yards after the catch. Nevertheless, he drives well against tackles and throws of weaker tacklers with some ease.
I took a little longer to put out this post, but rest assured that the next set of rankings will be out in due time.