We've finished out the wide receiver rankings! Here is where I'll get the most disagreement, as it includes the most well-known and heavily studied prospects. Feel free to disagree, although I'm going to point to my admittedly skewed criteria. I have a balance in mind when I compare short-term impact to long-term potential, and it's hard to quantify. Here, it was enough of a change to put some of the most exciting prospects in surprising tiers.
As a final refresher for what my criteria are:
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, it will be a challenge to find receivers who can contribute immediately.
Earlier yesterday, Tom Pelissero of ESPN 1500 explained how difficult it is to find a rookie receiver who contributes right away.
Since 1991, NFL teams have used 83 first-round draft picks on receivers. Only 21 of them (25.3%) caught at least 50 passes as rookies. Another 27 of those receivers (32.5%) finished their rookie seasons with even 32 catches -- two a game, which isn't exactly impactful.
The numbers are even lower in the second round, where 88 receivers have been taken since '91. Only 10 of those receivers (11.4%) caught at least 50 passes as rookies and 21 more (23.9%) caught at least 32.
In other words, more than half the receivers selected in the first two rounds of the past 22 drafts (92 of 171, 53.8%) finished with 31 catches or fewer in Year 1 -- providing little to no immediate impact.
In fact, in dynasty fantasy circles, the "three-year receiver rule" is well-known. From footballdocs:
Unlike their running back counterparts, wide receivers as a whole are a little trickier to target during your fantasy football draft. Cleary some of the bigger household names are givens when it comes to drafting, but starting in the middle rounds of your draft, things become a little more difficult to predict with respect to which wide receivers to select. With a running back, you pretty much know what you are getting. If healthy, talented, and on the first team, a running back will produce and positively contribute to your fantasy football team regardless of whether the running back is a rookie or a seasoned veteran. However, this is not the case with a wide receiver. Talent will only get a wide receiver so far, so fast. With two, three, and even four wide receiver sets in the NFL, it is not enough to be on the first team or have experience beyond a rookie year. It is also not enough to be healthy and loaded with God-given athletic ability. There is a huge adjustment factor involved for wide receivers. Adjustments must be made to harder hitting, quicker NFL secondaries. Adjustments must be made to an entirely new playbook and routes. Adjustments must be made to a brand new quarterback that throws entirely differently than what a wide receiver was previously used to in college. In fact, one of the most critical aspects for a wide receiver is developing the trust and timing from his quarterback. Run a route wrong or be slightly off in timing against NFL caliber defenses translates to six going the other way and an upset quarterback that just got an interception he didn't deserve. A good relationship between a quarterback and wide receiver does not develop overnight. It takes time...
How much time does it take for a rookie wide receiver to adjust to the NFL?
Typically between one to three full NFL seasons with the mean, median, and mode of the data indicating two full NFL seasons. Consequently, entering their third year of NFL play is most likely when a wide receiver will blossom, hence the name of the "Wide Receiver Three Year Rule". To help drive this point home, let's examine the performance of wide receivers taken in the 1998 - 2009 NFL drafts). Under each year, statistics are given in a receiving yards / TDs format. It is important to note that many wide receivers drafted never amount to anything. To help make the tables a little more clear, only wide receivers that either eventually broke out or were selected in the first round of the NFL draft are listed.
I may be asking for the impossible. But it is very important to clearly define criteria, as hard as they are to meet. As it is, that is how I'm tiering the players right now.
In this case, Tier One refers to receivers that should receive a grade (again, in a world where every team has the same situation as the Vikings) of being picked at the bottom of round one and the top of round two, while Tier Two isolates receivers who would solidly stick in the second round. Tier Three is reserved for receivers who should be picked at the bottom of the second or top of the third.
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.
1. DeAndre Hopkins
2. Keenan Allen
3. Robert Woods
4. Da'Rick Rogers
5. Markus Wheaton
6. Aaron Dobson
7. Cordarrelle Patterson
8. Tavon Austin
9. Quinton Patton
10. Terrance Williams
11. Justin Hunter
12. Ryan Swope
13. Marquess Wilson
14. Kenny Stills
15. Stedman Bailey
16. Tavarres King
17. Marquise Goodwin
18. Chris Harper
19. Corey Fuller
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
1. DeAndre Hopkins—Clemson, 6'1" 214 pounds (Projected Round 1-2, Athleticism Score: 3.5)
Hopkins led the ACC in receiving yards in 2012, and possesses most of the natural instincts you want out of a receiver—perhaps more than anyone else in the draft. For a junior, his ability to bait defensive backs and create separation is extraordinary. He always seems open despite not possessing top-end physical talent. With extremely precise footwork sans wasted movements at the stem and an ability to burst out of cuts, Hopkins is difficult to keep track of on the field. Changing speed while maintaining his razor precision in routes makes him a constant threat to stay open.
For these reports, I'll be using the STATS, Inc stats tweeted out by @JPStats and brought to my attention by viking22 (the first one, not the second one) and compare them 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. Hopkins' drop rate was a slightly worrisome but not too alarming 5.8%. Of note, he managed this drop rate while receiving balls from a quarterback without very much touch (Tajh Boyd), who like to rifle every pass. Some of these drops are due to concentration lapses, however. He has improved throughout his college career, converting from a body catcher to a hands-catcher. Like I've said before, consistent improvement in technical skills is a definite "green light" that should move players up boards.
The surprising young receiver tracks the ball very well in the air, possesses good body control, has a natural ability to position himself and box out receivers, and has a good intuition on how to finish, whether by high-pointing the ball aggressively or shifting into another gear at the end of his route.
He shows fantastic strength on the field (15 reps in the gym, too) and is very difficult to jam, but could add more as he'll get bullied to the sideline on occasion. He also needs to work a little bit on hand usage at the release in order to maintain timing, but it's nothing too worrisome. Despite what looks like poor straight-line speed (4.51 40-yard dash), he has contributed at every spot on the field, and is a true three-level receiver. In fact, 20% of his targets were deep. Hopkins plays much faster than his measurable speed indicates.
With that speed, leaping ability and vision, he has a high on-field IQ to integrate his skills and turn into a complete receiver, which is a relatively rare ability.
Hopkins also has YAC ability. Despite only averaging slightly above the median for receivers in the class in YAC (5.32 per catch), he has a lot of natural talent in creating additional yards and can break tackles. He uses some good foot fakes and knows how to balance himself to stay upright. He also has the strength to fight for extra yards when tied up. As a blocker, he might be too aggressive and get sloppy, but he's certainly willing and sometimes effective—which is more than you can so for most receivers.
He doesn't have a lot of knocks, but they include leveraging more functional strength on the field, issues with measurable speed and a limited catching radius, even though he has a 36 inch vertical—he should extend his arms more. His ability to track will help with the last issue and the first issue might be resolved by what is reportedly an extremely high work ethic. He'll also need that in order to expand his route tree, which isn't as fully developed as many of the other receivers in the draft. He's projected as either a split end or flanker, although he'll need to improve his release to be a star split end. There are concerns about his lateral agility (4.5 seconds in the 20 yard shuttle, good for 30th of 31 receivers), but they don't seem to show up on field.
The incident at the combine is unimportant to me. Evidently, I have sources. And those sources tell me that no NFL team seriously believes that either Mark Harrison or DeAndre Hopkins are responsible for the incident and may be the victim of a prank. As it stands, I don't know how it affects his football if it is the case.
2. Keenan Allen—California , 6'2" 206 pounds (Projected Round: 1, Athleticism Score: N/A)
Allen is the most technically pro-ready receiver in the draft, and that alone should give him top nod. But beyond that, he has the full complement of skills identified as important to the Vikings. He has all of the fundamental skills necessary for a ball-control offense; he can naturally generate separation, has good hands and a wide catch radius. He creates separation through efficient route-running, deception throughout the process, effective body control, a good understanding of real estate and sharp cuts. Allen seems to have all of the fundamentals down; something no other receiver in the draft can say.
Allen's drop rate was a solid, but not amazing, 4.7%. This is a combination of his ability to track the ball and his instinct to catch with extension and not close to his body. His large catch radius is a real plus, as is his overall body control throughout the process. This has helped him consistently produce despite double and triple coverage in college. What's even better is that he uses this ability to create space for his quarterback all over the field. He can do it on sidelines, deep, in traffic, on a curl, short, etc.
He has lined up at split end, flanker and the slot and can run a full route tree from anywhere. Allen has a good release off the line and can eat up cushion quickly, making him ideal for either base receiver position. That versatility creates a reel of catches from anywhere on the field, whether it's close to the sideline or in the middle of the field.
His ability to create yards after the catch is average (5.5 yards after the catch per reception), but he has the quickness to rip off a good run every now and then. What separates Allen from the other receivers in this class is that he has elite vision when moving downfield, knowing where to go in order to get additional yardage. Only Tavon Austin and possibly Cordarrelle Patterson have better vision and elusiveness. In addition, Allen could perform the "constraint" function of a split end perfectly, with one of the highest yards per screen pass (6.33) and the ability to get open deep if need be, given that in most years he would rank top of the class in this category.
His knee injury (left PCL) is worrisome, and was a reason he didn't participate in the workouts at the combine or his pro day. It's the only reason he's rated lower than any other receiver on this board, otherwise he would be a clear number one (and it wouldn't be close). He doesn't possess elite athleticism, limiting his ceiling. Given how high his floor is, I don't mind. He is also a very willing and very capable blocker downfield, although he has more work to do with his hands.
His Pro Day alleviated a lot of concerns to me. While some are worried about his "slow recovery" from a PCL tear against Utah, I'm not as skeptical. PCL recovery can take anywhere between 6-12 months before full recovery, and his Pro Day was before the six month mark was even up. The red flag on the drug test also doesn't worry me as much, given how little a "red flag" means; it could just as easily be a problem with a testing procedure as it is an issue with drinking too much water. At any rate, Allen is too talented a receiver to simply dismiss.
The reason I would take a chance on Allen can best be explained through an inversely talented receiver: if Cordarrelle Patterson was simply decent as a technician, he would be the top receiver in the class, and it wouldn't be close. That is because of his rare athletic talent, one which you might only see once every two drafts (although there are good arguments that he's a "once in a generation" physical talent, stick with me on the analogy). Similarly, Allen is the type of technician you will only see once every two or three drafts and he has decent enough (actually pretty good) athleticism. That is why he is among the top of my rankings: a rare technical talent with decent physical capability.
The analogy isn't perfect. After all, you "can't teach speed". But it turns out, it's been very difficult to teach receivers the technique they need, too (remember Joe Webb?).
3. Robert Woods—USC, 6'1" 201 pounds (Projected Round: 1-2, Athleticism Score: 2.3)
Woods was a favorite before the year started as the top receiver in the draft. The emergence of Marqise Lee and an offense that predicated itself on getting Lee the ball before everyone else hurt Woods, although the ankle injury was likely the controlling reason for what turned out to be a disappointing year.
Woods bounced back with incredibly good showings at the Combine and Pro Day in position drills, he's bounced back up boards and looks to have the stock he had his junior year.
For some reason, Woods is perceived not to have elite speed, but he's not only been a deep threat in his time at USC, he was a high school track star that ended up running a 4.42 40-yard dash. With that speed, he has quickness and has had several touchdowns with over 20 yards of YAC. His athleticism score is certainly worrisome however, and Woods needs particular scrutiny because of it. his vertical (33.5 inches) seems much lower than what he's been able to do on tape, so a private workout might be important. Were he to work out well (and Allen to show limited progress) he would be second on the board.
Woods isn't as explosive as Hopkins when coming out of breaks, but he is even more efficient with his footwork throughout the course of the route, including sharp cuts at the stem. He accelerates quickly to eat up cushion, which is good for flankers and any receiver playing against off coverage. He does a lot to gain separation: changes strides, changes speed, dips the opposite shoulder, runs precise routes with sharp cuts, and uses efficient hand movement. This bevy of skills is hard to overstate because it is rare to find a receiver who has all of the technical skills to create this separation and the mental acuity to string them together flawlessly or change tactics on the fly.
His ability to beat the press with elusiveness makes him a fit for split end, as does his speed, although the more physical cornerbacks do have an advantage. Nevertheless, Woods is a technician at the line and will move defenders away from him when they jam him. He also reads defenses very well and correctly executes route options. He knows how to run deep routes, gains great YAC, has a low drop rate (5.0%) almost due entirely due to concentration (he has some fantastic hands) and a very good catch radius.
He'll also make space for himself and prevent DBs from fighting for the ball by extending his arms at the last moment. He, Keenan Allen, Aaron Dobson and Marquess Wilson do the best job of reeling the ball in from nearly anywhere. In addition, he is in a tier of his own, just below Allen, Patterson and Austin in creating YAC, with a large gulf after him.
His best asset seems to be understanding exactly what the quarterback needs. He knows where the window needs to be, and signals to the quarterback that he's ready to be thrown open in ways that are not just intelligent, but easily understandable.
Woods is committed to the team, with strong workouts, consistent and intense practice appearances, film room work and physical blocking. He has a lot of technique to learn in the blocking game, but Woods has shown he is a quick learner.
4. Da'Rick Rogers—Tennessee Tech, 6'3" 210 pounds (Projected Round: 2, Athleticism Score: 7.6)
The only reason Rogers falls this far is because of multiple warnings and failed drug tests (three), followed by a suspension. Otherwise, he's knocking on the door as the top receiver. In the NFL, availability is key. If you're missing games or even a season with consistently poor decisionmaking, there's not room on a roster. On the other hand, he was reportedly tested ten different times at Tennessee Tech and came up clean each time. Knowing that he is likely the source of that report, I'm not letting it change my mind too much. Better might be the read that Derek Harper at the Sports Xchange had on him, which was genuineness and sincerity in admitting his mistakes. Obviously, your mileage may vary on that, but there are multiple reports of a good set of interviews—the ten tests that Rogers says he took seem to be verified.
That said, Rogers is a physical freak. He doesn't seem to have the deep speed that people rave about, but he's been ahead in every other relevant measurable, giving him a very high athleticism score (second-highest in the group). This is the result of a great broad jump (11'0", second largest leap), a blazing 3-cone (6.71, fourth fastest of all the incoming rookies), an explosive vertical jump (39.5, more than any other receiver in the draft), a blindingly quick short-shuttle a seconds, fourth fastest of the receivers there) and a reasonably fast 10-yard split (1.57 seconds). Add a 6'3" frame carrying 217 pounds, and Rogers has quite the set of measurables.
Beyond what is tested at the combine, Rogers is extremely tough. He's not afraid to go over the middle and will often attempt to give as good as he gets.
This doesn't mean he cant' avoid contact, because he's extremely elusive. Austin and Patterson are in their own class, but Rogers is just behind them and has a lot of ability to improve in this capacity as well. He has good instincts and great hips. With excellent balance, he has a lot of potential to turn into a big YAC threat, which he already is to a small extent—he's extremely difficult to bring down, even once defensive backs get a hand on him.
Rogers already has the capability to run refined routes at every level. He isn't at the level of Swope or Allen, but he's in that tier with great room to improve. He sinks his hips well and has a very good sense of timing. He already knows and executes NFL routes to a T, including curls, outs and slants. He knows how to develop separation on crossing routes and to vary his speed. Combined with his remarkable athleticism, and he could really shine.
In terms of in-air adjustments, hands and the ability to expand the passing window, he does very well. Rogers is not in the top tier in terms of catch radius, but this class has a number of receivers who have extraordinarily good catch radii. He is at the level of most NFL starters. Relatedly, he has fantastic hands and caught 94% of passes thrown his way when at Tennessee. At Tennessee Tech, he only got better. Watching his technique against Oregon is the perfect example, despite his poor box score. Rogers consistently outpositioned defensive backs at Tennessee and improved in this capacity in a big way. He will still drop the occasional block in traffic, but it's not worth noting as a big negative.
Despite his toughness, Da'rick Rogers is not as able a blocker as others. Willing, like many of the other receivers it seems, particularly because he likes dealing out punishment, but not technically proficient and needs better angles.
Rogers has a lot of things down already. While he needs to work on technique against press coverage and blocking, he's willing to commit to both physically. He needs to do smaller things, like work back towards the ball or attack the ball at its highest point.
5. Markus Wheaton—Oregon State, 5'11" 189 pounds (Projected Round: 2, Athleticism Score: 6.5)
Along with Swope (below) Wheaton is probably the most underrated receiver prospect in the draft. Despite playing at 5'11" he's the quintessential split end prospect.
Wheaton combines release off of press coverage, speed and deep separation perhaps better than anyone else in the class. More than that, Wheaton is disciplined throughout the entire process. Right now, he's a more threatening receiver on deep routes than Hunter, Goodwin or Patterson and a lot of that has to do with the amount of technical work he's done to stay ahead of the game.
He can catch the ball in stride away from his body and continue his movement fluidly, a surprisingly rare skill. Not only can he make consistently effective catches with his hands, the entire process of the catch is a practiced and smooth motion. He hits all the markers of good route-running with some room to spare.
He knows how to vary his speeds within route, sink his hips, break to the football, deceive defenders, set up his breaks, box out defensive backs, and maintain leverage and pad discipline. He still has work to do here, as he's not efficient at the top of his routes and sometimes he will be lazy enough to round them out. At other times, he maintains his precision and will be sharp out of cuts. Certainly, his short-area quickness and burst helps him.
What's also great is that there may not be a better receiver off the release than Wheaton. Not only does he use his hands effectively, he makes sure to dip his shoulders and keep them forward off the snap and create a small target for defenders to hit and move him around. He also effectively uses his feet to keep separation at the release and will be a great target on short routes.
He had a very good week at the Senior Bowl and came out ahead again and again. He's a very alert receiver, aware of body positioning in relation to the field (and sideline) as well as in relation to other players. The cornerbacks there didn't have much of an answer for him
Wheaton could be another three-level receiver who's a threat to make plays anywhere, although he's best going deep. Still, he's got great YAC ability and is a weapon on screens or on intermediate routes for bigger gains. He has surprising strength for his frame and has powered through wrapped tacklers, and has elusiveness to spare as well. On screens (24% of his targets) he averaged 5.71 yards per reception, which is slightly above average.
Because the key is instant impact, Wheaton ranks well above "upside" projects like Patterson or redundant players like Austin. Still, he isn't extraordinarily limited. He's been improving at a good rate over his time. Wheaton is an extremely enthusiastic and willing blocker, but has poor technique and may often give up the play.
Wheaton has a lot less functional strength than many receivers and can get pushed around and thrown off routes. It would be ideal if he gained another 10 pounds. Nevertheless, he's very well put-together as a receiver and could make an instant impact.
If you're not convinced about Wheaton, read what James Christenson at NEPatriotsDraft has to say:
While Wheaton isn't one of the big name WR in the 2013 NFL Draft, he is one of the biggest play-makers. He has outstanding speed and uses it to stretch the field vertically. He has shown a very good ability to track the ball and make adjustments while it's in the air. The Beavers tried to get the ball into Wheaton's hands as much as possible, using him on sweeps, reverses and screens. I see a similar type usage in the NFL.
6. Aaron Dobson—Marshall, 6'3" 210 pounds (Projected Round: 2-3, Athleticism Score: 6.2)
By now, Dobson has moved up in the estimation of a number of fans because of his low drop rate (he had zero on 92 targets in 2012) after STATS, Inc published those numbers. He didn't get zero drops from doing cheap things like refusing to make an extra effort on difficult catches. His catches are freaking insane. It's not just one crazy catch, either. It's fairly well established that he has an incredible catch radius and reliable hands. He is the best receiver in the draft when it comes to in-air adjustments. Period.
Dobson has deep ball capacity despite a 4.53 40-yard dash. He is polished on deep routes, with a good set of fakes and wide receiver moves to generate separation, and also knows how to position his body to put himself in the best spot to get the ball. With excellent ball control in the air, it should be fairly safe to say that Dobson will help Ponder out.
The Marshall receiver fits well in a possession game, not just because of his hands but because he has very good awareness of the down markers and is also the most accomplished and able blocker of the top five receivers on this board. He has good acceleration despite relatively low long speed, so he gets to his markers fine and in time. He's very strong as well, and can get a good release, even against strong defensive backs. His biggest green light is his constant and consistent improvement in his time at Marshall, as well as a solid set of intangibles.
Despite great height and deep-threat capability for a split end, there are some issues that dropped Dobson to number five. He needs to continue working on his footwork and route-running on intermediate and short routes, and this will affect timing on the short throws and throws within traffic. You can see him rounding off routes and signalling to defensive backs where he may end up going. He also has had some minor injury issues throughout his career.
He has also been late getting his hands up and might need to work on his timing there as well, but overall has good catch instincts. I am not so sure about STATS, Inc's drop total for him, as he may need to be credited for one against Purdue for this very reason, but it is still a very low total. Both PFF and Second Round Stats seem a bit less forgiving when it comes to a receiver being credited with a drop.
Dobson is already good, but he doesn't play to his size yet and he needs to bully cornerbacks more. He doesn't play as physical as he can, which means he won't contribute at the level he should, but has untapped potential that will be very easy to unleash (unlike a lot of "upside").
7. Cordarrelle Patterson—Tennessee, 6'2" 216 pounds (Projected Round: 1, Athleticism Score: 5.5)
Don't mistake this as a judgment that Patterson is overrated. He is simply not ready to contribute right away, and that is critical to this big board's goals. Patterson is an athlete who evaluators speak of in terms of potential instead of established talent.
His athletic capability hasn't translated into an ability to constantly create separation, and his route-running ranks among the worst in the class. He doesn't sink his hips appropriately at the break, will signal routes and doesn't "tell a story" to defensive backs about where he's going—a critical skill to sell deception. This is important because he can flag downfield and will need to rely on more technical skills than you might expect when trying to go deep. This is why only 4% of his targets were deep despite a quarterback willing to sling it. I cannot overstate this point. He could be a deep threat, but does not have the combination of technique and athleticism to be relied on in this respect.
The rough route-running and imprecision will translate to seeing defenses a step ahead of him and in a position to break on the ball better. He doesn't enforce himself against press coverage either, allowing it to determine how he reacts. He also doesn't continue to put forth effort in a lot of his play, willing to jog through his routes if the play isn't called for him.
You can see this when he blocks, taking a lot of these running plays off, but occasionally mauling his defensive back. His technique is sloppy, and doesn't place his hands correctly, punch out, figure out who to block or play with effective feet on blocks.
Despite a relatively decent ability to adjust to the ball in the air, Patterson also doesn't work to make space for the ball. Some of this is easily coachable, and some of it isn't. He doesn't work back to the quarterback on broken plays or high-point the ball. Neither does he bring his hands up at the last moment. He still makes difficult catches and makes sure to use his hands, but he also doesn't make it a lot easier for the quarterback. He also needs to work on creating separation. Despite power and elusiveness, he's inconsistent at the release and needs to use his hands better.
All of this negativity is only to emphasize that while Patterson is the singular elite athletic talent in the class—athletic potential on par with Calvin Johnson or Randy Moss—he's not ready to contribute right away. Despite an athleticism score of 5.5, there's not many wide receivers in the NFL right now who are better with open-field running—potentially no one. Patterson can turn on a dime and accelerate quickly while also finding cutback lanes or necessary holes.
Not only is he an incredibly elusive runner, he's a hard one to take down once defenders get their hands on him. He knows how to take on contact, drive through tackles and keep tacklers away with a powerful stiff arm or body movement. He only had slightly above average YAC, but he should be a leader in this category with the right coaching.
If the Vikings were to take two receivers, grabbing Patterson would make some sense, but if they feel it is more important to give Ponder tools in order to fully evaluate him, they should pass. Patterson won't make an impact for a couple of years. He should make an impact in the return game right away, though.
For a generic board, Patterson would be near the top.
8. Tavon Austin—West Virginia, 5'9" 174 pounds (Projected Round: 1, Athleticism Score: 5.2)
From a previous article that discussed Austin:
The scouting report on Austin sounds a lot like Harvin's: he's "lightning-quick and agile" with fluidity and easy change-of-direction skills. He has excellent vision, which allows him to see cutback lanes in the running game or find seams to run through in the return game. He has a veteran sense of reading defenses, which allows him to make smart adjustments in-route or before the snap.
More than that, his body control allows him to sell routes, double-moves and hide intentions well enough to fake out defensive backs and generate separation. That body control translates to ball skills, as the Mountaineer does a superb job of adjusting to the ball in the air. He's explosive out of cuts and when grabbing the ball behind the line.
In fact, Austin has the highest percentage of targets behind the line of scrimmage of the draft eligible receivers, with 33.93% of his targets coming from screen passes (or pistol dumpoffs that are functionally runs). 39.5% of Harvin's targets in 2012 came from behind the line of scrimmage.
Austin does not have the raw strength that Harvin does, and that actually turns out to be a pretty big difference when it comes to playing receiver in the NFL. Remember, I found that general measures for strength turned out to be pretty important when it came to NFL performance, and I'm not sure Austin has that. On the other hand, he has a similarly low drop rate, at 2.6%. Not only that, Austin can be thrown to the ground pretty easily when an arm tackle gets a hold of him.
Unfortunately for his fit vs. need in the offense, Austin hadn't played outside of the slot in West Virginia. His route tree is limited in big ways, and he still needs to play more precisely. Nevertheless, Austin has made enormous improvements both in his route knowledge and precision, hitting his landmarks with precision and adding capability in the form of deception (body language, speed changes, eye movement, etc) and technique (learning to sink his hips and planting well). While this bodes well for projecting development, it's clear that Austin has work to do.
His route-running also has a ceiling, given how often he can be shoved off routes and he doesn't make a lot of plays in tight coverage. Like many other top receivers, he catches the ball away from his body and extends to get the ball. His touches will have to be manufactured because of his size limitations, but he could be a useful asset to a normal offense.
I wouldn't be surprised if Austin ended up as the best receiver of this draft, but I do think he has greater bust potential than people are giving him credit for. He also simply isn't a fit for the Vikings at the moment, which is why I have him ranked eighth. Were the Vikings receiver corps set up in different ways, it would be a different story, because he's clearly a fit for the offense.
But without a need in the slot or even generally at flanker, I'm not so sure Austin can help. Without sideline capability and a poor release against jams (although elusiveness has helped him a lot in this respect), he doesn't really have what it takes to be a split end in this league. Even the shortest split ends (DeSean Jackson and Mike Wallace are good examples) are still taller.
In a world where the Vikings draft him, Greg Jennings (5'11" 198 pounds) and Jerome Simpson (6'2" 190 pounds) play split end, Greg Jennings and Jarius Wright (5'10" 180 pounds) play flanker and Jarius Wright and Tavon Austin play the slot. It's a short team, but it is workable.
Like others I've mentioned so far, he seems willing to block, but is singularly ineffective at it.
9. Quinton Patton—Louisiana Tech, 6'0" 204 pounds (Projected Round: 2, Athleticism Score: 4.3)
Naturally, the most difficult problem concerning Patton has been his inability to consistently face top-level competition. Without a lot of tape against the best teams in the country, it's difficult to evaluate how good of a player Patton is. His chances against top-level competition, on the other hand, have been amazing—including a monstrous 21 catch game against Texas A&M, with 233 yards and 4 touchdowns. Still, he was restricted to 36 yards against D.J. Hayden and produced most of his yards against weaker competition. Then again, that's still a ton of yards (1392 with 13 touchdowns).
Regardless, there are objective skills that shine in Patton's game.
In terms of catch ability, Patton has the greatest potential to improve in the class because he has great hands; he just needs to know how to extend and high point the ball. He needs to make sure he extends his hands later in order to beat defenders and take full advantage of his real estate. Nevertheless, he consistently catches the ball cleanly and fights for it in coverage. He does well enough to adjust to the ball in the air and already has a natural ability to catch the ball away from his body.
Unfortunately, while he does a very good job generating separation, he doesn't always create great throwing windows and has a little bit more work to do to box out his defender and win the positioning battle. Shielding defenders from the football is a critical skill, and it seems like he's almost there. This is an area he improved on, but didn't perfect, at the Senior Bowl.
A lot of this is evident in his route-running and release. As a runner he consistently hit his mark and moved back to help his quarterback. He has significantly improved in his ability to deceive opposing defensive backs over his time and does a better job telling a story with his route-running. He also improved in dropping his weight at the stem and reading defenses to find the holes in zone coverage. As a junior, he might be undraftable. As a senior, he's a second-round prospect. That is impressive improvement.
The small-school prospect still has work to do to beat jams at the line, however, and needs more refined hand work in order to hit his timing marks on short routes.
He's tough. Not only does he consistently beat arm tackles to make gains and also plays with injury—even playing with starting-caliber quality when injured, like playing with a high ankle sprain. That strength and toughness has translated into wickedly good YAC (6.15 against FBS schools; only Bailey and Austin have higher YAC and run significantly more screens). Some of this comes from a good initial burst, but a lot of it comes from strength. He can punch out a sometimes devastating stiff arm for a receiver. At other times, he'll move with good agility and is a composed runner overall. Unlike Patterson, he doesn't waste time looking for the perfect hole and will be decisive.
Patton could be the best blocker in the class and has room to improve. He exhibits the most effort, intelligent use of hands, strength and consistent persistence of any other receiver in the class. It is difficult for defensive backs to release that block. Only Nwachukwu could be characterized as better, although I think he has less upside in this context.
Patton is a day one starter, but he won't make a big splash right away. He could even pick up enough in training camp to legitimately fight for a spot on the starting lineup. He's close but not close enough on a lot of skills needed to succeed at receiver. Nevertheless, he is one of the rare prospects with the full complement of talents to be successful in the NFL, and simply needs a little more refinement.
10. Terrance Williams—Baylor, 6'2" 208 pounds (Projected Round: 2, Athleticism Score: 4.4)
Terrance Williams has been maligned by a lot of fans, and hasn't popped out in film in the same way as other similarly graded receivers. I don't think that's right; there's a reason he led the NCAA in receiving yardage and was on pace to be the single-season receiving yards record holder for most of the year. There's definitely value at being good at everything but great at nothing. That value apparently meant production for Baylor with a not-that-great Nick Florence passing the ball (who did not end up declaring for the draft).
Being good at a lot of things but great at nothing has meant 1,000 yard seasons for Lance Moore, Brian Hartline, Wes Welker, Anquan Boldin and more. And Williams definitely has the potential to improve in a lot of other areas. It's a well-roundedness that's unfairly downgraded and is shockingly rare. Williams has it.
What's interesting about Terrance Williams is that he has been able to generate slightly above average yards after catch (5.2 on average) despite playing as a deep threat. He had the most targets deep out of all receivers in the top tier of the class, with 21.3% of his targets going past 20+ yards. This implies he might have underrated YAC ability. A lot of criticism of his ability to generate yards seems to be how he goes down instead of when he goes down or why he goes down. This is silly, and there's no evidence that he can't continue to create running room for himself. He keeps his legs moving from contact, gets low when meeting tackles and drives through arm tackles.
What's great is that while Williams has been well-rounded, he might have more room to grow than people give him credit for. He reportedly was very easy to coach at the Senior Bowl and improved at different aspects of his game in his short time there.
One think I like about Williams is his constant improvement, which you don't see in athletic receivers as often as you'd like. Williams is the opposite of Justin Hunter in this respect, who has not improved very much at all in his tenure at Tennessee, but relied on his athleticism to get things done. No single player got better over the course of an all-star week than Terrance Williams.
As a route-runner, Williams is neither rough nor sophisticated. There's work he can do to to improve his footwork at the stem and is relatively slow getting out of breaks despite good acceleration. Still, he is mindful of the route he's running and has massively improved on his responses to the defense, finding holes in zones and setting up defensive backs with good moves. He needs to drop his hips in breaks more and box defenders out, but has the right intuition and intelligence to continue setting up his routes. He works back to the quarterback and knows how to break towards the football.
He has soft hands, but he doesn't extend them or consistently catch away from his body. While his drop rate was a mildly worrisome 5.8% (above average), there's a good chance that it could increase in the NFL if he keeps trapping the ball against his body. This is overblown, however, as he has had several games with consistently good catching mechanics. He can be taught and apparently changes.
Williams is a deep threat, and consistently gets open deep against good teams. He knows how to use his hands and feet to create separation at the line against jams and in routes against trailing or zone receivers. He has solid vision and knows how to create space for himself. He will probably end up as a better YAC artist in the NFL where he can thrive on intermediate routes (perhaps his best routes) instead of going deep as often. This makes him a perfect fit for the Vikings. He fits perfectly as a split end who would gain intermediate yardage relatively reliably and continue to move the chains. Only a drop issue makes him worrisome within a ball-control offense.
11. Justin Hunter—Tennessee, 6'4 196 pounds (Projected Round: 1-2, Athleticism Score: 6.6)
Justin Hunter has been compared to Randy Moss on more than one occasion, although I still think Patterson is the more impressive physical prospect. Nevertheless, Hunter is very impressive physically and has one of the higher athleticism scores to back up that claim (it seems difficult to pass 7 or get below 2, so 6.6 is somewhat impressive to me). Almost all of his game and production this year came from his excellent athleticism.
There's no end of praise to Justin Hunter, and he deserves it to a large extent. I'm worried he's becoming overrated, however. He is not at the top of the class by any reasonable measure, although I do have to say that he can explode onto the scene with less work than most receivers.
He can sometimes flash precision and skill, but will generally lack the exactitude that you see in top receivers. He also has issues with making sure to sink his hips and he'll round off his routes. He will also tip off routes and doesn't have the physical discipline to consistently gain an edge. Once he catches the ball, he wastes his steps far too often when trying to generate YAC and it hurts his ability overall.
My biggest issue with Hunter has been his drops. His drop rate, according to STATS, Inc, is 12.1%. That's the highest in the class and it's not close (something like a 6% gap). He had five drops in the NC State game alone. It would be one of the highest drop rates in the NFL, behind only Early Doucet. He doesn't do a good job maintaining possession after contact, nor keeping focus to hold on to the ball. This has been a constant and nagging problem. Just read Vols fans comment on a story about his drops, some of which have occurred at critical times.
He doesn't win contested balls, either. He can have a great catch radius and has shown an ability to catch balls relatively far away from his body, but doesn't show this ability too frequently. Sometimes he doesn't use his range and keeps his arms constricted. When he does catch, he often relies on using his body to secure the catch and doesn't trust his hands.
Hunter has huge consistency problems. He's refined, but has question marks about decision-making and effort. He can have talent that will make him a top-tier player, but it may take a lot of time and luck to unlock that potential. Unlike the other receivers in this tier, however, he may be able to contribute right away.
Effort problems continue to dog him. Like Moss has been accused of doing, he's jogged his routes or has been lazy about blocking. Derek Dooley has publicly called out his effort and he didn't improve on the field. As this is a mental makeup issue, I think these are problems that won't be corrected.
If the goal is to help Ponder, work within a possession offense and consistently create gains, Hunter is the wrong receiver to take. Should he drop late, however, he would be a tremendous value.
12. Ryan Swope—Texas A&M, 6'0" 205 pounds (Projected Round: 3, Athleticism Score: 7.5)
Ryan Swope's calling card should probably be his elite route-running. Already among the best in the receiver class, Swope ranks a little bit below Allen, Woods and Hopkins in route-running ability. His intuition outranks his precision, but that's not to say he's sloppy. He needs to work on lowering hips at the break and selling routes, but otherwise does a good job of running the pattern. He can position himself well towards the ball and isolate space.
In an offense with a lot of scrambling, Swope has been a fantastic outlet. When working with Manziel, he was often asked to work defenses on broken plays and create space on rollouts, while working back towards the line of scrimmage. In a more precise offense with Ryan Tannehill and Mike Sherman, Swope produced even more yardage (1207).
Swope's high athleticism score—the highest of qualifying receivers at the Combine—shows up in play. Once he has leverage or gets good hip placement against his coverage, he is extremely difficult to catch up to. He gets open downfield and could be a deep threat from the slot a la Victor Cruz or Greg Jennings. He would do better on shorter routes if he had more sophisticated technique in press coverage, but he has improved in this area.
He runs a wide variety of routes from anywhere on the field. He'll run deep up the middle or the sideline, dig in or run out and even generates excellent yardage on screens.
Once Swope has the ball in his hands, he won't lose it. He knows where to store the ball, can take an impact, and keep the football in his hands. His drop rate is 5.3%, but almost all of those are mental errors that can be fixed. He rarely drops passes as a result of contact but does need to do a better job turning his head around and reacting to the ball in the air. He makes tough catches and knows how to win the ball in contested situations.
It's difficult to take him down, too. He has great balance and enough leg drive to break through tackles and bully defenders for extra yards. Beyond that, he also has the elusiveness just below the top-tier YAC attacks in the class, with an unusually elusive corps overshadowing his agility.
The Aggie prospect is also one of the most intelligent receivers in the class, with an ability to read defenses, execute complicated option routes and an ability to mesh his skills together in a seamless fashion.
Swope is a shockingly versatile player that I didn't highlight when mentioning replacements for Percy Harvin. But he's an option. I'll let Matt Waldman at the Rookie Scouting Portfolio will put it better than me, so I will quote this out of his RSP guide:
Swope might be one of the most underrated receivers in the draft despite the fact he's considered one of the 15 best players at his position by many of my peers.
Swope is considered a slot receiver, but he's nearly identical in dimensions to Quinton Patton and is as good or better an athlete in several measurable areas. It also shows on the field.
Swope often makes the first man miss and demonstrates an array of moves after the catch that get him into open lanes downfield. Once he gets an opening, his 4.34 speed helps him defeat angles that defensive backs have on him.
The A&M receiver also has a little running back in him the way Hines Ward did. He knows when to prioritize situations that call for elusiveness and those that require more economy.
What I value from Swope is his skill at catching the ball in traffic. This showed up a lot as a junior when he was paired with Ryan Tannehill, who demonstrated great skill at finding Swope in the seams of the defense on rollouts and scrambles.
Swope is an excellent receiver with his back to the football and it makes him a versatile option as a flanker, slot man, or even backfield option in the realm of Danny Woodhead, Randall Cobb, Percy Harvin. A&M used Swope in the backfield; don't be surprised if an NFL team does the same.
The only reason Swope is ranked fairly low on this list (relative to his skill level) is that he hadn't lined up outside often, even if he did well close to the boundary in his opportunity. He has improved his release against press coverage, which is a critical skill for a split end, but I would still like to see many more opportunities when split wide.
13. Marquess Wilson—Washington State, 6'3" 194 pounds (Projected Round: 6-7, Athleticism Score: 5.6)
Wilson is best known for leaving the team and accusing the head coach, Mike Leach, of abuse—evidently falsely. My natural predilection is to be more sympathetic to Wilson than Leach, given his history and how college programs protect their institution more than their players. For an absolutely fabulous (and must-read) take on the situation, be sure to check out football Outsider's take on the situation. It's a great read on a complex situation that provides much more context on how to interpret the controversy surrounding Wilson.
Not the most athletically gifted or technically talented player in the draft, Wilson doesn't have a single standout quality about him, but he's still a very skilled receiver. More than that, he's a tireless worker that ends up contributing and maintaining focus in games that seem like lost causes, blocking as hard on the first snap as the last snap.
I've talk a lot of about in-air adjustments and what I like in receivers who display a positive ability for it, but it's an underrated talent. Not only is it critical to maintaining balance throughout the catch, it will determine access to the ball and ability to keep the ball where it needs to be. Wilson could be the best receiver in this draft when it comes to adjusting to thrown balls, although I still have to give the crown to Dobson by some degree.
Not only does this mean he has a wide catch radius, but it means he has an intuitive understanding of positioning, knows how to gain a dozen small advantages when rising for the ball, can fight for it, and knows how to keep his feet in bounds. He times his leaps well and positions himself to create unique passing windows and can outcompete defensive backs to the ball. Because of this, Wilson has a lot of highlight reel type plays where he plays the hero and reels in a difficult catch, including one in triple coverage in the end zone against BYU (it was called back).
He has most of the basic skills you want in a receiver. He catches with his hands away from his body and high-points the ball. Wilson knows how to get to the ball earlier than anyone else and works to stay open, either by moving back towards the quarterback or finding the holes in zone coverage to remain effective. He's option off underneath coverage, for example, to turn upfield where coverage is sparse.
Wilson hasn't had the luxury of excellent quarterback play, but still put up over 90 yards a game while he was enrolled at Washington State.
His YAC ability is great. He is neither the most elusive or the strongest runner after the catch, but he has a good combination of both, which he can combine with good vision and great fluidity to consistently generate additional yardage. He will power through some tackles (despite a very thin frame) and avoid others. He waits a little too long for a hole to open up though, and will waste too much time moving east-west instead of turning upfield.
As a route-runner, Wilson is a mixed bag. He has been known to run some horrendous routes, rounding them off over a yard early and playing without the crisp cuts that you see from the rest of the class. He doesn't break well and is a little too fluid in his running, not accelerating out of cuts.
On the other hand, he's an extremely manipulative receiver that can move defensive backs around and make them bite on the wrong route or jump off of position. He has the natural ability, based on his running style, to improve his cuts but certainly will need to spend time learning the more important fundamentals of route-running. He wastes steps at the stem and will suffer for it as a pro.
Against press coverage he's been doing well, although he hasn't been challenged as much as you might like. He jumps out of the release fine and has the technical capability (swim moves, club moves, shoulder fakes, etc) to generate separation early in the route, but his lack of strength could hamper him at this level.
These problems will make it difficult to adjust in a timing-oriented offense like the Vikings. He could do much better in an offense that values more run'n'shoot concepts like Cincinnati's, but could take some time before making a splash. Even though he may not be a system fit, I've been intrigued enough by his "bad ball" ability to put him here.
Were Wilson more consistent as a pattern runner and filled out his frame just a little more, he'd jump on this list, perhaps even into the top tier. As it is, Wilson's running is a serious concern and could even push him out of the NFL. It's a teachable skill, so if he works it out he'll be a great steal.
14. Kenny Stills—Oklahoma, 6'1" 194 pounds (Projected Round: 4, Athleticism Score: 4.0)
Stills hasn't been getting a lot of attention as a receiver prospect, and he probably deserves a bit more. His ability to go deep is a bit underrated and he has that capability within him. Stills has played everywhere across the line and certainly can fill in the split end role for the Vikings. His style of play is perfect in a possession offense, as he leads the country in "clutch rate" - a metric derived from STATS, Inc's "clutch receptions" statistics, which measures how many touchdown or first down receptions a receiver has. Nearly 50% of his targets went for a first down or touchdown and 75% of his receptions did the same—the best among receivers with 100 pass targets in both categories.
Given that Oklahoma specialized in high-percentage, mid-value passes for first downs instead of hit-or-miss flashy play, Stills can be dropped right in without too much worry. He knows where the down and distance sticks are and what he needs to do to keep the chains moving. This is a skill many don't talk about, but is critical for the Vikings offense.
Stills' strength is his speed, but he also displays strong technique. He breaks back to the quarterback to create larger passing windows and knows how to outposition defenders to make it difficult for others to get to the ball. He also has solid positional awareness, and knows where the sideline is. Beyond that, he knows how to set up defensive backs to bait them into the wrong routes and he can head-fake well enough to make even experienced CBs miss.
He combines his movements well (Markus Wheaton's calling card) to create fluidity both in the catch and his release from the line—combining quick feet with active and well-placed hands. More often than not, he'll have an excellent release off the snap and won't get pushed around too much in his routes. His best attribute when running has to be the explosiveness by which he breaks out of cuts, a skill he where he exceeds his perceived athleticism. He still needs to work on his break, however, as he'll waste a step here or place his foot awkwardly and reduce his separation capability.
Athletically, while he has great long speed, he still needs better acceleration of the line. It also limits his YAC potential, but he's definitely an NFL-quality player with the potential to start. He will likely get more snaps early on than many of the other names because he already has the skills to contribute as a backup and could grab a spot on the starting lineup before too long.
Interestingly, his catching changes on shorter routes, where he'll rely on his body more. This is an easier habit to fix than most body catches because Stills has already internalized the total package of techniques that involve reliable hand catching. Typically, drops due to body-catching remain prevalent far longer than drops due to concentration thoughout a player's career because changing muscle memory is a taller order than reteaching the process of the catch to maintain concentration. It's not a big deal in Still's case, but something to watch out for.
There are some issues with his catch radius—he isn't particularly concerned with catching poorly thrown passes—but he can help Ponder for sure, and can line up anywhere.
15. Stedman Bailey—West Virginia, 5'10" 193 pounds (Projected Round: 3-4, Athleticism Score: 4.1)
While Austin is a more exciting prospect, it was Stedman Bailey who consistently carried the West Virginia receiving core, with 10 more touchdowns that Tavon Austin and 18 more than Andrew Buie. He isn't the multicapable threat that Austin is, but he's still dangerous as a receiver. Unfortunately, as a much more conventional player, his height and weight have limited his draft stock.
Bailey has the work ethic and natural talent to build on in order to become a consistent player in the NFL. He already shows ability to set up defensive backs with his route-running and knows how to sell a DB on a false route. He hits his route markers correctly and even has the speed to get separation deep downfield. His ability to use footwork to trick defensive backs has helped him maintain leverage against quite a few DBs in the FBS, and he can defend the ball from a defender in the air.
Bailey has had some very inconsistent play from time to time, although he's shown rock solid fundamentals in some games, while being a mess in other games. A lot of this may be because he hasn't naturally integrated a lot of his game. In some games, he displays the full package of receiving capability: excellent route depth, fantastic deception, good positioning, intuition against defenses, etc. At other times, he seems to forget his place, even missing his landmarks or forgetting some basic techniques.
To reconcile this, I took a look at or found scouting reports from five different games. He has for the most part kept up with technique and form, with only occasional spots of laziness and should be relied upon as a good route-runner. Still, the variability in that is worrisome.
Bailey's drop rate is at just above average for the class (5.0%)
I project Bailey largely as a flanker or slot receiver, which is the only reason he's a tier below where he should probably be. I don't see him beating press coverage (and he hasn't had a lot of experience with it), and he does not currently have the strength or footwork to beat jams.
I'll regularly update this to include prospects that I've missed and drop them into their appropriate tiers. Again, if you want to learn more about a specific prospect mentioned in the ratings but not described above, click on the tier that they've been placed in and you should be able to get there. Otherwise, check out the story stream. I've also written about inside linebackers.